CIAO DATE: 04/05/07


Georgetown Journal of International Affairs

Volume 7, Number 1, Winter/Spring 2006


Exposing AIDS: Media’s Impact in South Africa
by Mia Malan


HIV/AIDS is not just another medical condition like malaria, meningitis, or mumps. It has taken on a life of its own, a life that depends upon a multitude of vested interests linked to power, prestige, religion, and money.1 The news media’s reporting on this complex pandemic cannot be separated from these issues. Media coverage is mostly a reflection of the environment in which it develops and operates, and it can impact the fight against HIV/AIDS either negatively or positively. In South Africa public-health battles—particularly those related to HIV/AIDS—are increasingly being fought on television news bulletins, front pages of newspapers, and radio talk shows. News reporting can have a significant impact on the public perception of HIV/AIDS in South Africa and on the government’s policymaking.

M. E. McCombs has argued that the media do not tell society what to think but rather what to think about.2 But I will argue that, in South Africa, the opposite is true. The news media have told the public what to think: that the government’s AIDS policies lack comprehensiveness; that antiretrovirals are effective and should be made available; and that the drug Nevirapine—the efficacy of which both the president and his health minister have publicly doubted—is essential in the prevention of mother- to-child transmission of HIV.3 In this respect the news media, in combination with AIDS lobby groups, have made a significant contribution to civil-society pressure on the government around HIV/AIDS policy changes—in particular, regarding the prevention of mother-to-child transmission of HIV and access to antiretroviral drugs. The purpose of this article is, therefore, to explore the ways in which South Africa’s news media have used their power to shape the HIV/AIDS world; to gauge the effectiveness of the media coverage; and finally, to examine the complex factors that have influenced coverage in a country with one of the largest populations of people living with HIV in the world.

The Politicization of AIDS. The unprecedented politicization of HIV/AIDS in South Africa has shaped local journalists’ and news editors’ response to—and, in effect, South Africans’ understanding of—the epidemic. Media coverage over the past ten years has predominantly been characterized by the political conflict between the government and civil society regarding the rights of HIV-positive people. In return, the politicization of AIDS, coupled with the country’s apartheid history, has also framed responses by the government and the public to the media’s reporting about state policies.

When South African President Thabo Mbeki in the late 1990s began voicing doubts about the cause of AIDS and the efficacy of well-established Western treatment methods, the largely white-owned media’s criticism of his statements was branded unpatriotic and racist. Even journalists’ responses were divided: publications such as the Johannesburg-based daily The Sowetan, with its predominantly black readership, tended to support the president’s right to question these issues, while newspapers read mainly by whites generally referred to his statements as illinformed and irresponsible.

Reporting has not been entirely straightforward either. In some instances news stories have confused the public about the science of AIDS and have politicized the epidemic to such an extent that they have contributed to the racial polarization of the HIV/AIDS discourse. Lost in the haze of confusion were issues examining how ordinary people were dealing with the disease.

Mia Malan is the Senior Resident Advisor for the Local Voices project of Internews Network in Nairobi, Kenya.