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“The only thing necessary for these diseases to the triumph is for good people and governments to do nothing.”

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Religious constraints on reporting HIV/AIDS in Nigeria

Chinyere Stella Okunna and Ifeoma Vivian Dunu
In virtually every society, religion wields a powerful and tremendous influence in the lives of the populace. Many of the rules and regulations that guide and determine the laws of the land and shape ideologies and life styles emanate from prevalent religious beliefs and practices. This is especially true of Nigeria, where religion has become a dominant part of the people’s social life.

For many Nigerians, religion is not just a matter of paying homage to the supernatural; it provides indispensable ethical guidelines for living, for interpreting natural events including disasters and misfortunes, and for coping with life’s milestones, from birth, through illness to death. Religion also often provides an anchor in times of rapid social change.

Undoubtedly, religion constitutes a very strong and significant aspect of Nigerian society. Traditionally, Nigerians have been able to turn to their spiritual communities for solace and comfort in times of personal struggle, inner turmoil, or physical illness or impairment. Unequivocally, religion in Nigeria is well positioned to deal with the issue of HIV/AIDS. In the light of this scenario, religion should be an obvious source of help or direction for those infected or affected by HIV/AIDS.
Sadly, there are clear indications that, although religion seems to show sympathy for people living with HIV/AIDS (PPLWHA), it has blindly and steadfastly continued to refuse to fully accept the reality of preventing the spread of the virus through openness, advocacy and awareness. In this regard, the role of religion is limiting and greatly undermines the effectiveness of combating the pandemic by stakeholders, including the media.

Dilemma since 1986

From the first detection of HIV/AIDS in Nigeria in 1986, the pandemic has created a dilemma for religion. The main challenge lies in the fact that the main mode of transmission of HIV is sexual, thus intensifying the tension that surrounds the issue of religious attitudes to sexuality. Understandably, therefore, religion has long maintained a cloak of silence and ambivalence towards some widely-accepted preventive measures against HIV/AIDS.

Consequently, religious response to the pandemic in Nigeria, as in many other societies, has been reactive instead of proactive. Rather than being active in addressing the issue of prevention, religious leaders and most FBOs focus more on caring. This approach is widely regarded as a form of ‘medicine after death’.
There is urgent need for religion to take into consideration the needs of the poor, the tempting realities of youthful exuberance, modernization and the complexities that shape the transmission of the virus. In recent times, Nigeria’s religious terrain has been awash with religious prejudice mixed with misconceptions about HIV/AIDS, and this is sentencing many people to death. Fortunately, there has been ferment too among religious institutions in the country, as people are beginning to question religious biases and prejudices.

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As in other countries of the world, there are two existing paradigms surrounding the issue of HIV/AIDS in Nigeria: the religious and secular paradigms. The religious paradigm claims to be rooted in sacred works, while the secular paradigm claims to be rooted in the realities of the world. Advocates of the religious paradigm view the HIV/AIDS epidemic as a curse and punishment from God for humanity’s sexual excesses and proclivity.

Toeing this line of thought, religious conservatives condemn such preventive measures as the use of condoms because this is seen as justifying illicit sexual relations, which constitute disobedience to God. Accordingly, the only way to prevent HIV/AIDS is to return to the demands of religion and faith in terms of abstinence.

On the other hand, advocates of the secular paradigm believe that there is not enough evidence to support the belief that HIV/AIDS is a curse sent by God to punish humanity for disobeying God’s will. The secular argument is that HIV/AIDS transmission can also occur within sexual relationship between husband and wife. Moreover, HIV transmission also occurs through other means that are not sexual and, therefore, not sinful.

In Nigeria, the religious paradigm is dominant because of the powerful influence religion exerts on people’s lives. This paradigm has also widely and negatively impacted on one major pillar of the crusade against HIV/AIDS: the media. This is witnessed in the paucity of media attention and coverage given to HIV/AIDS in the country. Undoubtedly, media coverage does not keep pace with the ravaging nature of the pandemic in the country.

