How to tell a positive HIV story in Africa
It is a brutal truth that some topics, no matter how important, struggle to engage the public. One such, as reported in the western media, is HIV in sub- Saharan Africa: both the subject and location seem so distant from us in every sense.
But what does the HIV story look like as reported from the place where it is a daily reality? Last month my photographer colleague Frank Miller and I travelled to Zambia, 15 per cent of whose 14 million people are HIV positive, to try to find out.
What you cannot avoid noticing in Lusaka, the country’s capital, are the billboards that line all the main roads. Then you notice the hand-painted adverts and slogans on the walls. Their messages are stark.
“Beating. Rape. Defilement” – referring to men, often HIV positive, who have sex with their daughters, stepdaughters and granddaughters – “Men!!! Don’t just watch. Stop the violence.”
“When pregnant, get tested and treated for HIV.”
“Child sexual abuse. Stop it now.”
Although these notices are highly visible, the people affected by HIV are not. In parts of Lusaka 27 per cent of people have the virus. You would never know. People have been managing HIV for years with free anti-retroviral drugs (ARVs) and living lives that are close to normal.
What it does mean is that the challenge for Zambian media in covering the HIV story is the same as that faced in the West: readers’ fatigue with a topic that has been around for close to three decades.
Unlike in the West, however, the local media have an essential role in helping to save lives, raise awareness of the need to go for testing, and reduce the stigma of a diagnosis. The Zambian media, whether privately or state owned, recognise how crucial their role is in keeping readers engaged with the biggest public-health story in Africa of the past century.
“The newspapers speak with one voice on this topic,” says Richard Mulonga, who reported for the state-owned Times of Zambia for 14 years.
“They are united on the subject, unlike politics. There is no agenda in the reporting. HIV coverage is above politics, because even the government itself is challenged about how to tackle it.”
George Chomba is chief editorial editor at the Zambia Daily Mail. “We are not talking about people dying any more,” he says. “Fifteen years ago, the stories were about statistics. Now we try to explain why the figures are still so high. I think we have become tired of the story, but it is not because stigma has reduced around HIV. There is still stigma. For instance, people usually go outside their communities to be tested.”
Chomba would like to see investigations in which reporters follow the money that comes into the country in the form of foreign aid, not all of which goes where it is meant to.
“In Nigeria, ARVs are not free,” he says. “A Zambian government official with a suitcase of ARVs was arrested at Lusaka as he was about to get on a flight to Nigeria. He was going to sell them. But that story has died a death.”
Chomba doesn’t need to explain why his paper didn’t follow up the story of a corrupt government official: like the Times of Zambia, the Zambia Daily Mail is state owned.
Troubled and angry
Manasseh Phiri is a doctor who has been writing a weekly column for the Post, reflecting on Aids for the past eight years. The Post is privately owned. On the day we meet at his pig farm, an hour outside Lusaka, he is troubled and angry.