After his last undercover investigation, Ghana’s judicial authority sacked twenty-one judges and nineteen judicial service workers. A portrait of Anas Aremeyaw Anas.
Say what you want about undercover filming, but it has proven to be an effective tool in investigative journalist Anas Aremeyaw Anas' daily practice. Anas, a leading member of ZAM’s partner the African Investigative Publishing Collective, continues with his exposure of rot in Ghana’s and other African societies’ governance. Having been handed yet another award –this time the ‘African Heroes’ award from the African Students Association at the University of Ohio, and with new revelations –with regard to human trafficking- in the pipe line, ZAM has updated this portrait from one of our earlier issues.
Maybe the best thing about the undercover filming in fifty-five courts all over Ghana was that so many civil servants in the judiciary were actually not corrupt. Those judges who chased Anas’ Tiger Eye team (members of which posing as bribe-givers) out of their offices and courts or even phoned the police to get them arrested, ‘brought smiles on our faces,’ as the team wrote in a report for Ghana’s Crusading Guide newspaper. There were judiciary civil servants in lower positions too who refused bribes. Some did so even when their regular salaries were not paid on time, or even for months on end.
It is these people whom Anas seeks out in order to together rescue ‘mother Ghana’ from criminal individuals and kartels who benefit from corruption and who continuously work to corrupt governance systems further for their own benefit. It is the ‘good civil servants,’ he feels, with whom he and his team must work, to ‘squeeze out the bad and work for the good,’: hence also his participation in a recent AIPC-ZAM investigation into the struggles waged by such ‘good civil servants.’
In his view, people who look for the 'big guy at the top' of a corrupt state institution are mistaken. “There is no big guy at the top. The system is pervaded by corruption, so the work that needs to be done is about fixing the system,” says Anas when we meet on the side line of yet another journalism conference. (He attends many, usually to make a provocative presentation in which he attacks common journalism do’s and don’ts; more about this later.) “And we will work with anyone who is also serious about doing this.”
Anas’ work, broadcast and reported many times in Ghana and internationally, has achieved recognition even from the government: a rare feat for an investigative journalist in any country. “The President is my friend now. He acts when he is informed of the issues that we expose.” And even though many state officials still habitually ask for bribes for their services, an increasing number is starting to understand that they can no longer do so with impunity.
Anas has been a pedestrian on the streets of Accra, a cleaner in a brothel, a travelling Koran teacher, a school substitute, a psychiatric patient and a cocoa smuggler. He undertook that last job in 2010, after he learned that the country was losing millions in expected export revenue as a result of cocoa smuggling from Ghana into Ivory Coast. “The President was concerned. A special task force – tens of thousands made up of personnel from Ghana’s security forces- had been formed to stop the smugglers, but even after months, that task force had made not a single arrest.”
Cocoa smuggling went down after Anas’ report
While undercover with the smugglers, Anas found out that some members of the special task force were aiding them. “They found suitable paths to cross the border with bags of cocoa and even delivered contacts for the smugglers on the other side. In return, they received bribe money. I captured many of these transactions with my hidden camera.” The result was a special investigative report and a documentary film that showed the videos of bribe-taking officers. “When the story broke, more than fifteen officers were charged. The trial of some of these is still ongoing.” After the story broke, the government of Ghana registered a significant dip in the smuggling and the revenue from cocoa exports picked up.
Two years later, Anas went in as a patient in Ghana’s major psychiatric hospital. As if posing as a criminal, hiding his camera from ruthless armed villains, hadn’t been risky enough, he now allocated himself an actual psychiatric condition, learned to display the symptoms and even took the medication prescribed for this in the hospital. Speaking to him twice over the phone during his period, he sounded quite drugged both times and I was not the only one fearing for his actual health and sanity. But he recovered with a bang, delivered the footage and the report, which exposed inhuman conditions as well as a flourishing medicines and drugs trade by hospital staff. The work contributed to the adoption of a government strategy for comprehensive mental healthcare as well as a new Mental Health law.
Rats in the biscuit factory
He tackles private enterprise as well. At the start of his career, in 2008, he went undercover as a worker in an Accra biscuit factory, filming rats roaming freely in and around the food. The year after that, he infiltrated and exposed religious ‘schools’ that used children entrusted to their care as prostitutes and beggars. And in 2012, just after the coconut smuggling episode, he filmed the practices of criminals who were selling fake gold bars to unsuspecting international buyers. The evidence got them convicted in court.
Anas often works with precisely the same state structures that he has exposed as ‘corrupt’ before. In the ‘fake gold’ case, he alerted police to come and catch the con men in the transaction with the foreign buyers. Anas was there to film the deal as well as the police arrival and the arrest. This practice has led to criticism from certain institutions and trainers in journalism. Aren’t journalists supposed to inform the public, rather than behave like policemen and vigilantes? How can a journalist expose bad governance whilst at the same time working with government?
The disease and the remedy
He responds scathingly when such issues are raised at conferences and in public debates. “In a country with a malfunctioning state, you can’t just expose and criticise. Nothing will ever change if you stop there. There are good people in the institutions, who want to help to root out corruption and perfect the democratic experiment in my society. I do not hesitate when I get the support of such well-intentioned individuals, departments or organisations. We must work together to squeeze out the bad. You are either part of the disease or part of the remedy. I choose to be part of the remedy.”
Exposing the rotten apples helps to close the loopholes
It may be, he concedes, different for journalists who work in the ‘old’ democracies in the West. “The institutions in those countries are more established. It will not be easy for an official to sell a license in exchange for a bribe. Even if he wanted to, the system doesn’t give him that opportunity. In Accra, buying and selling licenses is almost normal procedure. We may subscribe to democracy, but that does not mean we have built up our state.” So corruption in Ghana is not an issue of a few rotten apples, but of a developing structure that is still full of loopholes. “Correct. By exposing the rotten apples I work with the people who are building up the systems and closing the loopholes they use.”
The spies of old
At a recent journalism conference in the Netherlands, Anas faced more criticism after he had explained the above. “They told me: you must not be an activist. A reporters’ job is only to inform people. But I later wondered if Western journalists aren’t motivated by social justice concerns. When I read their reports about Africa’s problems, or welfare cuts in their own countries, or the use of chemical weapons in Syria, they often sound as much inspired by a passion for truth and justice as I am. Maybe it is only my methods that are different.”
It is precisely the undercover method that allows Anas to explore under-reported terrain: the experiences of ordinary Ghanaians, many of whom live in an uncertain, challenging world that is almost unknown to the pampered national elite. It is only by pretending to be an anonymous, ordinary Ghanaian, after all, that he has discovered the practices of the quack abortion doctors that so many of his country’s women are forced to rely on, or the extortion rackets permeating the state’s public services, or the girls behind the railway line: underage street children, forced to make a living as prostitutes.
Anas: “A friend recently said she views my work as that of ‘the spies of old’, those who go ahead of their people to discover new land, and they come back to tell the people about their find.” There is still much ‘new land’ that we haven’t explored. Doing this, we re-evaluate our paths and consider which ones need pursuing and where we need a turnaround. My method of work, collaboration and pursuits beyond the story are, very simply, both products and tools of my growing society.”
And in his latest video, all grainy and capped and swag, he actually does look a little like Batman, too.