Religious constraints on reporting HIV/AIDS in
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.
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
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.
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
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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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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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
HIV/AIDS and the media in Nigeria
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
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
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).
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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
Nigeria, empowerment is what the Church can do with ease. In
this regard, Tan Haiw’s (2000) observations are very relevant to
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
? 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.
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, 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
? 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
Presentation given at the conference on ‘Religion, Media and
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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
Dunu is a lecturer in the Department of Mass Communication at
Nnamdi Azikiwe University