The Watchman: The documentaries of Ghana’s Anas Aremeyaw Anas

The Watchman: The documentaries of Ghana’s Anas Aremeyaw Anas
Source: Columbia Journalism Review
Date: 26-06-2019 Time: 12:06:26:pm
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Photo illustration by Shyama Golden.

I first met undercover journalist Anas Aremeyaw Anas in a small, hot room on the rooftop of a building I was told I could describe, vaguely, as a safe house.

We were in a relatively quiet corner of bustling Accra, the capital of Ghana, across town from the office Anas has long used as a base for his investigative-reporting team and for the private-eye company he founded, both of which are known by the same name: Tiger Eye.

The office had been abandoned since last year, a precaution that couldn’t save Ahmed Hussein-Suale Divela, one of Tiger Eye’s investigators, who was shot and killed by assailants on a motorbike while driving in his neighborhood in January. 

Anas had last seen Hussein-Suale two days before the murder, and described him as being full of energy. “He was itchy to come back to the front line, and I was telling him no, I do not think we are safe,” he said. Anas is tall, lean, and broad-shouldered, with a soft voice and cool disposition. He was wearing a cream-colored caftan and a matching bucket hat, his face shielded by a curtain of beads affixed across the front—his trademark mask. Anas keeps his identity secret, and while he frequently appears on television and accepts invitations locally and abroad to give talks on his journalism, he has never publicly shown his face.

The assassination was widely perceived as retaliation for a documentary Hussein-Suale had helped Anas produce, Number 12, which alleged widespread corruption in national and international soccer. (The title is a nod to the rule that a team is allowed no more than 11 players on the field, with the 12th “player” being the corrupt official in the shadows.) Even before its premiere last spring, it drew the ire of some very powerful people in Ghana, among them Kennedy Agyapong, an outspoken member of Parliament. On NET2 TV, a channel he operates, Agyapong revealed Hussein-Suale’s identity by flashing his photo on-screen and called for the public to attack him. “This is the boy,” he yelled. “I’m telling you, beat him. Whatever happens, I’ll pay.” At first Hussein-Suale was shaken, but soon he grew impatient to start working on a fresh investigation. Anas advised him to lie low. “I said, ‘Look, you may want to play with this, but I take it serious,’ ” he recounted to me. “ ‘People are gonna tell me that I was irresponsible.’ ” He kept Hussein-Suale on the sports investigation, asking him to draw up prosecution paperwork requested by the attorney general’s office. On January 16, Hussein-Suale sent Anas a document to review. Anas messaged him, asking if he was ready to discuss; Hussein-Suale responded that he was driving. They set a time to go over it later. That was the last Anas heard from his partner.

“We’ve had very close shaves,” Anas told me. Last year, he and Hussein-Suale had traveled to rural Malawi to investigate ritual organ harvesting for a BBC documentary. One night they were using hidden cameras to film the men responsible for these gruesome killings, unaware that the traumatized local community was watching their every move, mistaking them for the harvesters. On the way back to their cars they were attacked by a mob. Anas and Hussein-Suale were forced to blow their cover. “That’s what I would have pointed at as the most dangerous situation I have been in,” Anas said, his head bowed slightly. “But Ahmed’s death, which is the ultimate, takes precedence over everything else.” He spoke slowly, choosing his words deliberately; when he sighed, the curtain of beads shifted under the weight of his breath. 

Anas has been reporting undercover on human rights abuses and corruption on the African continent for 20 years. He is an active member of several African investigative-journalist groups and has written guides on undercover reporting. Using sophisticated hidden cameras and a range of prostheses, he has famously disguised himself as a rock, as a police officer, as a janitor in a brothel, as a priest in a Thai prison, and as a patient in a mental-health facility, among many other roles, in order to obtain evidence that will—as his oft-repeated tagline goes—name, shame, and jail perpetrators. His aim is to collect evidence strong enough to push state institutions into action or reform, and his increasingly high-profile, high-impact investigations have earned him the unofficial mantle of most feared journalist in Africa. 

