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Opinions of Friday, 4 March 2011

Columnist: Abugri, George Sydney

Anas and the other face of investigative journalism.

By George Sydney Abugri

The case of Anas Amereyaw Anas, the award-winning investigative journalist who has made more news headlines himself than the scandal-prone subjects of his investigations, has played up a rather clouded concept of investigative journalism.

There is Anas the private investigator and patriot, who through the secret filming of scenes, has exposed all manner of social ills from the shocking to the sordid, from wellness and fitness center staff giving foreign diplomats in Accra blow jobs through smuggling and corruption to human trafficking and child prostitution.

Then there is Anas the investigative journalist who works on the Crusading Guide newspaper. Lumping Anas the private investigator and Anas the journalist together, could give young Ghanaian journalists with an interest in and a flair for investigative journalism, an inaccurate picture of this form of journalism.

A private investigator may employ methods of evidence gathering that may be deemed acceptable in his profession {assuming that he is a professionally trained private detective} but it may be unethical for a professional journalist whose work is bound by the ethics of the profession, to employ the same methods.

The ethics of the profession are aimed at ensuring truthfulness, objectivity, balance, fairness and accuracy in reporting. Journalism’s ethics define standards, principles, and values regarding what is right in terms of professional conduct and what is not. Investigative journalists cannot operate outside these ethics. A professor of journalism who taught investigative reporting was in the habit of reminding his students that investigative journalism is a public service, not an ego trip, and that being an investigative reporter does not confer on the journalist any right to flout the profession’s ethical standards. Deception in the course of investigative journalism, for example, is considered in most instances, unethical. It is one thing for Anas the private detective to routinely and systematically employ subterfuge in the course of his investigations. It is another thing to systematically and serially employ deception in the practice of investigative journalism or any other form of journalism. Deception happens when a journalist uses deceptive methods, such as the misrepresentation of the journalist’s true identity, the use of hidden cameras and recorders and entrapment of the subjects of an investigation. Technology has made a fairly wide range of devices available for undercover evidence gathering: Sunglasses equipped with fiber-optic video cameras, shirt buttons that are actually surveillance microphones, pens which the moment they are pulled from a breast pocket, activate a tiny tape recorder etc. Whether it is ethical for journalists to buy and use them, is a question we shall answer presently. Those who engage in unethical, criminal and other illegal behaviour, will often not cooperate with or be truthful with an investigative journalist. For this reason, it has been argued that in exceptional cases, deception may be used. The question is when is deception justified? Deception is generally thought to be justified in cases where the information obtained is of critical importance to society and other ways of getting it have been tried by the investigative journalist without success. Deception is also thought to be justified where the journalist is willing to disclose the nature of the deception that was employed and the reasons for it. It must also be demonstrated that the harm to society or the public which was prevented by reporting that information using deception, far outweighs any harm caused by the deception. It must also be demonstrated that the investigative journalist did not use deception as a short cut in an investigation and that he/she first expended time, effort, and resources to pursue the story fully. Tempting as it may sometimes be, taking short cuts in investigative journalism could lead to the prosecution of innocent people or cause public disaffection for and turn public opinion against people and public institutions which have done no wrong. Deception is thought not to be justified where the journalist’s motivation is to win a journalism prize or ‘out scoop’ competition from other journalists and media. In those special instances when deception may be employed, the investigative reporter must be free of obligation to any interest groups and have the public’s right to know as his/her prime motive. The reporter must resist pressure from any quarters, reject bribes or other inducements and pay his/her own way using resources provided by his/her media organization. Investigative journalism probably predates the sleuthing adventures of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson. It was however not until the 1960s and 1970s and most prominently, after the massive global publicity given to investigative journalists Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s investigation of the infamous Watergate scandal, that the idea of ‘investigative journalism” took deep root.

The movie “All The President’s Men “, adapted from Woodward's and Bernstein’s book of the same title, appears to have bequeathed to contemporary journalism, a legacy of the image of the investigative journalist as a brave, individualistic reporter frequently alerted by tip-offs or clandestinely fed with information with the potential to bring down powerful and corrupt figures in society.

This image of the investigative reporter which we might aptly call the Woodward and Bernstein model, while partially true, does not present the whole picture of investigative Journalism.

It is alright if the work of an investigative reporter sends felons to jail, leads to the fall of corrupt leaders or forces an erring president to resign, as Richard Nixon was forced to do after exposure of the Watergate scandal but there is more to investigative journalism than snooping around with a secret camera at the ready, turning stones all over the place to see what creatures crawl out from under them.

Some of the economic crimes and illegal activities of individuals and institutions which lead to losses of colossal sums of money needed for development are of such a nature that it would be next to impracticable to try exposing them using secret filming and recording devices.

Instead, knowledge of official procedures for the purchase and supply of equipment and the contracting out of work by government agencies responsible for providing various public services for example, are essential in uncovering cases of official corruption. It is only when investigative reporters have such knowledge, that they can determine if regulations have been breached and how this was done.

Investigative journalism sometimes requires the intellectual capacity to read broadly, analyze and interpret policy documents and closely-guarded official data to be able to expose failed or fumbling government policies which are taunted as successful and cases of public deceit with regard to the implementation of development projects and programmes.

Up and coming investigative journalists should be encouraged to study cases of some of the greatest stories ever done by investigative journalists around the world and acquaint themselves with the research and reporting methods that were used by the journalists who conducted the investigations. They should note the kind of documents that were obtained by the journalists, the interviews that were conducted and the kind of confidential sources they relied upon to uncover illegal, immoral, unethical and corrupt activities.

Email: Georgeabu@hotmail.com

Website: www.sydneyabugri.com