November 2010 ATLANTIC MAGAZINE
Smuggler, Forger, Writer, Spy
Anas Aremeyaw Anas is a Ghanaian investigative journalist with many disguises—from addict to imam—and one overriding mission: to force Ghana’s government to act against the lawbreakers he exposes.
By Nicholas Schmidle
THE ACCRA PSYCHIATRIC HOSPITAL occupies a sprawling block in the heart of Ghana’s capital. Walls the color of aged parchment rim the compound, with coils of concertina wire balanced on top, making the hospital within appear more labor camp than home for the sick.
Anas Aremeyaw Anas spent seven months last year casing it, posing first as a taxi driver and then as a baker. On the morning of November 20, 2009, Anas adopted yet another disguise, matting his hair into dreadlocks and pulling on a black button-up top. Three of his shirt buttons, along with his watch, contained hidden cameras. Escorted by a friend pretending to be his uncle, Anas shuffled through the black metal entrance gate and, feigning madness, into the mental hospital.
None of the doctors or nurses had any idea that this new patient, who called himself Musa Akolgo, was in fact Ghana’s most celebrated investigative journalist. Over the past 10 years, Anas has gone undercover dozens of times, playing everything from an imam to a crooked cop. Hardly anyone in the country knows his face. Photos of him on the Internet are either masked or digitally doctored. (He claims to own more than 30 wigs.) Once, while doing a story about child prostitution, he worked as a janitor inside a brothel, mopping floors, changing bedsheets, and picking up used condoms.
Another time, on the trail of Chinese sex traffickers, he donned a tuxedo and delivered room service at a swanky hotel that the pimp frequented with his prostitutes.
Anas’s methods are more than narrative tricks. He gets results. The Chinese sex traffickers were arrested, convicted, and sentenced to a combined 41 years in prison. For that story and the child-prostitution one, the U.S. State Department commended Anas for “breaking two major trafficking rings” and in June 2008 gave him a Heroes Acting to End Modern-Day Slavery Award.
Then he received the Institute for War and Peace Reporting’s Kurt Schork Award for “journalism that has brought about real change for the better.” Later that same year, a committee that included Jimmy Carter, Kofi Annan, and Desmond Tutu gave Anas the Every Human Has Rights Media Award. And when Barack Obama visited Ghana in July 2009 on his first trip to sub-Saharan Africa, he singled out Anas in his address to the Ghanaian parliament for “risk[ing] his life to report the truth.”
Reporters have long sneaked into forbidding places. In 1887, Nellie Bly, on assignment for Joseph Pulitzer’s The World, acted insane and spent 10 days in the Women’s Lunatic Asylum on Blackwell’s Island, New York. She ate spoiled food and bathed with buckets of ice-cold water. She wrote later: “What, excepting torture, would produce insanity quicker than this treatment?” Bly’s articles prompted a boost in New York’s budget for prisons and mental hospitals.
But today, under pressure from shrinking budgets and professionalized ethics that developed over the 20th century, serious undercover journalism in the United States has nearly disappeared. When Ken Silverstein posed as a Capitol Hill consultant determined to polish Turkmenistan’s dismal international image, for a 2007 Harper’s cover story titled “Their Men in Washington: Undercover With D.C.’s Lobbyists for Hire,” Howard Kurtz, media columnist for The Washington Post, objected: “No matter how good the story, lying to get it raises as many questions about journalists as [about] their subjects.” Pundits, bloggers, and the American Journalism Review chimed in to debate where the line stands between pursuing stories in the public interest and avoiding damage to the public trust.