When I first sat down to talk with Anas, I admit that I peered at the three buttons of his caftan to check if they were cameras, and took what I hoped was a furtive glance around the room for devices: there was a bed, a table with four chairs, a new fridge fresh out of its box, and a struggling air-conditioning unit that we eventually gave up on in favor of opening a window. The afternoon breeze ballooned a set of long, white curtains almost to the ceiling, and I could hear Anas’s beads softly clinking. My scrutiny was foolish, of course; I knew I wouldn’t have found anything just by glancing, and anyway, indiscriminate filming isn’t Anas’s style. Before taking on undercover work he gathers evidence of habitual wrongdoing to justify further investigation, then observes his subject over weeks or months to build a reporting strategy. Hidden cameras, he told me more than once, are always a last resort. 


Some journalists in Ghana are uncomfortable with Anas’s theatrical presentations: the way he promotes an investigative documentary like a splashy Hollywood feature, and how he has become a kind of celebrity at the center of every story. When I brought this up, Anas sighed. “Do a story without me, put it out there, see how many people will read it,” he said. And while it does take a particularly uncommon swagger to plaster your silhouette on billboards and walk around with your own collection of bespoke masks, Anas says that he built his brand deliberately, and always in service of the journalism. 

“I like stories that shake the foundation of countries,” he told me. Shake them he has: Tiger Eye investigations have broken up human-trafficking rings in China, West Africa, and Europe; sparked public outrage that pushed for the passage of Ghana’s Mental Health Act; and resulted in fines, firings, or jail time for corrupt bureaucrats, unsanitary food manufacturers, and child abusers. In 2015, upon the release of Ghana in the Eyes of God, a documentary that recorded 34 judges and dozens more judiciary members allegedly accepting gifts or demanding sex in exchange for favorable rulings, several of the officials implicated in the film threatened to sue television stations if they broadcast the documentary. Anas responded by showing it in a series of free public screenings. “There were times in this country where I had to take my video, plead with the television station to just play it for the public to see,” Anas told me. “There were times when I had to borrow money to pay for airtime.” In an industry where burnout runs high and deep reporting is difficult to sustain, Anas persisted in finding ways to deliver one blockbuster story after another.

Tiger Eye has investigative teams working on multiple stories in multiple locations at once; some advance quickly while others linger, depending on public interest, the availability of funding, and urgency—Anas won’t release an investigation unless he feels the timing is right. The teams operate entirely on a need-to-know basis: they might not be aware of one another, and they are not necessarily made up of journalists. Anas personally selects some investigators based on their access or local knowledge, vets them, tests them, and trains them; sometimes they have no sense of the gravity of what they’re involved in until the investigation goes public. The team on the Number 12 investigation was particularly tight, with only five people on the job. The story’s explosiveness came as a surprise for Anas, he confessed to me; he didn’t think the stakes were all that serious—he doesn’t care much for soccer—but his team warned him not to underestimate the amount of noise it would make. It was a lesson.

Until Hussein-Suale’s murder, Ghana did not have a history of retaliatory killings of journalists. The country has an abundance of private and publicly owned media, and just last year it was ranked highest among countries on the African continent in Reporters Without Borders’ World Press Freedom Index. (It fell to third on the continent in this year’s rankings, though that’s still 21 spots above the US.) The targeted assassination was a shock not only to Anas and Tiger Eye, but to the entire industry. Several people I spoke with in Accra, even nonjournalists, told me that in the tense weeks following the murder, the sight of men speeding past on motorbikes caused them to panic and dive for cover.

Nana Ama Agyemang Asante, a journalist with the private radio station CitiFM, told me that her family gets nervous when she speaks candidly on-air. “Even a year ago I would have said, ‘Hey! It’s vibrant, we’re free!’ But I’m rethinking press freedom,” she told me. She referred to a climate of open secrets—“We all think somebody is corrupt, we all know this person is corrupt, we’ll whisper about it”—where fear of retaliation feeds self-censorship. “I think there’s a semblance of freedom that means nothing.” 

