Driven. Passionate. Dogged. Intrepid. These are some of the words that judges of the Uganda National Journalism Awards 2017 use to describe Solomon Serwanjja.
“In an age of declining funding for investigative journalism,” they said during the awards ceremony in April, “Serwanjja stands as a beacon of hope for the craft in Uganda and an example of the capacity of excellent journalism to serve the public good.”
Serwanjja, a reporter at the Kampala-based NBS Television, spent several months in 2016 investigating the narcotics trade in Uganda. The three-part documentary titled ‘The dark world of drugs’ painted a disturbing portrait of the ineptitude of Uganda’s law enforcement officers and the impact of addiction on the country’s youth.
For his effort, Serwanjja was quizzed for information by the police and one of his key sources lives in fear for his life. This, the journalist says, has not altered his mission to tell “stories that matter, stories that will change the narrative of my generation, stories that will impact my children when I am gone.”
ACME sat down with Solomon Serwanjja to discuss his work that snagged him the Exceptional Journalism Award at the Uganda National Journalism Awards 2017.
What inspired the series ‘Dark world of drugs’?
I have a friend whose family was torn apart because of drugs. He got addicted to drugs, started stealing, and lost his job and family. I was very angry. So I wondered, “How do these drugs even get here?”
To answer this, we followed the drugs trail and discovered where they are sold, how they get through security at the post office, the airport and through the borders. We went to Busia district where marijuana is grown on a large scale. We also found out how the business is conducted, how police works with the drug growers and how the drugs are packaged.
In order to get to the root of the trade, we visited a ‘drug island’. For me this was the most risky bit.
Editor’s note: To protect his sources, Serwanjja concealed the name of the island that is located on Lake Victoria.
Tell me about the journey to the island?
I had a very serious conversation with my wife. She told me not to go. When I insisted, I remember her telling me to leave a will because I probably wouldn’t come back alive. But I assured her I’d be back. It rained while we were in the middle of the lake, and the waves were terrible. I remember saying a prayer: “God for everything I have done, forgive me.”’ At that point, I paused to wonder what I was even doing on that boat. Those two hours on Lake Victoria in an old rickety boat were very tough.
In the documentary you used a number of anonymous sources to get valuable information on the drug trade in Kampala, Busia and on ‘Drug Island’. How do you cultivate these sources?
There are lots of people who are willing to tell stories and are looking for a courageous person to tell them. These people are looking for someone to trust and someone who is able to tell that story.
Trust grows with time. It just doesn’t come in a blink of an eye. It’s also very important to protect your sources. I recently checked on ‘Baba’ one of the drug dealers I used as a source. He told me that after the story was aired, he was identified even though we did not name him and masked his face. He told me that he had to move from his home because he wasn’t safe anymore. This broke my heart.
The police also came to my work place after the story was aired. They put me in a tinted car and took me away. They said they had a few questions. They wanted to know why I did the story and demanded that I take them to the drug den I visited. I declined.
How long did it take to put the story together?
It took me six months. Investigative stories take time. My goal is to be able to complete the story and to do it well. I have a lot of pressure from my editors to release a story, but I stand my ground. It’s difficult to penetrate this (drugs) world. So it took a lot of patience and time to convince people to cooperate with me. I had to act like them, dress like them and even talk like them to win their trust. I however draw the line at giving sources money in exchange for information.
At ‘Drug Island’ you went to great lengths to identify with your sources. You posed as a customer, bought and smoked marijuana. Was that necessary?
The best way to tell a story is to be part of it rather than looking at it as an outsider. Get immersed in it; live that story. Sometimes you have to get involved to win the people’s trust. That’s how you can change lives because then you know what they go through.
Tell us about the production process. What role do your editors play in your investigative work?
Investigative stories are very sensitive so I don’t share them with anyone. It’s only between me and my cameraman. I do the production myself. I write the script, voice it, edit, and then I give it to the graphics department to put opening and closing bumpers. When that’s done I call the editors to watch and review the work. It’s not how it should be but that’s the way I prefer it.
So yours is a one-man show?
At the end of the day it’s me who shines, but there is a lot of teamwork behind the scenes. Maurice Mugisha and Williams Kato (of NTV Uganda) are some of the people who helped me build this brand. And then of course I work closely with my cameraman Godfrey Badebye. I have worked with him on many projects. He is one of my inspirations; he directs and produces me. He is the guy behind the lens. He is a young brilliant camera man who tells the story through his lens. He doesn’t have to say a word.
Why is the work you do as an investigative journalist important?
For me, journalism is about changing lives not just about doing stories. It’s about doing stories that matter, stories that will change the narrative of my generation, stories that will impact my children when I am gone.
When you won Exceptional Journalism Award, you wrote posted a celebratory message on Facebook that read in part: “As I make the final walk to the podium to receive my award, the song in the background is “Stand Up for the Champion.” I saw the great men and women in journalism stand up in honour of this dreamer who was living the moment…” Is this it for you? Are you done now that you won the award?
Do you know what it means to be crowned overall of the year? Honouring you among the giants of the media? Everyone wants to be king one day. That day I was crowned king of the journalism world. I am hoping to reign again.
About Solomon Serwanjja
Solomon Serwanjja works with NBS TV as an investigative reporter and news anchor. Away from the newsroom, Serwanjja is a teaching assistant at Makerere University where he teaches broadcast journalism. He has also worked with Magic 100 FM, UBC Television and NTV Uganda.