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Rescuing The Children: Elián, AIDS, South Africa and Media


 

I
can just hear some Hollywood exec wondering if it has "series
potential" while watching the dramatic showdown in the latest episode of
the Elin Gonzlez tug-of-war. On April 22 federal agents in a long overdue
and overdrawn response "rescued" the six-year-old from a politically
driven soap opera and family feud. He was reunited with his father, a reunion
that enjoyed support from the majority of people living outside the
Castro-hating hothouse of Miami’s Little Havana.

The
media was omnipresent, of course, live and in color, milking the drama for all
it was worth. On many networks "all Elin all the time" had months
ago become a programming staple — coverage that mostly failed to take a
critical look at the vicious 30-year U.S. embargo of Cuba that created the
conditions leading to Elin’s mother’s "escape" in the first place.
His first rescue, at sea, had long since been overshadowed by a hostage
situation created by his relatives and their fanatical supporters among
right-wing exile groups. The best interests of the child were not necessarily
considered in their best interest. (One unreported aside: A Cuba-expert friend
of mine who was shuttling between Havana, Miami and Washington to resolve this
crisis told me of an earlier encounter with Elin. He was asked if he wanted to
go home. His response was a question indicating the nature of this six-year-old’s
fears. "Will I have to go back the way I came, on a raft?" he
reportedly asked.

The
major complaint in most TV newsrooms was undoubtedly with the timing of the
raid. Why couldn’t Attorney General Reno have waited until primetime to act, so
that they could have enjoyed a bigger audience? Instead, the marshals moved with
militarized speed – and in inappropriate combat gear – just in time to assure
attention during Saturday morning children’s TV shows, thus traumatizing a whole
nation of kids with images of heavily armed men pointing scary weapons at
unarmed civilians. I guess a Justice Department that brought us the Waco debacle
still doesn’t know how to act in a less heavy-handed manner. One AP photo of a
gun pointed toward one kid effectively undercut their moral standing. They have
a way of blowing it even when they try to do right.

As
I thought about the child’s rescue, in this month of Passover and Easter, with
biblical tales of a people’s exodus to freedom and Christ’s resurrection, my
mind drifted elsewhere. It took me back to another land and to tens of millions
of children without fathers or mothers, who have no federal marshals to rescue
them and far less media attention paid to their plight.

Six
years ago this month, I was on the assignment of a lifetime, documenting Nelson
Mandela’s presidential campaign in South Africa’s first democratic elections. I
was there at his invitation, as a result of the body of TV work our company
Globalvision [LINK to Globalvision.org] had produced on the apartheid issue over
the years. Our South Africa Now public television series was still on the minds
and in the memory of many South Africans forced into exile during the long years
of their fight for liberation. They provided access to us, although our film,
"Countdown to Freedom: Ten Days That Changed South Africa," was
independent in its approach.

In
the euphoria of that moment, as a long-disenfranchised people lined up to vote
on April 27, 1994, sometimes standing for hours in queues snaking through the
townships, there was a sense that here at last the forces of democracy were
triumphing over the forces of racism and repression. Mandela was seen as the
rescuer of his people. The world’s best-known political prisoner went on to
become president. For many South Africans, and for the people who marched for
them in many lands, it was like being in a dream state. The world had turned
upside down. White rule was finally over in South Africa. And the transition was
largely peaceful.

The
world media was out in force to cover that spectacle, but focused on
personalities, not the struggle that they led. Their "liberation," as
we can see now, was only partial. And the "victory," only one part of
a more complicated truth. "The issues were black and white, the ‘baddies’
and ‘goodies’ easily distinguishable thanks to variations in melanin
deficiency," noted the veteran South Africa watcher, journalist David
Beresford in the Johannesburg Mail & Guardian. "When [Mandela] walked
out of the prison gates, the moment confirmed those certainties — the
anticipated moral victory offering a fitting climax to what seemed like a
morality tale enjoyed by millions watching television. In retrospect it was
something of a fake orgasm in fairyland, because truth is not so easy."

Needless
to say, there is never any one single truth, but certainly it is true that
journalists around then, including myself, were not as aware as we might have
been of the genocide about to be unleashed in Africa, in Rwanda. Most of the
media missed the buildup to that manmade calamity and the UN’s mishandling of
it. That story went mostly unexplained until years later.

Also
largely unreported was another holocaust in the making in South Africa itself,
the HIV-AIDS pandemic. While I was chronicling the country’s hopeful political
transition, a tragedy of cataclysmic proportions was brewing out of global-media
view.