Anas doesn’t let such heady intellectual arguments slow him down. As he told me without apology in his office in Accra earlier this year, he had never heard of Nellie Bly—much less Howard Kurtz. When I asked him about his role models, he named only one, Günter Wallraff, a German undercover reporter with more than four decades of muckraking experience. But despite his admiration for Wallraff, Anas is certain that undercover reporting is more difficult in Accra than it is in, say, Berlin or New York. “I cannot just do a story and go to sleep, when I know my country’s institutions won’t take care of it,” said Anas, who is surprisingly soft-spoken, to the point of being inaudible at times. “I cannot give the government an opportunity to say this or that is a lie. They love to hide and say, ‘Show me the evidence.’ So I show it to them. If I say, ‘This man stole the money,’ I give you the picture from the day he stole it and show what he was wearing when he stole it. And because of my legal background”—Anas finished law school in 2008 but hasn’t taken the bar exam—“I follow up to ensure there’s prosecution.”
Over lunch one day at an upscale Accra hotel, I asked David Asante-Apeatu whether Anas had ever interfered with police work. Asante-Apeatu, who previously directed the criminal-investigations division for the national police and was now stationed at Interpol headquarters in Lyon, France, shook his head. He told me that Anas often “feels that it’s better to do things all by himself,” because he, like many Ghanaians, doesn’t trust the police. “I don’t blame him” for acting on his own, said the cop. “Anas is a hero.”
ANAS WAS BORN in 1978 in Accra, a coastal city with about 2 million inhabitants, and raised by a career soldier and a nurse. He is tall, with bony elbows and a droopy posture. He boasts of having a “very innocent face” and told me that, without his glasses, “no one will ever suspect me.” From a young age, Anas thrived on theatrics and disguises. Kojo Asante, the president of the National Association of Pan- African Clubs, remembers Anas, who presided over the club at his school, reenacting major events in African history. “You had these plays, it was pretty casual, but Anas took it very seriously,” he told me. “If you wanted him to play the role of the rebel, he would go out and look for costumes, and then come in full regalia, ready to play the part.”
Anas later went to the Ghana Institute of Journalism. When it came time for his internship, he joined a weekday newspaper published in Accra, The Crusading Guide, as the paper was called until early 2009, and he has never left. (Today he is a co-owner of The New Crusading Guide.) His internship duties consisted of office work and milquetoast reporting assignments. “He was a student journalist; I didn’t want to stress him,” says Kweku Baaku, the editor in chief and Anas’s co-owner.
Unbeknownst to Baaku, or anyone else in the newsroom, Anas was spending his free time in the company of street hawkers, running up and down a stretch of highway on the outskirts of Accra, selling peanuts to gridlocked motorists. Street hawking is illegal. But the police, Anas discovered, cracked down only when VIP motorcades came through. Otherwise, the hawkers gave a cut of their sales to the cops, and everyone was happy. Baaku was amazed when he read the story. As he told me, “Being so young and able to craft this kind of reporting strategy? After that, I encouraged him to take over the paper’s investigative branch.”
In 2006, Anas wrote two stories that burnished his reputation as a “social crusader,” in the words of one Ghanaian working at a foreign embassy in Accra. First, he worked the assembly line at a cookie factory and caught the company using flour infested with termites and maggots. After the story ran, the factory was shut down. Then he exposed corruption inside the passport agency, going so far as to fabricate phony documents for the president and chief of police.
“There was chaos in the country after that came out,” Anas recalled with a smug grin. The Ghana Journalists Association subsequently named him Journalist of the Year. (He has won the group’s Investigative Journalist of the Year award three times.) Meanwhile, the government set about transitioning to biometric passports.
The demand for Anas’s services soon outstripped his capacity at the newspaper. Some of the requests he received for investigations didn’t quite qualify as journalism. So last year Anas created a private investigative agency called Tiger Eye. He rents an unmarked space across town on the top floor of a four-story building where a handful of his newspaper’s best reporters work alongside several Tiger Eye employees. It’s difficult to know where one operation ends and the other begins. But they’re all part of Anas’s investigative fiefdom. The work space is divided into two sections: a war room of sorts, with a bank of computers against one wall and a wide table in the middle where the team hammers out strategy; and Anas’s office, decorated with framed awards, oversize checks (including one for $11,700 for Journalist of the Year), and snapshots of himself in disguise.
