Reporting on Aids orphans a balancing act

The plight of Aids orphans in Swaziland, currently labouring under the world’s highest HIV prevalence rate, is an issue that demands coverage. Journalists often find themselves in a quandary concerning how best to tackle it, however.

“A child could be scarred for life by something that is written about him or her, even if the intention is to draw attention to a sorry situation in order to find assistance or a remedy,” says Sara Page, assistant director of the Southern African Aids Information Dissemination Service (SAfAids), a Harare-based non-governmental organisation.

According to the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/Aids, Swaziland’s HIV infection rate stands at 38,8%. About 60 000 children have been orphaned by the pandemic in this Southern African country, a number that is expected to double in the coming four years. (Swaziland’s total population is currently estimated at about 1,1-million.)

By 2010, one out of six people in the nation will be a child under the age of 15 who has lost both parents to HIV/Aids.

“Media reports on the plight of these children that have been published in an effort to sensitise society on the seriousness of the problem, have tended to increase the trauma these children face in their lives,” says Sazikazi Thabade, an HIV/Aids reporter for the Times of Swaziland.

This is especially true of reports that feature images of the Aids orphans concerned ‒ or of children who have been victims of abuse.

While the Swazi media often black out the eyes of a child in a photograph with an opaque rectangle, this has proved largely ineffectual in concealing its identity.

“It is disappointing to come across a story about a child who has been raped by a teacher, and there is an accompanying colour photo of the child in her school uniform with a small blinder placed over her eyes,” says Hlobsile Dlamini, a counselor with the Swaziland Action Group Against Abuse, which offers medical assistance and legal and psychological counseling for victims of abuse.

“With very little effort, people from its community can pinpoint the identity of the child,” Dlamini adds.

“He/she may then be a subject of ridicule to their peers, and sometimes stigma from the community because of their ordeal. This, and the follow-up reports, are more traumatising to the child — and they are not in the public interest, as some editors may argue.”

A freelance photojournalist noted that certain Aids orphans even feel uncomfortable with being photographed — irrespective of the problems that may occur once the images are published.

“Kids like to have their pictures taken, but not the orphans,” said the photojournalist.

“They are shy and self-conscious. They don’t want attention.”

Editors convened under the auspices of SAfAids and the Media Institute of Southern Africa (Misa) recently to thrash out a policy for reporting on Aids orphans and children who were otherwise vulnerable. (Mids is an NGO which promotes media freedom. It is active in 11 member states of the Southern African Development Community.)

According to Mids Swaziland director Comfort Mabuza, journalists are not the only ones to blame as far as insensitive coverage of children is concerned.

“Some awareness training is still needed by non-governmental social welfare organisations themselves who deal with children, in terms of the ethical issues [about] reporting on children,” he noted.

“These organisations often feed the media sensational stories to generate sympathy and raise funds.”

Perhaps the greatest harm is done, however, by the perception that coverage of vulnerable children — insensitive or not — is largely futile.

During a recent tour by Deputy Prime Minister Albert Shabangu of community care points where orphans are given meals and school lessons, a group of children sang the following song:

The people come

They take our pictures

They go away and write stories

But for us nothing changes.

Journalists respond that a sure way to maintaining the status quo concerning Aids orphans is to leave their stories unreported.

But, even those who embark on this topic with the best of intentions, may find that no good deed goes unpunished. — IPS

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James Hall
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