The Press Council considered whether its Standards of Practice were breached by an article published by The Courier-Mail in print on 30 July 2020 headed “ENEMIES OF THE STATE: Outrage as deceptive teens cause COVID chaos”.
The article reported “[T]wo 19-year-old girls with COVID-19 have been fined $4000 each after travelling to Melbourne and lying to authorities about where they’d been”. The article reported “Olivia Winnie Muranga… a cleaner at the now-closed Parklands Christian College – called in sick on Friday after days of feeling ill. Despite this she continued to socialise, visiting restaurants and bars in Ipswich and Brisbane, according to authorities. It is believed she even went shopping after she took a COVID test on Monday.” It also stated “[h]er travel companion Diana Lasu… has also tested positive”. The article appeared on the front page and included photos of Ms Muranga and Ms Lasu underneath the headline “ENEMIES OF THE STATE”.
In response to complaints it received, the Press Council asked the publication to comment on whether the article complied with the Council’s Standards of Practice, and specifically whether in naming and using the images of Ms Muranga and Ms Lasu in the article, the publication took reasonable steps to avoid intruding on their reasonable expectations of privacy (General Principle 5), or avoid causing or contributing materially to substantial offence, distress or prejudice, or a substantial risk to health or safety (General Principle 6), unless doing so was sufficiently in the public interest.
In response, the publication said that it was not unusual for it to publish names and pictures of individuals who have breached COVID-19 rules and that it has been very consistent in its reporting of such people. The publication noted that the situation with Ms Muranga and Ms Lasu was of particular concern as they had not only breached quarantine restrictions in several states, but also upon return they had tested positive to COVID-19 and then allegedly failed to cooperate with police and health official investigations. The publication noted that the criminality of their actions had seriously endangered the state of Queensland. Accordingly, it said naming them was necessary in the public interest.
The publication also said that during the subsequent sentencing of Ms Muranga and Ms Lasu for the crimes for which it reported, the Deputy Chief Magistrate commented that any distress the defendants may have experienced as a result of their actions was not attributable to mainstream media, but to comments made by the public on social media.
In relation to the headline, the publication said it had considered the consequences of the actions taken by Ms Muranga and Ms Lasu and the level of trauma that they caused the community. It said that the headline was entirely fair and appropriate given the severity of the crimes committed and the impact of the lockdown on business and the disruption to society. It said it was difficult to anticipate social media responses to reports but that it could not be held accountable for the actions of people on social media.
The Council notes that, at the time of publication, it was a matter of public record that the women in question had been charged with criminal offences related to their failure to comply with COVID- 19 travel restrictions. As such, the Council considers their reasonable expectations of privacy had been diminished. Accordingly, the Council finds no breach of General Principle 5.
The Council acknowledges that the headline is provocative given the language used and the prominence of the women’s images alongside it. However, the Council accepts that the reporting reflects the seriousness of the women’s actions and risk to the community and was not due to any personal characteristic of the women involved. Accordingly, the Council finds no breach of General Principle 6.
Relevant Council Standards
This Adjudication applies the following General Principles of the Council:
5. Avoid intruding on a person’s reasonable expectations of privacy, unless doing so is sufficiently in the public interest.
6. Avoid causing or contributing materially to substantial offence, distress or prejudice, or a substantial risk to health or safety, unless doing so is sufficiently in the public interest.