Winter 2004    Vol. 12, Issue 2


Media Takes on Challenge of AIDS Education, Prevention

It is often said that education is the only vaccine against HIV. In such a scenario, the media are best poised to inoculate.

Mindful of their pivotal role in the fight against AIDS, media outlets, whether television, radio or print, are increasingly rising to the challenge by promoting awareness of the virus, and educating listeners, viewers and readers about the facts of the epidemic and how to stop it.

According to national surveys conducted in a range of countries, the majority of individuals identify the media as their primary source of information about HIV. In the United States, for example, 70 percent characterise the media in this way, and in India, among women who have heard about AIDS, more than three-quarters get their information from television.

The Global Media AIDS Initiative (GMAI) is a bid to harness this power. Its birth began in January 2004, when secretary-general of the United Nations, Kofi Annan, convened an historic meeting of top executives from around the globe to focus attention on media contributions to the fight against HIV. These broadcasting executives discussed a range of strategies, from making AIDS a corporate priority to ensuring that the issue is placed prominently in mainstream programming. Commitments were also made to give the epidemic significant news coverage and to dedicate airtime to public service announcements (PSAs).

GMAI is supported by the United Nations Department of Public Information, UNAIDS and the Kaiser Family Foundation. A number of activities have taken place under its auspices, including a regional media leaders meeting in Indonesia. A creative conference mooted at the inaugural GMAI meeting also took place in New York this fall, hosted by MTV Networks International, and the International Academy of Television Arts and Sciences.

An Uphill Battle
Despite the fact that AIDS has been on the radar and making news for more than 20 years, there is still an alarming lack of awareness about the disease, especially among young people. According to recent surveys from more than 40 countries, greater than half of those in the highest age risk group, ages 15 to 24, have serious misconceptions about AIDS transmission. And a 2003 survey found that 40 percent of Chinese men and women were unable to name a single way to avoid infection.

AIDS is also a very difficult subject to discuss with the requisite level of frankness and openness. An unseen virus linking sex and death, it does not necessarily lend itself to free-flowing conversation. Breaking the talking taboo on HIV will lead to expanded knowledge and awareness that will encourage behaviour change.

Denial that AIDS is a universal problem that can affect anyone at anytime is also a trend that needs to be challenged. Many people have not yet accepted that the risk of HIV/AIDS applies to them. For instance, more than nine in 10 adolescents in Haiti believe they have a tiny or non-existent chance of contracting HIV; meanwhile the nation has one of the highest prevalence rates outside sub-Saharan Africa.

Equally damaging to the effort to disseminate factual information about the epidemic is the widespread belief that HIV/AIDS is something that happens to people who are immoral and socially deviant. Or that those living with HIV deserve to be infected. A UNAIDS study in India found that more than one-third of respondents expressed this view, and a similar percentage felt that it would be better if infected people killed themselves.

There is also a need to recognise that sometimes it is necessary to challenge the extant norms and values in a given society to facilitate behaviour change. For example, the shibboleth of prevention, ABC, (where ‘A’ is for abstinence, ‘B’ is for being faithful and ‘C’ is for consistent condom use) is not appropriate for many women. In patriarchal societies, women rarely have the kind of control over their sexual behaviour that allows them to decide on abstinence or condom use. Often, they are faithful themselves, and become infected by husbands and partners who are not.

The nature of media interventions can also pose a problem. Some can do more harm than good if they, for example, rely on fear to get their message across, as many did in the early days. As a corollary to this, some campaigns today fall into the trap of stigmatising people deemed to be in high-risk groups, such as commercial sex workers, who are often portrayed as predatory vectors of the disease.

Additionally, collaborations between media, grass-roots organisations, service providers and government agencies are one of the defining characteristics of successful interventions. Yet with a number of partners come potentially competing voices, and some prevention initiatives have run aground due to disagreements between key players.

Despite myriad problems and potential pitfalls, however, media companies on every continent are opting to accept the responsibility of confronting the virus head-on.

Making Inroads in India
Some countries have a long-standing tradition of media interventions. India, for example, has historically backed a broad range of HIV/AIDS campaigns, and national public broadcaster Prasar Bharati supports the GMAI. In 1997, Bharati’s All India Radio broadcast the proto-typical radio soap opera Tinkha Tinkha Sukh (Happiness lies in Small Things), which led to radical — if localised — social change in one particular village, Lutsaan, where the dowry system was rejected.

An Indian film crew prepares to use its media prowess to capture viewers and combat HIV/AIDS.

