The media helped lower HIV rates in Europe in the 1980s and could play a
similar role in Africa today.
Speaking to the World Association of Newspapers and the World Editors Forum
to mark World Press Freedom Day, Bono argues that press freedom saves
"AIDS is the worst pandemic in 600 years. People need to know about it to
avoid becoming one of the statistics," he says. "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 spread like wildfire through
certain regions because no-one knew about it. A million people with HIV, and
only now it gets in the national papers."
Below we carry some highlights of the interview which WAN and the WEF are
distributing through www.worldpressfreedomday.org
, along with interviews
with other world figures for publication by newspapers world-wide on or
around this week's World Press Freedom Day.
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
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
BONO: 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 spread like
wildfire through certain regions because no one knew about it. A million
people with HIV, 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.
But the press have a much greater role than educating individuals about
their own risk. We need a global response to 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 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.
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 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 rates have dropped
dramatically, from 15% to 5%. President Museveni made fighting 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 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
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 stabilized 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 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 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 positive, this would be you...everyone can understand that
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, AIDS does not have to be a death
sentence. The view that 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 is a virus, not an
open invitation to judgement, but in too many places, rich and poor, that's
what it has become.
The Paris-based WAN, the global organisation for the newspaper industry,
defends and promotes press freedom world-wide. It represents 18,000
newspapers; its membership includes 72 national newspaper associations,
individual newspaper executives in 101 countries, 13 news agencies and nine
regional and world-wide press groups. More on WAN and details of the whole
interview with Bono here www.wan-press.org