Anas grew up in Accra between the neatly rowed army barracks of Burma Camp and the vibrant chaos of Nima, the densely populated, predominantly Muslim neighborhood where he attended Arabic school. His father was a military man, his mother a public-health nurse. He spent holidays with his grandmother, who was a vendor in Nima’s market. Today, the market is still packed with fragrant spices and overflowing sacks of grain, the sounds of traffic and bartering and joyful greetings pressed together in the air. “There’s energy there,” he told me. “There is everything around you that tells you that you have to fight to survive.” As a child, Anas was attuned to the ripples of injustice around him—from the marginalization of the poor in Nima to the abuses of power in the military district—and felt compelled to do something about it.

Anas started his path at the Ghana Institute of Journalism, graduating in 1998 during Jerry John Rawlings’s second term as a democratically elected president of Ghana. In the previous decade Rawlings ruled the country through a military dictatorship, using targeted assaults and assassinations to instill a culture of fear and silence that the people haven’t forgotten. Anas’s first job was at a paper called The Crusading Guide whose editor, Kweku Baako Jr., had just been released from jail. (Anas eventually became copublisher, and still writes for the paper.) His first undercover investigations were exclusively for print, but his quest for big results and bigger audiences turned his eye to documentary film.

In 2003, Anas traveled to Germany to study undercover methods as part of a summer academy sponsored by InWEnt, a development agency. There he crossed paths with Günter Wallraff, a trailblazer in the field of deeply immersive, deeply disruptive undercover work. Anas looked up to Wallraff, but he recognized that he couldn’t simply replicate the German’s methods; rather, he needed to adapt to the needs of Ghanaian culture and institutions. To this end, Anas developed an entirely new model for going undercover: he would create a highly visible public persona that could inspire both fear and public accountability, at the same time keeping his face and personal identity secret. He has been intuitively crafting his undercover career from his very earliest assignments. “When he started doing this work, nobody saw his face,” says Sammy Darko, a former BBC correspondent who is now a lawyer on Anas’s legal team. “When he was winning Journalist of the Year awards and the rest, if I remember clearly, he never came for it. Someone always collected it on his behalf.” 

Anas has become a household name in Ghana, shorthand for standing up to corruption and exploitation.

Anas has also put in place an extremely robust security system. “Not one person in my team understands how I survive,” he told me, and I wasn’t sure whether he meant that literally. He carries a tracking device monitored by outside security experts, and during tense periods he might be constantly on the move within Accra or to other cities. Occasionally his experts will call to instruct him to switch locations abruptly, even in the middle of the night. But he says he relies most of all on careful observation. When he is not Anas the journalist, Anas the private individual steps out with his face uncovered. “I go to the mall, I go to where I want to go,” he told me. “You don’t have to be walking with people to have security. You can just be alone. Just be extra vigilant, that’s all.” Should anything happen to him, there is a succession plan in place.

The safety of Anas, and of everyone at Tiger Eye, depends a great deal on trust. “I work every day expecting that somebody will snitch,” he said. “But when the person does, how does it affect the entire team? How do we recuperate and move on as a team?” With every Tiger Eye investigation, the number of collaborators grows. The sprawling unwieldiness of this group can be useful in confusing enemies, Anas told me, but his tightest circle of friends and colleagues must remain small. “There is no formula in trusting a human being, not even your sister or brother. We all live with the hope, hoping that that person will not give you up one day.” 

Anas had made time to speak to me on Ghana’s Independence Day. It felt relatively quiet in Accra—official celebrations were being held outside of the capital for the first time, in the northern region, though people still trickled into Black Star Square and gathered at the park where revolutionary leader Kwame Nkrumah delivered his famous independence speech. The following morning, I went to see Selase Kove-Seyram, the director of Number 12, in the offices of his digital-marketing, design, and video production company. While we talked, a small team in an adjacent room worked diligently, focused on their iMac screens, and I noticed a whiteboard behind us with a rough storyboard for a short video I had watched that morning on Anas’s Facebook page. The video was half independence celebration, half tribute to Hussein-Suale, and its tone was defiant. It drew parallels between the struggles faced by Nkrumah, the first prime minister and president of Ghana, and attacks endured by Tiger Eye. “We reject as false, the choice between our safety and our ideals,” the video had said, and I stared at that same message again on the whiteboard.

