Chris Hipkins released Charlotte Bellis' personal details despite official advice not to

COVID-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins released personal details of journalist Charlotte Bellis' MIQ case despite receiving Government advice saying it was "not for public comment".

Bellis accused the Labour MP of breaching her privacy in February after he released a statement in response to criticism at the high-profile decision to reject the then-Afghanistan-based Kiwi's application for an emergency spot in managed isolation and quarantine (MIQ). 

The statement included personal details of Bellis' case, which she said the minister didn't have permission to share with the public and some of which were untrue.

Chris Bishop, National's COVID-19 spokesperson, said on Thursday he had received information via written parliamentary questions (WPQ) that showed Hipkins ignored instructions from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (MFAT) that Bellis' details were "not for public comment".

"Chris Hipkins has some serious explaining to do about why he thought he had the right to share Ms Bellis' personal information, without her consent and against MFAT's instruction not to disclose the information," Bishop said.

The National MP said the Government was coming under pressure at the time over the decision to reject Bellis' application and Hipkins "used personal information as a political weapon to attack her".

Hipkins "used personal information as a political weapon to attack her", Bishop said.
Hipkins "used personal information as a political weapon to attack her", Bishop said. Photo credit: Getty Images.

According to the WPQ answers, MFAT provided Foreign Affairs Minister Nanaia Mahuta's office with a note on January 31 about their engagement with Bellis as they expected she may receive requests for comment. 

"Following established practice, the note identified all personal information as ‘not for public comment'," the answer says. 

The information received by Mahuta's office - that being the note and media lines on consular issues related to Afghanistan - was then passed to Hipkins' office.

"The media lines provided followed established practice in noting that "for privacy reasons, we do not disclose details regarding individual cases."

Hipkins later that day released his statement, including Bellis' details. 

Bishop asked the COVID minister about the issue at the Health Select Committee on Thursday morning, but Hipkins wouldn't answer.

"I am not going to make any further comment on that case, which is now closed, without a signed consent form from the individual concerned. The Member hasn't produced one so I won't be making any further comment on it," Hipkins told the committee.

Bishop said Hipkins had made her details public without her consent in the first place. 

"It's a bit rich to now rely on privacy grounds to not talk about it any further," he said.

Later on Thursday, when Bishop questioned him on the issue in the House, Hipkins repeated that he wouldn't be answering on privacy grounds. He said he didn't "believe it is in the public interest to discuss individual cases in a forum such as parliamentary Question Time".

Hipkins wouldn't say if he thought he had done wrong by Bellis or whether he would apologise to her.

After Bellis accused him of breaching her privacy, Hipkins said he was "absolutely not" trying to smear her by releasing his statement.

Bellis, a former Al Jazeera journalist who received international attention for her reporting of the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan, sought an emergency spot in MIQ after discovering late last year that she was pregnant in Qatar, where she was based but which does not allow sex outside marriage.

With MIQ at the time still requiring Kiwis to enter a lottery to return home, Bellis ended up having to move to Afghanistan, where she and her partner have a visa. She applied for an emergency allocation in MIQ on the basis that she would need time-critical medical treatment. 

It was rejected as her date of departure wasn't within a certain window. But she said flights were difficult to get to leave the country and provided 59 documents explaining her need for a spot.

The subsequent handling of her case and the statement Hipkins released created a furore and was used by opposition political parties to highlight issues with the MIQ system.

On February 1, she was offered a MIQ voucher. Kiwis overseas no longer need to enter MIQ when returning to New Zealand.