Sunday, September 10, 2006

Arwel, Media and HIV-AIDS at Shimla

Recently, I had the fortune of attending an electronic media workshop held in Shimla. It was conducted by the Cardiff based Thomson Foundation as a part of the European Union–India Media Initiative on HIV-AIDS. The workshop director was the inspirational Arwel Ellis Owen, also from Cardiff, UK. Arwel is the chairman of the British Academy of Film and TV Arts in Whales and in his distinguished career spanning over many decades, he was also the program head of the BBC in Northern Ireland.

There were eight participants in this workshop – people ranging from TV news reporters and news editors, radio programmers, documentary filmmakers and graphic artists. During this workshop, we had a chance to reflect upon the kind of coverage the electronic media has been giving to the HIV-AIDS issue in India, which I must say is not encouraging.

Around less than one present of our population is estimated to be having HIV, amounting to a very sizable number of around 5.7 million people! The implications are huge. If nothing is done and if more and more people fall sick due to HIV progressing into AIDS, imagine the impact it would have on our health care systems, our productivity, our budget allocation, our planning, our gross national income, and the development of our country as a whole – not to speak of the deteriorating quality of life of the people affected by HIV-AIDS!

Already, in a country like Swaziland in Africa, where one in every four members of the adult population is HIV positive, the economy is on the down slide. There aren’t enough healthy people to work and increase productivity. Each job has two appointees, lest the other falls sick. Any country that has a HIV prevalence of more than 1% finds it hard to attract foreign investment.

We have to act now, lest we follow the same route. Once inside the human body, HIV attacks, subverts and kills human cells – cells that help fight diseases, virus and other foreign bodies. This process may take years and during such a period persons infected with HIV may look perfectly normal. Therefore on an apparent level, the time bomb might not be seen to be clicking. But some years down the line the effect will manifest itself - unless of course, we intervene.

One of the prominent tools of intervention is to provide information and knowledge. The media plays an important role here. Yet, the media coverage given to the HIV-AIDS issue is hardly 1% of the total news covered. A recent report suggests that around 60% of our Members of Parliament are ignorant on how HIV spreads! If this is true, then we as journalists, as writers, as filmmakers and as artists have simply not done our job!

The health anchor of a 24 hour news channel, that has a ‘progressive’ image, does not know the difference between HIV and AIDS. A government owned TV channel shows a half hour fiction program on HIV-AIDS with a hidden agenda to cause ‘fear’ about the epidemic in the minds of the people – equating AIDS with untimely and inevitable death! Another private channel repeatedly airs the story of a HIV positive woman where she expresses her desire to end her life and shows us the permission seeking application that she has written to our President, as a sensationalized breaking investigative story!

Reports about HIV-AIDS patients appearing in the media have exposed their medical status to everyone in their environment and thus made them vulnerable to rampant stigma and discrimination! Some of them have been boycotted by their own families, communities and villages. Others have been unjustly given the pink slip by their employers or they have been removed from their rented houses or have been refused treatment at hospitals!

‘AIDS patient stoned to death’ – might be an eye catching headline. It can catch the eyeballs. But is it an in-depth report asking the whys and the whens and the whats of the issue? Or is it just sensationalizing and therefore trivializing the matter, as ever other news is done today?

Tabloids are a rage and even television ‘tabloidism’ is catching up. A Hindi film actor’s sex life and preferences are shown repeatedly on TV, as if it is of great national importance. So much so that in another story, a husband-wife-lover trio makes an issue of and debate over their extra-marital life, live on TV!

A consistent and responsible reporting of events and all relevant issues concerning HIV-AIDS would do well for those who are affected by the virus. At present, if there is anything that is missing, then this is it.

The Media Workshop in Shimla has sensitized at least eight media people into this.