Undercover journalism – its potential and risks

By: Zama Myeza and Kamohelo Mohlominyane

Working as an undercover journalist can be detrimental to one’s psychological and emotional well-being. Once the scoop is published, people often don’t think about the people on the other side of the disguise.

Undercover journalists give up more than just their time and identity to get their exclusive stories. Journalists working this beat shared their harrowing stories at the 18th African Investigative Journalism Conference on October 31, 2022.

Many journalists risk their lives by going undercover. This results in many opting to become anonymous journalists in order to protect themselves from the dangers of the profession. Going only by ‘anonymous’, a freelance journalist from Uganda spoke about how she was sold as a slave and later became a domestic worker in Dubai.

The aim of her investigation was to find out what was happening to the people who were kidnapped in her country. She discovered that most were sold at what they call “the slave market” in Dubai. When the time to be sold approached, pictures were taken and posted online for potential buyers to see. She was sold for six thousand dollars to be a domestic worker in the country. She recounted her cover nearly being blown and her life being at stake as a result.

Anonymous also touched on the discouragement she faced as a woman working undercover. Her superiors not having much faith in her and her abilities affected her work. Getting her stories published was an uphill battle as not many could fathom that she truly went through what she said she did.

Speaking about the psychological effects of this line of work, Anas Aremeyaw Anas spoke about a recent investigation which tested his limits. AnaAnas had himself committed to a psychiatric facility, under the pretence of being a catholic priest in need of help. To keep his observation skills alive, he had to resist the influence of prescribed drugs. “I had to take caffeine-orientated drugs so that I didn’t fall asleep when they give me sleeping injections,” Anas said. Besides the physical and mental ramifications, Anas had to defend 66 lawsuits after this investigation.

Johannesburg-based Everson Luhangafor, one of the few undercover journalists whose identity is not sheltered, was present at the conference. His investigation into illegal mining uncovered some of the key buyers in the illegal mining industry. During his investigation, his personal protection was never guaranteed as some police officers work hand-in-hand with the illegal miners, or ‘zama zamas’ as they are known. “Undercover journalism is not a cup of tea. You need to be able to think on your feet in order to not get discovered,” Luhangafor said.

Many are not familiar with the dangers of being an undercover journalist. Lives are put at risk just to uncover the truths around some of the dealings that occur in our communities. The truth is not free, and we should remember that when engaging with the work produced by undercover investigative journalists.


Edited by Pheladi Sethusa and Catherine White