News & Current Affairs

By Satomi Hamon


Naming and shaming COVID ‘criminals’: Is it right? Is it racist?

In July 2020, it was reported that two young black women had tested positive to COVID-19 after they allegedly lied on a travel declaration when arriving in Brisbane from Melbourne and failed to quarantine, which resulted in severe backlash from the public and media.

The Courier Mail ran images of the two teenagers with the headline, ‘Enemies of the State.’ Their names and images were published in nearly every major media outlet in Australia, including Channel Nine, the Sydney Morning Herald, the Project, and the ABC. Other information such as the medical details of when the women were tested, their local medical centre, the locations they visited; and their workplace were also made public.

The coverage of the two women has since been criticised on social media. David Vaile, Executive Director Cyberspace Law and Policy Centre, described the media reporting as ‘a form of doxxing’, and said he doesn’t believe there is ‘any extra benefit’ in sharing the personal information of the women. Vaile told the SBS, ‘Doxxing is very serious a threat, it’s recognised by authorities as putting people at risk.’ The resulting online anger directed at the women has been racist and sexist in nature, and within hours of their details being published, members of the African community in Brisbane reported intense racist harassment on social media.

The women have since been fined $4000 each, charged with fraud, and will be appearing in the Brisbane Magistrates Court in September. Queensland Deputy Commissioner Steve Gollschewski wasn’t pleased with the identity of the women being made public, telling ABC Radio Brisbane, ‘We had an ongoing investigation that had not been concluded and no charges had been laid and we were trying to get the cooperation of these people, that kind of thing impacts on that.

Some people support the media coverage of these women on the basis they are allegedly involved in a criminal enterprise and therefore deserve the backlash resulting from their exposure. This is a dangerous precedent to set, however, as it supports these news outlets in running their own ‘trial by media’ which negates the right to due process. When the women face court in September, the media will be able to report the story under the usual conditions that require the reporting to be fair and accurate. The way in which Australian news outlets have reported this story so far, many using ugly and unrestrained language, has resulted in the media exercising the functions that in our democracy are reserved to the courts.

It should also not be ignored that many other people have made serious mistakes endangering public health during the pandemic – such as the people responsible for hotel quarantine in Victoria or the Ruby Princess debacle, and many others who have reportedly got across borders by breaking the rules – yet none of them have been named and shamed.

It is important to consider the role privilege plays when individuals become the subject of public outrage and condemnation. People have compared the actions of the Queensland women with those of a wealthy white Melbourne couple who failed to self isolate after returning to Australia from a skiing holiday in Aspen, where they contracted the virus.  This couple’s case was handled differently by the media to that of the young Queensland women of African decent, with most publications choosing not to name the Melbourne couple for ‘legal reasons’.

Existing research on pandemics and epidemics shows that poornon-white and other disadvantaged groups often experience the associated public shaming and stigma much more severely than privileged groups. The Queensland Human Rights Commission has urged against double standards and confirmed it’s been contacted by concerned members of Brisbane’s African migrant community who have been reporting abuse since the media coverage of the Queensland women.

Queensland Human Rights Commissioner, Scott McDougall, said in comments published by The Guardian on this issue that ‘the right to privacy should apply equally to everyone.