Nigeria: JAAIDS Leads Fight Against Aids Through the Media

24 June 2005
interview

Lagos — Nigeria is one of five "next wave'" countries identified by global health experts as likely to experience a crisis from rising rates of HIV infection. A U.S. national intelligence estimate says that without more effective interventions, Nigeria will face a "social and economic impact similar to that in the hardest hit countries in southern and central Africa -- decimating key government and business elites, undermining growth, and discouraging foreign investment."

Already, an estimated four million Nigerians are infected, and some two million children have lost parents to Aids. In response, a variety of organizations and institutions are fighting back, demanding greater access to treatment and launching education and prevention programmes.

Journalists Against Aids (JAAIDS) was formed in 1997 to increase and improve coverage of HIV/Aids in Nigeria by working directly with journalists to better their training and access to information. It has helped with the formation of sister groups in Kenya and Ethiopia. Kingsley Obom-Egbulem, head of research and communications at JAAIDS, told AllAfrica's Alec Johnson about their work to raise the visibility of Aids issues in the Nigerian media. Before joining JAAIDS, Obom-Egbulem reported and wrote extensively for The News magazine, the Financial Standard and Insider Weekly. Excerpts:

Tell us about Journalists Against Aids.

Journalists Against Aids is a media-based NGO. It's run by journalists and basically what we do is advocacy on HIV/Aids. That's a summary of what we do. But if you take that further, we build the capacity of the media and civil society groups working on HIV/Aids on how to influence policy decisions in favor of people living with HIV/Aids. Generally, what we do is to support advocacy efforts from a media perspective and from a civil society perspective.

We were journalists in the newsroom. Some of us were working with newspapers and radio stations. We all didn't start with JAIDS. JAIDS started in 1997 as a concept, and in 2000, it was formally registered as an NGO.

What do you do to help build the capacity of the journalist JAIDS works with?

When we started, there was an obvious information deficiency. We had to inform the journalists. We had to train them on what HIV is all about. Also, there was a need to develop their penchant for advocacy journalism. That is to say, not writing stories just because they want to write stories, but writing stories because they want to influence a particular decision-making process. That was not the conventional journalism. You just report what people would say or perhaps investigate a piece. But this time, [you report] with an intention to achieve an objective which could be politically motivated or socially motivated. So that's where we came in.

This whole process began in 1997 when Fela Anikulapo Kuti died of an Aids-related illness. Fela's death, to some extent, brought the issue of HIV/Aids to a point where people had to decide to accept the reality of Aids or reject it. The media had a critical role to play and to play that role at that point in time, the media was deficient in terms of quality of knowledge and quantity. So that was where the concept of JAAIDS began. Currently we've been able to address that information need and train quite a lot of journalists, editors, correspondents and health reporters within the print and broadcast media.

Have you seen a rise in articles and radio broadcasts addressing Aids?

Yes. There's always room, in whatever you're doing, to do more, but I think it was the late Awolowo who said that the success of a man is not measured by the height he has attained but by the depth that he's coming from. So when you look at the depth of ignorance that we were coming from then you can't but say that we've done so well.

The quantity of space and airtime devoted to HIV/Aids has increased and the quality of coverage has improved. These days, you can really see that coverage is in perspective. It's not just reporting for the sake of reporting, but analyzing an issue from a perspective. [Reporters are] looking at HIV/Aids not just in terms of statistics, in terms of who is getting infected and who's not getting infected, but this time looking at issues: mother-to-child transmission, orphans and vulnerable children, treatment, disclosure, testing. You see stories that are slanted to address some of these basic issues, unlike these other stories that just emphasize pronouncements by government officials and politicians. You still find very good articles that are driven by a penchant for advocacy.

I think we're there. In 2002, we conducted research, a media monitoring of coverage. It was a one-year monitoring of magazines. We had about five magazines and we monitored about eight national dailies and what we did was we monitored daily for one year. At the end of the day, we were able to come out with a report in 2003. That year, over 1500 stories and articles were written. Most of them, if you compare them to years back, definitely you can't find that volume of articles written on HIV/Aids. Some were full-page articles. Some were front-page [or] back page articles. Some were cover stories of magazines. We observed a common trend, that is use of language [that is] disempowering and stigmatizing, but it's because journalists are not aware. That also saw the need for training, because you can't rule out the need for training in addressing some of these shortcomings we're observing in media coverage.

So I think there are improvements. You must have noticed that a student of the Nigerian Institute of Journalism was expelled from school (Editor's note: NIJ expelled journalism student Federick Adeboye over his HIV status in July 2004. It received significant coverage in the Nigerian press. Adeboye was allowed to return to school after the public outcry) You'll be shocked that in all of that we didn't go to any media house to push in the story. We didn't push any story. The press releases we sent out were issues that were born out of some of the meetings we held that we journalists weren't invited to. So we just turned out a few press releases but every article you saw, every broadcast throughout the period that the guy was called back to school, we didn't push. That goes to tell you how informed the journalists are, how empowered they are and the degree of commitment they have as far as the national Aids response is concerned. Of course, that is an output of what we've been doing at JAAIDS.

