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BBC Africa Eye undercover investigation codeine cough syrup black market
BBC Africa Eye undercover investigation codeine cough syrup black market

A BBC Africa Eye undercover reporter (left) secretly recording a purchase of codeine cough syrup through a black market dealer. Image: Screenshot, YouTube; BBC Africa Eye



Going Undercover in Africa: Tips from Recent Investigations

To uncover the truth, journalists across Africa occasionally have to turn to covert methods — undercover reporting. It is a risky, last-ditch gambit, but frequently the only one that can reveal secrets that would otherwise remain untold.

Journalists in Africa face repression and silencing from state and non-state actors. The Reporters Without Borders 2024 World Press Freedom Index noted in its Africa analysis the alarming trends for violence against the press during elections and the increasing political control of the media in several countries. Laws passed ostensibly to address cyber crime are being used as a weapon to persecute journalists, while transparency laws remain toothless in practice. Going undercover may be essential to produce certain stories.

To better understand how to use this tactic, GIJN spoke to investigative journalists in Africa who have produced groundbreaking investigations with undercover reporting and who offer insights for reporters who might need to go undercover — including how to decide when a story justifies such methods.

Despite its controversial nature, putting on a disguise can sometimes bring a journalist a step closer to exposing wrongdoing. ‘Fisayo Soyombo, a Nigerian investigative reporter and founder of the nonprofit Foundation for Investigative Journalism, has demonstrated this by going undercover for several blockbuster stories.

His latest exposé employed clandestine methods to reveal how corrupt Nigerian customs officials help smugglers bring illegal items and arms into the country — by informing them about customs patrol movements and schedules. Soyombo relied on secret filming to shed light on the operation. Going undercover as a smuggler, he brought 100 bags of rice from Benin into Nigeria and was able to record footage of the rice being loaded onto motorcycles — and the smugglers’ route into Nigeria through the forest on a day customs officials told them it would be unpatrolled.

To Film or Not to Film?

‘Fisayo Soyombo founded the nonprofit Foundation for Investigative Journalism in June, 2020. Image: Courtesy of Soyombo

Soyombo is sensitive to the potential problems involved with these kinds of non-transparent reporting methods, calling the debate about them “an age-long argument that will not disappear anytime soon.”

Still, he said he balances any temporary deception against the need to inform the public about wrongdoing.

“As long as [there is no] entrapment and it serves the public interest, there is nothing unethical about secret filming,” said Soyombo. “The ethics question becomes valid when the subject has been entrapped, or when the journalist isn’t motivated by the public’s right to know. Imagine me filming prison wardens and court officials asking me, an undercover journalist investigating the Nigerian justice system, to pay bribes so I can sleep in my house rather than in court as ruled by the magistrate. You have to ask yourself which is more important: the controversy of secret filming or the enhancement of the public’s right to know?”

Soyombo received a death threat after Undercover as a Smuggler was published — and not his first. Assessing the likelihood and specifics of threats arising from your published work is an element of pre-field risk analysis, he explained. “But that risk analysis should not end there. It should continue long after the story has been published. If you’re doing investigative work, you’re publishing what someone doesn’t want the public to know, and you have to understand that they’re not going to sit in their homes, cross their legs, and applaud you after you’ve released your story.”

FIJ story Undercover as a Smuggler

Investigative reporter ‘Fisayo Soyombo received a death threat after the publication of his story on undercover smuggling along Nigeria’s borders. Image: Screenshot, Foundation for Investigative Journalism

‘Obey’ the Story, Adapt to the Culture

Undercover investigations can take a toll on journalists’ physical and mental health, and access to mental health support can sometimes be hard to come by.

