‘Ano’ Anonymous ‘Ano’
A Ugandan undercover female journalist has recounted how she planted herself among groups of women trafficked to the Arab World, her account however has sparked a hot debate on journalism ethics. The main subject of the debate was the balancing of objectivity with emotion and the extent to which a journalist can expose his or her life just to get a story.
‘Ano’ Anonymous ‘Ano’, pseudonym to protect her identity, last year applied for an overseas job through a local agent who facilitated her travel to Dubai where she was to work as a housemaid. This presentation was on the first day of the 18th African Investigative Journalism Conference taking place at Wits University, South Africa, this week.
When the girls arrive from Africa they are kept at a ‘reception’ centre in Dubai where the hosts begin the search for placings online, explained Ano. Potential buyers come to the centre to inspect the merchandise, satisfied with the qualities required for work as housemaid, they are then placed. The agent has a reserve price for each of the girls and after negotiations the buyer settles for a price and takes the cargo away.
“My buyer was from Saudi Arabia where I stayed for a month. He wanted to resell me and I refused, preferring to be sent back home. That was the beginning of my troubles. He started to suspect that I was working undercover. Her confronted me by asking who I worked for. That sent me the shivers,” recounted Ano. She was able to create a lie by saying she previously worked for an electronics company, that was after the potential buyer had taken away her cellphone. The Arab man brought his video camera and ordered her to confess her mission in the fashion terrorist groups parade their kidnapped victims on television and in the movies.
“By that time I knew my life had come to an end. However, I insisted that I wanted to return to Uganda,” she said. She said the Arab told her that he had 2500 Ugandan women under his care. He had very strong connections back in Uganda for his trade. She kept on begging the Arab that she wanted to return to Uganda but the man was adamant that he had paid a fortune to get her to the Middle East. Eventually he sent her back to the ‘centre’ where she endured untold suffering and experienced first hand how women were abused by their ‘captors’. From August 2021 to May this year when she was eventually deported she survived months of exposure to various kinds of diseases because there was no sufficient water for the girls to bathe. Food was also very scarce. She said she would never forget the cold nights.
“I saw agents and buyers sexually abusing girls. They fell sick all the time, suffering from very severe ailments.”
Event Observer, an activist group based in Uganda, says evidence suggests that trafficking from the region to the Middle East is being run entirely by East Africans. Ninety-six Ugandan women, mostly children and youth, were stopped at Nairobi’s international airport in January en route to the United Arab Emirates (UAE) for work opportunities. The girls, who lacked proper employment papers, were victims of a well-established human trafficking ring in East Africa, headquartered in Kenya and operating under the guise of employment agencies.
This wasn’t the first such interception. Almost every month, Kenya’s Directorate of Criminal Investigations reports at least one interception involving victims not only from Uganda but also Burundi, Rwanda and to a lesser extent Tanzania. Most of East Africa’s trafficking takes place in and through Kenya.
Ano on the other hand said at these centres the recruitment companies did not want the girls to stay long before a buyer takes them away because of the costs associated with keeping and feeding them. The agents are registered companies back in Uganda who claim to be running business for innocent living.
She told the conference that “I did not just stumble on this story. I had been reporting on human trafficking and talking to victims for five years. It was a story that was being told by the victims but I wanted to tell it from a personal experience. I planned my move and did desk research. After understanding the issues, I decided to get trafficked as a domestic worker to Dubai.”
She said before signing up to be trafficked, she had interviewed victims of human trafficking who had been trafficked to Oman, Jordan and Saudi Arabia, and returned to Uganda with visible wounds and shared horror stories of torture and sexual harassment.
Ano works for New Vision in Uganda. After the first series of her stories, the Ugandan president ordered the state house anti-corruption unit to launch investigations immediately, especially how girls were trafficked through Entebbe International Airport.
“I was also invited at the panel by African Investigative Journalism Conference (AIJC2020) to present the same story. It was nominated in the 2020 top 10 Investigative podcasts in investigative journalism network (GIJN) from Africa in the whole world. It was also nominated in the Fetisov global media awards 2020.
African Investigative Journalism Conference is the largest annual gathering of investigative journalists on the continent. Three days of sharing great stories, discussing the challenges we face in the field, training, networking, and setting up collaborations, and will offer inspiring talks, engagement, and cutting-edge training in a range of skills.
Participants were however worried that the extent of which the undercover investigation reached exposed the journalists to extreme danger. Some felt it was important to revisit the boundaries of journalism especially when non journalists contributed in the gathering of facts. This was because she was unable to take notes at all times while undercover and relied entirely on those she was locked up with. However, Ano insisted that she was able to organise her notes her own way as evidenced by the published series.
Ghanaian journalist Anas Aremeyaw Anas, another undercover journalist of note who covered stories ranging from prisons where he posed as a Catholic priest to mental sanctuaries where he was admitted as a patient, warned his colleagues to think drastically before embarking on such stories. “Don’t get carried away, spare your life,” he said.