Top broadcasters join forces with UN on HIV/AIDS prevention



Fiona Fleck




Twenty of the world's most powerful broadcasters and media conglomerates joined forces with humanitarian agencies to fight HIV/AIDS in a new initiative which UN Secretary-General, Kofi Annan, said had the potential to save "as many, if not more, lives than physicians."

"In the world of AIDS, silence is death," Annan told broadcasters at a meeting in New York on 15 January to launch the Global Media AIDS Initiative.

The initiative — the first of its kind to be launched by the UN — is financed by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and run jointly with the Kaiser Family Foundation, a US non-profit group that has been working with health agencies and media groups addressing the HIV/AIDS epidemic for more than a decade. The project aims to find ways in which the media can use their resources to raise awareness about HIV/AIDS and to help gather broader support in the fight against it.

Participants included leading global networks like Viacom of the US and the British Broadcasting Corporation, as well as domestic broadcasters in China, India, Nigeria and South Africa.

"AIDS is an epidemic of the information age," said UNAIDS Executive Director, Dr Peter Piot, adding that information was one of the "strongest weapons against the AIDS epidemic "to fight denial, inaction, ignorance, discrimination — the key forces that allow this epidemic to spread."

Annan appealed to broadcasters to make the fight against AIDS a corporate priority. His proposals included devoting programming, news, editorial and advertising space to the issue, supporting efforts to train reporters and the development and broadcasting of AIDS-related shows and films. Many broadcasters reported that they had already stepped up their AIDS coverage in recent years.

Award-winning TV dramas like MTV's "Staying Alive" and "Angels in America", a two-part television series based on a Broadway drama about AIDS in New York in the 1980s, have played a vital role in giving the disease a human face, participants said.

In India where some HIV/AIDS patients are stigmatized, Detective Vijay, the main character in a popular crime series, is an HIV-positive private investigator.

South Africa's version of the US children's show, "Sesame Street" — "Takali Sesame" — recently introduced an HIV-positive Muppet called Kami to encourage children to play with school friends who have HIV.

Peter Matlare, Chief Executive of the South African Broadcasting Company, said his network had set up an AIDS helpline called "Love Life" and that 250 000 young South Africans call in every month.

Many broadcasters said respected and popular personalities from sport, entertainment and politics were a powerful tool for communicating the dangers of unsafe sex.

"Who would think we would have Nelson Mandela speaking to our audience on ... condom usage?" MTV chief, Bill Roedy, said.

The president of China Central Television, Zhao Huayong, said a news report showing a Chinese minister shaking hands with an AIDS patient had been groundbreaking in raising awareness about the epidemic in China where few programmes had broached the subject in the past.

Mark Byford, Executive Director General of the BBC, said he had stepped up AIDS coverage on BBC World radio and television massively last year because AIDS was "a global story."

"It's not just about southern Africa. It's Russia, it's the Caribbean, it's China, it's Europe, it's everywhere," Byford said.

In response to Annan's appeal to make HIV/AIDS related material accessible to other media outlets, participants agreed to share footage and information rights-free possibly in the form of a database. All 20 media networks signed a statement of support and their efforts will be reviewed at an international AIDS conference in Bangkok in July.

World Health Organization Genebra - Genebra - Switzerland