While journalists are expected to tell the truth and verify facts, sometimes they feel the only way to reveal wrongdoing is to go undercover.

By Lebogang Molefe

The role of undercover journalism has become the topic of much debate. Sometimes journalists infiltrate communities by posing as one of them. Their belief is that it is in the “public interest”. However, many see journalism in the “public interest” as unethical when reporters resort to using undercover ruses to get stories.

At times undercover reporters pretend to be someone else to penetrate state control of access to official information, or to access areas most people are unaware of. Rana Ayyub, an undercover journalist in India told how she received no support from her organisation while she was working on a breaking story involving a government minister. Even after eight months working undercover her editor ignored her determination to get the story because of censorship pressure from the Indian government. This resulted in her publishing a book entitled Gujarat Files: Anatomy of a Cover Up.

“The rejection of my article led me to write my own book because I needed to expose him. All the Indian media editors attended the launch, but none of them spoke about it after,” Rana noted.

With no help from anyone, Rana went undercover, had sleepless nights and stopped eating. She had to completely change her identity, which included getting fake documents and deleting all her social media accounts. She lied to people, sanitised her phone to remove finger prints and went around with six micro cameras plugged in around her body.

While journalists are expected to tell the truth and verify facts, sometimes they feel the only way to reveal wrongdoing is to go undercover.

Fisayo Soyobo, a journalist in Nigeria, secretly recorded mortuary workers asking for a bribe by pretending he was looking for his uncle’s corpse. He told them he had heard he had passed away. He said the reason he went undercover was to access vital information about poor services in Nigerian mortuaries.

PHOTO: Lkhagva Erdene (left) the executive producer of news at MongolTV and Fisayo Soyombo (centre) editor for International Centre for Investigative Reporting (ICIR) greet a delegate after their session on undercover reporting.
Photo: Chante Schatz