by Victoria Ebin, news media coordinator
PRB is carrying out three workshops on family planning for West African journalists between January and June of this year. The first workshop, held in Dakar in January, was for 16 print and broadcast journalists; the second, with 19 participants, took place in Ouagadougou in April; and the third workshop will be in Bamako in May. These workshops somewhat resemble a family reunion. They bring together print and broadcast journalists from Burkina Faso, Mali, and Senegal that PRB has worked with for more than a decade. Back in the mid-1990s, many of the editors-in-chief of the current crop of participants were already senior journalists and were part of PRB’s long-running media training project, Pop’Mediafrique, that met regularly until 2005.
PRB, working with ACI (Africa Consultants International, in Dakar), established Pop’Mediafrique to bring together editors-in-chief and health communications experts from Francophone West Africa to raise awareness of HIV/AIDS and other reproductive health issues to get these topics into the media. In those days, there was a lot of work to be done. It was the early years of the epidemic, media coverage was rare, and what there was tended to be sensational and stigmatizing.
At one workshop, a Mauritanian journalist talked of doing the first-ever interview of people with HIV/AIDS in Nouakchott. The journalists wrapped their turbans tightly around their faces and attached the microphone to the longest pole they could find in order to talk to the person living with HIV. By 2005, attitudes had changed and these senior journalists had created health pages and columns, they covered policy issues at international conferences, and wrote articles on people living with HIV that earned them the appreciation of the HIV/AIDS community; they also created a guide for journalists’ writing on HIV that can still be found in newsrooms in the region.
The aim of the current workshops is to reinforce the capacities of Pop’Mediafrique media organizations as well as new ones that have appeared recently to cover reproductive health. These workshops draw on the experience of senior West African journalists from Pop’Mediafrique days and on links made with media partners from those years in order to bring journalists up to date on the RH latest issues.
The Dakar Workshop
At the first workshop, presenters discussed challenges facing governments to ensure adequate supplies of family planning products. The director of the Department of Reproductive Health told journalists about orders for supplies worth hundreds of thousands of dollars that had never arrived. Intrigued, a Senegalese journalist went on his own investigation and interviewed the director of the National Supply Pharmacy, which is responsible for placing the orders. The journalist, whose story appeared a few days later in a popular Senegalese daily, found that despite the government’s annual allocation of funds to buy contraceptives, administrative bottlenecks meant that none had been purchased since 2005.
A major challenge in health reporting in Africa is the reluctance of experts to talk to journalists. Tackling this head-on, we organized a session for journalists to practice their interviewing skills with health experts from a UN family planning conference taking place conveniently at the same hotel.
Another highlight of the workshop was a quick class on statistics, often a minefield for journalists and others. After a rigorous session based on the PRB data sheet, one participant said, the session was “an invitation to the journalists to have more humility…”
Newsroom Tour in Ouagadougou and Bamako
Following the workshop, one of the facilitators, Sié Offi Somé, and I went to Burkina Faso and Mali to prepare the workshops and visit editors-in-chief of the main media organizations. This was a shortened version of a three-week trip Sie and I had made in 1996 when we visited more than 60 newsrooms in francophone West Africa. The trip was a source of stories for years to come such as the flight from Dakar to Nouakchott, the capital of Mauritania, with a load of sheep and their owner who brought along his kerosene stove so he could prepare his afternoon tea during the flight.
We started in Ouagadougou, making the rounds of health organizations and media houses. It’s a hopeful sign for family planning media coverage that the editor-in-chief of Burkina Faso’s national paper, Sidwaya, is also the president of Burkina’s affiliate of the International Planned Parenthood Association (ABBEF) and that ABBEF’s director runs media workshops on reproductive health. In Bamako, the national paper, L’Essor, has a regular health column and our former Pop’Mediafrique partners, Radio Klédu and Les Echos, are known for their reproductive health reporting.
By the time we had completed our work in Ouagadougou and Bamako, journalists from the Dakar workshop had sent in their articles — 32 in all. On the basis of these articles, we selected 12 participants to attend the Ouagadougou workshop and an additional seven Burkinabé journalists, since Burkina was the host country.
The Ouagadougou workshop was held from April 1-3. The program included speakers from the Ministry of Health and NGOs who talked about challenges facing the Burkina Faso government to ensure adequate supplies of family planning products and site visits that focused on the availability of family planning for young people. Participants are now sending in their stories and the process will continue, as the next group of participants are selected for the final workshop that will take place in Bamako the third week of May.