The detention of Ugandan journalist Solomon Serwanjja and his BBC colleagues by police has stoked debate about the role and ethics of investigative journalism.
Serwanjja and journalists from the BBC were working on an exposé about government drugs that are stolen and sold in the Democratic Republic of Congo, South Sudan and in private health facilities.
The team – Godfrey Badebye, Kassim Mohamad, Rashid Kawesa and their driver Shafiq Kisame – ran in trouble on Wednesday, 6 February after police claimed it had received a tip that the journalists had bought drugs worth Shs5 million from government facilities and were planning to buy more.
They were arrested from various places in Kampala, but Serwanjja remained at large. The police then proceeded to his home where, after failing to find the award winning journalist, arrested his wife Vivian Nakaliika, also a communications officer at the Ministry of Health.
Kampala metropolitan police spokesperson Patrick Onyango said they had found 14 boxes of Lumefantine tablets, Hepatitis B vaccines and other medicines with government seals in Serwanjja’s home. Serwanjja later turned himself in and recorded a statement with police.
After their release on Friday, 8 February, Serwanjja confirmed that the team had in its possession government drugs acquired during their undercover reporting.
The arrest was frowned upon by the public.
Government spokesperson Ofwono Opondo was among the first people to condemn the arrest, pointing to a possibility that there was more to the story than the charge of illegal possession of classified drugs that the police had stated.
Mr Opondo revealed that the journalists were working with the Health Monitoring Unit to investigate the drug theft.
“I am yet to find out the logic why police arrested these journalists, who in my view were helping government to unearth the rot which is in the system,” The EastAfrican newspaper quoted him as saying. “They should be released unconditionally.”
The Health Monitoring Unit, a department under State House, was established by President Museveni in 2009 to deal with health sector challenges by monitoring the management of essential medicines and service delivery.
This is not the first time the theft and sale of government drugs to neighboring countries is being investigated. In August 2018, The Independent journalist Flavia Nassaka, using an ACME reporting grant, went underground in Arua and Kasese districts and documented how government drugs and sundries are smuggled across the border to the DR Congo through collusion between smugglers/middlemen and personnel in government health facilities.
Human Rights Lawyer Nicholas Opiyo juxtaposed the arrest of BBC journalist Catherine Byaruhanga in 2016 while filming Abim hospital to that of Serwanjja and team.
“Three years ago this week @cathkemi of the BBC was arrested for reporting on the state of Abim hospital. Today, a BBC crew is in detention in Uganda for investigating theft of drugs in gov’t hospitals. Is the @PoliceUg part of the racket? Why arrest journalists doing their work?” he tweeted.
Abim Hospital dominated media news from December 2015 after presidential candidate Kizza Besigye paid a visit to the facility during his campaign trail and exposed the hospital’s sorry state and lack of services and personnel. After the widespread media coverage, the hospital, which had not been given a facelift since the 1960s when it was constructed, was renovated in February 2016. Government said the hospital was due for renovation after all.
Dr. Peter Mwesige, the ACME Executive Director, commended Serwanjja for his passion for investigative journalism and condemned the arrest of the journalists.
As the truth about the nature of the journalists’ investigation came to the fore, police made a U-turn. In a statement, police said: “We would like to further acknowledge that Next Media in partnership with local correspondents from the BBC, while working on a tip, independently planned and carried out their operations surrounding the illegal sell of government drugs in selected government hospitals in Arua, Gulu and Kirudu. It is clear that their motive was to show how easy it was to buy government drugs and its conduit.”
However, the charges against the journalists are yet to be dropped and they are expected to reappear at police next month.
Robert Ssempala, the Executive Director of Human Rights Network for Journalists – Uganda, said while the release of the journalists is welcome, clearing them of charges is important.
“We…implore the police to drop the trumped up charges and recognize the value of an independent media in contributing towards the development of a well-informed society,” he said.
Senior presidential press secretary Don Wanyama said the State House Anti-Corruption Unit had “indicated to NBS TV that it’s ready to work with them, on whatever findings they have made, to bring to book anyone found culpable in illegal sale of government drugs”.
While speaking to NBS TV, Serwanjja emphasized the importance of investigative journalism in exposing the rot in society.
“If we all keep quiet about evil going on in our society, and it becomes normal for things to happen the way they are and we do nothing, then we have betrayed our own country…I’m scared, to be honest, but I have to do something about it,” he said.
ACME research on media coverage of public affairs since 2013, shows a persistent dearth in investigative and in-depth reporting, which media players blame on the lack of investment by newsrooms that seem more keen on guarding the business bottom line and keeping hostile government officials, advertisers and individuals off their backs.