BOTSWANA: The hassle of covering HIV/AIDS issues

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GABORONE – Khumbulani Kholi wonders if ever the health ministry will respond to his questionnaire regarding statistics of people who have passed through the routine testing system since its introduction in January last year.

Kholi works for an independent weekly paper based in
northwestern Botswana and two deadlines have passed
since he faxed the questions.

“For two weeks I have been tossed from one government
official to another,” Kholi says dejectedly “There is
nothing controversial about my questions. I only want
to know if there have been some successes in the

Kholi adds: “Last week I even considered killing the
story, but I can’t do that…I have a scoop.”

Such is the hassle of covering HIV/AIDS issues in
Botswana, but pressure remains on the media to
disseminate information on such hailed programmes as
the introduction of routine testing and the provision
of free antiretroviral drugs necessary to put the
scourge under control.

Botswana introduced routine testing at all its health
centres in the face of denial with few people coming
forward for testing, only to access the free ARV drugs
when the disease had already progressed.

Information on whether the policy has been successful
is not available and Lesetedinyana Lesetedi, the
health ministry’s assistant deputy secretary (primary
health) says no evaluation of the policy has taken
place yet.

Botswana is one of the countries that have been
hardest hit by the epidemic. It national prevalence
rate depends on what one would like to believe between
the last sentinel surveillance of pregnant women
attending antenatal clinics of 2003 that put the rate
at 37.4% and the Botswana AIDS Impact Study, a
population based survey of 2004 that put the rate in
the general population on 17,3%.

To enquire from the government on the national
prevalence rate draws the two rates, but obtaining
them means faxing questions that can take close to a
month to be answered.

“The issue of sending questions is the major drawback
to covering HIV/AIDS issues,” says Mbongeni Mguni, the
news editor at The Mirror, an independent Tuesday
newspaper. “That’s the major hindrance such that the
media ends up focusing on statistics supplied by the
government that can’t be questions.”

He adds: “Trying to question the statistics would mean
holding on to a story that would end of useless.”

Moketsi Motsumi, an international correspondent based
in Selebi Phikwe, a mining town in central Botswana,
says he is not comfortable with written responses on
questions from the government, which are placed on a
letterhead marked confidential.

“How can such information be deemed secret,
confidential and intended for the addressee only when
it is for the newspaper and for public consumption?”
says Motsumi.

Botswana has maintained the National Security Act, a
piece of legislation that has been described as
“draconian” by the media because of its clauses which
bars journalists from publishing official information
without authorisation.

For Kudakwashe Makudo, the editor of a monthly
personality magazine based in the capital, Gaborone,
the government is justified in not being forthcoming
with information on its HIV/AIDS programmes, as to the
media itself, HIV remain a virus shrouded in mystery,
secrecy and denial.

He says the Botswana media, small and vibrant as it
is, has not taken the lead in fight against the

“Several journalists have died since the first
identified AIDS death in 1985, yet AIDS is not
mentioned either in obituaries or at the funerals,”
says Makudo. “It is unclear how the media can report
accurately and openly on a disease that is still
mysterious, even among the very people tasked with
disseminating vital information.”

Makudo agrees that the media industry has not been a
sector hard hit by the epidemic, “but every journalist
has lost a colleague in the past few years and most
journalists know of colleagues who have HIV-related

Botswana has over eight weekly papers and two dailies.
The government owns one freely distributed daily paper
with the other being independent. The independent
weekly papers employ around 2000 people in total most
of who are in their 20 to 40 years age bracket, which
according to several nation-wide surveys has been
hardest hit by HIVAIDS.

A survey commissioned by the Botswana chapter of the
Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA), which will
be launched next month, has revealed that only two
newspapers out of 10, the State-controlled Daily News
and The Voice – a weekly, have HIV/AIDS policies and
have set aside pages to talk about the epidemic.

While the media blame the government of not being
forthcoming with information, AIDS organisations are
not amused and accused the media of not helping in
eliminating stigma and discrimination that is playing
against most government funded programmes.

Patrick Bantsi, a co-ordinator at the Maun Counselling
Centre, an organisation providing monitoring
mechanisms and post-test counselling for people living
with HIV/AIDS in north western Botswana, argues that
media reports are often open ended, and do not tell
people the benefits of knowing one’s status. According
to him, the media is just watching, while people are
dying of AIDS because of lack of knowledge.

“The media should tell its audience that HIV/AIDS is a
manageable chronic disease,” he asserts, adding: “In
many African countries, many people want to know their
[HIV] status, but the facilities are not readily
available. In Botswana, it is the opposite. There is
a lot of stigma and discrimination in the community,
and this is one of issues the media should be focusing

Bantsi accuses the media of not coping with the
presence of HIV/AIDS, and concurs with Makudo that it
has failed to put its own houses in order. This, he
notes, is demonstrated by the various reports that
journalists are dying of “long or short illnesses”.

“The media should learn to call a spade a spade
because if they also accept that there is HIV/AIDS and
that it is manageable, then we will win the war. When
we make something secret, we are promoting
discrimination,” he charges.

Calvin Morwaeng, a programme officer at the Botswana
Christian AIDS Intervention Programme, an organisation
that provides supportive counselling, says Botswana’s
media lacks training on HIV and AIDS issues.

In his opinion, the media should network with AIDS
organisations in order to become effective in fighting
stigma and discrimination. “Reporting that ‘AIDS
kills’, as seen in most newspapers, does not work and
scare tactics do not make people change their
behaviour,” he contends.

Gregory Kelebonye, the Communication Manager of the
BOTUSA project, an HIV/AIDS partnership between the
Botswana government and the United States government’s
Centre for Disease Control is pleased with the amount
of coverage of government programmes in the media but
is worried that most lack proper analysis.

“People have come to appreciate what the government is
doing to counter the AIDS epidemic, but there should
be some form of participation from the media to show
that it is analysing the extent of the epidemic,” says

But the media points at the rate of denial prevalent
in the country as the discouraging factor. Norman
Chandler, the publisher of The Ngami Times, a local
weekly, says he has tried on many occasions to give
front-page status to HIV/AIDS stories, but his
newspaper has suffered in terms of sales as a result.

“People have taught me that HIV is not a story worth
reading, but we have continued to have columns
dedicated to the youths, which we also know are being
ignored,” Chandler says.