Currently, India’s first-ever large-scale mass media campaign is underway, involving a collaboration between the BBC World Service Trust, the Doordarshan television company, All India Radio and the National AIDS Control Organisation. Launched across north India in November 2002, the campaign promotes education through entertainment. Two key programme strands are the award-winning weekly reality youth show, Haath se Haath Milaa (Let’s Join Hands), and the interactive crime series Jasoos (Detective) Vijay, which was voted “Best Thriller Series” at the prestigious 2003 Indian Television Awards. Chat Chowk, a weekly radio phone-in programme on personal health issues, has also been part of the mix, along with advertising spots. In an independent survey, 85 percent of respondents said they had learned something new from the campaign, nearly one-third said they had discussed the key messages with friends, and more than 10 percent said they had changed behaviour as a result of the intervention.

But the task is daunting in a conservative society where talking about sex is far from the norm. In fact, according to research carried out before the campaign launch, only 7 percent of those surveyed said that they had ever discussed matters of a sexual nature. Such discussions need to take place given that India is increasingly threatened by AIDS, with more than 5 million people infected, and serious epidemics brewing in many of its states and regions.

Future efforts in India include the Heroes Project, a three-year initiative launched in 2004 that unites the Gere Foundation India Trust with the Avahan-India AIDS Initiative (part of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation), the Kaiser Family Foundation and Star India to present AIDS issues via PSAs, news coverage, and TV and radio entertainment programming.

Reaching Out in Russia
The media is also motivated in Russia, which has 800,000 HIV-infected persons and the worst prevalence rate in the Eastern European and Central Asian region.

For some time, a number of Russian channels have focused on HIV via news and medical programmes, radio call-in shows and studio discussions. Noting the severity of the crisis and the pervasive lack of awareness, misconceptions, stigma and discrimination, Russia’s first nationwide, multi-platform public awareness campaign was launched this fall. Under the umbrella of the Russian Media Partnership to Combat HIV/AIDS, and spearheaded by Gazprom-Media and the Transatlantic Partners Against AIDS, the initiative will deliver HIV/AIDS-related PSAs, entertainment programmes and training. Almost US$30 million have been pledged for the first year of the campaign.

Projects are also being planned across the region. A Eurasia media leaders meeting, encompassing companies from Russia, the Ukraine and Central Asian countries, took place this fall. Hosted by GMAI members Alexander Dybal (Gazprom-Media) and Viktor Pinchuk (ICTV, Ukraine), the conference invited proposals of concrete measures to educate the public about HIV.

A still from "Ninja: The Enduring Master" PSA, courtesy of the Staying Alive Campaign, MTV China.

Changing Channels in China
Authorities in China have recently acknowledged the potential for a serious HIV/AIDS epidemic in the country and have also begun to act accordingly. A new political will, evidenced by Premier Wen Jiaboa shaking hands with people living with HIV on World AIDS Day 2003, has been reinforced by a commitment to media messages and greater dissemination of information.

National broadcaster China Central Television (a GMAI member) has increased AIDS coverage in earnest and ran hundreds of news items about HIV in 2003. This is in addition to AIDS-focused TV dramas such as If There is a Tomorrow, broadcast in 2002, and 20 episodes of The Red Ribbon, shown during primetime at the end of 2003. CCTV has also partnered with MTV China to raise awareness via components that include a new PSA aired nationwide.

Other channels, such as the Hong-Kong based Phoenix TV (another GMAI participant), have also stepped up their HIV/AIDS-related news coverage, documentaries and PSA broadcasts. In addition, Phoenix has aired a series of five one-hour features entitled A True Report on AIDS in China as part of Phoenix Panorama, one of the channel’s main information programmes.

To further the situation, this spring, the Chinese government unveiled a series of binding national guidelines on AIDS publicity and education. Not only are broadcasters now required to include AIDS prevention coverage and messages, but there are also stipulations as to item frequency and position. For example, HIV/AIDS-related programmes and PSAs should be broadcast during peak hours and not less than twice a week, with a gradual increase in frequency.

A Focus on the Future
Clearly, AIDS is on the agenda for many broadcasters around the globe. Such interest and commitment is to be commended and supported. But resting on laurels is not an option. Both countries and media companies must continue to recognise the full extent of the challenge ahead and ensure that campaigns are sustained, and replenished, over time.

The task at hand requires vision, dedication and, above all, creative programming that truly engages audiences. The media have nothing less than the power to save lives. And apparently, they remain intent on doing so.

For further information or inquiries, contact Mahesh Mahalingam at UNAIDS:

Center for Communications, Health and the Environment
4437 Reservoir Road, NW, Washington, DC 20007
Tel: (202) 965-5990 . Fax: (202) 965-5996