Kove-Seyram first worked for Anas about 10 years ago, when he joined Tiger Eye as an intern. “One of the things that drew me to him was that he was a journalist who was in love with what he was doing,” he told me. Kove-Seyram was interested in learning the principles of investigative journalism, though he didn’t find working undercover with disguises and hidden cameras especially appealing. “I see Anas as a specialist. Like, maybe an oncologist. You only need him when there’s cancer,” he said. “I’d rather be a general physician.”

Kove-Seyram is one of the few publicly credited names in Tiger Eye productions; the investigators who research and film with hidden cameras, for the sake of continuing their undercover work and for the sake of their safety, are not identified. Perhaps because of this, he emphasizes that he is hired as a director on a freelance basis and that he doesn’t know what Anas and his teams are working on until the material is ready for him to look at.

Number 12 landed on Kove-Seyram’s desk in September 2017, as three terabytes of hidden-camera footage. It took weeks to sort through. In the months leading up to the premiere, Kove-Seyram and a small team of editors logged, edited, and debated with Tiger Eye over what to cut and what reporting they needed more of. “Towards the final two months, we pitched camp,” he said. “People put in all-nighters.” 

Meanwhile, Anas started promoting the investigation; he commonly releases teaser trailers for his documentaries, or puts up billboards. About a month ahead of the release, Tiger Eye’s Facebook page put up a cryptic post: “Are you ready?” It was followed by a series of increasingly revealing trailers. In one, a young man prays aloud that a referee can be bribed to call in favor of his team; when a strange man in a beaded mask next to him admonishes him for his wish, the young man snaps that bribes happen all the time in matches. Another trailer was more explicit: it depicted a soccer boss, a fixer slipping him money, a dollar-drunk goalie throwing the match, and the all-seeing eye of Anas watching every move. 

Closed Curtain: Anas Aremeyaw Anas at the funeral of Ahmed Hussein-Suale, whose killing was likely a retaliation for his Tiger Eye reporting. Francis Kokoroko / Reuters Pictures.

Number 12 was first screened on June 6, 2018, at the Accra International Conference Centre. The audience reacted in shock, anger, and grief as they took in the corruption orchestrating matches between their favorite club teams. The finished documentary, an extraordinarily complex and broad story line with a cast of characters spanning the continent, stretched nearly two hours. (A 50-minute behind-the-scenes version was produced for the BBC.) It exposed referees and officials from 15 countries who accepted bribes in exchange for fixing club and international matches in Ghana, Côte d’Ivoire, Morocco, and beyond. The investigation went almost to the top of the African soccer hierarchy, taking down Kwesi Nyantakyi, who was the president of the Ghana Football Association (GFA), the vice president of the Confederation of African Football, and a FIFA Council member, and who in the past had promised to reward anyone who came forward with evidence of corruption in the GFA. 

“Since he premiered his documentary, football is on its knees in Ghana,” Darko, Anas’s lawyer, told me. The GFA was thrown into turmoil and, until the launch of a special series of matches in March, the nearly 40,000 gleaming yellow and red plastic seats in the Accra Sports Stadium remained mostly empty. Of the more than 70 Ghanaian referees who were alleged to have accepted bribes, 51 were banned from soccer-related activities, 8 of them for life. Nyantakyi resigned from his position; he was arrested and questioned by police, but released on bail soon after. FIFA banned him from all soccer activities. Nearly a year later, however, Nyantakyi has not been formally charged in Ghana. Anas recently launched a petition to pressure the attorney general’s office to proceed with criminal prosecution. 

