A famous Quebec journalist who wrote about interviewing Muammar Gaddafi's son, hanging out with Serbian snipers and witnessing a brutal torturer's execution allegedly made it all up, according to an investigative report by a Montreal newspaper.
François Bugingo, who has contributed to Radio-Canada, 98.5 fm, TVA, and the Journal de Montréal over a career spanning more than a decade in Quebec, was suspended by at least three news outlets after the revelations emerged on Saturday. Announcing he will temporarily retire from the public eye, he said that he is "staggered by the attack" and will confront the allegations "in due course."
Isabelle Hachey of La Presse broke the story, following almost a month of research. Tipped off by an inconsistency in a column on Libya, Hachey went on to find numerous problems with Bugingo's international reporting. She spoke with sources he mentioned that had no recollection of working with him.
The alleged falsifications extend over twenty years, back to the time he supposedly spent as a young reporter in Rwanda.
This February, Bugingo reported on his Journal de Montréal blog that a torturer who worked for Muammar Gaddafi told him "I hate what a bad man the Guide has made of me" before his execution in Misrata. This could not possibly have happened, according to Hachey, because Bugingo was not even in the Libyan city at the time. Challenged with the allegation, Bugingo told Hachey he "didn't go to Misrata" and "must have read about it somewhere." Hachey told VICE that she recorded these admissions on tape during a nearly two-hour interview with Bugingo on May 15th.
She also found holes in his reporting from several other conflict zones, including Rwanda, Somalia, Iraq, and Bosnia. While appearing on a Quebec morning show, Bugingo once talked about the time he supposedly spent with two journalists in Sarajevo. He described how a Serbian sniper pulled out a bottle of alcohol and played the guitar for him. But the journalists he mentioned told La Presse that he wasn't with them at all.
On Monday, Hachey released another report about a supposed meeting between Bugingo and Saif Gaddafi, son of former Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi, while he was held by rebel forces. Bugingo mentioned the meeting in his column more than two and a half years after the fact, but Gaddafi's jailers told Hachey that he never met with a single Western journalist at the time Bugingo claims.
Hachey told VICE that she had suspicions about Bugingo's reporting for a long time, but only dove into the story after she read his report about the meeting with Gaddafi. Bugingo had posted an itinerary of his over 3,300 km travel schedule on Twitter that seemed incompatible with the time needed to report for his articles. He also claimed to have spoken to Gaddafi through a struggling Arabic interpreter, despite the fact that the dictator's son, a former student of the London School of Economics, spoke excellent English.
"After that I really took the time to search through all of his blogs and columns," she said.
Hachey told VICE that Bugingo was "polite and courteous" as she confronted him with inconsistencies in his reporting "point by point."
"He didn't seem surprised or indignant, but he was certainly on the defensive," she said. "He did seem to have the impression of going through an inquisition."
Bugingo responded to some of Hachey's questions by telling her that he was working on a book about his exploits, and that he needed to keep some details secret until it was published.
"Every time he would say, 'you will read about it in my book'," she said.
Bugingo has released two statements since the revelations. The first, published on his Facebook page, said that his journalism has always been "verified" and "solid." He said that he would defend his integrity "in due course, including on the issues concerned." Bugingo did not, however, directly deny the admissions attributed to him in Hachey's article, and did not offer any explanation for the inconsistencies she found in his reporting. In a second message, released through his lawyer, he said he was temporarily withdrawing from the public sphere, in order to preserve "peace for my family and friends."
"I have promised to defend my integrity and prove my professionalism," he said. "However, I will take the time that is necessary for me to respond to these allegations."
He did not reply to VICE's requests for further comment.
The Professional Federation of Journalists of Quebec said Saturday that it was "very concerned" about the alleged falsifications, which it said could "stain the credibility of the journalistic profession." The organization said it would invite Bugingo to explain himself before deciding whether to suspend him. He has already been suspended from his work with TVA, the Journal de Montréal and the Montreal radio station 98.5 fm.
Hachey said that it shouldn't have been up to her to dig into Bugingo's reporting.
"It should have been done by his employers," she told VICE. "The culture of fact checking you see in American newsrooms doesn't really exist in Quebec. There's a relation of trust between the reporter and the editor. Maybe this will change those practices."
She said that the episode would certainly hurt the image of journalism in Quebec, but emphasized that it was also journalism that brought the matter to light.
Despite a relative dearth of coverage in English Canada, the scandal has rocked Quebec. The hashtag #bugingo has been used just under 14,000 on Twitter since Saturday, with an estimated 94% of Canadian mentions in Quebec.
The greatest irony of the episode might that Bugingo, who has served as vice president of Reporters without Borders and president of the group's now-defunct Canadian chapter, has criticized journalists who do exactly what he's been accused of.
"Media professionals have a duty to repeatedly denounce the downward slide of Fox News and other propaganda channels," he wrote on his blog. "First, because it's our professional and ethical duty. Second, because it can affect our credibility before our audience.
"In wars and other tragedies, truth is often the first victim," he said. "It would be dramatic if those who call themselves defenders of truth... contribute toward burying it."
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