In October 2004, I found myself behind the locked gates of the Bang Kwang Central -- Thailand's maximum-security prison. Known in popular culture as the 'Bangkok Hilton', the prison houses about 8,000 inmates. Each new inmate mandatorily wears a leg iron for three months.
Inside the jail, I gestured the sign of the cross as I repeated to a line of prisoners: "Through God's mercy and the ministry of the Church... I absolve you of all your sins... in the name of the Father and of the Son... and of the Holy Spirit".
Cloaked in a cassock, I was doing what prison chaplains do -- offering penitence to convicts. Each of those convicts was either on death row or serving life sentences as drug couriers. Many of them were Ghanaian prisoners who told me about their suffering under the hands of the prison guards. They gave me details of how a colleague died the previous week from fork wounds inflicted by a prison guard. I made my notes for a story, and carefully exited the locked gates when my work was done.
To the prison guards, I was a priest. To the prisoners, I was a fellow Ghanaian who spoke their language and listened to their stories. To my editor back in Ghana, I was the reporter assigned to get a story in Thailand that would convince my government to take action. I was working undercover, doing what some academics call "high-risk, high-reward journalism".
Long before that day in Bang Kwang Central, I got my first job as a newspaper reporter. In the newsroom, I quickly got frustrated at the responses by politicians, cops and spin-doctors over the truth in the stories many journalists write. "We need evidence to take action," they'd say. I took those responses as a call to diligence, one that required reporting with convincing details even in worlds without open access. It was often at some grave personal risk.
In my TEDTalk, I tell the full story of how it all started. I look back on over 14 years of my undercover reporting. There have been high and low points, but one thing that remains is the kind of impact this kind of journalism brings. As a method of last resort, I always ensure I gather hardcore evidence whenever I get into a story. It is the kind of evidence that fits my three-tier mantra of "naming, shaming and jailing" the villains in my stories.
Over the years, I have heard and sat through the sermonizing of numerous apostles of ethics. "There's some deception in there," is what they often say. What they fail to convey is the fact that my kind of journalism is not aimed at the honest, transparent and law-abiding citizen or government. Their reasoning never takes into consideration one reality: closed and dark the world would always remain, if there's no way to lift the lid or shine a light.
How else could the plight of kids in Orphans Home of Hell be made known, when their caregivers violated their basic human rights? When some nurses in a psychiatric hospital maltreat patients and sell narcotic drugs to others, who can tell the story for the victims? How else can a nation begin the discussion on abortion rights and effective health care policy, if the abortion sex doctor who keeps having sex with girls before as a condition for illegal abortion is not exposed?
It is always a joy to reflect on how the efforts by Lincoln Steffens, Nellie Bly, Ida Tarbell, Upton Sinclair and other muckrakers helped inject sanity into their society. In Africa, I see how the efforts of my formidable editor, Abdul Malik Kweku Baako, Sierra Leone's Sorious Samura, Kwaku Sakyi-Addo and many other journalists continue to shape the destiny of a continent.
Less than a year after I left Bang Kwang, my story engendered numerous debates by Ghanaian legislators in parliament. It eventually led to the passage of the Transfer of Convicted Persons Bill into law. The law now enables some Ghanaians convicted outside the country to serve their sentences in Ghana.
A colleague recently drew my attention to the total views of my TEDTalk, and then he showed me a comment by one viewer. It was a quote from Edmund Burke: "Nobody made a greater mistake than he who did nothing because he could do only a little." My colleague smiled. He knew when it all started.
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