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Privacy vs public interest

April 20, 2009

A storm is brewing about how the German media is handling the case of pop star Nadja Benaissa, who is accused of allegedly having had unprotected sex despite being HIV-positive.

Nadja Benaissa
Some experts say Benaissa's arrest wasn't warrantedImage: AP

As "No Angels" singer Benaissa awaits her release from police custody, a debate about how her case is being handled is gaining pace.

Since her arrest shortly before she was due to perform at a club in Frankfurt a week and a half ago, Benaissa has been in police custody. She's accused of having had unprotected sex with three men despite knowing she was HIV positive, according to state prosecutors in Darmstadt. One of the men she slept with is now HIV positive, possibly as a consequence of his sexual relations with her.

Some legal experts have questioned the way the 26-year-old has been treated by the justice system so far. Ulrich Preuss, professor at the Hertie School of Governance, said he had the impression that "many things have gone wrong."

Arrest is disproportionate, DAH says

Over the weekend, an array of experts made appearances in the German media to say that the state prosecutor's office had gone too far in sharing details about the singer's case with the public, and in so doing had failed to protect her right to privacy and the presumption of innocence.

Deutsche Aids Hilfe (DAH), the German umbrella group representing regional HIV/AIDS organizations has also been critical of the prosecution.

"Nadja Benaissa should be released as soon as possible," DAH said. It called her arrest "disproportionate."

But attempts to muzzle the tabloid Bild Zeitung's reporting of the case have angered other camps. On Thursday, the paper's editor-in-chief, Kai Diekmann, ignored an injunction from the regional court in Berlin, and went ahead with an article which asked whether Benaissa was facing a 10-year prison sentence for her conduct. Diekmann defended his decision in an editorial, calling the court's ruling "scandalous."

"If serious crimes are now part of the private sphere, then the press won't be able to report on anything anymore," he wrote.

The liberal Free Democratic party's media expert Hans-Joachim Otto also criticized the injunction against Bild.

"Nobody wrote that Ms. Benaissa is guilty," he said. "The fact that she is being detained for questioning is a fact that is in the public interest."

What constitutes public interest?

Otto referred to a European court ruling that said that it's justified for media reports to ignite a serious debate on an issue. The Benaissa case, he said, was a good vehicle for starting a "very valuable" debate about the infection risks posed by people who are HIV positive.

The No Angels
In happier days: Nadja (far right) with her bandmatesImage: AP

But AIDS activist and former German tennis star Michael Stich disagreed, saying he doesn't approve of the publicity Benaissa's case is creating for the cause of AIDS prevention.

"It makes me sad that the media are only now reporting on such an important, serious topic, only because now it's affecting a celebrity," Stich said.

He added that it is the general culture of silence about HIV/AIDS in Germany that has even made such a case possible. However, he said that if the allegations about the singer's conduct are correct, he would deem that "morally wrong."

"I can't put it any other way," he told the Berliner Morgenpost. "If someone knows that they are infected with HIV and accept the risk of infecting someone else, then that's just morally wrong."

However, he said he doesn't want to see Benaissa treated unfairly. "No matter how you look at it, Nadja is a victim," Stich said. "Whether she's also a perpetrator remains to be seen."

Benaissa's band, "No Angels," is Germany's most successful girl band, with 5 million album sales in their first three years. The group was formed in 2000, when they won in a talent competition on German RTL television.

Author: Deanne Corbett
Editor: Nancy Isenson