Zimbabwe: Journalists reflect after International AIDS Conference

Harare – Four Zimbabwean journalists who attended the 2012 International AIDS Conference (IAC) in the U.S. July 22-27 hailed the gathering but noted that Zimbabwe, well regarded for its ability to harness resources for HIV and AIDS, still has a lot to learn to effectively utilize local and international resources.

journalists reflect after International AIDS Conference“When everyone at the conference was talking about ending the epidemic I was shocked because of the challenges that we are experiencing in Zimbabwe,” said Masimba Biriwasha, writer and journalist on public health issues.

“The point that was being made was that we have made so much progress over two decades in terms of the scientific and medical breakthroughs in fighting against the epidemic,” Biriwasha said during a panel discussion held at Harare’s premier journalism meeting place, the Quill Club. The discussion, moderated by seasoned journalist Evince Mugumbate, was supported by the U.S. Embassy’s Public Affairs Section through funding from the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR).  It allowed media practitioners who had attended the 19th International AIDS Conference in Washington D.C. to share their experiences as well as discuss future options for Zimbabwe’s improved media coverage of related topics.

journalists reflect after International AIDS ConferenceDuring the IAC, the United States government, through PEPFAR, approved an additional $39 million dollars to fund HIV/AIDS programs in Zimbabwe, said Jillian Bonnardeaux of the U.S. Embassy. The additional funding will bring total U.S. government support to Zimbabwe to $91.2 million from $52 million in 2012.

The journalists said Zimbabwe was cited as a model in raising local resources, but noted that it still had a lot to learn from the experiences of other countries in effectively utilizing these resources.

“In Washington DC, despite it being an area of high prevalence, there has not been a single case of a mother who has transmitted HIV to their unborn child since 2009,” said Robert Mukondiwa, a journalist with a local daily. “What it says is that if you can plug loopholes with regards to prevention of mother to child transmission (PMTCT) you make tremendous progress towards reaching an AIDS free generation that we always yearn for,” said the young journalist whose works have been published in Thembi’s Story – An Anthology of Real-Life HIV/AIDS Stories, published by Macmillan.

However, the journalists noted that the conference has done little in easing the fatigue that has generally characterized reporting on HIV and AIDS.

There is a tendency to get excited with statistics, noted Roselyn Sachiti, whose visit was supported by the Foreign Press Centers through a nomination by the Women Journalists Mentoring Program jointly implemented in Zimbabwe by the U.S. Embassy and the Humanitarian Information Facilitation Centre (HIFC).

“It is important to talk to all the people who matter – researchers, etcetera, and not get too excited and take the statistics at face value.  Statistics can reveal or mask something,” she explained, citing recent coverage of male circumcision figures and the Zimbabwe Health and Demographic Survey.

“Yes, there were 2500 journalists (attending the IAC) but I think there were tired,” said Masimba Biriwasha. “There were supposed to be a lot of press conferences, but despite the high numbers of journalists, a lot of these press conferences were empty.”

“The journalists have become lazy these days,” noted Robert Mukondiwa, who has been deputy editor at H Metro since its formation. “Maybe there is this fatigue,” he said.

“The challenge is how to bridge the gap between the people implementing programs and the ones that are implementing HIV research. You will be surprised that one of the key microbicides research spots is in Zimbabwe, conducted at a local university,” said Biriwasha.

Other positives, noted the journalists, included advances in treatment and microbicides research and reduction in stigma, judging by the increased interest in HIV and AIDS research and activism by various sectors of society.

“I was very impressed by the level of understanding within the faith communities now that they are a vehicle that can cause a lot of damage. They said they were culpable for a lot of the problems that have led to the growth of the epidemic,” said Mukondiwa, who called for open discussions on issues considered controversial in Zimbabwe such as commercial sex work and LGBT rights issues.

The panel did not shy away from controversial topics either, responding to a discussion about voluntary male circumcision in which journalists stated that public confusion often stems from men thinking that they are invincible once circumcised.  Sachiti said “just because you are ‘eversharp’ doesn’t mean you can go around ‘writing’ everywhere,” and reiterated her colleague’s call for better understanding the science before acting.  She also challenged the journalists in attendance to consider their own personal HIV/AIDS concerns in addition to writing about them for the public.

Despite noting controversies surrounding U.S. policies in previous AIDS conferences “there was a lot of recognition of what the U.S. has done in supporting HIV and AIDS programs throughout the world,” said Biriwasha.

“What needs to happen going forward in terms of the HIV response is combination prevention, when you give people who are living with HIV treatment it is actually possible to stop the spread of the disease,” said Biriwasha- ZimPAS© August 8, 2012