Nov 26, 2019

Breaking Bongo

Deep fake videos have the potential to make it impossible to sort fact from fiction. And some have argued that this blackhole of doubt will eventually send truth itself into a death spiral. But a series of recent events in the small African nation of Gabon suggest it's already happening. 

Today, we follow a ragtag group of freedom fighters as they troll Gabon’s president - Ali Bongo - from afar. Using tweets, videos and the uncertainty they can carry, these insurgents test the limits of using truth to create political change and, confusingly, force us to ask: Can fake news be used for good?

This episode was reported and produced by Simon Adler.

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BREAKING BONGO FINAL WEB TRANSCRIPT

 

[RADIOLAB INTRO]

 

JAD ABUMRAD: Hey, I'm Jad Abumrad.

 

ROBERT KRULWICH: I'm Robert Krulwich. This is Radiolab.

 

JAD: And today ....

 

SIMON ADLER: Buh buh buh buh buh buh. All right, we are on the corner of 3rd and 42nd heading east.

 

JAD: We’re talking about, what are we talking about? We’re talking about your ...

 

SIMON: We’re talking about ...

 

JAD: Your ex-pat rebellion.

 

SIMON: Yes.

 

JAD: Okay, I like it.

 

ROBERT: And as you just heard, it comes from our producer Simon Adler.

 

JAD: And a quick warning, if you've got kids listening there are a few curse words in this story, so just be warned. Okay, here's Simon.

 

SIMON: Right. So ...

 

SIMON: All right. Another police checkpoint here.

 

SIMON: A month or so back ...

 

WOMAN: Have your bags open!

 

MAN: Have your bags open!

 

SIMON: Let’s see if I can get through.

 

SIMON: I went down to the United Nations looking for this group of activists.

 

JAD: Okay.

 

SIMON: I was walking down Second Ave. And that morning, the UN General Assembly was in session, so security was super-tight. Lots of guys with guns. And they had cordoned off everything within about a block of the UN building itself.

 

SIMON: You wanna see what’s in my bag?

 

SIMON: After getting searched ...

 

SIMON: So I'm at the entrance here.

 

SIMON: I ended up on 47th Street, which is a block that security had designated as a protest corridor.

 

FEMALE PROTESTER: We are here to oppose ...

 

SIMON: So on this one block, security had divided the street into a dozen or so quadrants.

 

FEMALE PROTESTER: Chinese Communist Party! It’s a mafia!

 

SIMON: Each quadrant occupied by a different protest group yelling at the UN.

 

MALE PROTESTER: What do we want?

 

CROWD: Freedom!

 

MALE PROTESTER: When do we want it?

 

CROWD: Now!

 

SIMON: And so I was suddenly thrust into this frothing, technicolor mass.

 

MALE POTESTER: Let’s move! Allez allez! Let's go, let's go, let's go!

 

SIMON: Okay, and this seems to be Protest Alley.

 

SIMON: Of people shouting, waving flags and shaking placards. I mean, you could pick any cause, any issue on the planet that you would like to protest, show up, and there will be at least seven other people ...

 

JAD: [laughs]

 

SIMON: ... protesting it along with you.

 

JAD: Really? So who -- wait, who was out there?

 

SIMON: Oh, you name it.

 

MALE PROTESTER: My issue is Palestine-Israel.

 

SIMON: Folks who were pro-Palestine …

 

MALE PROTESTER: We're protesting against the Buhari government!

 

SIMON: Anti-Nigerian government, climate change activists. Most groups had their own little 10-foot-by-30-foot area marked by police barricades. And so every few steps you'd encounter a different cause. I mean, on 47th Street on the far left side of it, you had these Egyptian-Americans just going wild.

 

FEMALE PROTESTER: We are for Egypt.

 

SIMON: Okay.

 

FEMALE PROTESTER: And for the President Sisi.

 

SIMON: Chanting in support of President Sisi. While just 60 feet away on the other side of the street ...

 

FEMALE PROTESTER: Down down Sisi!

 

CROWD: Down down Sisi!

 

SIMON: ... there’s an anti-Sisi Egyptian protest going. And then smack dab in the middle of all of this chaos are the Falun Gong protesters, probably 100 of them, decked from head to toe in bright yellow, standing like statues perfectly still and silent.

 

SIMON: This is a -- a buffet of discontentedness.

 

SIMON: All of the protesters were facing the UN, yelling in that direction, trying to get the attention of the media, or presumably of the diplomats walking in. But this one group ...

 

SIMON: Okay, let's see if I can find my ...

 

SIMON: The group I was there to see, in fact. They had their backs turned to the UN. They were taking a totally different approach, because their audience was actually halfway around the world.

 

SIMON: Ah, and here is a friend. Joel.

 

JOEL MAMSBY: How you doing?

 

SIMON: Good to see you, man!

 

SIMON: They're from Gabon. It’s a small little country on the west coast of Africa. And the reason these Gabonese folks had gathered around the UN, was to protest against their long-time quote-unquote "President," dictator Ali Bongo.

 

ROBERT: Like B-O-N-G-O?

 

SIMON: Bongo, like the drum. Anyway, they were this sort of eclectic group. One of them, Joel, was wearing a Gabonese flag as a cape.

 

SIMON: The best dressed activist of the whole lot!

 

YORRICK IYUNE: Yeah!

 

SIMON: Another, Yorrick, was in a suit.

 

YORRICK IYUNE: Coming from work. [laughs]

 

SIMON: You guys expecting more people to show up?

 

JOEL MAMSBY: Well, hopefully so.

 

SIMON: And there were only, like, seven of them there. But one of them always had their phone out.

 

ELVINE ADJEMBE: I need this live.

 

SIMON: Shooting video.

 

MALE PROTESTER: All right, all right, all right, all right. Somebody want to say something?

 

SIMON: And live-streaming it.

 

MALE PROTESTER: Because we live! Africa is watching us. Let’s ...

 

SIMON: This is why I'd come to see them. Because while everybody else at the UN that day was trying to get the media or the people around them to take notice, these Gabonese activists were broadcasting directly to the people of Gabon.

 

MALE PROTESTER: Ali Bongo deserve ...

 

SIMON: Through videos and tweets and Facebook posts, they were fighting a government thousands of miles away.

 

[CROWD SINGING]

 

SIMON: Finding that this distance was surprisingly empowering, but also perilous. Because it sent them down this path to creating an alternative reality that crash them straight into the limits of using truth to create political change.

 

ROBERT: But how, exactly?

 

[tapping mic]

 

SIMON: Check, check. One, two, three, four, five.

 

SIMON: Well, let me back up a little bit.

 

JAD: Mm-hmm.

 

SIMON: The first time I met this group of Gabonese activists was at this annual vigil.

 

SIMON: Do you mind telling me where we are and what we’re doing here?

 

JOEL MAMSBY: Okay. Excuse me. For the church, where are we in the church? Which church is that again?

 

SIMON: Here in New York.

 

FRANCK JOCKTANE: Saint Aloysius.

 

JOEL MAMSBY: Saint Aloysius. Okay.

 

FRANCK JOCKTANE: So we are in Saint Aloysius Church.

 

SIMON: This is Franck Jocktane.

 

FRANCK JOCKTANE: It’s a Catholic Church in -- is this Harlem?

 

JOEL MAMSBY: Harlem, yeah.

 

FRANCK JOCKTANE: Yeah, Saint Aloysius in Harlem. Okay.

 

SIMON: Okay.

 

SIMON: And I met him in the entryway of this huge Roman Catholic cathedral on 132nd Street.

 

FRANCK JOCKTANE: And, uh ...

 

SIMON: I think we’re gonna go now. We’ll talk more.

 

FRANCK JOCKTANE: Okay, we’ll talk more.

 

SIMON: We went inside and there were about nine people there.

 

JAD: Otherwise empty church?

 

SIMON: Otherwise empty church.

 

SIMON: [whispering] The service is beginning.

 

[singing in French]

 

SIMON: Everyone was gathered in the first couple rows of pews. The whole thing was in French, and it was basically just a Catholic mass.

 

PRIEST: Bonjour.

 

CONGREGATION: Bonjour mon père.

 

SIMON: But then this woman, Elvine Adjembe, in a red blouse and black slacks, goes up to the lectern and starts reading out these names.

 

ELVINE ADJEMBE: [French names]

 

JAD: And who are these people?

