Ugandan Journalist - Investigative Reporting Has 'Power to Transform Lives'

Ugandan journalist Solomon Serwanjja has seen first-hand how investigative reporting can bring change. His coverage of shady foreign adoptions led to legal reform.

Now, as executive director of the African Institute for Investigative Journalism, he is using his 14-plus years of experience to train the next generation of reporters.

"I started as a young reporter, just passion driving me," Serwanjja told VOA. "Done some amazing stories, some of which have put me in trouble, but with those, there have come several celebrations and awards."

Journalists in Uganda face a multitude of challenges. Alongside attacks or kidnappings, reporters must navigate restrictive laws and risk arrest or threats if they look too closely at powerful figures, media watchdogs say.

But, said Serwanjja, "Investigative journalism has the power to transform lives; just one single story can really change and turn things around."

"We've seen how so many investigative stories led to the resignation of people in places of power," he said. "We've seen the corrupt arrested because of investigative journalism."

Still, the space for media to do that work is shrinking.

Uganda has a relatively liberal media market that, according to Raymond Mujuni, has seen "tremendous growth" in the past 15 to 20 years.

But the deputy director for the African Institute for Investigative Journalism and head of current affairs at the Nation Media Group, told VOA, "The environment in which this journalism is practiced has increasingly been reducing, as has all the other civic spaces in Uganda."

Mujuni said that while tremendous progress has been secured for free expression and respect for media, "you find tons of journalists who have been arrested just for doing their job."

"Security services have often interfered with how journalists do their work; you find media owners closely linked to the government who are uncomfortable with the nature of journalism and prefer censorship," he said. "So it's a crisis of contradictions ... we have a liberal legal space to practice this journalism. But the current environment restricts our journalists."

Legal reform

For Serwanjja, the high point of his career was his work exposing an illegal adoption racket in Uganda for NTV Uganda in 2013, titled "Taken and never returned."

"Lawyers in town were going down to the villages and taking pictures of young girls and boys and trying to convince their parents that they're going to get them sponsors," Serwanjja said. In reality, they were "advertising them for adoption and legal guardianship."

Serwanjja focused on the case of a boy whose identity was changed after being adopted. The child's parents wanted their son back but were told he "now belongs to a different family," Serwanjja said.

After the story broadcast, a parliamentarian amended the Children's Act to address a gray area of legal guardianship being exploited to take children.

Serwanjja appeared before various teams and committees to share his findings.

"It's now difficult for anyone to come into the country and adopt children," he said. "Doing such a story led to an amendment of the children's activities and protecting children and local people, vulnerable people, back in the villages.

"If you ask me about the epitome of my career in journalism, I think that that story was powerful," he said.

The difference that investigative reporting can make is what led to the founding of the African Institute for Investigative Journalism.

Too many stories are missed because of a lack of funding, Serwanjja said. Investigative reporting is expensive. "It takes time. It takes resources."

But the institute offers small grants to journalists and gives them the tools and mentoring needed to sharpen their skills. So far, the center has issued more than 40 journalism grants.

The idea, he said, is "so [others] can grow and be able to do some of these stories on their own."

One of those to benefit is Gloria Atuhairwe, a journalism student at Victoria University Kampala.

Atuhairwe was a 2022 fellow for climate change and environmental crime at the African Institute for Investigative Journalism.

"Attending this training helped me to associate with people, journalists who have been practicing for a long time, and since I am a young journalist, it was such a great opportunity," she told VOA.

During the fellowship, Atuhairwe looked into water pollution in a village near Lake Victoria and learned new skills.

"Sharing experiences with these people who have been able to publish investigative stories ... the knowledge they have, the skills they use, and how to carry out these stories helped me," Atuhairwe said, adding that she is "learning from the best."

"I've been able to see stories that investigative journalists have done and how these stories they have carried out have had a significant impact on their countries or communities," Atuhairwe added.

The institute relies on support from Europe and the Americas -- the U.S. Agency for Global Media and VOA are both partners -- but, said Serwanjja, "Africans need to appreciate the power and the role of investigative journalism so that they can be able to find it. We are talking about philanthropists in Africa. We are talking about foundations in Africa. ... That would be more sustainable."

Serwanjja advocates for more investigative journalism but acknowledges that it "is not for the faint-hearted."

"Sometimes, the people you [investigate] try to hunt [you] down," he said. "We've seen so many investigative journalists killed and arrested and imprisoned in the line of duty."

Serwanjja has been detained and abducted previously. But, he said, "Somehow, the truth has helped me be free."

Atuhairwe also acknowledges the risk, especially for female journalists. But, she said, "Investigative journalism is critical because I believe it's good journalism."

Through it, she said, "You are finding solutions to these problems that the public is facing. Telling these stories helps hold people accountable."

Serwanjja shares that sentiment, telling VOA, "Investigative journalism comes with its challenges and opportunities, as well as its risks."

This story originated in VOA's English to Africa division.

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