London-based medical writer Maria Cheng revealed the largest internal investigation conducted by the World Health Organization in years — over allegations by WHO staffers in Syria that their boss mismanaged millions of dollars, plied government officials with gifts and acted frivolously as COVID-19 swept the country.
Cheng got a tip last November about misconduct in the Syria office from a WHO source who claimed to have hundreds of documents proving misappropriation of funds. That source sent plenty of financial documents, but they didn't tell the full story. Then the AP published a January piece about WHO’s Western Pacific director berating his staff using racist language. That prompted other sources got in touch with Cheng to say that she should dig into the WHO situation in Syria.
She spent months of talking to dozens of people, trying to persuade them to share proof. While vacationing near Geneva in July, Cheng spent a few extra days meeting WHO sources, including some from Syria. She hadn’t met these people before, but after one lakeside lunch a source shared hard copies of files, and recordings of meetings at which Dr. Akjemal Magtymova repeatedly called her staff “cowards” and “retarded,” as well as some raw footage used to make dance videos.
Finally, when AP broke the news in August that WHO had put the Western Pacific director on leave, sources in Syria who had previously been reluctant to talk recognized that AP’s reporting on that case had led to concrete action. They provided more documentation about Magtymova’s management practices in Syria, and Cheng had her exclusive.
The story won massive play in the Middle East and WHO dispatched an ethics team to Cairo, while major AP competitors reached out to congratulate Cheng on her scoop.