When Nigerian investigative journalists Ruona J. Meyer and Adejuwon Soyinka were working on the documentary “Sweet, Sweet Codeine” for BBC Africa Eye in 2019 — which examined Nigeria’s codeine cough-syrup addiction crisis and became the first Nigerian documentary to be nominated for an Emmy Award — Meyer encountered first-hand the realities of drug addiction in northern Nigeria. Meyer and Soyinka also took great physical risks to go undercover — for instance, as codeine dealers to meet with gang members. Using the cover story that Soyinka was a businessman who wanted to sell cough syrup to students and children and that Meyer was his secretary, they also clandestinely filmed meetings with pharmaceutical industry executives selling the prescription-only syrup on the black market.

Meyer turned to fellow journalists for guidance and support while working on the film. “I have a system where I constantly debrief with two [trusted] senior colleagues outside the organization. They usually give me unbiased advice,” said Meyer. “I would tell them where I was going, what I was going to shoot, and with whom, and they would help me examine possible biases I might have and help me with examples of coping strategies. When I return, I also tell them how things went so they give encouragement and support,” she added.

Reporter Ruona J. Meyer had to partner with a male colleague to conduct undercover filming of Nigeria’s illegal codeine cough syrup market because the local culture would have been suspicious of a lone woman posing as a dealer. Image: Courtesy of Meyer

Above all, she said, “obey” the story — focus on serving the audience and the public. “The need of the story must always supersede one person. Some investigations go against government agencies, and some investigations have to collaborate with them — and if the need for change calls for [collaboration], then that is what the journalist must do,” she said.

She also noted the importance of adapting to the culture you’re covering. “I remember my sources telling me I would stand out if I went as a lone, female codeine dealer. This is a man’s world. And so, I had to collaborate with male journalists, wear my hidden camera, and act as [Soyinka’s secretary] when we went undercover because that is what the story called for,” she explained.

Fail to Plan, Plan to Fail

Evans Aziamor-Mensah, an investigative reporter with The Fourth Estate and Fact-Check Ghana, in his office. Image: Courtesy of Aziamor-Mensah

Last year, Ghanaian investigative reporters Evans Aziamor-Mensah and Adwoa Adobea-Owusu, writing for The Fourth Estate, exposed the computerized fraud enabling a “market” for buying student placements at top high schools in Ghana.

While in the field for this story — which eventually led to a wave of arrests — Evans had a problem with one of his devices and wasn’t able to record. He then met Adobea-Owusu in a washroom, where they discussed what to do next. They had brought an extra recording device out with them to be prepared for this exact problem.

“Consider a backup plan,” said Aziamor-Mensah. “You need to know what kinds of devices to use to get your recordings if you lose it on one of them. Also, the backup can be a person, so should there be any unforeseen circumstances [they] can cover for you and come to your rescue.”

Echoing Meyer’s opinion on the importance of adapting to the culture, he said the best way to work out an undercover story is to try to resemble as much as possible the people you want to expose. “If you want to embed yourself [among] soldiers, you need a uniform with a similar appearance. If you wear something different, you’ll definitely look odd.”

Fourth Estate Ghana secret filiming student placement bribes

The Fourth Estate Ghana secretly filmed officials accepting bribes and counting money from parents seeking to place students in preferred high schools. Image: Screenshot, YouTube, Joy News; The Fourth Estate Ghana

The Power of Film

At the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic in Kenya, police enforcing the government’s stay-at-home order employed heavy-handed tactics, such as beating people caught outside their homes. Fatalities connected with curfew enforcement sparked public outrage and prompted filmmaker and journalist Elijah Kanyi to kick off an undercover BBC Africa Eye investigation documenting police brutality in Nairobi titled “The Bullet and the Virus.”

Elijah Kanyi. Image: Courtesy of Kanyi

Kanyi believes film can tell stories in ways other formats can’t. “People talk about something, but there is a power in showing, and [in people] believing what they see,” Kanyi said. “For The Bullet and Virus, I positioned myself in a strategic place and said, ‘I just want to report the situation generally,’ without telling [the police] I wanted to expose their wrongdoing. That’s how I managed to camp with them at night and tell the whole story. If I had told them earlier that I was there to expose wrongdoing, they would have chased me away.”

