BBC Media Action training tackles widespread misinformation and stigma in the media around HIV and AIDS

While world leaders and prominent scientists are among the 25,000 delegates attending the 19th International AIDS Conference in Washington DC this week, I am reminded of a much smaller group that got together earlier this year to talk about the same issues. In March I gave a training workshop – part of a series of three – to 20 journalists and civil society workers from Somaliland and Puntland in Somalia to help them tackle widespread misinformation and stigma in the media around HIV and AIDS.

In Somaliland and Puntland sex outside marriage, homosexuality and talking about condom use are all taboo. In such a conservative environment, conversations about HIV are difficult. That silence is often filled by harmful misconceptions and prejudices which are repeated and reinforced by inaccurate reporting and stigmatising language. Widely held beliefs about prevention and treatment – that drinking camel urine cures HIV infection, and that female genital mutilation prevents it – only compound already complex cultural and human rights issues.

On the first day of the workshop I asked the reporters and civil society workers to write down how they felt about HIV and AIDS. Their responses, especially from the journalists, highlighted fear. They equated HIV with death, and expressed hatred against people living with HIV.

I was helped enormously in the workshop by three Somali women who live with HIV and are open about their status. For most of the journalists, the workshops were their first known encounter with someone living with HIV. During an exercise in which the reporters interviewed them, one woman felt that the reporter’s body language was tense and nervous – he was careful not to touch her. A second woman felt that she was being blamed for being HIV positive.

But over the course of the week, we all witnessed and experienced a marked shift in attitudes towards HIV and AIDS, from fear and misinformation to genuinely enhanced understanding and empathy. One journalist told me frankly that he never knew that HIV positive mothers could have healthy children. Over the course of the three workshops, the journalists became friends with the three women who bravely gave their time and energy to help challenge the stigma that surrounds HIV and AIDS, and were sharing food and hugs with them.

Though miles apart in terms of scale, the International AIDS Conference this week and the workshop that I gave are, to my mind, part of the same effort. While some of the greatest minds in the field share best practice on prevention and treatment in Washington DC, that group of 20 including eight radio producers who met in Hargeisa, Somaliland, early this year started something small but significant.

The journalists knew that convincing their station managers and editors to report on HIV and AIDS at all, let alone accurately and fairly, would be difficult. They were concerned that their motivation in reporting on HIV and AIDS would be viewed with suspicion, and about how reporting on HIV and AIDS would affect their ratings. However, they left the training with ideas for stories on landlords evicting tenants they discover to be positive and examining government budget allocations for HIV and AIDS programmes. In a country such as Somalia where news consumption is high, changing the way that HIV and AIDS are talked about in the media can change the way that they are talked about across society. One small group of committed journalists and civil society workers has the power and influence to shape how the story of HIV and AIDS is told.


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