Friday, April 24, 2015
By Clare Shrybman Puff pieces don’t exist in the world of Ghanaian undercover investigative journalist Anas Aremeyaw Anas. Anas is unlike many others in his field and his work goes beyond any sense of traditional journalism. Writing from a metropolitan newsroom, conducting phone interviews and attending press conferences is in no way comparable to committing oneself to a West African mental institution or going undercover as an elderly woman or a rock on the side of a road. The 30-something year old Ghanaian journalist goes to great lengths to protect his identity and personal details. Despite being one of the most famous men in Ghana, few have seen his face or could pick him out of a crowd. Pictures of him out of disguise show blurred or censored boxes over his face, and he covers his face with string or beads during speaking engagements. Disguised with elaborate costumes and wigs, and armed with hidden cameras, Anas works to stop corruption and seek out law breakers. He has gone undercover to investigate and write on corruption dozens of times, using his signature method of “naming, shaming and jailing.” He has posed as a crooked cop, worked as a janitor inside a brothel and checked himself into the Accra Psychiatric Hospital as a patient.
“Anonymity is my secret weapon that I use very well, and I have a habit of being able to blend in.”While investigating human rights abuses at the Accra Psychiatric Hospital, Anas underwent a series of psychiatric consults and checks that took place over the course of a month. He says that he studied conditions thoroughly before the sting. To get admitted, he complained of heat in his head, spoke in an extremely repetitive fashion and gave vague answers to direct questions—a range of symptoms that could be attributed to a number of psychiatric disorders. Once inside the hospital, Anas documented his experiences using hidden cameras, passing off memory cards of footage to his colleagues when they would pose as visitors. “Patients were being physically abused, drugs like cocaine and heroin were being sold to patients by hospital staff,” Anas says. He was prescribed a drug which made him extremely tired, so he took caffeine pills to help him stay awake and alert. He also says that he took cocaine while in the hospital to fit in amongst the other patients. His extreme methods not only educate, they can produce change: after his psychiatric hospital story was published in a paper he co-owns, The New Crusading Guide, some of the problems he exposed were resolved. His story on child prostitution from his time in the aforementioned brothel helped break two major sex trafficking rings in 2008. Making a difference is the reason that Anas continues to risk his life to report these stories. “There’s no point in doing journalism that doesn’t lead to society’s progression. Journalism is about your people,” he says. “My journalism is a product of my society. I have looked carefully at the society that I belong [to] and I have thought that naming, shaming and jailing is the best,” he continues. Anas’s work has sent numerous people to prison and he’s provided evidence to law enforcement and testified in court. His testimony is provided in closed chambers alone with the judge so as to maintain his anonymity.
“When I do that story that impacts on the life of a child, a child who otherwise would have been trafficked… That makes me happy.”Comparable to other countries in Africa, Ghana has a relatively well-protected press, scoring 28 out of a possible low of 100 on the Freedom of the Press Index produced by Freedom House, however there are a few areas of concern. Section 208 of Ghana’s Criminal Code, banning the publication of false news with the intent to cause fear or harm to the public or to disturb the public peace, is occasionally used to criminally charge local journalists. Civil libel cases are often brought forth by current and former public officials seeking exorbitantly high compensation from media outlets and encouraging self-censorship. The Ghanaian Constitution provides for freedom of information, but a draft bill advocating the right to information has remained in consultation in Parliament for more than 10 years. The bill, which would help to guarantee the freedom of information enshrined in the country’s constitution, has been stalled numerous times. Anas says he feels the press in Ghana is in good standing and that the real reason he protects his identity is to allow him to continue to seek out these controversial stories. Experience is helping him to grow as an investigative journalist, he explains, and that if he hadn’t kept his identity secret he would have had to stop a long time ago. Although Anas focuses on local issues in Ghana, his work has been celebrated globally. The U.S. State Department has celebrated his work, with President Barack Obama noting his respect for the renegade journalist in 2009 for continuously “risking his life to report the truth.” A contemporary icon of investigative journalism, he has been profiled by The Atlantic and The Globe and Mail, he’s given a TED talk about his brand of investigative journalism, and he is the subject of one of this year’s selected documentaries at Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival. Chameleon, by Canadian filmmaker Ryan Mullins, follows Anas on a new project where he infiltrates a religious sect in an isolated village in hopes of exposing human trafficking. Being followed by a documentary filmmaker might not be the best camouflage technique for an undercover investigative journalist, but Anas says they were careful to be discreet and to choose selective times to film so as to not compromise his sources. He is careful with his work—this isn’t his first time around the ring. Chameleon is screening on Saturday April 25 and Sunday April 26 at Hot Docs. Tickets are available on the Hot Docs website.
Clare Shrybman, a graduate of the post baccalaureate journalism degree from the University of King's College, is a freelance journalist in Toronto. Follow her on Twitter @Clareshryb
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