Religion is a major social point in the society and media practitioners that pay homage to different religious affiliations find it difficult to be totally objective in their coverage or go against the wishes of their religion. The result is minimal coverage of the issue that lulls the populace into a false feeling of security that HIV/AIDS is not a major health challenge, and certainly not a pandemic.

Available evidence suggests that although the media are playing an important role in the campaign against HIV/AIDS, with an estimated HIV-positive population of 3.5 million (Omolulu, 2003), media efforts are not sufficient, especially in reporting the unfolding scale of the epidemic. There is urgent need to keep the public constantly updated on the progress of the pandemic, as this will also affect the rapid development of policies and strategies to help combat it.

Opubor’s (1985) observation more than 20 years ago is still valid: ‘The basic goal of the media is fact finding and fact finding. That is the function of news operations: determining what is and saying that it is, and saying so publicly’(emphasis added).

That is why we contend that apart from other factors, the religious dispositions of the various faiths in Nigeria greatly undermine and extensively hinder effective media coverage of HIV/AIDS. Journalists are part and parcel of society and, therefore, susceptible to society’s idiosyncrasies.

It is imperative, though, to point out that in recent times, there has been a significant shift in religion’s negative stance in the area of preventive measures, as notable religious leaders (like the General Overseer of the Redeemed Christian Church) have begun to speak out about HIV/AIDS. However, that shift is not yet quantitatively and qualitatively striking enough in the face of the continuously rising prevalence rate of the epidemic in the country.

HIV/AIDS and the media in Nigeria

Of the estimated 40 million people worldwide living with HIV, 28.5 million (approximately 70%) reside in Africa, with a great proportion of them being Nigerians (Avert, 2006). By the end of 2003, Nigeria was judged to have the third highest burden of HIV in the world after South Africa and India. (UNAIDS, 2005). It is beginning to dawn on all stakeholders that HIV/AIDS is a most debilitating epidemic threatening the very foundation of Nigeria’s existence and future development.
There is increasing evidence that the epidemic will bring with it macro and micro level effects which will drastically reduce the country’s human development potential. Presently, the major impact on Nigeria is yet to become quite visible but there is serious concern among those knowledgeable about the situation.
Since the first AIDS case was reported in Nigeria in 1986, the pandemic has continued to spread. In 1988, the prevalence rate was just 1.8%. This rose to 5.8% in 2001; before a decline to 5% in 2003 and 4.4% in 2005 (UNAIDS, 2005). The report of the 2005 survey reaffirms that no state or community is spared in this epidemic. Health experts have also cautioned that the decline in the national HIV prevalence is inconclusive due to differences in location and number of survey sites. Worst hit is the 20-45 year age bracket, which is the most sexually active segment of society.

Although there is slight decline in HIV prevalence in the country, yet the pandemic continues to spread mostly among Nigerian youth. What this portends is the possible decimation of this active population by AIDS, if unchecked. Research evidence has shown that most of these young people are ‘deeply religious and take religion very seriously’ Odukomoye (2004). There is then the possibility that they might be contracting HIV because of religion’s rigidity and negative stance towards some of the preventive measures that could be of use to them, such as condom use.

It is apparently contradictory that in spite of their religious inclinations, Nigerian youth is sexually active. Using Anambra State as a case in point, NDHS 2004 Report indicates that as many as 58.4% (males) and 60.8% (females) had unprotected sex. Heterosexual sex remains the major route of HIV transmission in Nigeria: it has a score of 80%; blood transfusion scores 10%; mother-to-child transmission, homosexual sex and injecting drug use account for the other 10% (UNAIDS, 2004).

Thus, the active sexual tendencies of the youth reveal that they are most vulnerable to HIV/AIDS and represent a critical risk group for transmission. Painting a clear picture of the conditions where HIV/AIDS flourishes, CDR Report (2002) shows that:

HIV/AIDS moves through the fracture points of society, targeting those whose gender means they can’t negotiate safer sex, whose economic situation means that sex is sold, and areas where social norms push sex between men underground. It targets communities where high unemployment or low wages create environments where drug injection or sexual risks offer some of the only means of diversion or self- expression.

