Putting HIV on the front page
31 July 2006
Sri-Lankan journalists reflect on media role in reducing stigma and discrimination
The media has a key role to play in raising awareness on HIV and reducing AIDS-related stigma and discrimination, even in countries with low HIV prevalence rates.
This summer, a group of Sri Lankan journalists joined a special UNAIDS workshop in Bangkok to better examine the powerful role the media can play within the AIDS response. Despite relatively low levels of HIV infection within Sri Lanka, the country is nevertheless at real risk of a potential epidemic. Increasing rates of sexually transmitted infections, high levels of internal and external migration, apparent increases in the numbers of sex workers and low use of condoms, all combine to put people at greater risk of HIV. The media in Sri Lanka therefore plays a key role in ensuring that HIV stays on the political agenda. It is also a major vehicle for prevention messages to inform people how to protect themselves and reduce the stigma and discrimination associated with AIDS.
The three day intensive Media Exposure Tour, organized by UNAIDS Regional Support Team for Asia Pacific, brought together 12 journalists from Sri Lankan print, radio and television media and four Government representatives from the Ministry of Health and the Ministry of Education to examine the situation in their country and how they could best put their media skills to work to help get ahead of the epidemic and combat discrimination.
Prior to the workshop, only two of the 16 participants had ever met a person living with HIV and most of them said they had limited experience in HIV and AIDS issues.
“We wanted to provoke the participants to reflect on their own behaviours and attitudes and on what each of them can do to make a difference,” said Mechai Viravaidya, founder of the Thai Population and Community Development Association and a resource person in this initiative. In his welcoming address he urged all participants to “think outside the box and challenge societal norms to break down barriers.”
The tour started with an assessment of what media can do to make a difference in the AIDS response, which included: building awareness on HIV in all groups, socializing, reducing stigma and discrimination, improving education in schools and engaging politicians.
Over the three days participants reviewed the journalistic ethical guidelines coined as RESPECT (Responsible, Ethical, Sensitive, Participative, Empowering, Compassion and Trust) and also had a chance to learn from and discuss with a number of regional journalists and artists who presented their own experience and work on HIV and AIDS.
The programme provided the journalists with a variety of rich experiences engaging with a range of people from organizations representing different aspects of the response to HIV in Thailand and the region. They met with Frika, a young Indonesian activist living with HIV and visited a number of centers in Bangkok such as the Injecting Drug Users treatment centre and the Mercy center. They also learned about the empowerment of sex workers at the Empower office located in an area of Bangkok known for commercial sex work.
“I am not the same journalist who came from Sri Lanka,” said TV producer Nirosha Damayanthi to describe the impact of the Tour on her. “Hearing how Frika turned a new leaf in her life created in me the urge to make a difference in the field of HIV and AIDS.”
Less than two weeks after the end of the Tour, articles on HIV and AIDS began to appear in Sri Lanka media telling Frika’s story about overcoming stigma and discrimination from her own family to become the voice of People living with HIV in Asia and disseminating hard facts about the spread of the disease and the importance of respect and empathy towards the most vulnerable people in society.
Tour participant Ramani Prematillake Bogoda wrote: “people living with HIV should not be cornered or abandoned. They too are entitled to the rights and benefits of society.”
Another journalist from the tour, Buddhi Jayawardene from the Health Education Bureau, has started a weekly live radio discussion on HIV to build on the momentum.
“Speaking about the disease is the first step towards reducing the stigma around people living with HIV and preventing new infections,” said David Bridger from the UNAIDS Regional Office in Bangkok.
“The media plays a critical role in breaking the silence,” he added.
The Bangkok Media Exposure Tour is an activity of the National HIV/AIDS Prevention Project in Sri Lanka, supported by the World Bank. The UNAIDS Regional Support Team for Asia and the Pacific provided support in developing the program and hosting the Media Exposure Tour.
The 8th International Congress on AIDS in Asia and the Pacific will be held in Colombo, Sri Lanka 19-23 August 2007.