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SOUTHERN AFRICA: Is the pen mightier than the virus?

Photo: IRIN
Journalists are not immune from HIV/AIDS
JOHANNESBURG, 16 October 2008 (PlusNews) - Isn't it time that journalists started taking HIV/AIDS beyond the newsroom and into the bedroom? In many newsrooms the highly politicised topic of HIV/AIDS remains just that - political. Journalists aren't immune to HIV/AIDS; they just don't talk about it.

But they are just as vulnerable, especially in Southern Africa, the hardest hit region in the world. "Journalists stand from an externalised view when it comes to HIV - denying, not wanting to know their sero-status because they feel they are the safe breed," said David Kamkwamba a journalist at the Malawi Broadcasting Corporation (MBC).

"But studies have shown, locally and beyond, that journalists have a low risk perception and are in the high-risk group by the very nature of their trade, which makes them spend most of their productive lifetime outside their homes."

Kamkwamba is head of the recently formed Network of Malawi Journalists Living with HIV and AIDS (MJLWHA), which hopes to support HIV-positive journalists, and also to get journalists to internalise the HIV/AIDS information they report on. He said the network had 10 members so far, but they had yet to publicly disclose their status.

"A journalist who has HIV experiences will make a more effective contribution to the national response than any ... information, education and communication material. After all, human beings learn better by seeing and practicing than hearing and being taught," he told IRIN/PlusNews.

Practice what you preach?

James Mphande, editor of The Daily Times, a local Malawian newspaper, admitted that - as is the case with all people - practising what you preach as a journalist is difficult.

"Like most of the things we write, we do not practise what is written on HIV. You see, journalists take themselves for a vehicle of communication, and the information they disseminate is usually considered to be meant for their readers, listeners and viewers, and not themselves."

He attributed the low number of journalists openly living with HIV to a fear of discrimination and stigma. "The other thing is fear of being looked upon as hypocrites who preach one thing and do another," he commented. "When it is involving other people, we think it is so simple to open up, but when it is our turn we realise how difficult it is."

''The other thing is fear of being looked upon as hypocrites who preach one thing and do another ... When it is involving other people, we think it is so simple to open up, but when it is our turn we realise how difficult it is.''
Mphande remained sceptical about the MJLWHA, and expressed concern about how a network of HIV-positive journalists would work in a situation "where you have the founders still unable to disclose their identities".

"The founders should have been the first to come out in the open, so as to encourage those who have been hiding themselves. But even if one was HIV positive, how do you start opening up to somebody who is anonymous, and whose HIV status is a matter of speculation?"

Patrick Bwanali, associate editor of Together Magazine, a Malawian youth publication, hailed the formation of the organisation but doubted whether many news writers would openly declare their status by registering.

"We featured one lady who is living positively and has a good job. She challenged the board of my magazine and the journalists to go for HIV tests, but nine months down the line none of us wants to talk about the issue at all," he told IRIN/PlusNews.

Reluctance to get help

The situation is similar in Zimbabwe, where the Zimbabwe Union of Journalists (ZUJ) launched a programme to provide antiretroviral drugs (ARVs) to its HIV-positive members and their immediate families a month ago. So far only 12 of the ZUJ's membership of about 650 journalists have asked the doctors working with the union about the ARV scheme, but none have come back.

ZUJ national coordinator Chakanyuka Bosha told IRIN/PlusNews the low uptake of the ARV scheme was "worrying", as all efforts have been made to make every member aware of it.

Bosha said the journalists were told they would only get ARVs after undergoing tests to determine whether or not it was safe to start taking the medication, and he suspected this might have discouraged them.

"I think when this news came out, members thought they could just walk into our offices and walk out the next minute with the drugs, but there are procedures that need to be followed. ARVs are potentially very potent drugs if not given correctly."

He noted that the fear of stigma and discrimination often prevented people from accessing the medication. Many journalists had come to Bosha and pretended they wanted the drugs for a close relative, while others said their biggest fear was to wake up to news headlines about their HIV-positive status in the newspapers the next day.

So is the media in Southern Africa its own enemy? Political reporter Vusumuzi Sifile believes this is the case. "Journalists are used to this false sense of power that they wield, giving even the president of a country sleepless nights," he told IRIN/PlusNews.

"Because of the stigma associated with being HIV positive, many journalists fear disclosing their [HIV] status could compromise their status [in the public mind], the same way some of the journalists view positive ordinary people."

But the reality is that journalists are just as affected, and sometimes even more so. "ZUJ began this scheme because of the realisation that many of our colleagues who have failed to access ARVs have been dying of AIDS-related illnesses over the years," said Bosha.

Zimbabwean reporter Caiphas Chimhete called on AIDS awareness campaigns to include targeting journalists. "These organisations come to us and invite us to workshops so that we write stories for them, assuming we are not infected and affected; they forget we are also part of the 1.8 million HIV-positive people in Zimbabwe."

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Theme (s): HIV/AIDS (PlusNews), Media - PlusNews,

[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]

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