World Culture

Reporters Still Fighting To Tell The HIV/AIDS Story

  The 5th International AIDS Society conference took place in Cape Town, South Africa.

The 5th International AIDS Society conference took place in Cape Town, South Africa. Douglas Hopper/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Douglas Hopper/NPR

Today we are bringing you a very special report from Tell Me More producer Douglas Hopper, who's in Cape Town, South Africa. Take it away Douglas...

Thank you, Monika.... I'm here in Cape Town for the "5th International AIDS Society Conference on HIV Pathogenesis Treatment and Prevention" — a conference about the science of HIV/AIDS.

Thousands of scientists and activists are here. Loads of new data are on display, being pondered and debated by the world's global health experts. Every angle of the story is up for discussion - male circumcision, mother-to-child transmission, drug addiction — just a few of the hottest issues right now.

But outside these walls, the issue of HIV/AIDS isn't always such an open conversation. Government censorship and social stigma keep HIV behind closed doors and out of the media. For journalists in many countries - many of whom I've met in the past few days - telling the story can mean risking their own careers and sometimes their own safety. Here are some of their stories.

'I Will Not Die My Own Death'

Meet Afradai Afridi, a radio reporter based in the Swat valley, a disputed tribal area in Pakistan where virtually no western journalists are allowed and press freedoms are notoriously at risk. Afradai Afridi, who asked me not to use his legal name, is a full time correspondent for the US-based Free Speech Radio News. You can hear one of his stories here.

Afridai has been taken into custody on multiple occasions for his reporting, sometimes at the hands of Taliban militants, other times captured by officials from the Pakistani Army. As a result, Afridai is very cautious about the stories he chooses to tell. Reporting on HIV/AIDS carries a unique challenge. He says the Pakistani government condemns many HIV stories as a way of protecting its image, but that's only part of the problem. Afridai explains that his biggest challenge is finding ways to talk about women's health. He says Pakistan's Muslim culture makes it awkward and often simply forbidden to publicly report on the private lives of women.

Afridai says reporting on HIV/AIDS is certainly dangerous, but most often it's his stories about inter-tribal fighting and refugee issues that land him in jail.

Just last month Afridai says he was taken into custody for reporting on Afghan refugees - a group of Afghanis near the border who were resisting orders to leave Pakistan. Afridai was collecting their stories when two men from the Pakistani army approached. He explains what happened next.

I asked Afridai why he keeps reporting, given the risks to himself and his family. He said it's a sacrifice he's willing to make. With a calm smile, he assures himself, "I have accepted my fate. I am comfortable knowing that I will not die my own death."

'Missing Numbers'

Reporting on HIV/AIDS doesn't always mean risking one's personal safety. But it can mean putting your career — and sometimes your 'rolodex' on the line.

Monica Oblitas Zamora is a reporter with the newspaper Los Tiempos - The Times -in Bolivia. She's been reporting on HIV/AIDS for several years. Her editors strongly defend her work and she says the government has never threatened her safety. But in Bolivia, telling the HIV/AIDS story often has hidden challenges.

For every story Monica files about the transmission of HIV or the treatment of AIDS in Bolivia, she says there's always one thing missing: DATA. That's because it's been several years since the Bolivian government commissioned any substantive research on prevalence or transmission of HIV. Monica relies almost solely on anecdotal evidence, a sacrifice no professional journalist wants to make.

Monica says she doesn't live in fear of being jailed or censored. But she admitted that sometimes she censors herself. She recalls one examples, in 2006, when she reported that health officials were distributing expired HIV drugs - antiretrovirals (ARV's) — donated by Brazil. Despite a threatening call from the health minister's office, she didn't back down. The story was published and created quite a bit of public discussion — exactly what most reporters want. But Monica says she intentionally left some facts out, namely her sources, the very doctors who told her about the problem. Monica explains why she made the cuts.

Meanwhile, Monica says government threats are not her immediate concern. She's more worried about her colleagues, who have begun to question her focus on HIV/AIDS.

'Many reporters — some of them close friends - have suggested I am HIV-positive," she explains, "because they can't imagine why I would report on such a stigmatized disease."

Self Preservation, Self Censorship

Finally, a story that I can't even tell in its entirety. I sat down yesterday to chat with a Chinese journalist, who works as an editor for one of China's largest newspapers. She asked me not to use her real name, so she will remain anonymous. After a long discussion about the risks of joining Facebook — which is a whole other story — I asked her what it was like to report on the issue of HIV/AIDS in China, which in recent years has become a concern in the global health community.

She confided that she often encourages her reporters to avoid the story altogether, because it carries too much risk of offending or angering the government. When killing the story isn't an option, she helps the reporter 'tweak' the language to clear the government of blame. This means, for instance, explaining how children are suffering, but not intentionally leaving out the question of why. Imagine reporting on the effects of HIV/AIDS without explaining the government's role. Imagine talking about any public health issue without discussing the official response — or lack thereof.

What happens when reporters are forced to 'tweak' the HIV/AIDS story. Who gets left out? What facts remain hidden? And how does that shape the public response?

Thank you Douglas for bringing us the voices of these amazing journalists and sharing their stories with us.

So, bloggers...what do you think about this controversial topic? We can't wait to hear from you!

Blog to you soon.

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