BOB GARFIELD: This is On the Media. I’m Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I'm Brooke Gladstone. The most celebrated face of investigative journalism in Africa belongs to a journalist who very few people would recognize.
ANAS AREMEYAW ANAS: My name is Anas Aremeyaw Anas. I am an undercover journalist. What you see here is me disguised as a rock.
ANAS AREMEYAW ANAS: As an accident victim.
ANAS AREMEYAW ANAS: As a sheik.
ANAS AREMEYAW ANAS: I am a police officer.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Over the last decade, the undercover exploits of Ghanaian journalist Anas Aremeyaw Anas have exposed human traffickers, medical malpractice, corrupt cops and much more. Recently, he posed as a friend or a relative of several defendants, offering judges bribes in exchange for shorter sentences, and then released his exposé as a documentary which packed screening venues across Ghana last year. Most of the more than 30 higher and lower court judges he showed accepting bribes now stand trial. And now, with the premiere of a documentary called “Chameleon” in Anas’s home city of Accra, the spotlight is turning on him.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA (2009): …courageous journalists like Anas who, who risked his life to report the truth.
MAN: Anas is a big man in our country. But one journalist beginning to play James Bond is troubling.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: The film brings a behind-the-scenes look at some of his recent investigations. But Anas says that the film, like journalism itself, reveals less about him and more about his society.
ANAS AREMEYAW ANAS: My principle is “naming, shaming and jailing,” and that's what makes my journalism different. People were tired of reading stories and nothing happening. As I kept on going undercover, the key question that I needed to answer was, what are the ingredients of prosecution? So studied law, so when I’m undercover I know the basic ingredients I need to get that bad guy to jail.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You probably know that critics of undercover reporting say that the technique itself is suspect because it starts with a reporter’s lie.
ANAS AREMEYAW ANAS: [CHUCKLES] Yes, that’s fair criticisms, but I am doing journalism for my people. And what is the general purpose of going undercover? It’s to serve society. And I've always told the truth that look, I went undercover to play this role.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You’re quoted in the film as saying that your kind of journalism is a product of your society. So what kind of journalism has Ghanaian society produced? What does it demand?
ANAS AREMEYAW ANAS: We have adopted curriculum based on the West. We’re a British colony, so we have adopted hook, line and sinker the syllabus from Britain, including that of journalists. And I’m saying that is fake. [?] If only it’s answered the questions that are being asked in our communities.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mm-hmm, and perhaps the Western standards you're talking about don't adequately address the needs in your society.
ANAS AREMEYAW ANAS: Exactly. The Western standards are not working because, look, whenever we try to do this kind of journalism, what we end up doing is empowering the bad guy. He goes to pay the police, he goes to pay the judges, pays everybody, and here you are, in bigger trouble. The African Continent has produced very good stories, some as good as your Watergate scandals. But hey, nothing happens. I say, no, look, our community is suffering. People are dying of lack of water, malnutrition, HIV-AIDS. You see, we don't have the luxury to do what other people do in the West. We don’t!
BROOKE GLADSTONE: In 2011, after your exposé of bribery and corruption of customs and border agents, Ghana’s former president, John Evans Atta Mills, stormed Ghana’s biggest port and said that your film confirmed what he'd always known.
JOHN EVANS ATTA MILLS: I’m aware of what they are doing and very soon we’ll descend on them. And let me also say this: Who is watching the watchman? I wish that the revelations from Anas could have come to me through the security agencies which are here. No, that has not been the case.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: That proves your point, I guess. Just printing the facts won't have an effect, unless you have the tape and the evidence right before people's eyes.
ANAS AREMEYAW ANAS: Exactly, because our institutions are pretty young. The police have lots of problems. The judicial service has lots of problems. Journalists have lots of problems. All I’m saying is that let us all take one step forward. Let us all move forward close to each other and realize that the ultimate beneficiary is the society.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: One of your most influential investigations caused such an outcry that it led to the passage of the Mental Health Act in 2012, which now protects the human rights of people with mental disorders in Ghana. Tell me how you reported that story.
ANAS AREMEYAW ANAS: So I went undercover in a psychiatric hospital in Accra, pretending to be a patient. I had read all the symptoms. I knew what exactly to tell the doctor. So quickly I was admitted.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: How did you record them?
ANAS AREMEYAW ANAS: Well, when I finally settled in, that's when my visitor came with my recorders.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: How do you smuggle in a camera?
