The Press Council considered whether its Standards of Practice were breached by the publication of two articles in The Australian. The first article was published on 20 October 2015, headed “Rape refugee seeks new abortion location” in print and online. A second article was published the following day, headed “Refugee declines to report rape to police” in print and “Somali refugee declines to report rape to police” online.
The subject of the articles was a Somalian refugee referred to as “‘Abyan’ (not her real name)”, detained in Nauru as part of the Australian Government’s offshore detention policy, who claimed she had been raped and unsuccessfully sought to procure an abortion when taken to Australia under custody.
The Council received complaints from a number of people not the subject of the article, expressing concern about the headline of the first article and the characterisation of Abyan, a victim of rape, as a “rape refugee”. The complaints also raised issues of privacy and fairness regarding her participation in the interview.
The Council asked the publication to comment on whether the material breached the applicable Standards of Practice requiring publications to take reasonable steps to avoid intruding on a person’s reasonable expectations of privacy (General Principle 5) or contributing to substantial offence or distress (General Principle 6) – unless doing so is sufficiently in the public interest. The Council’s Standards also require that publications take reasonable steps to avoid gathering material by deceptive or unfair means, unless doing so is sufficiently in the public interest (General Principle 7).
The publication said the article reported on a matter of significant public interest, given that whether Abyan was being treated appropriately and with the proper duty of care by the Australian Government was the subject of public and parliamentary debate, with advocates and politicians speaking of Abyan’s condition for a number of weeks before publication of the article. The publication said the reporter’s visit to Nauru was a rare and coincidental opportunity to interview the person at the centre of the debate and thus to let her tell her story directly.
The publication said it was sensitive to Abyan’s situation and accordingly did not divulge her real name, reveal her face or provide her residential address on Nauru. It said in gathering the material for the report, the journalist had visited Abyan’s home and identified himself by name and as a journalist, and explained how the information would be used. The publication said Abyan had clearly consented to the interview and invited the journalist into her home to have the discussion. The publication noted that Abyan has a reasonable command of English, but asked to be accompanied by her roommate to assist in translation and ensure her answers were understood. The publication said Abyan consented to be photographed at that time, provided her face was not shown.
The publication said the use of the term “rape refugee” in the print and online headline was not intended to label but simply to summarise the content of the accompanying story, in which a refugee in detention had been raped. The publication acknowledged that the resulting headline was ‘inelegant’ and ‘too blunt’ in the circumstances, but emphasised there was no intention to cause offence or distress.
The Council notes that secondary matters such as this – which proceed without the participation of the person named in the article – have to be resolved utilising less information than might otherwise be the case.
The Council accepts there was no breach of General Principles 5 or 7 as this matter was of significant public interest, and the information regarding Abyan’s fraught situation was on the public record, having been discussed in parliament and by the media for some weeks prior to publication. Although determining consent in the context of a person held in offshore detention is difficult, the material put to the Council suggests Abyan’s interview with the reporter, assisted by her roommate, was agreed to, as was the photo session.
The report was also consistent in its use of the pseudonym applied throughout previous weeks’ coverage and the publication took steps not to include other identifying features.
The Council notes that publications ought to take care to express crimes of sexual violence with a great degree of sensitivity for the victims. It agrees with the publication that the headline was ‘inelegant’ and ‘blunt’, but on balance considers that the single use of the phrase “rape refugee”, not repeated in the following day’s headlines, does not amount to causing substantial offence, distress or prejudice in breach of General Principle 6.
Relevant Council Standards (not required for publication):
This adjudication applies the following General Principles of the Council.
“Publications must take reasonable steps to:
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
7: Avoid publishing material which has been gathered by deceptive or unfair means, unless doing so is sufficiently in the public interest.”