On 6 February 2016, Catherine Byaruhanga – a BBC news correspondent in Uganda – was arrested by the police in the Abim district for allegedly filming Abim hospital without permission from the district security agents, and wanting to report “bad news all the time with bad intentions.” She was arrested along with her cameraman – Kelvin Brown – and Sam Lawino, a news correspondent for NTV, based in the Gulu district.
The trio was interrogated and detained for about four hours at the Abim central police station, where they were asked to delete their recorded footage or record statements in relation to their “crimes.” The journalists declined to either delete their material or record statements, insisting that they were innocently arrested, since they were outside of the hospital premises.
“We first approached the Ministry of Health for permission to access the hospital so that we [could] follow up on earlier news of the hospital being in [a] pathetic situation. When they denied us access, we went away, and decided to film from outside. The DPC found us recording and immediately stopped us, asking us for identification documents, which we presented. He told us that we needed to get out of our car and follow him to the station. We declined to record the statements. We were released after about four hours. [By] this time it was already night,” Byaruhanga told HRNJ-Uganda in an interview.
Sam Lawino told Human Rights Network for Journalists-Uganda that the District Police Commander for Abim District – David Eliamu – arrested them for accessing the hospital without permission. “You have committed a crime of criminal trespass and telling a lie to police, let’s go to the station and make statements, this hospital is a no-go area, and why do you want to film bad news all the time with bad motives?” Lawino quotes the DPC as having said
Abim hospital came into the limelight on December 5, 2015 when the opposition Forum for Democratic Change presidential candidate, Dr. Kizza Besigye, visited the hospital during his campaign trail within the area. NTV and NBS Televisions carried footage of the sorrow state of the hospital operating without doctors for some years and the available beds being supported by sticks, which made patients shun the hospital and seek treatment from the local clinics within the district. Adong Santina – a senior nursing officer who took Besigye around – was suspended by the Abim district leadership to face “disciplinary proceedings.” Moments later, the Electoral Commission stopped all political candidates from accessing the hospital and other health centres in the country. Police were deployed to stop any access by politicians.
The journalists were released without any charges preferred against them. They were neither beaten nor manhandled.
“We commend the journalists for standing firm not to delete their material and demanding to know their alleged crime. Police should desist from criminalizing the work of journalists and forcing them to delete their materials unjustifiably. The police should instead ensure the safety and security of journalists as they do their work,” said the HRNJ-Uganda National Coordinator, Robert Ssempala.