ANAS AREMEYAW ANAS: Yeah, it’s easy. You put it in food. You wrap it well with a polythene. We have a food called banku. It’s made of corn. You put it in the middle. They allow it in. And then when you begin to eat you take your cameras out. That’s when I put the camera in my shared bathroom, so it was pretty easy to switch on and then get the video footage.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And you found that the guards were selling drugs – heroin, cocaine - to the patients. And in order to capture this on tape, you had to buy some of these drugs yourself. And then in order to make sure you weren't exposed, you have to take some of them, and that made you so ill you engineered your way out of the hospital for a few days?
ANAS AREMEYAW ANAS: That’s correct. I don't drink, neither do I smoke, and I had all these things in my system within the very first six, seven days. So it was a bit m – too much. I had to do something, what they call going on parole.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Supposedly, to attend a funeral?
ANAS AREMEYAW ANAS: Yes, to attend a funeral. As soon as I came out, my doctors who checked me, told me that they didn't think I should go back. But hey, I had opened all the good doors within the first seven days, and I felt that it would not be fair to leave the story hanging. So after detoxification I went back there, and I am glad I went back and I'm happy that the Mental Health Bill is passed today.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: How did you disguise yourself as a rock, and why?
ANAS AREMEYAW ANAS: Well, disguising as a rock, this - we have a Savanna belt and there were these camel and donkey riders who were smuggling guns.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Ah.
ANAS AREMEYAW ANAS: There was a particular hidden place that they used to pass. So what I did was to get our artists to make a rock that looked exactly like the rookie area where these people passed. And that’s where I stayed, monitored them. And they were arrested and the arms were found on them. And as we speak, they are behind cells.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS] Some of your exploits are really astonishing. Tell me about the spell of the Albino.
ANAS AREMEYAW ANAS: The spell of Albino is one of those myths that we carry around in Africa that says that when you chop the limbs or the body parts of an albino, you are going to become instantly rich if it’s used to form a potion for you. This has been an age-long practice. So I built a prosthetic arm and then went into Tanzania. And within the very first two weeks, two limbs had been chopped. One was even actually done by the father of the albino, who chopped the forefingers of the son and collected money for it.
So what I did was to film the ritualist who claimed that he had seen the spirit demanding for these body parts. When I was sitting with him in his shrine, he showed me samples of a child's arm that has been grinded into a potion, samples of that of adults. And then he told me that I was going to get a lot more money if I used that of the child's. So there and then, as he kept on with his incantation, I got out my prostatic arm and here was him very exposed, and he was frightened.
ANAS: Take the albino arm, take it!
WITCHDOCTOR: [ ? ]
ANAS: Well, you are free.
WITCHDOCTOR: [ ? ]
ANAS: He says what?
INTERPRETER: He said that he’s sorry.
ANAS: Sorry for what? Sorry for what? It’s this thing that, that kill albinos. Sorry for what?
ANAS AREMEYAW ANAS: As we speak today, he’s bene jailed in Tanzania.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So it isn't just corruption that you're after. It’s also about destroying dangerous myths.
ANAS AREMEYAW ANAS: That’s the – in fact, that is the most important because the people so believe in these myths, if we don’t shatter with hardcore evidence, they won't – they won’t move away.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You’ve been frustrated with what you call “parachute journalists,” you know, foreign journalists who fly into Ghana and do reporting that you say Ghanaian journalists could do much better.
ANAS AREMEYAW ANAS: You see, you can’t fly in for a week and expect to get the entire picture. It’s not fair to the Continent. Sometimes you’ve just got to take your time to peel the onion, and when you peel the onion gradually you are going to see the truth. I'm saying that it’s nice to report on the scandals, but my colleagues should know that we are also creating new avenues to solve the problems we have. And that got exhibited mostly in this judicial scandal that I did.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: This judicial scandal you talk about is the one where judges and other court officials went to trial or went to jail because you recorded them taking bribes. What is the story that you've done that you’re most proud of?
ANAS AREMEYAW ANAS: One of the stories that I’m so proud of is the one you just spoke about. The reason is this: The earlier we put a searchlight on our judicial system, talk of South Africa, talk of Nigeria, the better we are as a people. When we get to deal with these systems, I am certain that more than half of Africa's problem will be solved.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Through the legal system.
ANAS AREMEYAW ANAS: Through the legal system because, you see, judges are the gods in the guise of men. They’re our last resort, everybody’s last hope. So when you find them tilting the scale of justice, it is sad. The earlier we develop the courage to confront this situation as a people, the better we are.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Thank you very much, Anas.
ANAS AREMEYAW ANAS: Thank you so much.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Anas Aremeyaw Anas is an investigative journalist based in Ghana and the subject of the documentary, “Chameleon,” which premiered this week in Accra.