I stepped out of a dance class in North London on a sunny day previous January to find a string of skipped phone calls from African phone figures.
I had no strategy what this was about – so I checked my inbox and Facebook and Twitter – there were being hundreds of messages all asking me the identical detail – was I “Michelle Damsen”, the author of a mysterious information story at the centre of a media storm in Senegal?
“A corruption scandal is shaking my state and your name has been pointed out.”
“We are pretty concerned considering that we have found an short article supposed to be published by you.”
“I am a Senegalese journalist and I absolutely need to talk to you!”
They all wanted to know if I had created an report titled “The issues of exploiting pure methods in Africa”, which appeared on an obscure Ghanaian news website, Present day Ghana, on 9 January 2019.
The tale accused Senegalese opposition presidential candidate Ousmane Sonko of using a substantial bribe from a European oil corporation and was authored by “Michelle Damsen”, a identify just two letters off my very own – Michelle Madsen.
This was just a couple weeks ahead of the Senegalese presidential election and Mr Sonko was just one of the major challengers to President Macky Sall.
As a freelance investigative journalist with a track record in uncovering corruption in the source business in West Africa, I have created many stories about Senegal and oil providers.
I had even penned a story about Mr Sonko following he revealed a book accusing Senegal’s president’s brother, Aliou Sall, of corruption – allegations he has denied.
I understood I hadn’t published the Contemporary Ghana story though, and instructed all the journalists who obtained in contact with me the similar. But I was shaken by some of the information in the news tales which came out in Senegal and how rapidly the tale had been linked to me.
One published in Press Afrik even named me straight, expressing I had prepared the tale. One more showing on information web-site Seneweb outlined Frank Timis, the United kingdom-based mostly businessman with functions in Senegal and shut back links to President Sall’s brother, who I and a workforce of impartial journalists experienced just bought funding to examine.
The funding came from a journalism undertaking in the Netherlands, one of the funders of which is Oxfam.
This is why I was spooked when Oxfam was described in “formal” documents which appeared in some of the news tales. They had Uk oil agency Tullow Oil’s logo stamped in the center and named Ousmane Sonko.
Tullow Oil and Mr Sonko denied all the allegations and these documents ended up rapidly revealed to be fakes by simple fact checkers. Oxfam told me they didn’t get any funding from the oil market, but that they experienced paid Mr Sonko for instruction in the earlier. This seed of real truth may have designed the tale extra plausible to some.
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Right after I explained to journalists from truth-examining web site Africa Look at and the AFP information agency that I experienced not penned the Contemporary Ghana write-up, Senegalese newspapers place out stories indicating that the claims had been false.
The whole media storm experienced lasted less than 48 hours. In that time my title had been splashed throughout headlines in Dakar and 1 publication experienced even long gone on to my Fb web site and pulled out a image of me at a wedding day to illustrate their story.
I needed to obtain out who “Michelle Damsen” was and how the bogus report had unfold like wildfire throughout Senegal.
I contacted the head of Modern Ghana, Vibrant Owusu, who said that the post had appeared on the belief website page of the site, which carries sights from Ghana and in other places in Africa.
Owusu claimed that the author of the Fashionable Ghana post had been very keen to get the tale posted, and experienced even called up Present day Ghana and supplied them funds to publish it. Owusu stated that Modern Ghana never ever usually takes income for view parts, but does demand up to $100 (£80) an article for press releases to be released on the web page.
The man or woman that known as, Owusu reported, was a gentleman with an African-sounding accent.
With the metadata from e-mails despatched by the writer to Owusu and the cellphone variety, I labored with “Orange”, a programmer and electronic investigator at Reckon Electronic, to check out and keep track of the writer of the piece.
“Orange” traced the cellular phone number again to a cell cellphone in the US, which experienced been registered to a “Baba Aidara”.
I was stunned – Baba Aidara is a Senegalese journalist dwelling in the US and a vocal adversary of the Senegalese federal government. He also happens to be one particular of my best contacts.
I spoke to Aidara, who denied that the tale came from him. He said he assumed he was hacked, and he suspected the Senegalese authorities.
Journalists that I spoke to in Senegal mentioned that there had been a “phony information war” in the operate up to the 2019 election, with pretend information tales coming from all sides.
But a lot of claimed they suspected that the story had arrive from President Sall’s marketing campaign crew, which involved a communications taskforce run by a quantity of electronic communications gurus who experienced labored on presidential strategies in advance of.
I tried using to converse to Mr Sall’s marketing campaign team and spokespeople from his bash, the APR, but no-just one would give me an job interview or react to my concerns.
I did manage to get an job interview with Mr Sonko, though, who reported that he had in no way obtained any cash from Tullow Oil and that the govt had “established itself the process to properly discredit” him.
“Orange”, the forensic investigator, advised me that it was possible that Aidara’s phone could have been hacked and he could have been framed.
Aidara said that the only people today who could have attained from the publication of the Fashionable Ghana piece ended up the Senegalese federal government or oil corporations who experienced been the concentrate on of his journalism.
A yr on, and I however never know who “Michelle Damsen” is, possibly I never ever will. Whoever went to all that work to conceal their traces, whoever despatched round the faux files, is almost certainly safe from getting uncovered – no-1 is investigating this aside from me.
It looks like a ton of effort for a media storm which lasted just a few of times. Immediately after all, most of the tales have been retracted and redacted. But the stain remains – and which is what’s so effective and unsafe about the unfold of phony information at any time, but especially in the operate-up to an election.
And it is really truly worth bearing in mind that the following time “Michelle Damsen” usually takes to the keyboard, the tale and its effect could have a considerably broader reach.
The Documentary: My phony information whodunnit is broadcast on the BBC Earth Assistance on 14 June and is obtainable as a podcast.
Extra reporting by Flora Carmichael