Anas appeared uneasy when I asked him about Tiger Eye, partly because he realizes that its commercial aspect puts him in ethically dangerous territory. Yet it also constitutes a major source of the budget he relies on for long-term newspaper assignments. During the two weeks I spent with him in January, Anas fielded calls from the BBC and 60 Minutes, as well as private security companies, asking if he could conduct investigations for them. All offered generous compensation.
THREE DAYS AFTER checking in to the mental ward, Anas identified an orderly, named Carter, who supplemented his income by selling cocaine, heroin, and marijuana to patients. The two met secretly behind the dining hall. Carter brimmed with confidence and assured Anas that while other dealers could be caught or arrested anytime, “with me, you are safe.” According to Carter, customers paid extra “because of [his] personality.” Anas bought some coke, recording the transaction on his button camera. He did this several times. But he worried that Carter would grow suspicious if he was buying, but never using, the drugs. So for the sake of the investigation, Anas, who normally doesn’t even drink, began injecting drugs into his arm.
That created a problem. Anas knew, going in, that he would be prescribed sedatives; he had consulted four friendly doctors on how to neutralize their effects. “If I go in and sleep the whole time, I will come out with no story,” he told them. One doctor suggested that a regular dosage of caffeine pills might do the trick, albeit for a limited amount of time. But he never considered how pot, smack, and coke would factor into the mix.
Five days after checking in, Anas sent a distressed text message to his doctors. His body had begun to shut down: his tongue went numb and he sat, fixed and immobile, for hours. “There have been stories I’ve done where there are guns,” he told me later. “But with this one, I felt the threat in my body. It’s an experience I have never had before, when everything you are looking at no longer appears normal. You come to believe that you are even a mad person yourself.”
He got himself discharged, on the pretext of having to attend a funeral up-country. He stumbled out through the black metal gate into a waiting car driven by one of the doctors, who whisked Anas off to a safe house and hooked him up to an IV. He regained his strength and after three days returned to the hospital.
On December 21, the story appeared in The New Crusading Guide, under the headline “Undercover Inside Ghana’s ‘Mad House.’” The paper was sold out by lunchtime. (TheGuide publishes, on average, 8,000 copies a day, Monday through Friday.)
A 30-minute documentary was later broadcast on TV3, a private Ghanaian channel, fueling the uproar with footage showing orderlies selling drugs inside the hospital, unattended patients fishing food from dumpsters, and a dead patient lying in a ditch for days before employees finally carted the corpse away—in the van used to transport food. Anas appeared in disguise on several television and radio shows. The chief justice of Ghana’s supreme court sent him a letter of congratulations, and the country’s vice president phoned Baaku, Anas’s editor, with praise. A presidential aide sent Anas a note with 1,000 cedis (roughly $700) tucked inside.
Some reactions were more tempered. George Sarpong, the executive director of Ghana’s National Media Commission, told me that while he and his organization generally commended Anas’s work, they had some “concerns about his methods.” Kwesi Pratt, the editor of Insight, a left-leaning daily paper, questioned whether Anas had become enamored of being a superhero, with all its trappings, instead of a humble scribe. “We are not police investigators. We are not secret-service agents,” Pratt told me. “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.”
Back in his office, I asked Anas whether he focused more on catching villains or on stopping villainy. Sure, Carter would lose his job as an orderly, but wasn’t the hospital director, or even the country’s health minister, responsible?
“The decision to take out the top ones is not mine,” Anas replied. Our conversation turned to the Abu Ghraib prison scandal. “Nobody was ever going to get Rumsfeld beating anybody in Abu Ghraib. So you show the young ones,” Anas said. Then let the public outcry determine who ultimately takes the blame.
Nicholas Schmidle is a fellow at the New America Foundation and the author of To Live or to Perish Forever.