#7: The risks of exposing high level corruption.
#iSpeak host Victor Mabutho speaks to Delfin Mocache Massoko, an investigative journalist from Equatorial Guinea who is now living in exile in Spain. Mocache Massoko was forced to leave the country of his birth after receiving death threats from persons linked to President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo’s government, after exposing the corrupt practices the country’s first family was involved in. He continues exposing corruption in the poor yet oil-rich country and gives an alternative view from the state-controlled media through his online news website Diariorombe, which primarily targets an Equatorial Guinean audience. Mocache Massoko has been working on collaborative investigative stories with Organised Crime and Corruption Reporting Projects (OCCRP) and continues to document the malfeasance of Obiang Mbasogo’s government and his cronies.
When did you start writing about the corruption involving the First Family?
It was in 2012, that we created the Diariorombe website – the main media that writes about corruption and the violation of human rights in Equatorial Guinea – [a practice] that was never there before in our country. There has never been a media which writes about the presidential family, which denounces the attitude, corruption, torture, criminalisation and which also prevents freedom of expression and of the media in our country. So what we have done is to become aware of the situation of our country and to combine all our efforts in order to be able to show the whole world, the international community, West Africans and Americans of the real situation of human rights and corruption in our country.
As you know, we are almost 2 million people and the third largest oil producer in Africa, and all the oil revenue from our oil ends up in the hands of the president’s family – the daughters, cousins, nephews and a small oligarchy of people who enjoy these oil profits. So in 2012, we created Diariorombe and I went into exile in Spain. In 2004 and 2012, we started working on major investigations into the presidential family. As you also know, the vast majority of African dictators do not keep the income from their corrupt activities in Africa. This wealth is hidden outside Africa and therefore being a Guinean citizen who lives in Spain – the country which had colonized our country – we took advantage of the investigative tools that exist here, to look into the ill-gotten gains of the president and his family.
What happened for you to flee Equatorial Guinea?
It’s a bit complicated to be able to tell you what happened for me to get out of Equatorial Guinea. But what I am going to tell you is that I am the son of Avelino Mocache Mehenga, who for years was an opponent of the regime in Equatorial Guinea. So I participated in a lot of political scenarios together with my father in 2004, and I have my mother who works for the political system of the country. So as not to cause a somewhat delicate situation for my maternal family, I was forced to leave the country and come to Spain. This is what provoked me and what provoked the change in my life. To leave home and come to Spain and to protect myself for my family, was safer than if I stayed in Guinea. I was going to have a guarantee of a quieter life when I arrive in Spain, and leave politics behind. So I arrived in Spain, in a freer country, a country where there was enough political activism, and I continue with what I was doing in Equatorial Guinea before coming to Spain.
What kind of threats were you getting for your writing? Who were these people who were threatening you?
Yes, I received all kinds of threats, especially death threats, but journalists have received these type of threats since 2012. I’ve spent most of my life in the courts, denouncing the sons of the President of Equatorial Guinea. It is not easy to work, carrying out investigations on a family with power, a political family which controls all the resources of the country. It’s a family that invests many millions of dollars in external security, in controlling the activism of Equatorial Guineans abroad. It’s a complicated situation. I’ve lost friends who don’t talk to me.
Everyone is afraid of what happened with their familes. I don’t even go to nightclubs and so it’s been years since I went to nightclubs. But I do go to other places to spend a quiet evening. I spend most of my life working, doing surveys, because for me, it’s important to find where the cash is, all the money that the head of government and his family stole from the people of Equatorial Guinea. We are going in a good direction. We found a lot of stories so we are still continuing. Our ancestors worked for the freedom of Africa and that has not ended, so we also continue to do the same work.
What has been impact of going into exile on your family?
For me, and for my family, it’s not easy. When you leave your family and friends, you leave a story, a part of your life. It’s a complicated situation going to another culture and learn about other forms of life. But we continue with all the new technology that there is in the world to communicate. I’m in touch with friends and family and we keep going, and one day we’re going to meet again and talk and tell the stories and let go of the past.
Do you miss home?
Of course I miss my home. I miss home a lot. I just want to go home, return to the village to see the graves of my grandparents. I would like to go back and fish and swim at the beach.
Do you think you will be able to return to Equatorial Guinea?
Yes. My family got me out of Guinea so that I could get away from political activism against the regime in Equatorial Guinea in 2004. In 2006, when it was quiet, I returned to Equatorial Guinea for a month to do some work and I came back to Spain. In 2012, four months before opening the newspaper Diariorombe, I returned to Equatorial Guinea again. I organized a small secret group of collaborators, people who were in the country, my old friends who were already in high positions in the administration of the country. So we made a plan, we worked hard to make sure that nobody knew who works with me and how we are going to work. So when I came back to Spain in 2012, that’s when I opened Diariorombe. But since 2012, I have not touched Equatorial Guinea. It is forbidden for me to enter Equatorial Guinea.
