Axel Gordh Humlesjö on perils of making Deceptive Diplomacy: 'Travelling to war-torn Congo was frightening'

  • Axel Gordh Humlesjo won the International Emmy (Current Affairs) Award on 24 September for his documentary Deceptive Diplomacy

  • It probed the March 2017 executions of two United Nations experts in the Democratic Republic of Congo, while the duo was investigating the role of the Congolese military in civilian massacres

  • All extremist groups give young men something they lack in society, says Humlesjo of the rise of extremism

Axel Gordh Humlesjö, a Swedish journalist and producer with Sveriges Television, won the International Emmy (Current Affairs) Award on 24 September for his documentary, Deceptive Diplomacy. The film probed the March 2017 executions of United Nations experts Zaida Catalán and Michael Sharp in the Democratic Republic of Congo, while the duo was investigating the Congolese military's role behind civilian massacres. While a subsequent UN report blamed Catalán's murder on Kamuina Nsapu – a rebel group fighting the Congolese army, Humlesjö's investigation revealed the military's role in the crime, and how the UN went to great lengths to cover up the state's guilt.

“The story, including secret agents, mass graves and deceptive diplomacy, became global news shaking the entire United Nations to its core,” the Emmy jury noted.

 Axel Gordh Humlesjö on perils of making Deceptive Diplomacy: Travelling to war-torn Congo was frightening

Axel Gordh Humlesjo (centre) following the Emmy win for his documentary, Deceptive Diplomacy. Photograph courtesy of Humlesjo

In an interview with Firstpost two days after the prestigious win, Humlesjö, speaking at the 2019 Global Investigative Journalism Conference in Hamburg, Germany, spoke about the challenges he faced in uncovering the story, how he gained access to leaked documents from inside the UN, how his work stands at great personal risk, and his investigations into varied extremist groups. Excerpts from the interview:

Why did you think there was something amiss in the UN’s report on the executions of Zaida Catalán and Michael Sharp?

There were a bunch of factors. The case was looking suspicious from the very beginning. Our best initial lead was the murder video, which the Congolese government published as proof against the local militia, Kamuina Nsapu. When we looked at the video, it seemed staged in many ways. The men had very fancy clothes for being this militia; they talked in the wrong language some times. Also, why would they film murders of this kind without hiding their faces?

What told you that the UN had covered up? How long did the investigation take?

A lot of journalists were thinking that something was not right. We were in the hands of the UN, relying that they would conduct a thorough investigation – decent, efficient, objective, unbiased and in-depth. We kept an eye on the case, and when the official UN report was released, we noted that they totally supported the Congolese government, and their assumptions. From there on, by talking to people who were involved in the investigations, we knew they were not sharing the truth. But to prove our guess, it was vital to get hands on the information they really had. It was a long process. We released the documentary in November 2018 – one and a half years after the murders.

Why do you think the UN covered up for the Congolese government?

There are many explanations. Firstly, the UN is a tragically slow bureaucracy. Secondly, it is an institution run by Member States of the Security Council, which is now very influenced by Russia and China. Russia and China, meanwhile, are very much interested in the Congo. So they were not interested in investigating the Congo (government) at all. Thirdly, if they were to demand an independent investigation into human rights abuses in the Congo, some other country would have called for investigations in Russia and China. So, there was a blocking there. Also, the UN establishment had many reasons for protecting the big MONUSCO Mission (United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo), the biggest UN Mission in the world.

A still from the trailer of Deceptive Diplomacy. Vimeo screenshot

A still from the trailer of Deceptive Diplomacy. Vimeo screenshot

Wasn’t it intimidating – taking on a global organisation like the UN?

No. There are a lot of journalists taking a lot of risks in the world. The more insecure part of the project was travelling to the war-torn Congo. It was a little frightening. But at the same time, we have our local Congolese journalists, who’re doing their job in the conflict-riddled country day after day, whereas I, a Swedish national living in Stockholm, could leave after ten days, and return to my safe place.

