Rosemary Namubiru, a 65-year-old nurse living with HIV in Uganda, had a date in court last week for her appeal of a negligence conviction stemming from a workplace accident that happened when she was administering an injection to a sick child, according to the New Vision newspaper. Namubiru has been incarcerated since January, when she was arrested and originally charged with attempted murder following an incident in which the needle used for a child’s injection apparently first pierced her skin. She was paraded before news photographers, police pulling her head back to expose her face, denied bail, vilified by local media which referred to her in headlines as “killer nurse,” and, in May, after months of incendiary news coverage, sentenced to three years in prison, in part, according to the magistrate, to set an example for other people living with HIV. So the appeal carries high stakes for her, for the estimated more than one and a half million people living with HIV in Uganda, and particularly for Namubiru’s fellow health workers living with HIV in the country. The appeal also carries implications for the future of Uganda’s shaky HIV response, which has been challenged by the country’s Anti-Homosexuality law, and more recently by its new HIV “Prevention and Control” act, passed in the wake of Namubiru’s conviction, and specifically criminalizing HIV transmission.
But since Namubiru’s conviction when coverage of the case raged at so furious and frantic a pace that even such respected outlets as the Associated Press ran stories saying Namubiru was found guilty of negligence for “intentionally trying to” infect the child with HIV, without noticing the contradiction, and called the case one of “HIV transmission,” although no transmission occurred, media interest, as well as the vituperative tone of its coverage has waned. So this time, New Vision was apparently alone in noting in two brief stories that the grandmother it now refers to simply as “HIV-nurse,” or “HIV-injection nurse” had first one court date, for Sept. 23, and then a postponement to Sept. 25 to have arguments heard that the case was prejudiced by the circumstances in which it was tried and the sentence “disproportionate to the facts of the law.” Following those two stories, none have followed to say what happened, or didn’t on Sept. 25th, but word has it the appeal hearing took place and a judgment will be delivered on October 22nd.
While media outlets lost interest in Namubiru’s case in the time since her conviction, what happened to her prompted local, regional, and international groups to produce an analysis: 10 Grave Flaws, Myths & Outright Lies That Plagued Rosemary Namubiru’s Court Case. Released by the International Community of Women Living with HIV Eastern Africa, Health GAP, Uganda Network on Law, Ethics and HIV (UGANET), and Uganda Health Sciences Press Association (UHSPA), it details the domino effect of one injustice after another, in which local media first followed, and then led the persecution of Namubiru. It includes the prejudicial perp walk which set off wildly irresponsible reporting of her case (among the stories, that she deliberately drew blood from her arm and injected it into the child). It includes reporters’ failure to cover, or subsequently refer to the reduction from the unsupported charge of attempted murder against her, to negligence. It includes that this 65-year-old woman with no criminal record was denied bail, the repeated claims even after the charge was dropped, that she set out to harm the child, and it includes the intimidating effect of all of this on witnesses who might otherwise have spoken up on her behalf. It notes that she was accused, tried and convicted not on the basis of her actions, but on the basis of her HIV status. It includes that the case was used to justify the country’s new HIV/AIDS Prevention and Control Act, which, in addition to criminalizing HIV transmission, mandates involuntary HIV testing, and makes provider patient confidentiality optional, and which public health and human rights advocates in Uganda and worldwide have condemned. Finally, it notes again the lack of ethics and professionalism pervading the media coverage even when she was sentenced.
Then, in July, Namubiru’s case surfaced again, when the incoming president of the International AIDS Society speaking at the IAS 2014 Conference, emphasized the impact of exclusionary, stigmatizing and punitive laws and practices in rolling back progress against HIV.
“Here’s just one example,” Dr. Chris Beyrer, a physician and researcher who has extensively documented the impact of marginalization on global HIV responses, said, “Rosemary Namubiru, a 65-year-old nurse living with HIV who is right now serving a three-year prison sentence in Uganda, wrongfully jailed in an alleged transmission case. How does jailing this positive provider help Uganda respond to AIDS?”
As has often been the case since the start of the AIDS epidemic, coverage of evidence-based policy surrounding the virus did not receive anything approaching the prominence of sensationalized and incorrect coverage of those most affected.
So last week, when New Vision reported that Namubiru appeared in court, online comments under the story, which included a call for a firing squad, and the incorrect assumption that the child Namubiru had treated had become infected (the child was repeatedly tested and did not become infected) reflected only the inaccuracies the newspaper had reported.
The nurse’s appeal, and the decision on her appeal due Oct. 22 give Ugandan and international journalists another chance to get it right, though, and to hold a sad and brutal case up to scrutiny.