The epidemic targets communities undergoing rapid social change, conflict or displacement. Weak education systems, dilapidated or dangerous health systems, places where the media are restricted from effective reporting, are all environments in which AIDS flourishes most successfully.

Among the driving forces of HIV/AIDS in Nigeria are poverty, cultural factors, hypocrisy, ignorance/poor enlightenment and religious beliefs. In short, the rapid spread of HIV/AIDS in Nigeria demonstrates a striking example of the strong synergistic relationship between disease and over-aching societal factors.

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Constraints on reporting HIV/AIDS

The media are widely acknowledged as a platform for change: behavioural change and important policy change. Particularly in terms of the HIV/AIDS pandemic, the media could play the crucial role of a critical agent to induce the positive behavioural change that can stem the tide of the epidemic. This should be particularly applicable to Nigeria, which has a very vibrant media industry. As agenda setters, the mass media remain one of the best means through which the ‘war’ against HIV/AIDS could be fought.

In Nigeria, the media have been major crusaders in the fight against the pandemic, especially with regard to event oriented reporting, advert campaigns and stigma reduction. Unfortunately, media efforts in Nigeria generally are still not good enough. There is this notable glamorization of the HIV/AIDS issue by the media which tend to downplay the seriousness of the pandemic. They should accelerate the progress of the ‘combat’ by being at the forefront of the campaign against further spread of HIV/AIDS. This could be achieved through intensified in-depth objective news reports, constructive new analyses, features, in-depth interviews, powerful editorials, cartoons, documentaries and news commentaries.

As the reputable crusader using agenda-setting techniques, the media could achieve tremendous results. Religious constraints on media coverage fall largely in the area of quantity of coverage and quality of media portrayal of HIV/AIDS pandemic.

The paucity of media efforts in reporting HIV/AIDS in Nigeria is shown in a 2002 survey by Journalists Against AIDS (JAAIDS) – a Nigerian NGO. According to the findings from their print media monitoring, only about 1,846 articles comprising news, features stories, opinions and editorial comments on HIV/AIDS were published in a whole year: between March 2002 and March 2003; 375 news photographs and 71 cartoon strips on the pandemic were published during the period.

The research also found that the media were guilty of the use of disempowering language. Could this be related to religious bias in the country? Because of the sexual undertones of HIV/AIDS transmission, most religious organizations and institutions shy away from objective discussion and explanation of the pandemic. Invariably, the media become inadvertently affected by this situation. This is quite evident in the way the media minimize their report of the issue.

It is equally disheartening that most local television and radio stations in Nigeria are yet to develop their own indigenous HIV/AIDS programmes, that is, programmes that are not sponsored by government, NGOs and similar stakeholders. There is need for the media to mainstream HIV/AIDS in their programme content. They should also evolve more educative and in-depth multi faceted programmes that will expose the various faces of the HIV/AIDS pandemic. Essentially, this will empower the society with regards to understanding and appreciating the impact of the HIV/AIDS in the society and further lower the prevalence rate.

An emerging disturbing trend in media coverage of HIV/AIDS in Nigeria is their ‘kid gloves’ approach to the portrayal of the pandemic. In this regard, it is evident that the media are not quite realistic in their portrayal. They are beginning to paint a benign picture of the pandemic, with the language often detracting from clearly portraying the seriousness of the disease. This apparently explains why the media tend to downplay the effect of the pandemic in their use of language.

In the effort to minimize stigmatization (and perhaps shake off the yoke of religious reticence and bias) the media tend to portray HIV/AIDS as ‘just another illness’. Giving the inadequate manner of media presentation of the pandemic, there is an obvious need for intense diversified media approach to the issue.

Either way, media reluctance in improving the quantity and quality of their coverage could be traced to strong religious affiliations and loyalty of media
practitioners. What then could be done?