I don’t have an Equatorial Guinea passport, so since 2012 I have not been in Guinea. I live in Spain, with the status of political exile. I work on the situation of my country, as it is important for me. I would like to return to the country. I’m going home, but as soon as possible. Not now. It is complicated. The dictatorship is very strong right now and the relationship with Western governments and the regime in my country is even stronger, which means that now is not the time to think about going home. But I think in the not so distant future, I will.
Do you think you are still under surveillance in exile?
Yes, like all exiled political activists who fled from Equatorial Guinea or I think from any country that has a strong paranoid political regime. We political and Equatorial Guinean exiles who had participated in an attempted coup in Equatorial Guinea living here. While they were here in Spain, they were watched by the Spanish intelligence service. I myself normally feel watched, especially by phone, and I don’t know if when I go out into the street, there are people following me. I don’t know, but as I told you before, the political regime of Equatorial Guinea invests millions of euros on the surveillance of exiled activists. The secretary of state for external security of Equatorial Guinea, is one of the sons of Equatorial Guinean President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo.
How did you feel when the French court found Teodorin Obiang Mangue guilty of embezzlement and siphoning of state funds?
I felt great emotion when the Paris Criminal Court found Teodorin guilty. We were all really happy, why? While we were waiting for the court’s resolution, there had also been political and diplomatic movements between Equatorial Guinea and France. Guinea tried to use all these kinds of politics to be able to influence the decision of the court and therefore, also for us, it is important that Teodorin was convicted. It is the first time that a son of the President of Equatorial Guinea has convicted in court. In our country, there is no separation of power between the judiciary, the executive and the legislature. powers. All power sits with the President, his wife and son Teodorin Nguéma. No one can bring a judicial inquiry against this family in Equatorial Guinea.
The president of the Supreme Court of Equatorial Guinea, is a member of the President’s family; the Minister of Justice and Deputy Minister of Justice are members of the President’s family. The president of the Constitutional Court is a member of the President’s family and also one of his close collaborators. It was also important for us and also for Equatorial Guinea that France accuses government of exploiting the wealth of Equatorial Guinea. The president’s son has invested millions of dollars in luxury real estate, cars and everything in France – the same country that convicted him of money laundering. So for us, it was really important.
It was also a lesson for African heads of State so that they know that the friendly relationship between a country and another country does not prevail. It is important that everything you can steal from the people, should be invested in the same country where you live. The millions of dollars that were reinvested in France – these assets remain here. In fact, he (Teodorin) was ordered to pay more than 30 million euros to the French government as well.
So this is a lesson for dictators who think that they don’t have the immunity to be judged. He was tried in France. There have been legal trials, in the United States too. While Teodorin was on trial in France for money laundering, the government held a parallel trial in Equatorial Guinea where it pretended that it was putting Teodorin on trial for the same case. He was not convicted in Equatorial Guinea. So it also strengthens us as activist journalists around the work we do. I’s really important and it has impact.
There was a campaign alleging that you were being paid to criticise Equatorial Guinea as you are reported to be a son of an influential politician and that you have a political agenda. What is your take on this?
Yes, I remember this campaign – there were African media as well Western media behind it. Yes, I remember, it was Africa Intelligence, that published some articles saying that we were getting paid to campaign against the country and that there was an agenda to gain power in Equatorial Guinea. What can I say about that? You know a little about journalism. I work in journalism, we denounce and it is also normal that the other party, the government of Guinea can also campaign against me. But their campaign is weak, in that it doesn’t have consistency because they can’t prove it. I prove what I denounce and they cannot prove what they denounce in this way. It’s normal. My father, who was in opposition is no longer in the political arena. He is now a member of the government of Equatorial Guinea.
Besides, the relationship between my father and me is chaotic, it doesn’t exist. You will find articles written by me in our Diariorombe criticising him, and I attack my father harshly.
It is a tactic of our political system. They even accused Jose George Soros and government members of other Western countries, for financing opponents, financing coups d’état and all that in Guinea. We expect all that for Guinea.
To conduct the investigations you did, was there help from whistleblowers
There are types of investigations where we ourselves look for stories. We see stuff. For example, a government contract, a camp export contract, an oil field deal with a company. We investigate this contract, to seek information on the company that has been contracted and therefore to see what we can find there. We look to see if there is illegality or there are special interests of some members of the government or sons of the presidential family It’s that simple.
There are also other investigations where people in the system contact us, provide us with documents that help us look into the accusations. We have a lot of people like that and so it’s investigations like that which are more delicate. We have to look at how to protect the integrity and the anonymity of the person doing the whistleblowing.
