The United Nations' Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, UNESCO, has launched a major campaign in eastern and southern Africa to try to help the local media better understand and report AIDS-related stories.
UNESCO says the campaign is one of its most ambitious projects, aimed at addressing the problem of what it says has been a failure of the mass media in eastern and southern Africa to accurately and adequately cover the AIDS pandemic.
"We are not precisely educating journalists. But we're trying to make them aware of the dangers of misreporting on HIV-AIDS," said Alonso Aznar, UNESCO's communication adviser for East Africa. "Journalists have tended to see it from the sensational point of view. One of the problems in Africa in this regard has been that of increasing the stigma of people living with AIDS."
Mr. Aznar says few African media right now have access to professionally updated research material on HIV-AIDS. The United Nations believes that outdated, incorrect information and rumors about the virus and the disease it causes are being routinely reported as facts to the public, exacerbating the problem even more in some communities.
Mr. Aznar says that is why one of UNESCO's main priorities is to provide plenty of updated research material to newspapers, television and radio stations in east and southern African countries affected by the disease.
UNESCO, in collaboration with other United Nations agencies, non-governmental organizations and regional and national health networks, is also setting up a site on the worldwide Internet, where journalists can go to retrieve social, cultural and political information on HIV-AIDS.
UNESCO says it is also trying to build relationships with media owners and publishers, whom it believes can best set the guidelines for how AIDS should be reported by its staff.
The agency's target countries in east Africa include Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Burundi and Rwanda, plus the Horn of African countries, Djibouti, Ethiopia, Eritrea and Somalia. Southern African nations include Botswana, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, Zambia and Zimbabwe.
South Africa, which has one of the highest HIV infection rates in the world, is not being targeted because, UNESCO says, the country has its own program to promote better local media coverage of the AIDS pandemic.
Since the mid-1980s, the disease has killed more than 20 million people throughout Africa. In Kenya, where AIDS is one of the top five killer diseases, an estimated 500 to 700 people die each day from AIDS-related causes.