In the documentary, a Tiger Eye investigator meets with Nyantakyi under the pretext of seeking to sponsor the Ghana Premier League. Nyantakyi negotiates a commission for a proposed deal of $50 million, lining up his own savings and loan company as a broker. Hidden cameras capture him accepting a wad of cash—allegedly $65,000—offered by the undercover investigator as a token of thanks. Nyantakyi also promises the investigator access to lucrative contracts in Ghana if he agrees to make a series of offers totaling $11 million to a number of the country’s government officials, including the president and vice president. The implication of bribery of a sitting executive was explosive. Up until Number 12, Anas’s investigations had never touched politics—he’s careful to declare nonpartisanship. (Ghana’s president and vice president were interviewed for the film, and both categorically denied knowledge of Nyantakyi’s plan.) 

Tiger Eye’s cameras also captured Nyantakyi singling out one man in particular for any side deals: Agyapong, the ruling-party MP. “He is very loud,” Nyantakyi says on the tape. Agyapong does indeed have a reputation for being loud. He has a history of making public accusations and name-calling his adversaries, and he is also loud in the literal sense—when he makes television and radio appearances he sometimes roars into the microphone with such force that the speakers crunch. (In 2016, Asante, the Citi FM journalist, wrote an exasperated blog post titled “For God’s sake, shut up, Kennedy Agyapong.”) During the frenzied lead-up to the Number 12 premiere, as details of the exposé became public, Agyapong issued his call for violence against Hussein-Suale. He also delivered a long tirade against Anas, questioning his credentials and the legality of his methods and calling him an “evil extortionist blackmailer.” A few weeks later, Agyapong aired his own documentary, Who Watches the Watchman

Agyapong’s criticisms are the fiercest (and loudest) ever leveled against Anas, and they have found an audience. “At first Anas had a halo,” Asante told me. But now “there are actually journalists who are split between the MP who is claiming Anas is corrupt, and people on Anas’s side.” She falls squarely in the latter camp, dismissing Agyapong’s accusations as a self-defensive tactic to deflect attention from his own corruption. She expressed admiration for what Anas had accomplished. Whether or not you agreed with his methods, she said, “every sports journalist knew the GFA’s president was corrupt. But there was no documentary proof. Nobody was willing to put their life on the line for that.” 

Anas’s influence on Ghanaian culture may rival his influence on the country’s public institutions. He has become a household name, shorthand for standing up to corruption and exploitation. The rappers Obrafour and Opanka have paid him tribute in music videos, and last year the fashion designer Elikem Kumordzie launched a line of Anas-inspired clothing, complete with his-and-hers draped fabric masks. In Accra I spotted stickers with his bucket-hat-and-beads silhouette, which has become instantly recognizable, warning that ANAS IS WATCHING. Asante laughed when I asked her about that phrase. 

“People will threaten you with Anas now,” she said. “My colleague tells a really funny story that somebody called him and said, ‘You know this water connection problem you have? If you paid me money I could make the bills go away.’ He said, ‘I was tempted, but then I thought, What if it’s Anas?’ So he was like, ‘I just went to the water company and did the right thing.’ ” 

Around Accra you can find murals of Anas painted by the artist Nicholas Wayo; one of the largest stretches across the front gates of a school in Nima. The scene depicts a line of people with their faces covered by beads—a judge, a police officer, a doctor, a soldier—over the words SAY NO TO CORRUPTION. Next to them is Anas in a bucket hat, with the words DO THE RIGHT THING. Wayo told me that he wants to continue his mural on an adjacent wall reading JOURNALISM IS NOT A CRIME, but that some school administrators have been wary of political themes since Number 12 came out.

There’s a local term for the Anas phenomenon in media and academic circles: Anasism. Audrey Gadzekpo, a journalist and the dean of the School of Information and Communication Studies at the University of Ghana, hosted a daylong seminar on Anasism last year, after the release of Number 12. A panel of experts critically examined Anas’s work and undercover methodology through the lens of the law, philosophy, journalistic ethics, and political science. The seminar was not hero worship; Anas himself attended and responded directly to critics of his work. Gadzekpo, for her part, had disagreed with the way Agyapong attacked Anas, but she considered some of his complaints to be valid, including on the issue of privacy. 

