Death statistics brought to life

2004-04-30 16:38

A free press helped lower HIV/Aids rates all over Europe in the 1980s, says rock star Bono. The U2 frontman thinks the media have several different roles to play when combating the pandemic, which is killing over 6 000 people every day in Africa.

Interview with Bono

WAN: Coming from a Western democracy, at what point in your life did you become aware that press freedom wasn't a standard right found in all societies?

Bono: I think I always knew that press freedom wasn't a given in most places, but the time it really came home to me was during the break up of Bosnia and the siege of Sarejevo. So many journalists lost their lives by design not by accident with a stray bullet or shrapnel. Journalists were targeted, bounties put on their head to send a signal to their editors and indeed, families, that this story was too dangerous to cover. Even war criminals were now media savvy and saw the media in general as another kind of front line.

WAN: Why is press freedom essential when talking about subjects such as HIV/Aids?

Bono: HIV/Aids is the worst pandemic in 600 years. People need to know about it to avoid becoming one of the statistics. Even in the poorest places I've been to, someone, somewhere has access to a radio. The media is our messenger, a modern-day town crier. China is an example of what happens when there is a conspiracy of silence through censorship. HIV/Aids spread like wildfire through certain regions because no one knew about it. A million people with HIV/Aids, and only now it gets in the national papers.

The media need to be telling the truth about what's going on. Exposing the myths, like the one in Southern Africa where men believe that sex with virgins will cure them of HIV/Aids.

But the press have a much greater role than educating individuals about their own risk. We need a global response to HIV/Aids that matches the scale of the crisis, including the funds to pay for it. Experts think we need about $15bn a year to fight HIV/Aids. We're only one-third of the way there, and while we're moving in the right direction, our pace is far too slow.

In western countries, the media have started to challenge our complacency and our complicity in the tragedy unfolding in the rest of the world, nowhere worse than in Africa. Last year, President Bush made a historic promise of $15bn over five years for HIV/Aids in the world's poorest continents. The first instalments are going out the door right now, and the press have been constantly on his back about how much is being delivered, how it's going to be spent. That's how it should be - the relationship between government and media is always a little uncomfortable, that's what makes it real, whether it's the UK, Japan, Uganda, Russia or Chile. All governments need to be held to account, and forced to take responsibility for what they are not doing, as well as what they are doing.

WAN: Can you give an example of how countries with a greater degree of press freedom are more successful in promoting awareness about HIV/Aids and retarding the spread of the disease?

Bono: In the 1980s, when HIV/Aids was discovered in Europe and America, it started hitting the headlines. There were some very dramatic awareness campaigns funded by governments which the press took to the public. The basic message: sex without a condom isn't worth it. Condom sales shot up and HIV rates went down. Brazil would be another example. Uganda is interesting, because the press there does face censorship, but HIV/Aids rates have dropped dramatically, from 15% to 5%. President Museveni made fighting HIV/Aids a government priority, and the media was used as a tool to implement it. That's not an argument for state-controlled media - which is in the interest of the state, but totally against the interests of the people it is supposed to serve - but it shows the importance of political leadership when it comes to fighting HIV/Aids.

WAN: You tend to draw upon personal stories rather than relying purely on statistics when bringing attention to HIV/Aids. Why have you chosen this approach?

Bono: People say the facts speak for themselves, but they don't. If you throw out a load of huge numbers, people glaze over, including me. To engage people, you have to bring the statistics of death to life. The fact that prevalence rates have stabilised at 20 percent in Zambia doesn't mean much to anyone. But if you explain that for want of a couple of 50 cent injections, a young pregnant mother is giving HIV/Aids to her baby during birth when the only thing she wants for her child is the gift of life - that hits home. There's a hospital in Lilongwe, Malawi, our party visited where people were literally queuing up to die of HIV/Aids in an orderly fashion, to lie down three to a bed, two on top and one underneath. Words cannot describe this sight...God's creation, rid of all dignity. And yet, this is some mother's son, some son's mother and you know that but for an accident of geography if you were HIV/Aids positive, this would be you...everyone can understand that feeling.

WAN: How can this approach in turn be adopted by newspapers to help raise awareness and educate people on the disease?

Bono: As I say, good journalists make statistics get up and walk and talk. In the age of communication I have a microphone the press have a megaphone... We need to get these people's stories out there, not just the sob stories, but also the success stories, the ones that never get told. I've met people from South Africa to Ethiopia doing extraordinary things, living proof that with the right support, HIV/Aids does not have to be a death sentence. The view that HIV/Aids is hopeless is part of the problem. The media need to challenge the stigma associated with it. Why would a person go and get tested if all they get given is a badge of shame? HIV/Aids is a virus, not an open invitation to judgement, but in too many places, rich and poor, that's what it has become.

WAN: You've never been afraid to take a stand on what some consider sensitive issues. Can you describe what sparked your devotion to take up Africa's cause?

Bono: I first went to Africa, to Ethiopia to work in a feeding station following Live Aid in 1985. One summer that stayed with me for a lifetime. But I don't see Africa as a cause. To me, this whole thing is about justice. The fact that 6 300 people die in Africa everyday of HIV/Aids, a preventable treatable disease, for lack of drugs that we take for granted in Europe and America - that's about justice, not charity. That we hold children to ransom for the debts of their great great grandparents is not a charity issue, it's a justice issue. That we won't let the poorest of the poor put their products on our shelves yet we flood their markets with ours? This is about justice. DATA (Debt, HIV/Aids, Trade, Africa), the organisation I work with, takes that as the starting point.

It's an amazing thing to think that ours is the first generation in history that really can end extreme poverty, the kind that means a child dies for lack of food in its belly. This should be seen as the most incredible, historic opportunity but instead it's become a millstone around our necks. We let our own pathetic excuses about how it's "difficult" justify our own inaction. Let's be honest. We have the science, the technology, and the wealth. What we don't have is the will, and that's not a reason that history will accept.

Bono gave this exclusive interview to the World Association of Newspapers for World Press Freedom Day on 3 May.

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