What do journalists need to sustain the cause?

I think access to information is a very critical part. When I mean access to information, it could also be in terms of exposing journalists to issues, to debates, to context, to sources. At JAAIDS, we hold a monthly media round table. It's one of our projects. It's not one of our funded projects and we've been doing it since 2001. It's our own contribution.

This media round table is like a talk show, but not a show because of the serious issues we discuss there. The round table provides a platform for scientists, for people living with Aids, for researchers, for government officials, for everyone who has a role to play in the national Aids response. We bring the media together. For instance, you may be doing a story but you couldn't get one or two persons that you need to speak with. The media round table is a new way to search for people or information that you need to do that story. So what we do is we build up topics and look at the personalities that can speak on those topics and invite them [and] invite the media. If you're working on a story, that will give you some background information on your story. Also, if you're looking for someone to speak with on that issue, the media round table provides that forum.

The last edition that was held last month was voluntary counseling and testing and it was an eye opener. At the end of the day, the journalists who participated were able to understand what it means to test. When people test positive to HIV, so many things happen and when they test negative too, you need to experience some of these things. In conceiving that topic, we felt that it would be hypocritical for you to write about testing and ask people to test, call people to test in your article, when you haven't gone for a test. It's a plus when your information is experiential. That's how we conceived the media round table for that edition and we all went there and we chose a center close by and after the round table about five guys were bold enough to go for the test. It was awesome. We also got a journalist who had gone for the test four or five times. She came to share her experience. Somebody living with HIV also came to share her experience. You know how she tested and all that. In the end, they were counseled and they saw how this thing was done. So when you're writing about that, you're no longer talking in abstract. You know what you're talking about.

Then this month, we will be talking about HIV/Aids care, treatment and sex workers. We already have about five commercial sex workers that are going to be there. Of course, no pictures, no cameras.

Who else have you invited?

We've invited journalists, sex workers, groups that work with sex workers, some people living with Aids and some youths. So we're expecting a full house.

What have been your major successes and setbacks?

Well, successes wow. We have a web site. I think it's the only website on Aids in Nigeria. We have an Internet discussion forum, a Nigeria e-forum that is growing. I think we're netting close to 5,000 subscribers now. We got an award at Highway Africa. We won the award in 2002 and we've been able to let the media know their place in the national Aids response. It's not just a doctor's or politician's thing. It's our thing. So the media has a role to play in this and we've been able to cover that idea. The media is playing that role right now.

We've done quite a lot of publications, and we've trained close to 350 or 400 journalists, editors, web managers, and house correspondents since we started. We've provided support for setting up media networks of journalists working with HIV/Aids in Kenya and Ethiopia. We organize the red ribbon award. It's an annual award that celebrates media and community responses to HIV/Aids. This is the 5th year and it's been consistently growing in popularity and size. Last year we gave out 19 awards and this year we're hoping to give out, depending on the funds, about 22 awards. It enjoys the support of the Ford Foundation, ActionAid, PSI (Population Services International), SFH (Society for Family Health - PSI's affiliate in Nigeria). And NACA (National Aids Action Committee - Nigeria's national Aids coordinating body) supports the award.

Then challenges. Initially, we had a problem getting into the media. Of course, it had to do with attitude. The general attitude everywhere was that Aids, this thing is not real. We overcame that and after that we had a problem of journalists being cynical about people who work on HIV/Aids that they just want to make money. But you need to weigh the quality of work, whatever cynicism or pessimism you have about what these guys are doing. We've been consistent and accountable in terms of funds and our relationship with our funders. So that was a problem, but right now, it's no longer a problem.

Right now, the challenge is improving the quality of our work and consolidating what we've been able to achieve. We're still trying to sustain the commitment of the media because our work is 80 percent media, 20 percent other things. So once we lose the media, we might just as well close shop. So we have to do everything possible to insure that the Nigerian media is committed because whether it is prevention of mother-to-child transmission, whether it's ARV and treatment, whether it's developing the national Aids strategy, whether it's orphans and vulnerable children, whether it's testing, -- you know, whatever it is, there's a very critical role which the media has to play. If that role is not played, it's a sure step to failure because we're driven by the understanding that when Aids is not in the news, then it doesn't exist. We're also driven by the understanding that every advocacy effort works better when it is flagged off with the media, sustained by the media. So no advocacy without the media.

We have understood that because we are journalists. Nobody can do it better than journalists doing it for themselves. Right now, I don't want to say that we have a problem with funding, but that's not a problem we have now. We're not going cap in hand. We've enjoyed quite remarkable support, some unsolicited, some solicited and of course we are open to more.

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