Click here to read an original op-ed from the TED speaker who inspired this post and watch the TEDTalk below.
Gutsy, focused, determined, foolhardy, dangerous, and unethical could be apt descriptions of Anas Aremeyaw Anas, who has spent 14 years as an undercover reporter shedding light on issues that are common in developing countries, including in the Middle East/North Africa region.
Investigative journalism is a complex undertaking requiring courage, perseverance, proper planning and full appreciation of the dangers it represents.
Corruption in any country invariably involves collusion by some form of authority or other, thereby enabling wrongdoers to get away with it. There are ample examples.
When corrupt government officials and/or citizens are uncovered, it often requires gargantuan efforts to ensure they get their comeuppance.
Anas demonstrated in his TEDTalk he is on a mission to uproot corruption.
The question then arises: Is he a journalist, an activist, or a vigilante? Where does one draw the line between investigative journalism and activism, albeit to protect society from malfeasants?
It's a recurring problem I've faced as a journalist and as a trainer of journalists.
I recently co-trained and mentored enthusiastic young journalists from several Arab countries in Morocco who had embarked on enterprising cross-border investigative projects covering such issues as human trafficking, prostitution, sales of black market medicines, child marriage, and illegal immigration, to name a few topics.
The journalists participating in the "boot camp" presented strong cases for wanting to right the wrongs in their respective societies.
But they needed guidance in how to gather and curate data, how to work as teams, how to incorporate social media in their projects, how to avoid ethical traps, and how to package their reports in a credible fashion.
How far can one push the envelope without opening a can of worms on issues of privacy, human rights, children's rights? -- Magda Abu-Fadil
Anas talked of "immersion journalism" and demonstrated how far he was willing to go to obtain hard evidence to back his claims of corruption.
But that can be a double-edged sword.
It's one of those critical thinking questions I always pop: How far can one push the envelope without opening a can of worms on issues of privacy, human rights, children's rights?
How does one balance the public's right to know and protecting society from corruption, against the possibility of breaking a country's laws, invading people's inner sanctum, and maybe implicating innocent bystanders through guilt by association?
While I strongly encourage journalists in developing countries to pursue investigative/undercover projects, I always caution them to familiarize themselves with their countries' laws, their news organizations' regulations, to ensure they have support from their bosses, they know how to take preventive measures to protect themselves, and they keep media ethics in mind.
Anas' bio identifies him as an undercover journalist and private eye. It's important to state that he's an investigative journalist. Private eye equals private investigator to the layperson and could be misinterpreted to mean "Columbo" of TV series fame.
Anas apparently worked closely with the police to bust killers of babies with deformities and arrest criminals who use body parts of albinos to produce "magic" potions.
"My journalism is about hard core evidence," Anas said and provided examples of how he collected it.
But what if the authorities were in collusion with the criminals, and what if they accused him of fabricating his evidence, doctoring photos, and creating bogus videos?
Key traditional media have fallen in the trap of fabricated evidence by their investigative journalists. They've even doctored content in wars and conflict situations.
During the 2006 "July War" on Lebanon when Israel unleashed all hell, fire and damnation on the country after Hezbollah kidnapped and killed Israeli soldiers, a Reuters photographer used Photoshop to darken the smoke of fires resulting from Israeli bombing. He was later fired.
Given the ubiquitous use of social media and blogs, citizen journalists, activists and traditional media have been walking a fine line of disseminating content whose authenticity was questionable.
Events in the so-called Arab Spring countries and the conflict in Syria are cases in point. Investigative and straight news reports' veracity is under constant inspection.
There's also the issue of entrapment. How far does a journalist go to prove his/her point and does it constitute entrapment of law enforcement officers, citizens, and others?
Should Anas, or any reporter, offer a bribe to prompt someone to commit an illegality and then catch the culprit red-handed and report about it? Big question.
Then again, I'm gratified by the Yemeni journalist who complained about rampant corruption in his country and said he'd learned more in a five-day investigative workshop I'd conducted than in four years of journalism school.
He was inspired after watching the movie All the President's Men that I showed him and his colleagues (with Arabic subtitles) and went on to prove his determination by conducting an excellent investigation of child warriors and their recruiters.
A silver lining behind a dark cloud.
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