 

SIMON: Well, they're the names of several dozen men and women who were killed by Ali Bongo's government.

 

ELVINE ADJEMBE: [French names]

 

JAD: And what happened? Why were they killed?

 

SIMON: Well ...

 

ELVINE ADJEMBE: I mean, you know, there are consequences for Gabonese people going against the regime.

 

SIMON: This is Elvine, the woman you just heard reading those names.

 

ELVINE ADJEMBE: Elvine Adjembe. And yeah.

 

SIMON: Elvine is an activist by night, academic by day.

 

ELVINE ADJEMBE: I work as a researcher for NYU looking at sexual behavior, sexual health. And I live in Harlem.

 

SIMON: She moved here from Gabon in 2006. And she says on the ground back in Gabon ...

 

ELVINE ADJEMBE: Protesting openly is impossible. Anybody that has been outspoken is threatened and arrested, you know, by the Bongo regime.

 

SIMON: And to understand how Gabon got to this place, she says ...

 

ELVINE ADJEMBE: [laughs] Oh, well, how far do you wanna go?

 

SIMON: [laughs] You go -- you go as -- as far back as you want to.

 

ELVINE ADJEMBE: [laughs]

 

SIMON: You’ve really gotta go back to the beginnings of the country.

 

ELVINE ADJEMBE: Okay. Gabon was colonized by France.

 

SIMON: In the 1800s. And they governed Gabon until 1960 when the French pulled out, and shortly thereafter handed power over to a man named Omar Bongo.

 

[ARCHIVE CLIP: Omar Bongo, President de la Republic Gabonese.]

 

SIMON: Ali Bongo’s dad.

 

BRETT CARTER: And Omar, Papa Bongo, had no political experience. Ruled the country between 1967 and 2009.

 

SIMON: Totaling ...

 

BRETT CARTER: 42 years.

 

SIMON: This, by the way, is Brett Carter.

 

BRETT CARTER: And I study politics in Central Africa.

 

SIMON: Now over the course of these four decades ...

 

BRETT CARTER: Omar Bongo served the interests of ruling Gabonese elite and the French elite. Not average citizens in Gabon.

 

SIMON: Papa Bongo basically made himself and his cronies wealthy, while the rest of the country crumbled. Gabon is an oil-rich country, and while they were pumping thousands of barrels of the stuff a day, next to none of that revenue was invested in things like roads or schools. Of course, he controlled the army, he cracked down on the press. Bought off and killed off political opponents. And while Omar was busy with all this, running the country into the ground ...

 

[ARCHIVE CLIP: Ali Bongo disco]

 

SIMON: His son Ali was busy trying to get his disco career off the ground. Now his career as an entertainer didn't work out, but in 2009 ...

 

ELVINE ADJEMBE: When Omar Bongo died ...

 

[NEWS CLIP: Omar Bongo of Gabon died in office last week.]

 

[NEWS CLIP: Many Gabonese lived their whole lives under his presidency.]

 

SIMON: Ali found another calling.

 

ELVINE ADJEMBE: Ali Bongo became the dictator, so-called president as you would hear it, of Gabon.

 

ROBERT: Okay, so it's been Bongo followed by a Bongo.

 

SIMON: Bongo-Bongo.

 

ROBERT: Bingo-bango-bongo. Okay.

 

SIMON: And now there was an election in 2009 that put Ali Bongo in power. But ...

 

BRETT CARTER: There's obvious electoral fraud on behalf of the Bongo regime.

 

ELVINE ADJEMBE: The election was marred with paying voters for voters' cards, giving citizenship to foreigners in exchange for votes. So he's elected but it's not an actual election.

 

SIMON: And when Ali took over, the country continued to spiral. Thousands of Bongo's allies were put on the government payroll but never expected to work. A third of the country remained stuck below the poverty line. All while Bongo was adding to his collection of hundreds of luxury cars and scores of French villas. And along with all of this came violence.

 

FRANCK JOCKTANE: Well, my brother ...

 

SIMON: Again, Franck Jocktane.

 

FRANCK JOCKTANE: ... a little brother who was politically involved with one of Ali Bongo opponent.

 

SIMON: And right away, Franck says, Bongo cracked down.

 

FRANCK JOCKTANE: You have people entering his house in the middle of the night, terrifying his children. Being harassed by the police. And I mean, my mother was calling me, for example, crying and stuff like this.

 

SIMON: Like, she was actually afraid that your brother could be killed for his political positions?

 

FRANCK JOCKTANE: That is correct. That is correct. So I felt that she was asking me to help -- to -- to help out.

 

SIMON: But at this point, Franck was already living here in the States. He'd arrived in 1991 and was working in IT.

 

FRANCK JOCKTANE: You know, I was so far from the country. And so what I do is go to Twitter, made a profile and ...

 

SIMON: Typed in ...

 

FRANCK JOCKTANE: "Gabon is not a country with good governance." Something like that. Then I put the hashtag, #Gabon, #WhiteHouse, #CNN, and I sent my first tweet, when there was nothing else that I could do.

 

SIMON: And while he never heard back from the White House, or CNN ...

 

FRANCK JOCKTANE: No they didn’t really respond, but what it did is connect me to other Gabonese people, who when they saw the tweet, they tweet back.

 

SIMON: And in that moment, Frank tapped into this digital Gabon. This diffuse online network made up of ...

 

ELVINE ADJEMBE: Gabonese people living abroad.

 

SIMON: People like Elvine.

 

ELVINE ADJEMBE: In Europe, Barcelona.

 

FRANCK JOCKTANE: Paris.

 

ELVINE ADJEMBE: New York.

 

FRANCK JOCKTANE: Washington, DC.

 

SIMON: Posting videos, sharing their frustrations. And all basically saying ...

 

ELVINE ADJEMBE: We do not agree with what’s going on in Gabon. We need to stand up and end the Bongo regime.

 

SIMON: And this digital Gabon, they set their sights on the 2016 presidential election, when Ali Bongo would have to run to hold onto power.

 

YORRICK IYUNE: We all decided okay, we gonna -- we gonna win this.

 

SIMON: This is Yorrick.

 

YORRICK IYUNE: Yorrick. Yorrick Iyune. And what am I supposed to say again?

 

SIMON: He's also an activist.

 

ROBERT: So they're pinning their hopes on having a free and fair election, which they have never had?

 

SIMON: Well, yeah.

 

ROBERT: If you know that the dictator's hell-bent on winning come what may, I wonder why that is even plausible?

 

SIMON: Well first of all, plausible or not, I think these Gabonese folks living outside of the country felt a real moral imperative here. Like, we're not subject to the same risks as people living inside the country.

 

ELVINE ADJEMBE: We thought because we were diaspora, we have the responsibility to influence the political game in Gabon.

 

SIMON: They believed they could do things, campaigning and politicking, that would have been very dangerous or even impossible on the ground. And second of all, they had a plan.

 

FRANCK JOCKTANE: So ...

 

[NEWS CLIP: Electoral campaigns have been officially launched.]

 

YORRICK IYUNE: First -- first of all, what we started to do is that ...

 

[NEWS CLIP: 13 candidates are in the run to replace Ali Bongo in ...]

 

YORRICK IYUNE: We put pressure on the opposition to find us one candidate.

 

[NEWS CLIP: Opposition parties say Bongo has done ...]

 

YORRICK IYUNE: And thank God ...

 

[NEWS CLIP: Protracted negotiations led all the key challengers to pull out.]

 

YORRICK IYUNE: They heard us ...

 

BRETT CARTER: And coalesced behind the candidacy of Jean Ping.

 

SIMON: Again, Brett Carter.

 

BRETT CARTER: I mean, there was this sense that, you know, Jean Ping was somebody who would implement a much more transparent government. And ultimately represented change.

 

SIMON: And this coalescing was important because one of the ways the Bongos had always won while maintaining this sort of appearance of democracy, was because there would be so many different opposition candidates splitting the vote.

 

[NEWS CLIP: The vote will be a two-horse race between ...]

 

BRETT CARTER: And so this was going be the most competitive Gabonese presidential election in Gabonese history.

 

SIMON: The diaspora started flooding social media with pro-Jean Ping posts. And then on top of that, as the election got closer, they set up this network of people throughout the country to go to polling stations on election day, where they would film on their smartphones as the votes were being tallied.

