Dastardly disclosure: Times leaves readers adrift
Kim Johnson & Melissa Meyer
17 January 2012
The Times today reported on the outraged responses of two women implicated in a public email which alleges that they were part of an organised ring formed to maliciously infect men with HIV.
But the article in question does not provide any framework with which to make sense of the harmful and problematic behaviour of publicly disclosing a person’s HIV-status.
While The Times reports that the (legitimate) complaints of the two women lie in the fact that they have been wrongly and maliciously labeled HIV-positive, it is the action of the person who chose to make this conversation public that is considerably more worrying. This behaviour is even more worrying considering that the email clearly identifies 23 women by their first and last names and in some cases even features pictures.
Broadcasting someone’s HIV status in this manner is a blatant violation of a person’s right to dignity as enshrined in the South African Constitution; and regardless of constitutional law, it is an action that is deeply objectionable morally and ethically.
But instead of critically engaging with this issue and dealing with it in the context of a human-rights-based framework, the report engages only superficially with the email and appears to be preoccupied with the fact that the women were wrongly accused of being HIV-positive. This throws the entire discussion out of balance and seems to suggest that falsely accusing someone of being HIV-positive is a much graver offence than “outing” someone who actually is living with HIV.
This hugely problematic dimension of the story could easily have been explored had The Times committed the resources to consult organisations specialising in law as it relates to HIV and persons living with HIV.
The need for the media to provide this kind of analysis and insight is further apparent if one looks at the comments left on a blog post relating to the email.
Of the countless comments left by those who have read the post, very few people seem to be worried about how the disclosure of the women’s HIV-statuses (whether true or untrue) might affect the lives of the women named, even where the comment called the authenticity of the story into question.
It appears that even though people believe the story might not be true because it, as one reader remarked, “resembles a soapie script”, they do not worry that these women have been robbed of their right to dignity and that this rumour-mongering could cause real damage in the context of a stigma-ridden society.
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