Lesson 13: Going undercover
Lesson 13: Going undercover
In investigative journalism, going undercover means working secretly without revealing yourself as a journalist. This is a long tradition in journalism: as early as 1887 Elizabeth Cochrane took on an assumed name and pretended to be mentally ill in order to spend ten days in a women’s sanatorium in New York (allowing her to uncover the abuse of patients there). Disguise has been a key part of the arsenal of American investigative journalism ever since. In Europe, Günther Wallraff disguised himself as a factory worker in order to expose the terrible conditions experienced by migrant labourers in Germany 128. In the Arab world, Hanan Khandagji disguised herself as a trainee in a Jordanian care home for the disabled as part of a joint BBC-ARIJ investigation into the poor treatment of children in these homes.
This investigation resulted in royal intervention, with the formation of a special high-level committee to deal with the problem. In 2012, Mus’ab Al Shawakbeh disguised himself as a secondary school student, registered for private study and took his exams with the other students. He was able to show that the answers to the most important Jordanian national exam were being leaked systematically and that a black market existed for the purchase of questions and answers. Muhammad Abulghit created fake social media accounts for people looking to buy weapons in Yemen, allowing him to trace the final users of those weapons. His investigation for Deutsche Welle revealed a steady illegal flow of Saudi and Emirati-bought western arms into the hands of groups fighting in Yemen.
None of these examples involved entrapping those involved in the investigation by tricking, bribing or threatening them into making mistakes they would not have made otherwise. If they had, it would compromise the entire investigation. The point is for the journalist to show, precisely and objectively, the existence of a serious and systematic issue. Although there is a very thin line between going undercover and entrapment, journalism is not about setting people up to fail. By setting up an ambush you are indirectly encouraging them to make a mistake – a mistake that they would not have made if not for the ambush. Let’s say you are preparing a report on bribes in a government office and, having disguised yourself as an applicant, offer a clerk who earns 200 dollars a month a sum of 1,000 dollars to process something small. The clerk takes the money, and you secretly film the exchange – despite the possibility that this may be the first time in their life that they have ever taken a bribe.
This is a trap: you have used their humble financial means to incite them to corruption by offering them a sum you know they will almost certainly not be able to resist. Going undercover should be a last resort used only after all other methods have failed you (and you have documented the failure). Undercover work is open to numerous criticisms: it is incompatible with the values of transparency, honesty and protection of the human right to privacy and to choose whether to appear in the media. You should always make it clear to the audience why you have chosen this tool, making sure to always be entirely truthful. There are exceptions to this rule – like telling the truth once you have already established it but you should always be transparent, especially when the facts are controversial or likely to have far-reaching effects. You should never go undercover on a whim or to excite the audience or give them the impression that you are exposing something big. It should be used only under very specific conditions, in ways that are legal, and ethical and do not risk the professional safety of you and your team. Some investigations are riskier than others, and sometimes may even put your life in danger. In these cases you can go undercover, but only after thinking about it carefully and making your reasons for doing so clear.
When going undercover, you should bear the following points in mind:
• The information you hope to acquire should be of great importance to the public and serve the public interest. You should weigh up the costs against the benefit to the public exposing major breaches of law, for example, or systematic mistakes. Going undercover should be used to put an end to ill-treatment, abuse of power and widespread corruption, helping secure justice for the weak and the powerless, guarantee equality of opportunity and the rule of law, and ensure respect for human rights.
• Going undercover should be a final resort to get hold of information. Before turning to undercover work you should have exhausted all of your other options, making sure to document this process carefully.
• Document all your attempts to acquire information by professional and legitimate means. This will play in your favor if you face legal action, and will also help you make your case to your editor, who will have to sign off on you going undercover.
• Do not pretend to have any official position, whether civilian or military, or wear any official uniform that you do not have the right to wear. Impersonating an official is a crime in Arab countries. While investigating a hospital, for example, you cannot impersonate a doctor – but you can pretend to be a patient or accompanying a patient, or a normal visitor. In one investigation into the exploitation of patients by doctors and hospitals in the private medical sector in Jordan, the journalist pretended to be a taxi driver. This is not illegal, because a taxi driver is not a public official.
• Do not entrap people. Consider your approach carefully, objectively and realistically. Make sure that you are not setting your target up to fail by offering them money or power or by threatening or coercing them.
• Always get your editor’s approval. Make your reasons clear. Editors should consider all aspects of the case carefully before agreeing.
• Always have a back-up plan in place in case you or your team are arrested or put at risk. In this case you should contact the emergency team immediately. You should not lie about your identity – it is safest at this point to be honest. This saved Yosri Fouda after he tried to cross from Syria into Iraq illegally after the US invasion and was caught by the Syrian security forces 139.
• When preparing to go undercover, consult a lawyer specialized in media and publication cases and establish any legal problems that might arise after publication. The relevant law varies from country to country. With the help of the lawyer, work out what the damages are likely to be in the event of legal action, and how you can make sure you have the best possible defense.
• When producing the story, always make it clear to the public that you went undercover. Be transparent and honest and explain your decision to do so.
• Always give the person or organization affected by the investigation the chance to respond so that the investigation is fair and just. This may require you to put in place safety precautions or give serious thought to what the best way of doing this is.