 

ELVINE ADJEMBE: So when they count the votes we can film everything, post it on social media. Nobody's going to cheat us anymore.

 

SIMON: And so ...

 

[NEWS CLIP: The people of Gabon began voting early ...]

 

SIMON: The day of the election comes. Jean Ping versus Ali Bongo.

 

ELVINE ADJEMBE: Yes.

 

SIMON: Were you -- were you in Gabon, or were you in New York at that point, or ...

 

ELVINE ADJEMBE: I was here in New York.

 

SIMON: Okay.

 

ELVINE ADJEMBE: I was at the consulate. We started getting results. And it’s -- it becomes very, very clear ...

 

[NEWS CLIP: Jean Ping said -- he just announced that he thinks he’s winning.]

 

ELVINE ADJEMBE: … that Jean Ping is winning.

 

SIMON: And seemingly by a lot. According to their election monitoring videos and -- and early results, I mean, it looked like out of the nine provinces in Gabon ...

 

ELVINE ADJEMBE: Seven had voted predominantly for him.

 

SIMON: And meanwhile, online ...

 

[ARCHIVAL CLIP: Crowd singing and cheering.]

 

SIMON: Elvine found a flood of video clips coming out of Gabon.

 

ELVINE ADJEMBE: People actually out in the streets, celebrating. They were crying. People were opening champagne. You know, "This is it! This is -- we’re done with the Bongo regime. We -- we did it!" And -- and here as members of the diaspora, there was just -- there was a lot of joy everywhere.

 

SIMON: But ...

 

ELVINE ADJEMBE: Exactly. [laughs] So we're starting to think, "Okay, something is not right. They're going to do something."

 

[NEWS CLIP: Gabon is tense as the results of the presidential vote remain unresolved.]

 

FRANCK JOCKTANE: The results started to delay.

 

SIMON: Specifically because they weren't getting the vote counts from one final province.

 

ELVINE ADJEMBE: Haut-Ogooué, the last province. So we’re waiting.

 

SIMON: A day goes by. Then a second, and a third. And then finally ...

 

ELVINE ADJEMBE: After four days of waiting ...

 

BRETT CARTER: The electoral commission declared a 99 percent turnout in Haut-Ogooué province.

 

[NEWS CLIP: According to the official result, only 47 people did not vote.]

 

SIMON: They announced that basically everyone in this province voted, which was significantly higher than turnout rates in the rest of the country, and of the 99.93 percent of people that voted ...

 

BRETT CARTER: 95 percent cast their ballot for Ali Bongo.

 

SIMON: The equivalent of, like, every single person in Wisconsin voting Democrat.

 

BRETT CARTER: Results, you know, that are just not true. But are just enough to give Bongo the victory over Jean Ping.

 

ELVINE ADJEMBE: Just enough so that he would remain president and dictator of Gabon. And I mean, come on. What can you possibly do? I mean it’s blatant! So blatant, so obvious. There is no way.

 

BRETT CARTER: Yeah this is a profoundly -- a profoundly fraudulent election. You know, no one thought that the 2016 election would be at all fair. But this sort of obvious electoral fraud was basically unprecedented.

 

SIMON: We reached out to the Gabonese government to get their side of all this. They did not return our request for comment.

 

ELVINE ADJEMBE: And so when the results are announced ...

 

[NEWS CLIP: Gabon’s incumbent leader Ali Bongo has just scraped to victory ...]

 

SIMON: Videos start popping up online, but this time they show ...

 

ELVINE ADJEMBE: People getting furious.

 

[CROWD YELLING]

 

[NEWS CLIP: The announcement has, as feared, sparked violence in the streets of the capital.]

 

ELVINE ADJEMBE: And now riots start.

 

FRANCK JOCKTANE: I mean, it was -- it was -- it was chaos.

 

[NEWS CLIP: Clashes broke out in the capital of Libreville as opposition supporters claimed election fraud.]

 

SIMON: Watching from Paris, New York, DC ...

 

ELVINE ADJEMBE: The diaspora, we don’t know what’s going on.

 

SIMON: Other than what they can see in these video clips being uploaded.

 

FRANCK JOCKTANE: People were sending us videos of people in the street.

 

[NEWS CLIP: Three people were shot and killed.]

 

FRANCK JOCKTANE: What the army was doing to the people.

 

[NEWS CLIP: The National Assembly was set on fire.]

 

ELVINE ADJEMBE: We hear that the building of the General Assembly is burning.

 

JAD: Oh my gosh!

 

ELVINE ADJEMBE: And then ...

 

[ARCHIVE CLIP: The opposition are right now under siege.]

 

SIMON: Elvine ends up on the phone with her brother-in-law, who is at the headquarters of Jean Ping, and he says there are soldiers trying to get in.

 

ELVINE ADJEMBE: We could hear shots. We could hear him saying, "Okay, they’re coming up, they’re coming up!” And then at some point ...

 

[silence]

 

[dial tone]

 

ELVINE ADJEMBE: His cell phone died. So now ...

 

SIMON: Jesus!

 

ELVINE ADJEMBE: ... we’re thinking. Okay, he’s -- he’s -- he’s going to die.

 

SIMON: And right around then as well, the internet in the entire country is shut off. So these people living outside the country who are -- who are -- who feel like they’re -- they’re sort of in the action basically, mediated by a phone screen obviously, but they’re -- it feels pretty live and real, are suddenly cut off.

 

]ELVINE ADJEMBE: The -- the powerlessness, it's -- yes, it's the feeling of powerlessness. There's nothing, absolutely nothing that you can do. You feel like a puppet, essentially. It's -- it's really you have this kind of double consciousness that you function with. It feels unreal. I'm not in Gabon. This is what's going on there, but at the same time here -- and personally I am a teacher and I have to talk to my students about psychology, about sex and gender, about stats. So you're -- you're just overwhelmed. You don't know what to do. You don't know what you can do.

 

JAD: Do -- do we know what happened there?

 

SIMON: Well, they didn’t know anything for several days. But when they were able to get back in touch, in the case of Elvine, they found out that her brother-in-law was okay. He'd been arrested, but was okay. And more broadly they learned what happened was ...

 

BRETT CARTER: Bongo basically ordered his Republican guard, which has a series of sort of like, you know, fighter helicopters armed with missiles basically, and they opened fire on the -- on Ping’s headquarters.

 

SIMON: Jesus!

 

BRETT CARTER: Filled with people both in and outside. Now the death toll from that helicopter assault is unclear.

 

ELVINE ADJEMBE: We still do not have the full count to this day.

 

BRETT CARTER: But at least two dozen, three dozen.

 

ELVINE ADJEMBE: [reading names in French]

 

SIMON: And so this is what they were gathered at that church to commemorate.

 

ELVINE ADJEMBE: Merci.

 

SIMON: Now in Gabon after these attacks ...

 

[NEWS CLIP: Life is slowly returning to normal in parts of the city. You're seeing more people ...]

 

ELVINE ADJEMBE: We basically went back to that cemetery peace that we've always had.

 

SIMON: Things went back to the way they were before the election, with Ali Bongo in power and the people of Gabon really unable to do anything about it. But Elvine, Franck and other activists living outside the country, they had seen what an effect they could have. That they could move people in a way that they hadn't been moved before. But they also were confronting the limits to all of that power. And so it felt like a decision point.

 

BRETT CARTER: I don't want to call it an emergence, you know, or an awakening, but there was a sense that this was a watershed moment.

 

SIMON: There was no longer a candidate to support, no election to watchdog, but they thought the least they could do is try to get the UN or the western media to pay attention to what had happened.

 

MALE PROTESTER: We are here because of an injustice in Gabon.

 

SIMON: The form this usually took was a couple of these activists.

 

MALE PROTESTER: La resistance ...

 

SIMON: Going out in front of the Gabonese embassy in Paris or DC.

 

MALE PROTESTER: We have a tyrant called Ali Bongo.

 

SIMON: And they just sort of give a monologue and live-stream for 30 minutes, hoping CNN would do some story on them, or the UN would pass some resolution. But it didn't really work.

 

ELVINE ADJEMBE: At first we were very naive because we assumed okay, people are being killed in Gabon, obviously the United Nations is going to react and do something. And then we very quickly discovered oh, you poor thing.

