Govt now changes position on working with journalists investigating drug theft

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CORRUPTION | The government has changed its position regarding the arrest of three BBC journalists and the wife of NBS Television senior investigative reporter Solomon Serwanjja.

On Thursday, the Executive Director of Uganda Media Centre, Ofwono Opondo, told Al Jazeera correspondent based in Nairobi, Kenya, that the journalists were working undercover in conjunction with State House Health Monitoring Unit to investigate theft and sale of government prescription drugs in South Sudan and DR Congo.

Sendo Cleaners

Opondo would reiterate the stance while appearing on NBS Television’s Frontline talk show Thursday night, that he had spoken to Serwanjja twice in the course of the day and that the reporter, who went missing until a few hours ago, was alive and okay.

“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.

However, hours before Police released the journalists Friday morning, Uganda Media Centre changed the explicit message its executive director gave out Thursday, indicating instead that the journalists had indeed contacted State House Health Monitoring Unit to collaborate on tracking service delivery and medicines but that the two parties hadn’t concluded an agreement on which to work together.

“Instead, the journalists went out to purchase government drugs and were arrested. The Health Monitoring Unit isn’t, therefore, part of their action,” the Media Centre said in a brief statement posted on its official social media handles.

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.

NBS Television 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, the proprietors of NBS Television, said.

On Wednesday night, Police stormed the home of Serwanjja and arrested his wife Vivian Nakaliika after failing to find him. The Police also arrested BBC journalists Passim Mohammed, Rashid Naweesa, and Godfrey Badebye (cameraman) as well as their driver Shafiq Kisame.

Police said the journalists were arrested while buying classified drugs in Makindye, a city suburb.

Classified drugs are used by entities whose detailed engagements are never revealed in public such as State House and the military.

Sources have since claimed that the drugs that landed the journalists in trouble were those meant for UPDF soldiers during Tarehe Sita anniversary celebrations that took place on Wednesday.

The UPDF are yet to comment on the matter, but Makindye is a military bastion housing some of the principle military installations of the country.

At the media briefing on Thursday, Police admitted they were not fully aware that the persons they were onto were journalists operating undercover to bust a major drug supplies cartel.

“We didn’t know they were journalists but after recording their statement we have known that.
Our investigations will tell us I indeed they were carrying out an investigation on some story,” Patrick Onyango, the Met Police spokesperson, said in response to a question from a journalist on why the alleged drug seller was not arrested alongside the alleged buyers.

Journalists released, Serwanjja back

The three BBC journalists and Vivian Serwanjja have since been released on police bond, while Serwanjja later resurfaced and reported to Central Police Station in Kampala to record a statement.

He had also earlier spoken to his employer media station about his ordeal.

“I have had the longest week of my entire life. I have been scared and worried since the arrest of my colleagues. That night, my wife told me they had surrounded the house. I told her not to open until our lawyers came in the morning,” Serwanjja told NBS TV.

“I feel bad my wife was dragged into this. It is not fair. It is also very dangerous for her, especially since she is the Ministry of Health spokesperson. I am worried about her job and safety.”

Nakaliika is the behavioural change communication specialist at the ministry.

Meanwhile, the Ministry of Health says it cannot speculate on the matter until we they get a complete information on what is going on.

“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.

Police are due to brief the media on the latest development on the matter that it appears to have been mishandled and leaves the law enforcement agency appear as if it is protecting the interests of criminal elements the media investigations would have exposed.

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