What do you think was the motive behind the murder? Was it because they were exposing the Congolese military’s role behind the mass graves?

I think there was panic about the UN experts investigating all these mass graves. The military did not want to expose themselves. These were war crimes and massacres against the population, of regular people who were in the way of the army. These UN experts came too close to investigating this.

What were the biggest challenges in this investigation? Was it difficult to access documents from inside the UN, to get sources within the organisation to talk?

If you see whistleblowers in the US, investigations often work like that. There are people inside the organisation, and they try to alert their bosses about any discontent they may have. When they don’t succeed, they are open for a call to the outside world. As journalists, it’s important to stay around, and catch these moments. I keep talking to sources for a year, even more at times, telling them that whenever they want to talk, I’m available. It’s the same way the CIA recruits its agents — being there for people, and at the right time, putting in an effort.

What was the reaction to your documentary? Did you receive any threats?

The UN just said that they didn’t have any clear evidence that the Congolese government was involved, and therefore, they couldn’t report on it. But there were some threats from the Congolese government. These were not serious for us, but were for our local partners in the Congo. I think they know better than to threaten international journalists. If they want to do something, they’ll do it. They won’t say anything.

You’ve done a lot of work with respect to extremist groups like neo-Nazis, counter-jihadis, and the ISIS. What do you think drives extremism?

I think the idea of masculinity is very interesting. All these extremist groups are giving these young men something they lack in society. And it’s a way for the men to deal with identity loss, modernisation, globalisation, and the quest for belonging. It’s definitely my experience that extremist groups have a common ground, that they’re very much alike. We see that some of ISIS recruits were earlier right-wing extremists, football hooligans, have spent time in prison, or were part of criminal or rebel groups. A Swedish man, for example, was a football hooligan, then a neo-Nazi, and later, joined the ISIS. Basically, it’s the same kind of lust for belonging, and trying to find a strong life purpose. So the ISIS is proposing something very attractive – become a martyr. Also, joining these extremist groups is now a way of being a rebel against the society. The academics call such men ‘hipster jihadis'.

Has working on extremist groups ever taken a toll on you?

When we investigated ISIS recruiters in Sweden following the Paris attacks, my colleague and I received an envelope. We opened it; it contained white powder, which spilled all over us. That was a new line for me. That was the first time the threat became physical. I have three young kids, and after that, I stopped working on the story. I went on to cover a lot of economic crimes.

deceptive diplomacy

A still from the trailer of Deceptive Diplomacy. Vimeo screenshot

You seem to be enjoying the shift to economic crimes. In February this year, you exposed money-laundering in Swedbank, Sweden’s oldest bank, which dominates the financial industry in the Baltic region. Tell us more about the case.

Swedbank, which is the biggest bank in Sweden, and two of its branches in the Baltics, allowed a culture where $100 to 200 billion were laundered, mostly by Russian clients to the West. Through the activities of money-laundering in this case, we learnt about corruption, bribes, economic crimes, foreign relations, diplomacy, upper class, the accumulation of capital, the relationship between US and Russia – all the great questions of our society today. It was very, very interesting. You end up in the White House; you end up in the Kremlin. You end up in those luxury boats down the French Riviera. You really get a taste of world politics.

At a time when journalists and peacekeepers are under attack around the world, what do you think your documentary tells us?

It’s a very serious issue, and hopefully, this documentary can bring some light to this question. But I’m not too hopeful. The faith in peacekeeping institutions has been attacked.

Finally, how does it feel to have won an Emmy?

Very good. It’s a very nice award to get — especially since I’m here (at the Global Investigative Journalism Conference, Hamburg) right after. The documentary was in collaboration with a lot of different journalists from other countries. It’s a great award for us, and for the idea of cross-border journalism.

Puja Changoiwala is an award-winning journalist and author based in Mumbai. She writes about the intersections of gender, crime, social justice, development and human rights in India

Updated Date: Oct 17, 2019 09:53:08 IST