COVID-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins accused of breaching pregnant Kiwi journo Charlotte Bellis' privacy

Pregnant Kiwi journalist Charlotte Bellis has finally been offered a spot in MIQ, but it comes as a senior minister faces accusations of breaching her privacy. 

COVID-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins released a statement on Monday in response to backlash over the decision to reject Bellis' application for an emergency spot in managed isolation and quarantine (MIQ), despite informing them she'd be forced to give birth in war-torn Afghanistan. 

In his statement, Hipkins urged people not to "lose sight of the reason MIQ was set up", because it had "served New Zealand exceptionally well, saved lives and hospital admissions and kept our health system from being swamped". 

The statement then included information about the former Al Jazeera broadcaster's situation - personal details the COVID-19 Response Minister did not have permission to share with the public, according to Bellis. 

Hipkins said: "I understand she wanted to return on a specific date and that officials reached out to her for more information shortly after looking at her application. The emergency allocation criteria includes a requirement to travel to New Zealand within the next 14 days.

"Ms Bellis indicated she did not intend to travel until the end of February and has been encouraged by MIQ to consider moving her plans forward.

"I understand officials have also since invited her to apply for another emergency category. I encourage her to take these offers seriously.

"I also understand she was offered New Zealand consular assistance twice since she returned to Afghanistan in early December but has not responded. Again, I encourage her to take up any offers of assistance."

COVID-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins.
COVID-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins. Photo credit: Getty Images

Bellis wrote on Twitter that Hipkins "did not have permission" to share the private details of her case. She also described Hipkins' response to her situation as "incredibly disrespectful".

ACT leader David Seymour said it appeared Hipkins had breached the Privacy Act.

"The mask of kindness has fallen off Jacinda [Ardern]'s Government. Chris Hipkins' use of Charlotte Bellis' personal information to publicly attack her is reckless and nasty," Seymour said. 

"Hipkins should have asked himself the simple question: 'What could happen if I reveal personal information about a citizen in a dangerous part of the world?'"

A spokesperson for Hipkins told Newshub he had nothing further to add. 

Deputy Prime Minister Grant Robertson told reporters on Tuesday the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE) had finally offered Bellis a spot in MIQ.

He wouldn't comment on whether Hipkins had potentially breached the reporter's privacy. 

"There is a secured place for her with a flight arrangement alongside it that has been communicated to her today," Robertson said. 

"Ms Bellis and her lawyer say they're considering legal action on that matter so I'm not going to get myself involved in that. The important point here is that there is a place in MIQ for Ms Bellis and I urge her to take it up."

Charlotte Bellis.
Charlotte Bellis. Photo credit: Instagram

Robertson denied Bellis was given a spot in MIQ after she spoke out publicly. 

"The staff at the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment, who have to deal with emergency applications, are dealing with very difficult and challenging cases on a daily basis. They always try to make contact with people and try to make arrangements that work," he said.

"That has consistently been what they are doing over the last couple of weeks to support Ms Bellis through the application process."

What do privacy experts think?

Louisa Joblin, a lawyer at Rainey Collins, says it "seems unlikely" that Hipkins has made an unauthorised disclosure of personal information about Bellis.

"The matters discussed in Minister Hipkins' public statement relate to Ms Bellis as an identifiable, and identified, individual. They concern among other things her travel plans, her pregnancy, advice she has received from officials relating to MIQ, and consular assistance she has received while in Afghanistan," she told Newshub.

"That is likely to amount to personal information for the purposes of the Privacy Act, particularly when it is used and taken in combination with Ms Bellis' name and other personal information about her, as has been circulating in the media in recent days.

"One of the situations in which a privacy breach can occur is when there is an unauthorised disclosure of personal information by the "agency" (as defined in the Privacy Act) that holds it. 

"In this case, there are likely to be various agencies holding personal information about Ms Bellis as part of her application for an MIQ slot. That information will have been provided by Ms Bellis with a reasonable expectation that it would be used for and in connection with the purposes for which she provided it - i.e. in connection with her application for an MIQ slot. 

"On its face, any disclosure of Ms Bellis' personal information beyond those purposes without her consent could amount to a breach of the Privacy Act. However there is an argument that by talking to the media and making claims about her personal situation in public, Ms Bellis has given implied consent to the agencies holding her personal information to use it to respond to her publicly to refute her allegations.

"Subject to a contrary finding by the Privacy Commissioner, it seems unlikely that Minister Hipkins has made an unauthorised disclosure of personal information about Ms Bellis, based on her conduct to which he is responding."

The Privacy Commission said: "The fact that an individual has spoken to the media about their situation does not, in itself, provide authorisation for the Minister to disclose additional personal information about the individual.

"A Minister should only release personal information that the individual has not already made public if the individual has clearly authorised such disclosure, or if an exception to information privacy principle 11 applies."