NEW DELHI – Anas Aremeyaw Anas is the journalist who accommodates collaboration with the State and and other public institutions to effect change. While some frown on this, he makes a case that editorial independence as the only thing which the journalist must not compromise.
The Progressive Era in America also marked one of the finest hours of journalism in American history. The period – from the 1890s to the 1920s – saw the American people leading efforts to reform local government, education, medicine and many other areas. Journalists such as Ida Tarbell, Lincoln Steffens and David Graham Phillips exposed waste, corruption and scandals in the media. As reform-oriented journalists, they were collectively known as the Muckrakers. Theirs was an attempt to live up to the journalistic role of serving as watchdogs in society and ensuring that the proverbial “powerless” were not run over by the “powerful”.
That was over a century ago. Today, a similar development is gathering force in Ghana, the West African country. It is one that is likely to define an Era – not only because of its development; but its impact in the fight against corruption. Leading this development is a Ghanaian undercover journalist known as Anas Aremeyaw Anas.
Although investigative journalism is not a new phenomenon in Ghana, the undercover style and process of investigation adopted by Anas is reminiscent of the Muckrakers’ mode of operation. In all ways, he seems to be a journalist with a mission to reform public institutions in Ghana.
Since 2006, Ghana’s score and ranking on the Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index has improved slightly (ranked higher than Italy and Brazil). That notwithstanding, there is a growing perception in Ghana that corruption within public institutions is on the rise. It is against this background that Anas operates.
With a signature style of not showing his face (undercover); he lives by the credo of naming, shaming and jailing the vanquished in his investigations.
Beyond the fundamental role of journalists to inform, educate and entertain, Anas adds another dimension, which drives his career. “My role is to name, shame and jail”, he says. He considers the breaking of any news story as the first two parts of his three-tier mission. He follows up by ensuring that exposed parties who are culpable in any illegal practice are dealt with by the law. In a subdued tone, Anas leans forward to justify why he works that way. “I see my undercover journalism as a product of my society”, he explains. “If we really want our journalism to be people-centered, if we really want our journalism to be development driven, then indeed, we have to supplement the other institutions of state which do not have the capacity to do some of the things we do. In supplementing them, you have to help, so that, if the police want to do a prosecution, you can help them have a smooth prosecution. You don’t leave the work hanging and expect them to run around”, he added.This justification however, does not suffice for some members of society, who see it as going beyond the confines of journalistic roles.
Kwasi Pratt is a veteran journalist in Ghana and Editor of the Insight, a private newspaper. He is one of the critics who has been skeptical about the work of Anas. “We are plain journalists. We are recording the first draft of history. Our work involves some investigation, but there’s a limit, after which it becomes reckless adventure. Journalism is not some kind of James Bond enterprise”, he once noted.
Despite the criticisms, the apparently unconventional approach used by Anas has yielded tremendous impact in Ghana and beyond.
In July 2009, US President Barack Obama visited Ghana as part of his first official visit to sub-Saharan Africa as President-elect. As he delivered his policy statement to Africa in Ghana’s Parliament, he singled out Anas Aremeyaw Anas with a commendation as “a journalist who risked his life to report the truth”. That was two years after the United States Department conferred a Hero Award on Anas for his courageous exploits in breaking Human Trafficking rings in Africa and Asia.
The stories which earned President Obama’s commendation, and the Hero Award before that, were tailored after the trilogy of “name, shame and jail”. One of the major stories was an expose on Chinese Human Trafficking Ring which was operating between China and West Africa. A seven-month undercover investigation by the reporter revealed how Chinese girls were lured into Africa with promises of singing in operas, but eventually lured into prostitution for the traffickers’ gain.
Citing it as one of his classic works in the three-tier approach, Anas points to the net effect of the story: “After the story broke, it took a contingent of Police from the anti-human trafficking unit to make the process of discovery complete. I then followed suit and testified in court for the law to take its course. Today the traffickers are in jail for a total of 42 years and seven trafficked girls have been reunited with their families in China”.
Law Enforcement agencies in Ghana also seem comfortable with the approach used by Anas. His commitment to ensuring the complete legal process to hold by going to bed after the story breaks is lauded and supported by some. “It only shows that he is passionate about the work he does”, says Evelyn Keelson, an Attorney at the Chief Prosecutor’s Office in Ghana. “It is a great way for professionals to help create a better society”, she added in an interview.
