Police investigators hunch over monitors, watching a room where something horrible is about to happen. A rural herbalist suspected of poisoning unwanted children gives final instructions to a father as he prepares to administer a lethal dose of poison to a small child. As soon as the man makes his intention clear, the police burst in and arrest him and his assistant. The toddler, it turns out, is a convincing doll, and the fake father is a man devoted to exposing criminals.
This might sound like the climactic scene in a Hollywood movie, but the police and the bad guys are real, and the mysterious figure who made it happen is Ghanaian undercover journalist Anas Aremeyaw Anas.
Journalists play an important role in civil society by shining a light on wrongdoing and exposing corruption. Most of them do it with painstaking research and dogged reporting. But Anas is the most visible of a breed of journalists who “play James Bond,” as one critic has said, referring to the fictional undercover British Secret Service agent. Anas uses hidden cameras and disguises to expose corruption and crime throughout Africa. In his reports for CNN, BBC and Al-Jazeera, Anas has infiltrated a sex-trafficking ring by posing as a bartender in a brothel and has pretended to be a patient in a psychiatric hospital to expose abuse and neglect. To catch cocoa smugglers, he disguised himself as a large rock.
Some traditional journalists object to the deception Anas employs in his investigations and his close ties to law enforcement. “I see nothing wrong with doing a good investigation, getting the hardcore evidence and, at the end of the day, teaming up with law-enforcement agencies to make sure that those bad guys are put behind bars,” Anas said in an interview with Vice, an online news site.
His goal, he says, is to “name, shame and jail” wrongdoers. To protect himself from the criminals he exposes and to maintain his cover, Anas never makes public appearances without a mask.
If the slogan and the secret identity sound like they belong to a comic book superhero, the results Anas achieves are very real. His human trafficking investigations ended with multiple convictions and earned him recognition as one of the “heroes” of the State Department’s Trafficking in Persons Report for 2008.
Addressing the Ghana’s Parliament in 2009, President Obama praised that country’s democratic spirit, noting, “We see that spirit in courageous journalists like Anas Aremeyaw Anas, who risked his life to report the truth.”
For his part, Anas sees Africa as “a continent in transition,” he told Vice. “And at this time, extreme remedies are the most appropriate for extreme diseases.”