I keep up to date on tales of journalistic make-believe and I’ve got to tell you this
François Bugingo story out of Quebec is the most unbelievable tale of a journalist/fabulist I’ve seen so far. It’s Brian Williams meets Stephen Glass meets Boot of the Beast meets Walter Mitty. Bugingo makes other fabulists look like unadventurous amateurs. The character he portrayed was a superman among war correspondents — not just reporting from hot spots like Somalia, Sarajevo and Iraq but carrying out a top-secret missions for the European Commission in Egypt, negotiating the release of hostages in Mauritania, and training journalists in the Ivory Coast.
In short, the story of François Bugingo defies belief. It is not something any self-respecting journalist should ever have believed, and yet until Isabelle Hachey exposed his massive fraud in La Presse this weekend, no one seems to have questioned the crazy Bugingo narrative.
I can think of three possible reasons why François Bugingo survived as long as he did but before I go there, here are some of the many stunning examples Hachey reported:
Bugingo claimed in 2014 that a top Libyan torturer, whose execution he witnessed in Misrata, defecated in his pants before turning to Bugingo and crying: “I hate the bad man the Guide made of me.” Problem: Bugingo was never in Misrata, according to La Presse.
Also last year, Bugingo, now 41, recounted a reporting trip he made to Sarajevo in 1993 when he would have been just a teenager. He told the tale of a sniper who spent the whole day shooting, shooting, shooting. Then, evenings, he transformed into an “exceptional artist” strumming his guitar with a bottle of Slivovitz by his side. Problem: Bugingo was never in Sarajevo at that time, according to those he said he was with.
After Sarajevo, Bugingo claims to have made his way to Rwanda in 1994, but there are no records of him ever having been there nor any archived examples of his reporting.
As the vice-president of Reporters Without Borders, Bugingo said he undertook hostage release negotiations for journalists captured around the world and engaged in other secret missions. Problem: The former secretary general of the organization says none of this ever happened.
I left Quebec in 2008 before Bugingo became famous so I have to cop to never having heard of him until today, but apparently he had developed a huge presence: a daily radio commentary on international affairs, regular spots on the TVA nightly news, a hosting job at Télé–Québec, contract gigs with Radio Canada, a blog and a column at the Journal de Montreal. Prolific doesn’t even begin to describe it. In volume, Bugingo’s journalistic output is almost as hard to fathom as the content.
But by now you get the point. The Bugingo story is unbelievable in every way, which raises the question of how on earth it took so long for someone like Isabelle Hachey to come along and blow it to pieces.
I can see three possible explanations:
- He was a super nice guy and/or too well connected so no one wanted to do the dirty work of investigating him. Journalists are major gossips so I find it hard to believe there was not talk about Bugingo’s — cough, cough — exploits. In cases like these, there is almost always muttering about the stories that are too good to be true and the reporters known to play it fast and loose with the facts.
- No one actually paid much attention to his work despite his high profile. The web stats at various news organizations provide proof that there are quite a few big name journalists whose articles actually never get read. Maybe Bugingo was one of them.
- He was one of very few visible minorities in a prominent role in Quebec journalism so no one wanted to take him on. Yes, I know I’ll likely get hammered for this explanation, but there it is. You’re free to pick either explanation one or two, or provide your own in the comments if you will.
Once again, life proves stranger than fiction. Or life incorporates fiction. Or, well, you get the point.