 

SIMON: [laughs]

 

ELVINE ADJEMBE: [laughs]

 

SIMON: Nobody in the west was paying any attention. But back in Gabon, people were. With the help of a reporter in Libreville, the capital of Gabon, we talked to lots of people. People whose names we're not using out of concern for their safety, who said they were tuning into these videos the activists were posting because I mean, in the wake of the 2016 election, everybody was terrified to talk about what happened for obvious reasons. But ...

 

[VIDEO CLIP]

 

SIMON: ... then they'd come across these videos the diaspora was posting. And they'd see people not just speaking about how the election was stolen and how people were killed, but also condemning it. And it was revelatory. They heard someone giving voice to feelings they had but couldn't say.

 

[GABONESE WOMAN SPEAKING FRENCH]

 

SIMON: But that was not the end goal here.

 

ELVINE ADJEMBE: I mean, we wanted to end the Bongo regime.

 

SIMON: They -- they felt like they hit the limit of what this sort of media they were generating could produce.

 

FRANCK JOCKTANE: It was timid, because it was at its infancy, all right? By the way, I want -- just want to let you know that Alain is here too, so he just step in.

 

SIMON: Oh, great! Alain, welcome.

 

ALAIN-SERGE OBAME: Yes, how you doing? Welcome to have me here.

 

SIMON: Alain-Serge Obame is an activist as well. And together, he and Franck were putting out a lot of these videos, playing around with different ways to try to spark some change.

 

FRANCK JOCKTANE: Mm-hmm.

 

ALAIN-SERGE OBAME: Yes. Until the hotel, when it blows up.

 

SIMON: So in this video that was filmed and streamed live, the first thing that you see is a straight-on shot of Alain’s goateed face, big smile.

 

[VIDEO CLIP, Alain-Serge Obame: Hello. Salut! ]

 

SIMON: Peering straight into the lens of a phone camera that he’s holding out at arm’s length. He swivels around, points the camera at Franck and introduces him along with a couple other folks that are there with him. And then you notice that there's a reception desk, and that they’re inside of this swanky hotel lobby.

 

[VIDEO CLIP, Alain-Serge Obame: Nous sommes la au Four Season Hotel.]

 

ALAIN-SERGE OBAME: It was the Four Season Hotel.

 

FRANCK JOCKTANE: One of the most beautiful, the most luxurious hotel in DC.

 

SIMON: Marble pillars, plush chairs. And the reason that they were there was because a Gabonese official, actually the woman who signed off on Ali Bongo’s election was staying there.

 

FRANCK JOCKTANE: The -- the president of the Constitutional court ...

 

ALAIN-SERGE OBAME: And we decide just to let her know we not happy with the decisions.

 

[VIDEO CLIP, Alain-Serge Obame: La course de reaction rapide de la …]

 

SIMON: They’re just milling around the lobby hoping to bump into her, I guess, when you hear the timbre of Alain’s voice change. And you see as he trains the camera’s lens on this man walking down a hallway towards them into the lobby.

 

[VIDEO CLIP, Alain-Serge Obame: Monsieur? Vous allez bien?]

 

SIMON: They shove the camera right up into the guy’s face, who's actually their target’s husband.

 

[VIDEO CLIP, Alain-Serge Obame: Bonjour ...]

 

FRANCK JOCKTANE: And we started to have an inter -- interaction with him.

 

SIMON: And now you see him making a beeline for the elevator. Pushes the button. But it’s not coming.

 

ALAIN-SERGE OBAME: And we started to scream at him that you kill people in Gabon and stuff.

 

SIMON: At this point ...

 

[VIDEO CLIP, Alain-Serge Obame: No, you don’t have to call the security.]

 

FRANCK JOCKTANE: Called security.

 

[VIDEO CLIP, Alain-Serge Obame: Okay. No problem.]

 

SIMON: And moments later, these black-suited men start ushering them towards the exit.

 

[VIDEO CLIP, Alain-Serge Obame: This guy -- this guy is a criminal! He -- he kill people!]

 

[VIDEO CLIP, Franck Jocktane: Our people got killed!]

 

[VIDEO CLIP, Alain-Serge Obame: I have a right to film it. Don’t touch my phone!]

 

SIMON: Through the revolving doors.

 

[VIDEO CLIP, Alain-Serge Obame: Fucking criminal!]

 

SIMON: And so now they’re out in the rain, and at this point you think they're done. Like, they made their point. They’re not gonna be able to get back inside. But no.

 

[VIDEO CLIP, Alain-Serge Obame: Four Season Hotel à Washington DC.]

 

SIMON: Instead of ending it right there ...

 

[VIDEO CLIP, Alain-Serge Obame: Okay tous les Gabon ...]

 

FRANCK JOCKTANE: He told the Gabonese people that’s where the hotel where she is.

 

SIMON: Posted the hotel's phone number and said ...

 

FRANCK JOCKTANE: "Blow the phone line."

 

SIMON: And thousands of miles away, people in Gabon saw it.

 

MALE VOICE: [speaking French]

 

SIMON: People like this guy. He was a student at the time. Says he remembers it well. It was right around 11:00pm.

 

MALE VOICE: [speaking French]

 

SIMON: Despite not speaking very much English, he says, he dialed the number.

 

MALE VOICE: [speaking French]

 

SIMON: The receptionist picked up. And he told her that the hotel should not be housing terrorists, which she promptly responded to by ...

 

MALE VOICE: [speaking French]

 

SIMON: ... hanging up. But the thing is, this guy wasn't the only one.

 

FRANCK JOCKTANE: No. People from France, people from Gabon, people from the United States started to call and jam the -- the -- how do you call that? The line. The telephone line.

 

SIMON: And suddenly, the receptionist is just being bombarded.

 

JAD: Oh my God!

 

SIMON: They doxed the hotel.

 

JAD: Wow.

 

SIMON: To the point that the Chief Justice no longer felt comfortable.

 

JAD: Uh huh.

 

SIMON: And so she goes to a second hotel.

 

FRANCK JOCKTANE: We did the same thing.

 

SIMON: She leaves that one, she goes to a third hotel. And they do it again. Eventually she ends up staying in, like, the apartment of her daughter who lives somewhere in DC.

 

JAD: That’s crazy. I thought you were gonna say like a Motel 6 in Newark. [laughs]

 

SIMON: [laughs] Yeah, with no phone line, yeah. And for the folks back in Gabon who -- who had been involved in this stunt ...

 

MALE VOICE: [speaking French]

 

FRANCK JOCKTANE: That so -- have such powerful people in Gabon could be humiliated like this.

 

SIMON: And they didn't just see it, this act of political expression. I mean, they were actually able to safely and consequentially take part in it. In fact, one woman in Gabon described the experience and the feeling as ...

 

GABONESE WOMAN: [speaking French]

 

SIMON: The very evisceration of time and space.

 

FRANCK JOCKTANE: And -- and when we saw that effect, we enjoyed it, and we said that that’s what we’re gonna do from now on.

 

SIMON: This they realize is the move.

 

[VIDEO CLIP, Alain-Serge Obame: That’s the hotel! C’est la Ali Bongo ete.]

 

SIMON: And so every time a Gabonese official would show up in the States or in France ...

 

FRANCK JOCKTANE: We will track them.

 

SIMON: Live streaming as they show up wherever the person’s at.

 

[VIDEO CLIP: They’re killing people in my country!]

 

SIMON: And begin harassing them.

 

[VIDEO CLIP, Alain-Serge Obame: The Peninsula Hotel should not host murderers and killers!]

 

SIMON: And shaming the hotel.

 

[VIDEO CLIP, Alain-Serge Obame: You should kick them out!]

 

SIMON: And a couple times it actually worked.

 

FRANCK JOCKTANE: We tracked down the Cabinet Director.

 

[VIDEO CLIP: They’re killing us! They’re killing ...]

 

[VIDEO CLIP, Alain-Serge Obame: Come outside!]

 

FRANCK JOCKTANE: And they kick him out.

 

SIMON: In Paris, they track down Ali Bongo’s brother in law. And posted a video of themselves going into the Gabonese embassy, and swapping out the framed photo of Ali Bongo hanging on the wall for a photo of Jean Ping. They even doxed the hotel of Ali Bongo himself.

 

[VIDEO CLIP, Alain-Serge Obame: This is going to Gabon, this is going to Paris, this is going to Italy, to Brazil, this is an international movement. Fuck you!]

