Editor’s note: One area which is likely to soon become an issue in Singapore is that of privacy rights. As a city with high internet penetration and widespread ownership of camera phones, there was already an incident a few years ago when a video of students engaging in sex spread like wildfire. Now the question has hit the mainstream media in a recent case of a person charged under the Infectious Diseases Act.
This law makes it a criminal offence for a person who knows he is HIV-positive to have unprotected sex with another without informing the other of his HIV status. Chan Mun Chiong was charged with this a short while ago, and on the day he made his first court appearance, the leading English-language newspaper not only reported his full name but also published a photograph of him.
As the commentary article in Today newspaper discusses, this is raising concern among Aids activists and media academics and professionals.
The Infectious Diseases Act was recently amended such that in future even persons who have “reason to believe” there could be HIV-positive — even if they don’t know for a fact whether they are HIV-positive — would be committing an offence if they do not inform their sexual partners. The widening of the scope of this law widens the possibilities of people being charged, and likewise, to have their privacy violated.
2 June 2008
Should identity of HIV patient be revealed?
SINCE 1992, the identities of persons living with HIV have been protected under the Infectious Diseases Act, although they can be named if they are charged in court.
Over the years, there have been a few reports. But, what about putting their photos in the media?
It is a big grey area, going by what professionals in the legal, medical and media industry told Today.
And aids activists and civil groups seem the most concerned, fearful that such photos would be seen as public shaming, thus driving another wedge between the public and persons with HIV.
“Stories and cases involving HIV-infected individuals getting into trouble with the law adds to the existing stigmatisation of the disease,” Action For Aids executive director Lionel Lee said.
“Because the media widely reports when HIV-infected people get charged in court or jailed, the popular perception in Singapore is that these are the people who get into trouble with the law.”
Last month, Mr Chan Mun Chiong became the first person with HIV to have his photograph published since Paddy Chew died in 1999.
But while the latter agreed to be photographed — tellingly, the first and only person willing to do so to humanise the disease — Mr Chan had pleaded guilty to engaging in oral sex with a 16-year-old boy without informing the teen of the risk of contracting the virus that caused Aids, according to a report by The Straits Times.
A spokesperson from Singapore Press Holdings, the company that publishes The Straits Times, told Today that while its general approach is not to name people with HIV, “our view is that those who are brought to court for putting their partners at risk should be treated no differently from others who are charged in court with serious offences”.
However, media law and ethics expert Mark Cenite, from Nanyang Technological University’s (NTU) Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information, said the press should exercise some restraint when handling cases like this, especially since “Singapore does not have well-developed privacy protections that some other nations have”.
The response from media practitioners is mixed.
Singapore Press Club president Patrick Daniel believes, when it comes to such cases, the media ought to be guided by the usual legal considerations, such as defamation law and other relevant statutes, on what to publish.
According to MediaCorp Editorial Director P N Balji, the case was unique because it was approached from a criminal angle.
He added: “Once the HIV case became a criminal issue, there was no way Chan could be protected. Then, there is the issue of moral responsibility, which also cannot be addressed in isolation because pictures of people charged in non-HIV cases have been published.”
However, to some in the medical community, such as Dr Tan Sze-Wee, spokesperson for the Singapore Medical Association, it would be a “step backwards” to run photos of HIV-positive offenders.
“As with other HIV-related stories, photographs are omitted to reduce the social stigma,” he said.
With the means to disseminate photos now possible via the Internet, though, what does it mean for the concept of health privacy?
Blogger Alex Au thinks it is inevitable that the mainstream media will have to react to competition online.
“If the newspapers don’t do it, some blogger will (eventually) snap a picture with his mobile phone and post it on the web,” said Mr Au, founder of Yawningbread.org.
The question of whetherthe media would use such methods in the pursuit of reader-ship points back to why photos are used in court cases, to begin with: For news value or foreyeballs?
For one, lawyers are cautious about the use of such photos.
“To put a picture of someone accused of a crime in a national newspaper even before he is sentenced immediately implies that there is a high chance thathe is guilty,” said lawyer Allan Chan.
:Lawyer Vinit Chhabra agreed: “I do think the media does wield a lot of power (in this instance).”
“What the media should do when covering such cases is to maybe state specifically that — while he has been charged — the accused is also innocent until proven guilty by the prosecution.”
However the media decides on the use of photographs of persons with HIV charged in court, or whether there is a “gradual erosion of privacy” or not, there is one area of improvement, according to blogger Mr Au.
“In this case (of Mr Chan), I think the media is failing because it is not giving attention to the consequences of reporting,” he said.
“A commentary on the issue needs to follow, thus encouraging a societal debate and then letting the people decide.”