With
at least 3.5 million South Africans infected by HIV, that epidemic can no longer
be ignored. Part of the beloved country is no longer crying; it is dying, and in
droves. When I started covering South Africa in 1967 a state of emergency was in
effect. Now, with the death toll from AIDS rising, it has returned — although
not formally — as a state of urgency. At its core are ten million young
children like Elin, only these have been orphaned by AIDS and for the most
part are still off the media radar screen. While Newsweek and CNN do deserve
credit for reporting the AIDS orphans story, far more is needed.

These
children are relegated to the back pages because "big" journalism has
an affinity for Big Medicine and its top-down way of seeing AIDS in Africa only
in medical terms, as a disease to be fought with prevention, high-tech medicines
and research oriented toward finding "the cure" a.k.a. "a magic
bullet." Yet in countries that lack an adequate healthcare infrastructure,
legitimate questions can be raised about whether treatments developed in the
West are equally suitable in Africa. The one African leader who is doing some of
that questioning has become a target for editorial denunciations of his motives
and judgment.

It
is South Africa’s president, Thabo Mbeki, Nelson Mandela’s chosen successor, who
is at the center of that controversy. Mbeki has been questioning the link
between HIV and AIDS, and consulting with dissident scientists who have been
virtually run out of the medical world for questioning orthodox understandings.
Last week, a letter he wrote to President Clinton and other world leaders
explaining his stance was leaked to the Washington Post [LINK to letter?]. A day
letter the newspaper denounced him editorially for questioning mainstream AIDS
thinking, calling it "a ludicrous waste of precious time and a cruel hoax
on his suffering people." The subtext is that African leaders are to blame
for the spread of AIDS by not doing enough – a perspective as popular in some
liberal media circles as the notion among racists that oversexed Africans have
brought the problem on themselves. It is always easier to blame the victim than
look more deeply into how an epidemic spread. It is significant that it was the
Village Voice, an independent news weekly, that won the Pulitzer Prize for its
reporting on AIDS, not the Post or the New York Times (which also took an
editoral swipe at Mbeki).

One
challenge here is for both the media and medical worlds to recognize how
complicated this fight is. Many African societies are still in denial about
AIDS, uncomfortable with even talking about sex within their families, trapped
in deeply ingrained cultural taboos. Some governments even contend that these
cultural traditions must be "respected" by outsiders and AIDS workers.
To this, South African AIDS activists like David R. Patient say: "You may
very well be right in your argument, but you will end up being DEAD right."
In an article in the Citizen newspaper out of Pretoria, he insists: "We
either dramatically change our cultures or we will end up burying them."

Adding
to the problem is the failure on the part of many media observers to recognize
that the rapid spread of AIDS in the world needs to be reframed as a global
public-health emergency, then anchored in a health and human rights framework.
As Joyce Pekane, a vice president of the Congress of South African Trade Unions
(COSATU), put it in a recent speech at a conference of South Africans living
with AIDS: "The rapid spread of the disease is related to poverty and the
lack of access to socioeconomic rights such as housing, clean water and health
care." This structural problem, in a country where 37.5 percent of the
population is unemployed, and where rape and social breakdown is widespread, is
a major factor that makes it hard for people to change behaviors that puts them
at risk The pandemic spreads in other countries for similar reasons, along with
wars and refugee crises.

Inextricably
connected to all this is the enormous spread of the number of children orphaned
by AIDS worldwide. These kids, unlike Elin, do not have families to fight over
them. But they desperately need rescuers too, as well as major media to tell
their stories. The scale and implications of this problem are huge and
frightening, as I learned by working with MediaChannel advisor Albina du
Boisouvray, whose FXB Association [LINK: www.fxb.org] is focusing on the plight
of these orphans. The organization funds research at Harvard’s FXB Health and
Human Rights Center [LINK: ], mounts field projects in 13 countries and does
policy advocacy among governments and international agencies. Du Boisouvray’s
own work began after she lost her only son, Franois, a helicopter rescue
pilot, in an air crash in Africa. Now she is trying to mobilize interest from a
media that for months seems to have time for only one child – the "raft
boy."

We
have had too much attention paid to one child for the wrong reasons, and too
little paid to millions of others for the right ones.

Danny
Schechter produced 10 documentaries with GlobalVision, where he serves as vice
president and executive producer. He is the executive editor of MediaChannel
and author of "News Dissector," a collection of his columns and
writings from Electronpress.com.

 
 

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