 

SIMON: And these videos, staged and filmed by members of the diaspora, back in Gabon they were firing people up.

 

ROBERT: They -- like, do some of these people get to be well-known?

 

SIMON: Oh, they became celebrities. One person referred to them as celebrities inside the country.

 

ROBERT: Oh!

 

SIMON: Which, even at a distance could be dangerous. This is something I talked to them about when I was first meeting everyone at this barbecue.

 

SIMON: Do you mind just introducing yourself on tape here?

 

INNOCENT X: Oh, okay. My name is Innocent. Innocent. Someone who's not guilty, so, yeah. [laughs]

 

SIMON: Pretty much all of them told me that they and their families had at some point been targeted by the Bongo regime.

 

INNOCENT X: Everyone here. Almost all our families back home. And to be honest, they're worried. My mom told me to stop it.

 

SIMON: Your mom, she called you?

 

INNOCENT X: Yeah. She said, "No, I don’t want you -- I don’t want you to be part of that. You got to stop it."

 

JOEL MAMSBY: My family back home, I don’t call.

 

SIMON: This is fellow activist Joel Mambsy.

 

SIMON: You don’t call them from your own cellphone number?

 

JOEL MAMSBY: No, no. It’s been three years. I cut it off -- to try to keep them away from trouble. That’s why I'm keeping myself away.

 

SIMON: And what’s totally off limits it seems is going back.

 

INNOCENT X: I mean, that -- that’s gonna be dangerous. Yeah. [laughs] There are people who going back home because of the election, you know? And he got [laughs] he got arrested.

 

SIMON: What -- what’s his name?

 

INNOCENT X: Uh, Landry?

 

SIMON: Okay.

 

INNOCENT X: Landry, yeah.

 

SIMON: Now Landry it turns out, is actually the brother of Alain-Serge Obame.

 

ALAIN-SERGE OBAME: Yeah. And Landry was like a superstar of videos.

 

SIMON: In fact, he was one of the first activists to really be making videos. All the way back before the 2016 election. At the time, he was living in Miami working as a businessman and was a huge Jean Ping booster.

 

ALAIN-SERGE OBAME: He went back to Gabon right before the 2016 election to support Jean Ping and do the campaign.

 

SIMON: But when his plane touched down in Libreville, the capital ...

 

ALAIN-SERGE OBAME: When he get there to the airport, they kidnap him. 12 people kidnap him. And [sighs] it was long time before I heard from him.

 

LANDRY WASHINGTON: Hello?

 

SIMON: [phone line breaking up] Hello can you hear me?

 

SIMON: With Alain’s help ...

 

SIMON: You can hear me?

 

LANDRY WASHINGTON: Yes, I can.

 

SIMON: Hey. Hey, okay. We’re -- we’re recording.

 

LANDRY WASHINGTON: Yep.

 

SIMON: Okay.

 

LANDRY WASHINGTON: Okay.

 

SIMON: I was able to talk to Landry.

 

LANDRY WASHINGTON: My name is Landry Washington, calling from the prison cell in Libreville, Gabon.

 

SIMON: How are you calling me right now?

 

LANDRY WASHINGTON: They have a special service here at the prison where we can make a phone call.

 

SIMON: Do the prison guards, or does anyone know that you’re talking to me?

 

LANDRY WASHINGTON: They probably listen to all my phone conversations. They are certain things that you understand that I cannot -- I cannot say over the phone. The conditions are not -- are not -- are very, very, very difficult.

 

SIMON: And just to be clear, you are an American citizen, yeah?

 

LANDRY WASHINGTON: I am an American citizen.

 

JAD: A US citizen, and he's just being held?

 

SIMON: Yeah. Someone from the US Embassy visits him every two weeks or so.

 

ROBERT: Oh!

 

SIMON: So he's got folks in the West keeping an eye on him.

 

ROBERT: I see.

 

SIMON: And probably that, plus the Bongo regime trying to maintain some appearance of democracy and the rule of law is why he can even talk to me at all.

 

LANDRY WASHINGTON: Because, you know, they want to hide and pretend that it's a democracy, it's this and that.

 

SIMON: But that being said, I -- I was concerned, given everything I’d heard about broadcasting his voice, about broadcasting any of this. And -- and I raised that with him.

 

LANDRY WASHINGTON: I’m not worried at all. As a matter of fact, I really want you to do that. I know who I’m dealing with ...

 

SIMON: Well, and why aren’t you worried?

 

LANDRY WASHINGTON: Because Simon, listen to me. My rights have been violated from the beginning.

 

SIMON: Mm-hmm.

 

LANDRY WASHINGTON: At this point, I cannot be scared now. Just do what you have to do.

 

SIMON: Okay.

 

LANDRY WASHINGTON: Yeah.

 

SIMON: Landry has been in prison for over three years now. He shares a small little cement cell with a mattress on the floor. And he told me that after they grabbed him at the airport ...

 

LANDRY WASHINGTON: I didn’t know -- I didn’t really know what was happening. And they took me from there to the local police station.

 

SIMON: And he found out that charges were being brought against him.

 

LANDRY WASHINGTON: Incitement of violence. And outrage of the president.

 

SIMON: Asserting that he was a threat to the Gabonese people and to the president, Ali Bongo. All based on his social media posts.

 

LANDRY WASHINGTON: They went to the internet, to my Facebook page. Print everything that I was writing, from my video, everything that was said. Things that I’ve done, basically expressing my freedom of speech while I was in the United States. And this is the thing that they was using against me.

 

SIMON: All stuff he’d posted from Miami. That was the evidence. And now, I can’t say that I’ve watched every minute of every video that Landry has ever uploaded, but the stuff that I have is pretty tame. I mean, Rush Limbaugh or even Rachel Maddow is more likely to incite violence than this guy. But when his case finally went to trial ...

 

LANDRY WASHINGTON: I was found guilty. And the judge, she said you can spend the rest of your -- your life in prison.

 

SIMON: She said you could spend the rest of your life in prison?

 

LANDRY WASHINGTON: Yeah that’s what she told me, the judge. That’s what she told me.

 

SIMON: What is the American government doing to help you at the moment?

 

LANDRY WASHINGTON: I don’t really know what exactly they are doing. I’m American. I'm an American. And I’m still here. Living on the condition -- on the very hard condition for almost four years. For what?

 

SIMON: Yeah.

 

LANDRY WASHINGTON: For what? For what reason? Who spend four years -- who spend four years in prison for speaking up his mind? Who?

 

SIMON: As for what's going to happen to Landry, we -- we reached out to the State Department.

 

STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: One of the most important tasks of the Department of State is to provide assistance to US citizens who are incarcerated or detained.

 

SIMON: And they gave us a written statement that were willing to read to us.

 

STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Counselor officers have sought to provide Mr. Washington all appropriate counselor assistance.

 

SIMON: The gist of it was they know he's there. They've spoken with the Gabonese government, but there's not really much more they can do.

 

SIMON: And -- and so I can't ask any follow-up questions. That's sort of -- that's what we've got to work with, huh?

 

STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Yes. I'm sorry about that, but I -- that's all I can talk with you about on the record for right now.

 

SIMON: We also gave Landry’s Congresswoman, Debbie Wasserman-Shulz, a call, multiple times in fact, and sent multiple emails. And she did not return our request for comment.

 

LANDRY WASHINGTON: I don’t know what’s gonna happen. Because nothing was normal. Nothing is normal. They’re just trying to keep me here as much time as they can, thinking that they’re gonna -- I’m gonna get down, they’re gonna broke my mind. No! I die for my rights. I’m American! I won’t give up my rights for anything, even if I have to give my life! They expect me maybe to change, to give up my -- I won’t do that! I don’t care how long it’s gonna take. I will still gonna be the same. I’m gonna still speak up my mind!

 

SIMON: We’re gonna take a quick break.

 

[LAUREL: Hey, my name's Laurel. I'm calling from London. Radiolab is supported in part by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, enhancing public understanding of science and technology in the modern world. More information about Sloan at www.sloan.org/]

 

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JAD: Jad.

 

ROBERT: Robert.

 

JAD: Radiolab.

 

ROBERT: Back to Simon.

