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Police backtracks on journalists, encourage completion of drugs theft investigations

"We do encourage them to continue with their documentary programme and achieve their intended objective of exposing their targets, to help prevent such occurrences in future," Police spokesperson Fred Enanga said.

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KAMPALA | Uganda Police Force has acknowledged investigations a team of BBC and NBS Television journalists it earlier arrested were carrying out on allegations of theft and sale of drugs on the black market.

Briefing journalists 24 hours after the arrest of three BBC journalists and the wife of NBS senior investigative reporter Solomon Serwanjja (Vivian Nakaliika Serwanjja), Police said it was “aware of the important role the media plays in investigative reporting… and “highly commend them for their tireless efforts” in fighting corruption.

Sendo Cleaners

“We do encourage them to continue with their documentary programme and achieve their intended objective of exposing their targets, to help prevent such occurrences in future,” Police spokesperson Fred Enanga said.

On Wednesday, Police raided Serwanjja’s home in Mukono but did not find him. Instead, they arrested his wife Nakaliika, ostensibly to help with investigations, leading to much flak for using the wife as a bait to compel Serwanjja out of hiding.

At the Serwanjjas home, Police claimed that a search had recovered 14 boxes of Lumefantrine tablets (used in combination to treat non-severe malaria), vaccines for hepatitis B and other drugs labeled with government seals.

Police said they had raided Serwanjja’s home after the BBC reporters arrested confessed that some of the drugs they had been arrested for purchasing on the black market were at the journalist’s home.

The BBC staffers arrested were Godfrey Badebye, Shafiq Kisame, Rashid Kisame, and Muhammad Kassim.

Serwanjja resurfaced after a day in hiding and recorded a statement at Central Police Station in Kampala before walking out on bond. The four others arrested on Thursday had earlier been freed as well.

And, 48 hours after the controversial arrests that has seen the government taking a stand that it was aware of the investigations, Police acknowledged that NBS Television, in partnership with local correspondents from the BBC, were working on a tip that saw an investigation into 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,” Onyango said in a statement.

But Enanga stressed Police would seek the advice of the Directorate of Public Prosecutions as to whether the journalists, in their quest for a story of essential importance to society, could have breached any rules on the acquisition of government drugs and its safety considerations or not.

NBS said in a statement that it had commissioned an investigation into the allegations that top officials in health agencies were selling Uganda government drugs on the black market and across the borders.

“The main purpose of the investigation was to cast a spotlight on how alleged corruption is aiding Me sale of government drugs. The arrests come at the conclusion stage of the three-week investigation,” Next Media said.

On Thursday, the Executive Director of Uganda Media Centre, Ofwono Opondo, said the government was aware of investigations of the journalists.

“I have spoken to the [Operations] Commander at Kampala Metropolitan Police, Moses Kafeero, and his issue was that the story was going to embarrass government and I disagreed with him,” Opondo, who is also the government spokesperson, said.

As part of efforts to ease the investigations that the journalists suspected involved rackets in top positions in government, they contacted the State House Health Monitoring Unit, although Opondo would later distance the two parties apart, saying State House was not aware the reporters had gone undercover.

Senior Presidential Press Secretary Don Wanyama also admitted that the journalists had contacted the State House Health Monitoring Unit.

“But whether they were working together at the particular point they were arrested,” Wanyama told Crime24 on Thursday.

The reporters were arrested after they went undercover to try and purchase the drugs as part of confirmation of the allegations that they were on the black market. But it appears the cartel leaders had been alerted and tipped Police into action.

Arrest backfires

With the State House aware of what was going on, the government was taken aback when Police swung into action. President Museveni is said to have been angered by arrests and called top berets in Uganda Police demanding answers.

Crime24 senior reporter Jens Mukiibi, at Central Police Station, said the arrests, worse still the controversial baiting of Serwanjja by taking his wife into custody, placed the Police in an awkward position that they found too difficult to explain.

“Here are journalists investigating allegations of theft and sale of government drug supplies, and the Police come in to arrest them. This bungles up the investigations when they are supposed to be facilitating it as part of their mandate,” Mukiibi said.

Mukiibi also cited the medical supplies Police claimed had been recovered from Serwanjja’s home, saying it has left a feeling that they were planted evidence to boost the charges against the journalists.

“The problem now is not just the drugs, but the incidences of those fabricated evidences. In Arua during Bobi Wine’s [Kyaddondo East MP Robert Kyagulanyi] arrest, they paraded guns and ammunition and communication gadgets, and this time drugs,” Mukiibi noted.

Met Police spokesperson Patrick Onyango told this news wire that they would investigate further to establish the source of the drugs found in Serwanjja’s home.

The incident has left many members of the public questioning the motives of the Police, with some suggesting that some unscrupulous powers had used the Force to sabotage investigations that would expose them.

But seeking redemption, Police now says it has created a task force that will build on the available facts on file and reports of the investigative journalists’.

“We are going to establish the culprits behind the alleged theft and sale of government drugs, in these government hospitals and will ensure all suspects that are criminally liable are brought to book,” Enanga said.

The Ministry of Health on Friday said it cannot speculate on the matter until it had a definite finding on the alleged drugs theft and sale on the black market.

“We are shocked and concerned that there are still drug theft rackets operating in the country,” Health ministry senior publicist Emmanuel Ainebyoona said in a brief statement.

However, he said the ministry supports any endeavour that is aimed at helping government to expose individuals involved in stealing government medicines and other commodities.

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