Releasing Stigma: Police, Journalists and Crimes of HIV Non-Disclosure

Volume 46, No 1
Kyle Kirkup

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In 2010, a 29-year-old gay man in Ottawa who had recently learned he was HIV-positive was arrested and charged with several criminal offences, including aggravated sexual assault and later attempted murder. Two days after his arrest, the Ottawa Police Service released his photo to the public, along with his name, details of the sexual encounters and his personal health information. Using this series of events as a case study, this paper examines the complex questions raised when police services issue press releases in alleged HIV non-disclosure cases, and journalists subsequently convey these stories to the public. While recent legal scholarship has focused almost exclusively on whether HIV non-disclosure should be treated as a criminal law issue or as a public health issue, this paper makes an original contribution by turning to the complicated world of police practices and journalistic ethics to advance three central claims. It first argues that situating narratives of HIV/AIDS in their broader social, political and historical context reveals that police and journalists have participated in a project of stigmatizing the condition itself, and those living with it, since the emergence of the epidemic. Second, the paper connects the conceptual dots between how the Ottawa case was conveyed to the public in 2010 and the familiar tropes of promiscuity, deviance and pathology that became synonymous with discourse about gay male sexuality in the early 1980s. Third, the paper shifts to analyze legal reforms, namely expanding the contours of publication bans. Ultimately, the paper concludes that imposing ethical duties on police and journalists may constitute a more useful site in beginning to transform the ways that HIV nondisclosure stories are told.

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