 

SIMON: Right. So at this point we’ve got a brutal dictator, a series of scam elections, people murdered, and a US citizen imprisoned. And a diaspora doing what they can from a distance. They've gotten some traction, but the Bongo regime is fighting back, threatening their families. And I should say, sometime in 2016 these activists stop just doing political stunts to rile people up. They also started providing facts. As was explained to us, freedom of the press in Gabon really isn't a thing. The Bongos have a long history of suspending publications and banning journalists who -- who report things they don’t like. That’s actually why we’re not naming the journalist who helped us conduct these interviews in Gabon. And so folks like Franck essentially became news broadcasters.

 

FRANCK JOCKTANE: Yes, so I was using the platform that I have in order to spread the -- the information. Yes.

 

ROBERT: Like, what kind of things?

 

SIMON: Everything from palace intrigue inside the Bongo regime to things like if a riot was being quashed in Port-Gentil.

 

ROBERT: They'd report that.

 

SIMON: They'd report that.

 

ROBERT: Well, how would they know that if they were living in the District of Columbia?

 

FRANCK JOCKTANE: Well, inside of the Bongo government, there's people who do -- do not like that system. So they call us and they contact us. Sometimes even the international press. And also I mean, I have people on the ground. They tell me what they see, what they hear.

 

SIMON: After he'd get this information, Franck says, he'd usually make a video, sometimes send a tweet and boom! Thousands of people would know about it.

 

ROBERT: And then the audience gets now to actually see what's going on in their own country on a bounce from Canada or America or France?

 

SIMON: Exactly.

 

JAD: Huh.

 

SIMON: It's looking across the ocean to see what's going on in your own backyard.

 

JAD: Yeah. Yeah, wow.

 

WOMAN: [speaking French]

 

SIMON: And for people like this businesswoman, this was a big deal. She says at the end of the day, after she's put her kids to bed, she sits down for what she calls Gabon time. 30 minutes or so where she scrolls through what the diaspora is posting. And at this point she really relies on them for facts.

 

FRANCK JOCKTANE: And so one of my fear is to relay what Donald Trump will call fake news. And because of that, yes, I have to be like a journalist. I have to really dig deep and make sure that my sources are legit, and make sure that what they're saying is true.

 

SIMON: They were basically these remote newsrooms. But then things got complicated.

 

ELVINE ADJEMBE: I was home. I was surfing the internet. I think some time around 8:00-9:00 pm?

 

SIMON: Again this is Elvine Adjembe.

 

ELVINE ADJEMBE: I come across a tweet from a reporter from the Washington Post, Siobhán O’Grady saying, "I’ve heard rumors that Ali Bongo is dead."

 

ELVINE ADJEMBE: And ...

 

SIMON: Like, what goes through your head first?

 

ELVINE ADJEMBE: Shock. There was no indication that he was sick or anything, and that just seemed too easy. Is -- is that possible? Is -- is that a thing? Are we just free from dictatorship just like that?

 

BRETT CARTER: No. It -- it ...

 

SIMON: Academic Brett Carter was equally confused.

 

BRETT CARTER: Uh, yeah. [laughs] At that point, my sense from communicating with people incidentally on Twitter was that Ali Bongo was in Riadh, Saudi Arabia for a conference, and -- and he suffered some kind of health crisis. But whether his heart was still beating remains unclear.

 

ELVINE ADJEMBE: That's -- that's -- that's what we knew.

 

SIMON: And as they looked for news of this coming out of Gabon ...

 

ELVINE ADJEMBE: Nothing. Nothing.

 

SIMON: For four whole days, the government doesn’t even acknowledge that anything is going on. Until ...

 

ELVINE ADJEMBE: On October 28th ...

 

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Spokesperson: Madames et Monsieur, le president la republic, Ali Bongo Ondimba, a malaise.]

 

ELVINE ADJEMBE: The spokesperson of the government comes out, and says, "Well, Ali Bongo felt dizzy and he went -- he was taken to the hospital and he was diagnosed with …"

 

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Spokesperson: Un fatigue sevère.]

 

ELVINE ADJEMBE: Severe fatigue. Severe fatigue.

 

SIMON: And that any other claims are just ...

 

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Spokesperson: La propagation de fake news.]

 

SIMON: Fake news.

 

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Spokesperson: Merci.]

 

SIMON: And your response or reaction is what?

 

ELVINE ADJEMBE: [laughs] That’s complete bullshit, come on! That’s not, that’s -- of course that’s bullshit.

 

BRETT CARTER: I mean, when Omar -- Papa Bongo ...

 

SIMON: Ali’s dad.

 

BRETT CARTER: ... died in 2009, there are people who think that there were -- you know, there was three weeks between Omar Bongo’s death and its announcement.

 

SIMON: Three weeks!

 

BRETT CARTER: Yes.

 

SIMON: So there’s precedent.

 

JAD: Okay.

 

SIMON: For them hiding deaths.

 

[NEWS CLIP: While the government claims the President ...]

 

SIMON: And I mean, immediately following this government press release ...

 

ELVINE ADJEMBE: It was the very next day.

 

[NEWS CLIP: Reuters reports that ...]

 

ELVINE ADJEMBE: Reuters, the media outlet, Reuters reports that ...

 

[NEWS CLIP: President Ali Bongo suffered a stroke.]

 

ELVINE ADJEMBE: Ali Bongo had a stroke.

 

SIMON: Totally contradicting the official account. And then ...

 

ELVINE ADJEMBE: November 6 ...

 

SIMON: Two weeks later.

 

ELVINE ADJEMBE: Yes.

 

SIMON: Okay.

 

ELVINE ADJEMBE: A French government official tweets, "Ali Bongo est mort." Ali Bongo is deceased.

 

JAD: Like, an official of the French government?

 

SIMON: Yes.

 

ELVINE ADJEMBE: The municipal counselor of Lents. We ask him questions, and he just -- he doesn’t say anything.

 

JAD: God damn!

 

SIMON: Then there are reports that the Gabonese government has changed their position.

 

[NEWS CLIP: The Gabonese presidency admitted he was seriously ill and had undergone surgery, but ...]

 

SIMON: And at this point it’s been like a month, and there have been no sightings of Ali Bongo and no comments from him.

 

BRETT CARTER: Bongo was totally incommunicado. And -- and one just doesn’t go days without hearing from Ali Bongo. That just doesn’t happen.

 

SIMON: And when a couple news outlets in Gabon tried to cover this story ...

 

BRETT CARTER: They were suspended as a result. Look, I mean, everybody suspected that, you know, clearly something was wrong, and the regime is hiding something, right? He's probably impaired cognitively, or perhaps dead.

 

SIMON: And online, the hundreds of Gabonese activists quickly split into factions.

 

ELVINE ADJEMBE: There were two camps. There was one camp that was saying, "We need to assess the health of Ali Bongo."

 

JAD: Like, let’s figure out what we know and what we don’t know. Let's be -- let's still be journalists, basically.

 

SIMON: Mm-hmm.

 

ELVINE ADJEMBE: And there was other camp that was like, "We should provoke the Gabonese people to react by saying, Ali Bongo is dead."

 

JAD: Interesting. Let’s use this information.

 

SIMON: Right. Or -- or this confusion. And so this online conversation begins.

 

FRANCK JOCKTANE: I said that, you know, enough is enough. Our way of thinking we have to evolve.

 

SIMON: Again, this is Frank Jocktane.

 

FRANCK JOCKTANE: And in other word, if we don’t adapt then we will -- we will perish.

 

SIMON: And eventually ...

 

ELVINE ADJEMBE: We just emerged online, and it felt like an epidemic.

 

SIMON: Franck’s side won out.

 

ELVINE ADJEMBE: We wanted them to have their backs against the wall and so yes, we start pushing, using social media, this whole idea that Ali Bongo is dead.

 

JAD: Let’s just say he’s dead because it is politically advantageous for us to do that.

 

SIMON: Correct.

 

[ARCHIVE CLIP: Ali Bongo est Mort.]

 

SIMON: Let’s use this uncertainty. Because remember, it could be true. There are reasons to think it might be true. And even if he's not actually dead, he's absent. And so they really flood social media with this. Thousands of tweets, hundreds of hours of video.

 

ELVINE ADJEMBE: Hoping that this is going to create a ripple effect so that maybe the people will rise up and -- and do something.

 

JAD: And do what, exactly?

 

SIMON: Essentially they were hoping people in Gabon would demand new elections and start a revolution.