This is the information that we receive a lot. So we can go maybe three weeks, four weeks without posting any long dialogue. But why? It’s because we are investigating. When we have finished the investigation, we publish the story. So there are a lot of people who have records in the country. There are many people who are ready to disclose information. But there are also a lot of people waiting for the perfect time to be able to provide those records. Anti-corruption organizations in Africa are doing absolutely nothing with these investigations. It seems that there is a kind of family connection or special relationship, between some African NGOs and African dictatorships. It’s not like here in Europe. We can say that there is an appearance of democracy. In Europe when the media exposes corruption, NGOs react, take that information, push for investigations and end up with these investigations in court.
How did you protect whistleblowers? Are they safe in Equatorial Guinea?
I can tell you, there are mechanisms on how we can protect someone who reports an irregular situation. We protect them.
What are some of your tips for protecting sources?
Yeah the advice that I can give on the protection of sources in countries with dictatorial regimes like Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, Cameroon or other countries is to always use the technology that allows us to be localized and not to be localized – technology that makes you invisible. For example use programmes that allow you to protect your IP address so as not to be traced when sending secret documents. You can go to our Diariorombe site, where we have a category called how to send secret documents. You can use coded email addresses and you have message services such as a Signal. We always try to advise people, not to use WhatsApp to send secret documents, or even screenshots of such documents. We have advice that we provide to people so that they can send secret information so as not to put them in danger.
Most of your work is online – it is on websites and social media. How do people from Equatorial Guinea who do not have access to internet read your content?
We have spent many years from 2012, to 2021 during which the Diariorombe site was blocked in Equatorial Guinea. So it was difficult to be able to enter our site to read our articles and look at our information. What we often did, was copy the article and we send it via a variety of online message services like WhatsApp and Telegram. People have access to that information. Equatorial Guinea is a country that is really complicated when it comes to connecting to the internet. There are times when government blocks the services of Facebook, or WhatsApp, to media that it considers hostile against the government. So what we do is that we always advise the use of VPNs for people to be able to read the information that we publish.
It’s difficult to find young boys and young girls from Equatorial Guinea 12 and above, who don’t have internet or who do not have a smartphone. So these young people read information on Facebook and other digital platforms and therefore there are many people who have access to it. Yes, it’s true that in the villages, the interior of Equatorial Guinea, we can find older people who don’t have access to the internet, who don’t know how to use a smartphone. But the Guinea government still manages to close access to media it considers hostile to the country’s political system.
With what you have gone through, is investigative journalism worth the risk?
We cannot leave what we are doing because we are threatened, because we are being investigated and attacked. We are fighting for justice. Our ancestors, the fathers of the independence of many countries, have fought for us to be where we are. There are people who are still struggling inside and outside the country to improve the lives of their citizens. We are in Europe here and we see what the politicians, the activists and the Westerners have to put the people in this situation. Just look at the right to freedom of expression. We can have a debate on freedom of expression here in Europe, and that’s what we want in Africa. That’s what we want in Equatorial Guinea. We fight for it and we have to fight for it ourselves. It’s difficult. There are people who are dead. The president of our country often says that the strong people are the ones who are in the graveyard and the weak people who are afraid, are still alive. It’s true. We are 2 million inhabitants in Equatorial Guinea and it is about ten people, a small family that runs all the power.
The people are afraid to rise up because they are afraid that we might get killed. But if we don’t fight, we can’t improve the lives of citizens. We cannot benefit. We must continue to fight. It is not easy. You can lose family, you can lose your father, your mother, your children. You can lose everything. But if we keep quiet, we sit down, and just see how life goes on – what will happen? What is the future of our children? So it’s worth that risk right now. I can die tomorrow, I can die after tomorrow, I can live tomorrow, and I can live after tomorrow. We don’t know what is in the future for us. But we must continue because this is the struggle that our ancestors started. Africa is not yet free, Guinea is not yet free. So yes there is risk, but it’s worth it and we must continue.
What can you say to anyone who wants to venture into investigative journalism?
The only thing I can say to anyone in Africa who wants to engage in investigative journalism is to be sure of what they want to do. Above all, one must know whether the country he is in, ia a democratic country or a country with a dictatorship.
It is also important above all to prove everything you publish and to take advantage of all the elements of technology that allow us to find information. There are many sites that allow you to find information, documents andmany of the elements that you can use to do an investigation. So it is important to use technology to investigate. You shouldn’t post just anything. You have to do thorough research even it if it takes time – it can take you a year to two years.
It’s important to know what you want to do, to focus on the objective and to know how to do an analysis, on the data that exists.
Be careful, because investigative journalism is really dangerous.