“You see now, it is the citizens who are doing the journalism for you. They are the ones going on the street and filming the police harassing them.”

Anas has been sued by the subjects of his investigations, for breach of privacy and defamation. “We jokingly say there is no journalist in Ghana who has been sued more than Anas Aremeyaw Anas,” Darko said. Ghana’s legal code and the Ghana Journalists Association code of ethics is clear: if privacy is breached, or deceitful or indirect means used to obtain information, an exemption is made so long as that information is in the interest of the public good. Public interest, Darko explained, always overrides individual interest, and so far this has protected Anas from prosecution. Though he has been sued all the way to Ghana’s Supreme Court, Darko told me, Anas has yet to lose a case.

Anas has also been accused of entrapment: luring people to take bribes and then springing allegations of corruption on them. Kove-Seyram dismisses this out of hand. People in public office, or military uniform, or a referee’s uniform, all know in the clearest terms that accepting cash or gifts is a violation of the rules, he says. In footage he reviewed from the Number 12 investigation, more than one official refused the money they were offered. 

Illustration by Shyama Golden

Gadzekpo also brought up concerns around the blurring of lines between Anas’s public-interest investigative journalism and his PI company, which is limited liability with shareholding directors. What happens, she wondered aloud, if an investigation for a private client conflicts with public-interest reporting? “It’s kind of like a media organization being sustained by a conglomerate; your independence will be compromised if you have to do a story that affects the bottom line of the conglomerate that owns you.” 

I had this question for Anas, too, when we met on the rooftop: Who holds him accountable? He chuckled softly from behind his beads, and responded, “My critics.” Rumors of his power, he said, have been greatly exaggerated—though he gets a kick out of hearing them. “When they say I’m Illuminati,” he said, laughing, “I feel like a cool Illuminati guy walking around.” There are rumors that he can disappear at will, or shape-shift into animals, or that he’s a spirit. I heard a rumor that “Anas” is not one man but many different people. There is some truth to that, he told me. Scores of Ghanaian citizens, protesting corruption as part of a “Je Suis Anas” campaign, have taken to wearing their own masks in public.

As soon as the initial shock over Hussein-Suale’s death wore off, Tiger Eye jumped back to work. It was a show of resilience, perhaps, or a way to escape from the fog of grief. Just weeks later, Anas released a new investigation, Galamsey Fraud, which he expected to be even harder-hitting than Number 12. The film alleges that government officials accepted bribes to overlook illegal mining practices. In the backlash, he told me, laughing, he was accused of being an illegal miner himself. 

The mining investigation didn’t garner the international attention of the soccer exposé, but it may be a significant test for one of Ghana’s newest institutions: the Office of the Special Prosecutor, created last year following a campaign promise by President Nana Akufo-Addo to be tougher on corruption. Unlike the attorney general, who is appointed by the president, the autonomous special prosecutor is free to investigate and prosecute those in positions of power—such as the ruling-party staffers implicated in Galamsey Fraud. Anas’s legal team has provided the prosecutor’s office with documents related to its investigation and is waiting to be called. 

“This is the problem I have with my friends from the West: I think they are asleep,” Anas told me. “You see now, it is the citizens who are doing the journalism for you. They are the ones going on the street and filming the police harassing them. What are you doing? Are you not asleep to assume that your legislature is fine, your executive is fine, your judiciary is fine, your police is fine?”

Before we parted ways—Anas had phone calls, more interviews, meetings, and a full travel schedule ahead of him—I asked him one last question: Do you have the energy to keep going? Anas laughed again, tilting his head back, and I could see the apples of his cheeks outlined against the beads. “Yes, man! A lot of energy! Look, the young ones: Are we just going to leave them in this quagmire?” he said. “Nooo—hell, no. I can’t fail. It took people to let the dictatorship slip in; it took people to push it back. No matter what it is, even if dictatorship started today, the fight would have to begin again.”

 

Susana Ferreira is a freelance journalist, producer, and writer.


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