He also said that working with the right team for undercover investigations is crucial, and he recommends working with a local fixer or producer. “A fixer should be someone who understands the area better than you, who has a deep knowledge of what the locals speak and can blend in with them.”

Digital surveillance of journalists by government agencies is a widespread practice in African countries, unfortunately. Kanyi, who discovered that his phone was being tracked while he was working on an investigation exposing cigarette smuggling on the Kenya-Uganda border, advises journalists planning to go undercover in dangerous or sensitive areas to work with a team that has access to their devices remotely — so they can monitor any phone tracking or unusual activity and protect the devices from further attacks or compromise.

Meyer agreed: “Digital safety requires awareness of the options available for protection, and also awareness of the ways we self-sabotage our own safety as journalists online,” she said.

(Lack of) Freedom of Information: When Governments Don’t Respond

Bettie Kemah Johnson-Mbayo. Image: Courtesy of Johnson-Mbayo

When Liberian journalist Bettie Kemah Johnson-Mbayo was working on a story for ZAM to uncover the undeclared wealth of Liberian political candidates, she made freedom of information (FOI) requests to the Liberia Anti-Corruption Commission (LACC) to get access to politicians’ asset declarations, but received no response. She then turned to records from the National Electoral Commission, and said she also had to “go on-ground” [undercover] to complete her investigation, posing several times as a county official or as a student researcher to verify declared assets.

“Though Liberia has an active FOI law, responses are usually scarce. The law provides for 30 days, and even that is prolonged,” explained Johnson-Mbayo. “Getting information from public institutions is always a challenge, so I urge journalists to go undercover after a reasonable time — and they must try to gather other needed information to complete their story,” Johnson-Mbayo added.

As in Liberia, Nigerian authorities, in defiance of the freedom of information laws, have repeatedly blocked public transparency efforts and failed to respond to FOI requests made by news organizations.

Know the Law

Madeleine Ngeunga, Africa Editor for the Pulitzer Center, suggested journalists focus on investigating environmental crime, because it’s a rich beat with much to uncover. In that field, knowing the law is immensely helpful, she said. When she worked on a 12-month-long investigation co-published by InfoCongo, Le Monde, and the Pulitzer Center — which revealed the cooperation between forest communities and illegal loggers in Cameroon’s rainforest and that involved recording secret footage of timber transport trucks — her knowledge of local logging laws helped her find an angle.

“It helps to focus on a specific aspect of the issue. This makes your work easier when you finally go in the field,” said Ngeunga. She added that one should not underestimate the help a source can provide to an investigation — or where they might be found. “The source might be a driver, but he understands how the crime you want to expose works. Take everyone involved and [related to the investigation] seriously,” she said.

Madeleine Ngeunga, Africa Editor for the Pulitzer Center.

Madeleine Ngeunga, Africa Editor for the Pulitzer Center. Image: Courtesy of Ngeunga

On a final note, Soyombo advised that the decision to go undercover should not be taken lightly: “If you’re not fully mentally and psychologically prepared for it, don’t go undercover,” he said. “If you can get your story without going undercover, that should be the first option. I have written many non-undercover investigations,” he added. “Going undercover should be reserved for stories that cannot be pursued any other way.

“The rest of the world moves on after the story has been published. For the journalist, however, the scars are sometimes eternal.”

Mohammed Taoheed, undercover reporterMohammed Taoheed is a Nigerian freelance journalist covering stories at the intersection of conflict, misinformation, climate change, geopolitics, development, and social dynamics. He has been published on the International Journalists Network, Media Diversity Institute UK, International Policy Digest, Premium Times, Foundation for Investigative Journalism, and elsewhere. He has undertaken media fellowships and/or won reporting grants from Center for Journalism, Innovation and Development (CJID), Wole Soyinka Centre for Investigative Journalism (WSCIJ), the International Centre for Investigative Reporting (ICIR), and the Liberalist Centre for Education, among others.


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