 

FRANCK JOCKTANE: So that’s why we said that we will do what we have never done before.

 

SIMON: In fact, this sort of became their catchphrase: We're going to do what we've never done before. But then the truth got foggier.

 

[ARCHIVE CLIP: The Gabonese President Ali Bongo will address his nation during a New Year’s speech from Rabat.]

 

SIMON: So every New Year's, Bongo traditionally gives a speech.

 

SIMON: Were you expecting one this year? Were you ...

 

ELVINE ADJEMBE: No, we were not.

 

SIMON: Okay.

 

[ARCHIVE CLIP: This will be Bongo’s first speech since he was hospitalized in Saudi Arabia on October the 24th.]

 

SIMON: At this point it’s been two months since anyone has heard Ali Bongo’s voice or seen him in person.

 

ELVINE ADJEMBE: So of course we were all waiting for that video. So once the video is posted, I saw it on social media.

 

SIMON: She clicked on it. It starts with the sound of Gabon’s national anthem, and this still shot of the presidential palace. And then Ali Bongo appears.

 

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Ali Bongo: [speaking French]]

 

SIMON: He’s seated behind a desk in a blue suit with this strikingly pink wall as -- as the backdrop.

 

ELVINE ADJEMBE: And then there’s a -- there’s a flag, the country’s flag behind him.

 

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Ali Bongo: [speaking French]]

 

SIMON: And Elvine says as soon as she heard his voice, she thought something's wrong here.

 

ELVINE ADJEMBE: The speech is slurred.

 

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Ali Bongo: [speaking French]]

 

SIMON: And his face...

 

ELVINE ADJEMBE: The movements, the sighs, the -- even the facial expression as he speaks. I mean, it looks like it has -- his face has been pasted onto something. It’s just -- it looks -- it just looks weird.

 

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Ali Bongo: [speaking French]]

 

BRETT CARTER: Uh, yes. Something clearly is not right.

 

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Ali Bongo: [speaking French]]

 

ELVINE ADJEMBE: And some activists came out with the -- the idea that this is not even him.

 

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Activist: Voila! Le deep fake!]

 

ELVINE ADJEMBE: That it was a deep fake.

 

[NEWS CLIP: There is growing alarm over the use of deep fakes online.]

 

SIMON: So real quick. Deep fakes are basically videos where one person has taken control of someone else’s face and changed what it's doing.

 

[ARCHIVE CLIP: Video or audio created using artificial intelligence.]

 

SIMON: If you’re curious, we did an entire episode on this and even made our own deep fake of Barack Obama back in 2017. But anyhow, while this video was meant to be proof that Ali Bongo was alive, to these activists watching online it was exactly the opposite.

 

BRETT CARTER: The -- the term that people used at first was puppet, right? You know, this was -- you know, this was a puppet.

 

SIMON: Is it a deep fake? I don't know. We talked to some digital forensics folks. They don’t know. I mean, if Bongo did in fact have a stroke, that could explain the speech and the face. But that didn't stop the diaspora from pushing this idea that it was a deep fake.

 

ELVINE ADJEMBE: I mean, that became the most predominant theory about what went on with that video.

 

SIMON: And this is where you see that the activists’ tactics have shifted. In digging through their old posts, you can see signs that this was coming. Like, there were a couple other videos of Ali Bongo that had come out. They were weird as well. Like, they only show one side of his face and you never hear him speaking. But that said, he looks alive. And yet the activists said those were fakes too.

 

SIMON: Do you think that was him in that video?

 

MALE VOICE: It wasn't him.

 

SIMON: It wasn't him.

 

MALE VOICE: I doubt it. It wasn't him. It was a body double.

 

ROBERT: A what?

 

SIMON: A body double. Like an impersonator.

 

MALE VOICE: This is my strong belief. Ali Bongo we see, that's not the real Ali Bongo we know about. And a lot of people believe that.

 

SIMON: And your thought? You think he's dead?

 

MALE VOICE: I think he's dead. For me he's dead. Right now they use -- they just use a fake guy, he wear a mask and then do all this stuff. They do it right now.

 

SIMON: And to prove that Ali Bongo is dead, they start posting these new sorts of videos. These shots of what appear to be a dead body lying in a hospital bed with the face blurred out that are clearly fake. And all the while the international press at this point, BBC, Al Jazeera, were reporting that, in fact, Ali Bongo was very much alive. They even dug up this old birtherism conspiracy theory questioning if Bongo was even born in Gabon.

 

ROBERT: Mmm. Like the birther thing from the Trump campaign?

 

SIMON: It's spookily close.

 

JAD: That's Trump 101 right there.

 

SIMON: And, like, it's hard to prove where Ali Bongo was born, but again they pushed that message nonetheless. And this campaign worked. When our reporter on the ground in Gabon spoke to people there, many, many of them, I can't say what percentage, but a huge number of people she spoke with believed Ali Bongo was dead.

 

ROBERT: So essentially they were waging a kind of fake news campaign.

 

SIMON: Yeah, that's one way to put it. And I found myself feeling -- feeling really uncomfortable about that. Like, yes I'm rooting for them, but -- but suddenly they're just straight-up lying. You know, doing things that feel really similar to what Russians did here in 2016. And so I -- I asked Franck about all this.

 

FRANCK JOCKTANE: Mm-hmm.

 

SIMON: Like do you -- as we’ve talked about the information you and other members of the diaspora are putting out, people from Gabon are looking to the only real quote-unquote "free press" they have access to.

 

FRANCK JOCKTANE: That is correct.

 

SIMON: You are seen as the reporters, the arbiters of truth in the country.

 

FRANCK JOCKTANE: Of course. Yes, it is true that as we speak there is a lot of people that we are influencing in Gabon. That’s pretty amazing I think.

 

SIMON: Well, yeah. But then at the same time you all have pushed this message that Ali Bongo is dead.

 

FRANCK JOCKTANE: Mm-hmm.

 

SIMON: When in fact, it’s unverifiable and yet ...

 

FRANCK JOCKTANE: That’s correct.

 

SIMON: ... you've pushed that.

 

FRANCK JOCKTANE: Well personally, I haven't said really that Ali Bongo is dead. I'm not -- because I've been smart enough not to say that. But what I do say is that Ali Bongo is not the same. Now, people can interpret that any kind of way, and I leave it vague like that on purpose.

 

SIMON: Right. But like, you all put out the -- the hashtag Ali Bongo is dead or Ali Bongo c’est mort. You ...

 

FRANCK JOCKTANE: Est mort. Yeah. I relay that information, but I -- personally, I never said that he was dead. Like I said, because I need a death certificate, okay? But of course, we live in a world where sensation is -- is important. Ali Bongo is dead. I mean, it’s gonna sell. I mean, it attract people, because he’s a head of states. But what I’m concerned about, is the betterment of my people. And personally I don’t believe anymore in election in Gabon, because the people in power have found ways and means to trick and stole elections. And so yes, I’m doing on purpose to incite our people to stand up for a new Gabon, a better Gabon, and force this government to -- to bow down. The country's wealthy enough for them to be able to eat, educate their children, basic things. And if there is a government that do not allow them to experience this then yes, this government for me need to be overthrown. That’s what I wanna encourage my people to do. But that doesn’t mean that we -- we need to fabricate stuff.

 

SIMON: Like, trafficking in the hashtag #Ali Bongo is dead, I could see someone interpreting that as fabrication of information. But you don’t see it that way.

 

FRANCK JOCKTANE: That is -- I mean. Well, unfortunately we -- we are -- we are at war.

 

JAD: Wow. I have a lot of feelings about this.

 

SIMON: Well yeah, I think we all do. But before we get to them, there’s one final beat to this story.

 

ELVINE ADJEMBE: I think January 5th ...

 

SIMON: January 7th, actually. So one week after that quote-unquote "Deep fake" video came out.

 

ELVINE ADJEMBE: I think it was one? One in the morning.

 

SIMON: Okay.

 

ELVINE ADJEMBE: One of my sisters lives in Gabon, and we were texting and we were talking, and sending voice messages, and she was going to work. And then at some point she texts all of us and she says, "I’m going home. There’s a coup." I’m thinking, "That’s weird. What’s -- what’s going on?"

 

SIMON: And moments later, someone sent her a link to this video.

 

[VIDEO CLIP, Soldier: Gabonais, Gabonais ...]

