Media, heal thyself!

BY Manu Moudgil| IN Media Practice | 04/02/2009
Recently, one of the highest circulating English newspapers carried an advertisement by an ayurvedic centre claiming a cure for AIDS.
MANU MOUDGIL says media conduct on issues surrounding AIDS is problematic.

Judging from the coverage in the press, the Indian media has not given the necessary focus to the AIDS issue. While in the West, the media has done much to dispel misconceptions and set the record straight, that does not seem to be the case with one of the most promising economies of today.


Many health professionals balk at the exorbitant funds being spent on the issue, while other serious ailments like cancer or malaria are sidelined. While the fund allocation for HIV and AIDS stood at Rs 426 crore in the 10th five-year plan, the fund for cancer was Rs 266 crore.  But the fact remains that HIV/AIDS has wider social implications, be it rehabilitation of widows and orphans, or inaccessible medical treatment, rejection by the community, or rights of gays and sex workers. But do we really recognise this fact?

Recently, one of the highest circulating English newspapers carried an advertisement by an ayurvedic centre claiming a cure for AIDS. While ayurveda can help build up the immunity levels of the People Living with HIV and AIDS (PLWHAs) through medicines, exercises, a balanced and healthy diet, there is no research to prove that it can completely cure a person. AIDS is one of the listed diseases under Rule 106 (1) under schedule ¿J¿ of the Drugs and Cosmetics Rules 1945. The rule specifies "that no drug may purport or claim to prevent, or cure, or may convey to the intending user thereof any idea that it may prevent or cure one or more of the diseases or ailments specified in schedule ¿J¿ (AIDS being one of them)."


What is now very visible are the many hoardings and pamphlets at several places claiming to provide a perfect cure for AIDS. It is no surprise that the advertisements have invaded the media now, since the National AIDS Control Organisation initially did nothing to prevent this blitz from acquiring formidable proportions. The obviously minimal link between the editorial and advertising sections of a newspaper, makes this invasion much easier since there are no established guidelines available on what should, or should not find its way into the press.


The problem lies both with the information seeker, and the dispenser. Several NGOs introduce PLWHAs to journalists by explaining to the interviewer how they contracted the virus. Mostly it is a woman getting it from her husband. This, in essence, presents the infected individual, in the light of a victim, as having been "wronged", emphasizing that she has not herself done anything "wrong". Reporters too prefer to know first, if they can, how somebody contracted the virus. Once it is established that the subject in question lives by the definitions of so-called ‘morality’, the reporter is eager to write the tear-jerker that will merit the front page. Through this, the NGOs involved also get to increase their visibility, and thus to attract more funds.


This is not to say that there have not been some excellent stories done, including the one on doctors at the Meerut Medical College who refused admission to a pregnant woman because she was living with HIV. The media coverage forced the relevant  authorities take action, and the doctors were suspended. In another incident, a PLWHA was thrown out of his job with a pharmaceutical company in the Nabha town of Punjab after his HIV status was revealed. A report in the regional daily forced the company to take the man back on the rolls.


 But such instances are few and far between.  Consider the disparity between the number of NGOs working selflessly for the benefit of 2.4 million PLWHAs (2007 estimate), and the fact that India boasts 78.8 million newspaper readers (2005 survey).


Recent amendments in the 1993 guidelines of the Press Council of India (PCI) are a welcome change. The media has been directed not to sensationalise reports connected to AIDS victims, and not to reinforce stereotypes about sexual minorities like lesbians, gays or transgenders. Journalists have also been asked to refrain from using the term "HIV/AIDS", since the two are not synonymous. The term "scourge" to describe the disease is forbidden, no hidden camera should be concealed to film people living with HIV, no images of the sick and dying, and no graphics of skulls and crossbones must be used in reports on HIV and AIDS. However, considering that PCI is not taken very seriously by media houses, it remains to be seen how effective these guidelines will be.


Journalists have already responded to the PCI directive by stating that the guidelines are only voluntary. In addition, the PCI does not have a say on advertisements appearing in the media about cures for AIDS. At the time when it seeks accountability from all sections of society, the latest being the judiciary, the media is itself not open to scrutiny. It has stonewalled all efforts to streamline the way news is being presented; the post-Mumbai initiatives stand testimony to that. It seems all problems exist elsewhere.


In such a scenario, there is a greater need for media companies themselves to ensure that all their staff members are aware of what is unacceptable. The Media builds its credibility in order to woo audiences, who in turn attract advertisers. It cannot wash its hands off the content by claiming that the responsibility lies with the advertiser.



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