Journalist wrongly arrested in dispute with hospital wins fight to clear his name

UMC Utrecht. Photo: Wikimedia Commons
UMC Utrecht. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

A journalist who was arrested and spent six hours in a cell after he tried to attend a lecture by a terminally sick cancer patient has won a five-year battle to clear his name.

Ton van der Ham was never charged over the incident at the UMC Utrecht teaching hospital in April 2018, but the prosecution service deemed him to have committed a breach of the peace and recorded the incident on his criminal record.

Only after the journalist appealed to the National Ombudsman did prosecutors review the case and accept he had been wrongfully detained. Last week the prosecution service formally revoked his status as a suspect and said it was ‘unjustified’.

Van der Ham, who was investigating allegations of mismanagement at the hospital for TV current affairs show Zembla, was invited in April 2018 to attend a lecture by Adrienne Cullen on transparency in medicine. But when he arrived security guards denied him entry and told him he could interview Cullen in the corridor afterwards.

Cullen had fought a five-year battle with the hospital to recognise its negligence after it lost medical records that revealed she had cervical cancer in 2011.

By the time she was diagnosed in 2013, the disease had progressed and was no longer curable. She died on New Year’s Day 2018, after the hospital had admitted liability, agreed to pay €545,000 in compensation and issued a written apology from its CEO.

Arrest ‘unfortunate’

As Van der Ham set up his camera for the interview, security guards reappeared and ordered him to stop filming. Van der Ham was arrested for breach of the peace and handed over to police, who detained him in a cell for six hours.

A month later the prosecution service said it was dropping the case and described the journalist’s arrest as ‘unfortunate’. But it maintained that Van der Ham had committed a minor offence and refused a request to delete his criminal record.

The National Ombudsman ruled last November that the prosecution service should reconsider its position in the interests of journalism, calling the original decision ‘incomprehensible’. Last Thursday, after reviewing the case, the prosecution service formally declared that Van der Ham had been wrongly designated as a suspect.

Van der Ham said he was relieved to have finally cleared his name. ‘It cannot be right for a journalist to get a criminal record when he complies with all requests and is then arrested on the basis of wrong assumptions,’ he told BNNVARA.

‘Authoritarian culture’

Cullen said in an interview with Van der Ham afterwards that she had specifically asked him to be at the lecture because of his work scrutinising the hospital.

‘I wanted to have all of the media there, not just hand-picked media who perhaps the hospital thought might be more sympathetic to their point of view,’ she said. ‘And I specifically wanted to have you there, and as you know I asked you to come.’

Cullen and her husband, the Hague-based Irish journalist Peter Cluskey, were highly critical of the hospital’s ‘lack of humanity’ and the use of gagging clauses to prevent medical negligence cases being made public.

Cluskey told DutchNews that serious questions still had to be answered about the hospital’s handling of the arrest as well as wider failures to admit and act on institutional mistakes.

‘I’m glad he’s been cleared, because he did nothing wrong. There should be an investigation into how the police got involved,’ Cluskey said.

‘And why, when they were hosting a lecture on openness and transparency, did they close the door on one of the country’s leading investigative journalists? It’s another manifestation of the authoritarian culture at this hospital.

‘There is another opportunity here for the executive board to clean up this situation. Two of Adrienne’s samples were lost and we still don’t know what happened to the second sample.’



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