 

ELVINE ADJEMBE: The video of the coup announcement.

 

SIMON: It opens with a soldier sitting behind a desk, speaking into a microphone, his eyes are looking down. He's reading off of a script. Behind him, he’s flanked by two other soldiers, brandishing automatic rifles. They’re all in camouflage and wearing these bright green berets.

 

[VIDEO CLIP, Soldier: [speaking French]

 

SIMON: And what these three men, along with four others had done was storm the national broadcaster.

 

ELVINE ADJEMBE: Took over a TV channel.

 

SIMON: And -- and were broadcasting this on a loop.

 

[VIDEO CLIP, Soldier: [speaking French]

 

SIMON: And as Elvine is watching this for the -- for the first time ...

 

ELVINE ADJEMBE: You know, I hear them saying, "Go if you can, get guns."

 

[VIDEO CLIP, Soldier: [speaking French]

 

SIMON: And they reference the New Year’s day video, saying it’s proof that, quote, "Gabon has lost its dignity, and that Bongo is at best an invalid." But despite all this, she doesn’t quite know what to make of it. Should she trust these people? Is this a good thing?

 

ELVINE ADJEMBE: I mean those unknown young men. And the whole thing is what in the world is going on? But then ...

 

[VIDEO CLIP, Soldier: [speaking French]

 

ALAIN-SERGE OBAME: The leader, the guy was reading the -- the -- I don’t know how to call that.

 

SIMON: Again, activist Alain-Serge Obame, who was also watching this video very early that morning.

 

ALAIN-SERGE OBAME: The guy reading the manifestos, they say ...

 

[VIDEO CLIP, Soldier: Nous allons faire! Ce que nous n’avons jamais fais?]

 

ALAIN-SERGE OBAME: Nous allons faire ce que n’a jamais te fais. That mean, we need to do something that’s never been done before. One of the slogan be we using for years.

 

SIMON: Their catchphrase, their words coming from the mouth of this man with a gun in Gabon telling people to take to the streets and overthrow the Bongo regime.

 

ALAIN-SERGE OBAME: And then I just rewinded the -- the videos one more time and to check, did he just say that?

 

[VIDEO CLIP, Soldier: Nous allons faire!]

 

ALAIN-SERGE OBAME: And then I saw that again. I was -- the tear coming out of my -- my eye. I was like, "Wow!" That mean people been listening to us for all this time.

 

SIMON: And right around that time from Libreville, videos started showing up online showing people filling the streets.

 

ALAIN-SERGE OBAME: And I thought it was the end, for real.

 

SIMON: And for people like Alain and Elvine, watching all this on their phone screens, lying in bed or sitting up at the kitchen table ...

 

ELVINE ADJEMBE: You feel like you’re there and you’re participating. You’re -- you’re -- you’re an actor. You forget that you’re not in Gabon. But then, I think it was around 12 in Gabon, so it must have been like 5:00 am or something here. I was texting family members and all of a sudden they could not receive my messages anymore. That’s -- that’s when I knew that okay, they shut down the internet again.

 

SIMON: And she suddenly again has no no way to know what's happening.

 

ELVINE ADJEMBE: Maybe Gabonese people are standing up. Maybe they’re in the streets, and maybe we’re putting an end to all of this. Or are they shutting down the internet because it’s another bloodbath?

 

SIMON: Later that day, the Gabonese government announced that the coup had been quashed. Gunfire had been exchanged, two of the men involved in the coup had died, and the rest were arrested.

 

ELVINE ADJEMBE: But we’re not exactly sure of the details.

 

SIMON: And actually, they're not even sure it was a real coup.

 

BRETT CARTER: Was this a legitimate coup? You know, even now, like, I think that’s kind of profoundly unclear.

 

ROBERT: Wait, really?

 

BRETT CARTER: Yeah. Yup. Maybe this was a fake coup, right?

 

SIMON: And that has happened before.

 

ELVINE ADJEMBE: We had a fake attempt months before that with ...

 

SIMON: In this case, a man also went to the national broadcaster.

 

ELVINE ADJEMBE: And said, "Hey, we've installed bombs all around the country. For every day that, like, Bongo stays in power one building is going to blow up." And it turns out that was not true, that was not the case. And after that, they stormed the headquarters of Mr. Jean Ping again, so most us just saw it as a pretext to attack the headquarters of a political opponent. So yeah, is this really true? Is this really the Gabonese army doing what we’ve wanted them to do for so long? Or is it another fakeout? I don't know.

 

ROBERT: By the time we're at the end of this piece you've made, I -- I don't know what the heck is going on, honestly. Nobody knows anything. You notice this?

 

SIMON: Right. And that is a day-to-day experience in the country. The fog is, to a certain degree, impenetrable.

 

ROBERT: But why would -- if this were a good guy-bad guy story, the good guys, the ones that I'm rooting for, are the people who are against the dictator. And who had for awhile a cause and a just cause, and who were speaking truthfully about what was going on in their country. All of a sudden, they've kind of made it a little murky by lying outright and telling you that the lie was saleable. Like, that guy ...

 

SIMON: I hear you.

 

ROBERT: "Hey, Bongo is dead is a great hook."

 

SIMON: But also I -- I think that they showed up to what they initially thought was a knife fight to find that the other side had a machine gun. So what -- I don't know what you do if you don't do this.

 

ROBERT: Here's what you do. When the president disappears in Saudi Arabia and no one says, "Boo," you say, "Something fishy is going on." And then the internet goes, "What is it? What is it? What is it? What is it?" And you say, "We don't know." That's what you do.

 

SIMON: But I mean, when the other side says, "Oh, he's fine. Nothing's wrong." That is such a -- a blatant lie, that to counter-balance it ...

 

ROBERT: With "We don't know?"

 

SIMON: Yeah, "We don't know" just puts you at the fulcrum. It doesn't put you on the other side of the spectrum allowing you to balance out opinion.

 

ROBERT: I would stay at the fulcrum, because as soon as I start lying to get the -- I start making up something that they -- to counter what they made up because theirs is vivid and mine has to be equally vivid, then we're in a whole new ballgame.

 

SIMON: Sure -- sure, because we're journalists. But maybe for an activist, especially in a situation like this, maybe they should have a slightly longer rhetorical leash.

 

ROBERT: Hmm.

 

JAD: That’s the -- I mean, ultimately on some level, the deep -- the deep troubling is that like, even if you agree with what these activists are doing, that it's right, it still feels like just another example of how there is no longer true or false, there is only what is expeditious. What you can use and what you can’t use.

 

SIMON: But I mean, at the end of the day, their message -- and I think they really captured this in this video they recently showed me. It's very clever. It's just first them zooming in on someone outside of the UN in a Trump mask and an orange prison jumpsuit with a sign that said like, "Prison bound," or something. And then it pans over and there are two police officers just standing there. And so the story they’re telling here is like, here is this man who is -- who is openly mocking the president, and the cops are just gonna stand there and not do anything.

 

JAD: Hmm.

 

SIMON: That, at -- at least for now, America is a place that you can have freedom of speech and that from all of that speech, hopefully the truth will emerge.

 

ROBERT: Our story was produced and researched and reported by Simon Adler.

 

JAD: Edited by Pat Walters.

 

ROBERT: Mm-hmm.

 

JAD: Special thanks to Laurent Stong, Anastasia Kavada, Louis Duwast, Marion Renault and Lara Atala for their translation help. And also thank you to our anonymous reporter in Gabon who got all that tape on the ground for us. I'm Jad Abumrad.

 

ROBERT: I'm Robert Krulwich.

 

JAD: Thanks for listening.

 

[DANIELLA: Hi, this is Daniella calling from Chicago. Radiolab is created by Jad Abumrad with Robert Krulwich, and produced by Soren Wheeler. Dylan Keefe is our Director of Sound Design. Suzie Lechtenberg is our Executive Producer. Our staff includes Simon Adler, Becca Bressler, Rachael Cusick, David Gebel, Bethel Habte, Tracie Hunte, Matt Kielty, Annie McEwen, Latif Nasser, Sarah Qari, Arianne Wack, Pat Walters and Molly Webster. With help from Shima Oliaee, W. Harry Fortuna, Sarah Sandbach, Malissa O'Donnell, Neil Dinesha, Marion Renault and Paloma Moreno Jimenez. Our fact-checker is Michelle Harris. Thank you.]

 

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