The Constitutional Court ruling in the invasion of privacy suit against Patricia de Lille may have been a victory for the three HIV-positive women involved, but the ruling has worrying implications on efforts to try and destigmatise HIV/AIDS, writes Akhona Cira in the journAIDS blog.

I read the story about Patricia de Lille having to pay damages for invasion of privacy to three women who feature in her authorised biography, Patricia de Lille, and whose HIV-positive status she reveals, with an interesting mixture of happiness and worry. I was happy that the Constitutional Court had ruled in favour of the women on the one hand and worried about the implications of the ruling in strides to try and destigmatise HIV/AIDS on the other.

The Mail&Guardian Online reported that the court ruled in favour of the women and ordered De Lille, the book’s author, Charlene Smith, and the publisher, New Africa Books, to pay the three women R35 000 each in damages.

“Smith and De Lille were liable for damages together with the publishers due to their infringement of the applicants’ rights to privacy and dignity from the moment of the publication of the book. The use of pseudonyms instead of the applicants’ real names would not have rendered the book any less authentic and nowhere could it be shown that the public interest demanded otherwise,” the court said, according to the Mail&Guardian Online.

Granted, as much as De Lille and Smith, herself an outspoken rape survivor and women’s rights activist, had no right to publish the names of the three women and divulge their HIV-positive status, the women’s reaction could have serious ramifications in the fight against HIV/AIDS and the media’s coverage of the disease.

It came as a shock to me that there were HIV/AIDS activists who rejoiced and cracked opened bottles of champagne after the verdict was passed. Surely the victory of these women was a mixed blessing for them, too?

“Aids activists meanwhile broke into a song and dance soon after the judgment had been read. They popped champagne bottles at the conclusion of the landmark case.
One of the women told the crowd, ‘I am very happy with the judgment… No one chooses to be infected with HIV and our rights deserve to be protected,’” the Citizen reported.

Yes, their privacy was violated, but by suing De Lille and making a big hullabaloo about the fact that their status was disclosed, the women implied by their actions that they were ashamed of their status, or at least wanted to keep the information as private as possible. Coming from people who participated in clinical trials, who presumably care deeply about fighting the spread of HIV/AIDS, this action seems contradictory and should be questioned. Would they have objected as much if they were HIV-negative?

The verdict reinforces the importance of the media needing to be ultra-sensitive about disclosing names of those affected and infected. Reporters should only do so with express permission. The challenge is to include enough details for stories to be compelling to readers, while not violating anyone’s privacy.