Amnesty UK has been accused of “spreading false information” about the Northern Territory’s Covid outbreak in an extraordinary joint statement from the territory’s peak Aboriginal health organisation and Amnesty’s own Australian operation.
Disinformation about the Covid outbreak in Aboriginal communities near Katherine, spread by third parties online, was on Thursday described by the NT chief minister as “conspiracy theories” pushed by “tinfoil hat wearing tossers”.
Amsant (the Aboriginal Medical Services Alliance Northern Territory) and Amnesty Australia subsequently said they were “extremely disappointed” that Amnesty International UK had issued a press release with a headline that misrepresented the situation on the ground without first consulting Aboriginal people.
“False information from social media is dangerous and corrosive to our communities but easily avoided by talking to the community-led health organisations that Amnesty seeks to defend, as they assert,” the Amsant chief executive, John Paterson, and Amnesty Australia director Sam Klintworth said in a joint statement.
Amnesty International released a statement on Thursday via its UK office with the headline “Northern Territory: Australian defence force response to Covid-19 outbreak in Aboriginal communities must not inflict trauma”.
Klintworth said she apologised for the release.
“We’re very disappointed that Amnesty UK reissued a release that we at Amnesty Australia were very careful to ensure was doing precisely the opposite of feeding the spread of harmful information,” she said.
“The addition of the headline, which was not in the original statement, suggesting the ADF was inflicting trauma, completely changed the sentiment of the statement which meant to convey Amnesty Australia’s full support of vaccine access and the crucial work of groups such as Amsant and we are deeply sorry for the distress this has caused.”
Paterson said the UK release “required an immediate correction”. Amnesty UK was contacted for comment. There is no suggestion Amnesty UK deliberately intended to spread false information by adding the headline to the release.
On Thursday, Aboriginal elders, health organisations and frontline workers in the Northern Territory condemned false information circulating on social media.
The chief minister, Michael Gunner, blamed it on “tinfoil hat wearing tossers, sitting in their parents’ basements in Florida”.
Claims had been circulating online that Aboriginal people from the Binjari and Rockhole communities near Katherine were being forcibly removed from their homes and taken to enforced quarantine, and people including children were being forcibly vaccinated.
Gunner suggested people peddling misinformation and disinformation should “get a life”.
“There are ridiculous, untrue rumours about the ADF’s involvement. As we all know, they aren’t carrying weapons – they are carrying fresh food for people. 99.99% of the BS that is flying around on the internet about the territory is coming from flogs outside the territory – mostly America, Canada and the UK, people who have nothing better to do than makeup lies about us because their own lives are so small and so sad.”
The traditional owners of Binjari and Rockhole said they were “very hurt by the untrue comments being made in the media and social media” about their situation.
“We have been treated with a lot of respect and appreciate all the support being given by these support personnel people,” they said in a statement.
“We are in lockdown because we’re in the biggest fight of our lives. We’re trying to keep safe. We’re trying to do the right thing by the community and Katherine. We don’t need people out there creating another flood for us. We don’t appreciate outside people making comments that are untrue.
“We want people to respect our privacy and show respect for our feelings.”