Deep Cover—Makeshift
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A Ghanaian journalist goes way undercover to document criminal activity

— Deep Cover

08. Copycats Dispatches

An arm sliced off just above the elbow sits in a glass display case in the dimly lit office. Its white skin gives to the touch, and the palm lines are so clear a fortune teller could predict its future. Bone shards and sliced muscles protrude at the arm’s end, where it seems a harsh cut tore the skin. It is small; it could have belonged to a child.

The albino arm was so real it convinced both the criminals and the border guards at the Tanzanian airport. When Anas Aremeyaw Anas pulls it from the display case, he gasps with pride. “We look for the best in the world to build,” he says. “Feel it and see. Does it feel real?”

Anas uses tools like this arm to catch criminals at the source. For his documentary in Tanzania, he used the fake albino arm to scare witch doctors claiming to use the body parts in their concoctions.The investigative journalist uses hidden cameras stored in buttons, pens, and electrical outlets. He stakes out the corrupt and sets up scenarios to film the evidence. And occasionally, going to extraordinarily creative lengths, takes on new personalities to get the right information.

Anas, after all, is a journalist with a mission. Working for Al Jazeera, CNN, the New York Times, local media, and occasionally with private support, Anas and intricately disguised work have earned international acclaim and much hatred, particularly from exposing traffickers of body parts, murderers, scam artists, and drug dealers across Africa.

In his native Ghana, he is something of an underground superhero, yet few know the real him. Despite the fame of his name, few would recognize his face. In his documentaries, a silhouette or carefully tilted hat shields his face. When he speaks in public, he wears a mask, or switches to a trusty disguise—hidden even as himself. Many versions of Anas have appeared on the streets of Accra, the dusty and bustling capital city of the West African country. He’s dressed as a hawker paying bribes to policemen. He’s worked in a factory to reveal tainted products. He’s gone to jail to secretly film inhumane inmate conditions. He even dressed up as a rock to capture illegal cocoa smuggling.

A fake baby, just one of the mimicry tricks thought up by Anas

A fake baby, just one of the mimicry tricks thought up by Anas

Anas admits his journalistic techniques are controversial and anything but typical. But it has to be that way.

“When you are dealing with bad guys in the society and you take a swipe at them and you miss, you embolden them,” he says, leaning on the edge of his desk. “I have no time for that. If I pick a story that I want to do, I do it well and ensure that you go behind bars.” He says his work is built on three principles: naming, shaming, and jailing. Predictably, this approach has collected many enemies along the way.

Inside his private office, a television screen split in quarters shows live video of the hallways, stairwells, and street below. The glass balcony door is covered with a plank painted in white, and curtains shield the light from another small window.

The office is marked only with a small sticker on a door, at the top of a non-descript building in Accra. He keeps security running 24/7, and during some investigations he won’t sleep in the same bed each night. “The threats are not imag- ined,” Anas says. “They are real.”  When he goes undercover, he makes sure he does it right. This, he says, can take months to prepare, sometimes costing more than the entire documentary film.

“You have to spend four months just learning a language just because you want to appear more credible,” he says. That was for a project he’s still working on. He won’t say what it’s about.

“If you want to build a prosthetic mask, depending on the operation you want to undergo, it’s not built in a day,” he says. “When it comes and you want to wear it, you want to be sure that you are comfortable with it. How long? Depending on the investigation, you might need to wear it for a while. You want to go out with it.”

Anas consults experts from around the world to help him create his disguises. He rarely talks about them though, since the secrecy is crucial to his success.

While working on an investigation about illegal logging in Sierra Leone, Anas played the part of a wealthy businessman trying to open a logging operation during a nationwide ban. He said it was one of his most difficult roles to play.

Anas keeps his real identity in the shadows

Anas keeps his real identity in the shadows

He and a colleague met with numerous political staff, passing through security checkpoints. They were told the only man who could get them the permission was the vice president himself. Anas says he must have evidence to do his job right, which meant he had to smuggle secret cameras into the meeting with the vice president.

“I had to go through a lot of security checks. I had to escape that,” he says, adding that consequences could have been dire if he were caught with a video camera. Taking on new personalities in order to take on corrupt adversaries, his techniques have to be airtight; he has to truly become a different person.

The hallways in Anas’ office are lined with yellowing newspaper articles pasted to boards, some outlined with shiny gold ribbon, others decorated with sparkles. Many articles report his investi- gations, awards, and successes. But others adorning the wall show scorn, criticism, and gossip.

“They always tell you that the world has two sides,” Anas says, overlooking the irony that he has lived dozens of lives. “When they are telling you you are a hero, it shouldn’t induce in you a sense of complacency. There is always more work to be done.”

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08. Copycats Dispatches