The media as a positive force for human rights and health care

May 8, 2014

Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon holds a joint press conference with Guillaume Kigbafori Soro, Prime Minister of Côte d'Ivoire. UN Photo

The media can be a positive force for improving the human rights and health of men who have sex with men (MSM) and transgender people in South Asia, says a new joint report developed by Centre for Advocacy and Research (CFAR) and UN Development Programme (UNDP).

The report, entitled A Framework for Media Engagement on Human Rights, Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity in South Asia, provides direction for how MSM and transgender communities should engage with the media, and how the media itself should leverage its influence to reduce stigma and discrimination, educate and raise awareness of human rights issues, and support strategies and programmes that improve the political, social and legal environments for MSM and transgender people in South Asia. Reducing stigma and discrimination improves the overall health of LGBT communities, both in facilitating better access to health services and programmes as well as overall well-being.

MSM and transgender communities face violence, discrimination and rejection from families, workplaces, educational institutions and broader society. They often cannot access the same services and rights as other citizens, and are vulnerable to poorer health. For example, HIV prevalence among populations of MSM and transgender people in South Asia has seen alarming increases in recent years and according to the Commission on AIDS in Asia (2008), greater than 50 percent of all new HIV infections could be among MSM by the year 2020.

Can the media help? In the past, the media has often acted to the contrary. Examining media reporting in Bangladesh, India, Sri Lanka and Nepal, researchers found prejudiced, inaccurate and sensationalistic news coverage that has increased stigma and distorted the public’s views of sexual orientation and gender identity issues, and has enforced stereotypes and not accurately reported on community issues.

“Though media coverage of HIV has increased over the last two decades, the coverage of issues relating to sexual orientation and gender identities has often been weak and objectionable,” commented Edmund Settle, Policy Advisor at UNDP Asia-Pacific Regional Centre in Bangkok.

How can the media help? “By engaging with communities, raising awareness among media practitioners, and wielding their powers for good, the media can influence public opinion and policies and programmes, and contribute to a more effective HIV response in the region,” said Settle. The report recommends that community organizations create partnerships with all levels of media – local, state and national – to improve accurate reporting and representation of key relevant issues.

Taking the appeal forward, Ms. Akhila Sivadas, Executive Director, CFAR, stated that: “Today, more than ever before, there is both an imperative and an opportunity for community-based organizations to systematically harness media, in particular the local language and district media, and engage them in impacting policies and programmes with the decisive aim to advance social inclusion of and affirmative action for MSM community and TG persons.”

In addition to its proposed Media Engagement Framework, the report includes case studies from Bangladesh, Nepal and India and provides recommendations for actions by programme managers working in South Asia for both managing media and for empowering communities to work more effectively with media.

“It is the media which often sets the agenda of public discourse. We learn from our experience that sensitized media with solid evidences of stigma discrimination can positively influence the public perception on sexual minority population,” said Shale Ahmed, Executive Director of the Bandu Social Welfare Society (BSWS) in Dhaka. “Just because something is now apparently paradoxical in social system and media itself do not necessarily mean that it won’t be customary in the upcoming days.”

The authors and researchers of the report, CFAR, note reasons for hope, reporting “Sexual and gender minority communities in the countries studied have made huge strides in recent years. On several occasions, they’ve been key ‘newsmakers’ and driven intensive periods of national discourse around key community issues”.

In Bangladesh, the recognition of the hijra community by the government combined with community-based HIV prevention effort has lead to positive media representation. In India, media sensitization workshops have improved media coverage, as have partnerships between community and media to raise issues on HIV, human rights and human interest stories. Nepalese community activists have achieved media traction on a broad range of issues such as gay marriage, tourism and sports and have provided the media with positive human rights achievements to report on.

Manisha Dhakal, Executive Director (a.i.) of the Kathmandu based Blue Diamond Society stated, “We have been conducting various episodes of FM radio and television program. These programmes are so effective to communicate sexual and gender minorities’ health and rights issue with the general public and even to the policy makers. After hearing and watching our radio and television programmes and gender minorities people from very far remote areas of Nepal have contacted to our office for information and support.”

In spite of these advances, advocates across the region noted, as reflected in the report, that media has a long way to go before it can be said to impact human rights or the HIV epidemic in a significant way. A two-pronged process – media improving its own reporting and recognizing its potential for good; and communities effectively monitoring and engaging with media – will result in much-needed progress on human rights and health issues for sexual minorities in South Asia.

This regional report and country case studies were developed under the Multi-Country South Asia Global Fund Round 9 Programme (MSA-910-G01-H).

For further information or interviews, please contact:

Akhila Sivadas, Executive Director, Center for Advocacy and Research | +919810415066

Edmund Settle, Policy Advisor, HIV, Health and Development, UNDP Asia-Pacific Regional Centre | +66818369300