By Lydia Lubon and Kun Li
KUALA LUMPUR, 13 July 2005 ? In a wake of rising HIV/AIDS infection rates in Malaysia, UNICEF recently organized a three-day workshop for the country?s young reporters and broadcasters, held in Port Dickson. The workshop, entitled ?Mouthpiece?, is aimed at creating greater awareness among the young journalists regarding issues surrounding HIV/AIDS.
?UNICEF is really concerned about the increased level of HIV infections in Malaysia, particularly among the age group of 15-19. We know from our experience around the globe that one of the contributing factors to an increase of HIV infections is the lack of knowledge; (the) lack of awareness and education about the issue. And that does seem to be the case in Malaysia,? said UNICEF?s Representative in Malaysia, Gaye Phillips.
As of December 2004, nearly 65,000 Malaysians had been diagnosed with HIV or AIDS, with an average of 19 new cases reported every day. The Malaysian government has confirmed that 75 per cent of those infected with HIV are intravenous drug users, a statistic that greatly concerns UNICEF.
?Most of the time a drug user shares needles with about four to five people, and injects four to five times a day. So you can see that HIV could spread very efficiently through needle sharing. And the chances of its spreading through young people is also very high,? says Palani Narayanan, a Drugs and HIV Consultant for UNICEF.
The workshop encouraged participants to ask questions and express opinions on various issues. UNICEF also invited experts on HIV/AIDS as key speakers. The young journalists were given a chance to look in-depth at the role media can play in combating HIV/AIDS, particularly the influence they can have over the mindset of their audience.
?This workshop is really an eye-opener for me,? said Dennis Wong, a print journalist. ?It gives us all the right information about HIV, AIDS and drugs. It also gives us the perception that the problem is actually much bigger than what we have now.?
What surfaced for the journalists during the workshop were realizations of their own prejudice and a lack of awareness about HIV. ?We, as journalists, have a really, really important role to play. We have the power to change the perspective and the stigma society has towards people affected by HIV/AIDS,? said Tesya Aizura, a radio writer and presenter. ?The workshop has impacted me, and I hope it can also impact other people.?
Aside from gaining an understanding of how a journalist?s perceptions on HIV/AIDS could influence public opinion, the participants also had an opportunity to voice their frustration about constraints imposed upon their craft. Censorship was top on the list, as well as the fear that programmes on HIV/AIDS often lack entertainment value, potentially failing to engage young people.
At the end of the three-day stretch, the young journalists were divided into different groups and given a final exercise. Emulating a possible real-life assignment, each group was asked to find an effective way to tell an HIV/AIDS human interest story. The presentations revealed that the journalists treated their stories with much more knowledge and empathy, putting a human face into the oft-demonized issue in Malaysia.
For every young journalist transformed by UNICEF?s ?Mouthpiece? workshop, there will be hundreds of potential viewers, readers, and listeners. Within this reach lies an opportunity for a miracle: to halt the spread of HIV/AIDS as the threat of an epidemic knocks on Malaysia?s door.
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