The way forward

Religion should appear on the frontline of the crusade against the HIV/AIDS epidemic. In this regard, all religious leaders should close ranks and present a united front. This could be achieved when all religions become open and objective about HIV/AIDS. Thereafter, religious leaders through inter-faith advocacy should insist that the distribution of funds be channelled only to those religious institutions that are willing to speak the truth about HIV/AIDS and human sexuality.

In particular, Christian religious leaders in Nigeria should mobilize inter-denominational teams to provide more informed and practical approaches to education and prevention in the ‘battle’ against HIV/AIDS. Essentially, the pulpit should serve as a powerful tool to advocate for all acceptable preventive methods, instead of just abstinence and for educating people on sexuality and demystifying the issues of reproductive health, to empower the congregation.

In Nigeria, empowerment is what the Church can do with ease. In this regard, Tan Haiw’s (2000) observations are very relevant to Nigeria:

? Many religious institutions have formidable resources that can be tapped for combating HIV/AIDS. In addition, many religious organizations run schools, hospitals, clinics and orphanages. Though they might be reluctant to discuss sexuality issues or to promote condom, they can at least be mobilized to provide other services.
? Religion plays such an integral role in people’s lives that an HIV/AIDS prevention programme cannot be effective unless it deals with people’s religious beliefs and practices. There is need for the media to examine how religious beliefs shape the relationships between men and women and weave it into their reports. In fact the media should do well to emphasize the supportive aspects of religion.

? The media could create a forum for dialogues between religious institutions and groups working on HIV/AIDS to the mutual benefit of the society. For example, religion could offer ethical frameworks to discuss many issues that have to be tackled on HIV/AIDS programmes. Some religious workers rightly object to programmes that only encourage the distribution of condom without encouraging people to discuss what is meant by ‘correct use’. This could be defined and explained well by the media. Conversely, people working in public health can bring up very practical case studies and challenges for religious leaders and thinkers to tackle. Such dialogues open people’s minds broaden perspectives and increase knowledge. When there is interchange treated and facilitated by the media, both will begin to see the potential impact of HIV/AIDS on the society, and the need for such measures as sex education. Often, there is fear that such dialogues will lead to compromises when in fact they can lead to newer richer partnerships.

All in all, the media need to develop advocacy journalism in the face of the HIV/AIDS pandemic. To do this effectively in a deeply religious society like Nigeria, media practitioners need to be able to separate religious sentiments from their work so that their coverage will be objective and balanced, thus enabling the positive and empowering aspects of religious experience to enrich media coverage of HIV/AIDS. In achieving this synergy, the media should endeavour to:

? Perform their traditional role of being the marketplace of ideas by increasing the quantity of programmes on the issue of sexuality and health. What we have now is extremely insufficient.
? Serve as the platform for the moulding of public opinion by creating forum and panel discussions for youths and other members of the society on the issue of HIV/AIDS
? Develop and mount effective HIV/AIDS-related programmes that deal with people’s religious beliefs and practices.
? Most importantly, provide immediate and updated reports on the HIV/AIDS pandemic as it unfolds.
? Adopt an investigative and in-depth approach to the coverage of HIV/AIDS that will sensitize and challenge religion, government and civil society.
? Enthrone the practice of advocacy journalism as an acceptable method of reporting HIV/AIDS.
? Use the appropriate/correct language and signifiers that paint the true picture of the pandemic in order to raise greater public awareness and consciousness about the incidence of HIV/AIDS in Nigeria.

Undoubtedly, religion can continue as an impediment or an ally in the crusade against HIV/AIDS, whether the topic is sexual orientation, education, or prevention. The potential for both is there.

Presentation given at the conference on ‘Religion, Media and Health in West Africa with a focus HIV&AIDS’ sponsored by WACC and held at GIMPA, Accra, Ghana, 13-15 December 2006.


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Professor Okunna is the Honourable Commissioner for Information & Culture, Anambra State Government, Nigeria. She is on leave of absence from the Department of Mass Communication, Nnamdi Azikiwe University, Awka, Nigeria

Miss Dunu is a lecturer in the Department of Mass Communication at Nnamdi Azikiwe University