Keelson, who is currently helping prosecute a bribery and corruption scandal uncovered by Anas, agrees with aspects of the “name, shame and jail” credo. “So long as what we do is not prejudicial; but rather helps in moving the wheels of justice, we can only appreciate journalists [like Anas] who contribute this passionately to our development”.
Across Ghana, the name Anas Aremeyaw Anas is widely associated with anti-corruption and reform. The President of Ghana, Atta Mills, in his 2010 State of the Nation address, highlighted works of the journalist as evidence of widespread corruption in the public sector; which his administration was up to fight against.
His referral to the “Anas video” however came with a backlash. What was seen as an acknowledgement of his works by some; drew wide criticism from certain quarters in society. It stemmed from an earlier allegation that the government was feeding on the credibility of a journalist to highlight its own.
Drawing the Lines of Involvement
In February 2011, an in-depth investigation carried out by Anas exposed a complex web of bribery, corruption and mismanagement at Ghana’s main Harbour – Tema Harbour. It revealed how security officials collaborate with some clearing agents to steal money belonging to the state through tax evasion, bribery and personal greed, thereby defeating the nation’s revenue mobilization efforts. The story also showed how potential investors, importers and ordinary Ghanaians are made to bear the brunt of the selfishness and greed exhibited by these officers and agents, as the added costs in bribery are passed over to the ordinary person.
It was a story that moved the President of Ghana to move to the port and express disgust at the revelations. He called for administrative reforms at the port and within a week, Ninety-seven (97) transfers were conducted among CEPS officers across the country as part of reforms in the service.
Eleven (11) Customs Excise and Preventative Service (CEPS) officers and four (4) Ghana Ports and Harbors Authority (GPHA) security officers were interdicted after being found in the documentary. It was a classic display of the media exercising its watchdog role in a democratic dispensation.
A month later, the Ghana Revenue Authority (GRA) registered over 100% per cent increase in its revenue – over $200 million dollars was recovered by the state due to corrected anomalies triggered by the investigative story.
The apparent success of this story was however sullied by politicians who sought to make political capital out of it. As the main opposition party blamed the incumbent for presiding over such corruption, government spokespersons responded by saying they sponsored the investigations by Anas.
It was a blow to journalistic integrity, balance and fairness. It was an allegation which threatened the impartiality and credibility of the Muckraker. “I knew I had to respond swiftly to dispel those seeds of misconception which the politicians were sowing”, he said to Echo Magazine. He did that through a widely circulated statement across media platforms in Ghana. In a capsule form, the article drew the lines of involvement in his career:
The fact that some comments have been made and the debate rages on over this issue in spite of the age of journalistic practice reflects the complexities which we cannot run away from. Understanding this demands a careful look at our reality as a people. I must emphasize, that my works have always been a patchwork of efforts from individuals and institutions that are committed to creating a better society. In all of these collaborations, I have always emphasized the need to have absolute control over editorial content. These collaborators very often appreciate that it is in such collective unions that we can perfect our democratic experiment.
He went on further to reference a voice in International Journalism to buttress his point:
“In stating my position on journalism, ethics and collaboration therefore, I go with Aidan White, General Secretary of the International Federation of Journalists. He once wrote, ‘if the future is to be as bright as journalists want it to be, we shall have to revisit our relations with the state, demand that responsive democracies treat journalism as a public good, defend the ethical core of our professional work, and encourage citizens to support the transformative and democratic power of good journalism in the service of all”.
These words resonate with what development journalism entails. In Ghana, it silenced the critics and imbued in the young journalists a sense of purpose and direction for their careers. “For once, I realized we are in this together as a people. We can advance by not only remaining independent, but collaborating with others where necessary”, says Shaban Alfa, a young journalist in Ghana.
Like the Muckrakers, Anas is helping Ghana develop while inspiring a new breed of journalists to be aware of the nuances of collaboration and independence. It’s his way of charting the course of Ghana’s Muckraking history.
This article was originally published in ECHO Magazine (No.58), a publication by Development Journalism students at the Indian Institute of Mass Communication, New Delhi.