New Delhi: The Press Council of India has issued a new set of media guidelines for reporting within India on people suffering from HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) and AIDS (acquired immunodeficiency syndrome), revising a set of guidelines compiled in 1993.
The guidelines, released on Sunday, are likely to be controversial as they impose a whole host of content behaviours, both in print and television, including words that can’t be used, as well as impose restrictions, such as the need for a signed prior-consent form on reporting about HIV-positive people.
The council is an autonomous statutory body set up with the objective of preserving freedom of the press as well as to keep a check on the news gathering and reporting practices of newspapers and agencies in India.
Because its decisions cannot be challenged in any court of law, the council has power even if it is widely seen as not being very effective in either policing or altering journalistic practices in India.
Also See: The Full Guidelines (PDF)
The guidelines, devised in association with UNAIDS, the United Nations Programme on HIV and AIDS, came out on 16 November and lay down certain dos and don’ts, potentially giving clarity on diverse issues such as how to photograph or interview a person infected with HIV or AIDS. The guidelines also redefined certain terminologies in reporting on the subject.
For starters, the council has mandated that HIV and AIDS are not interchangeable.
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“Being a syndrome or a collection of symptoms, AIDS cannot itself be transmitted, nor is there an AIDS virus or AIDS carrier,” say the guidelines. They maintain that terms such as “prostitutes” and “gays” used while referring to high risk groups should be replaced with “sex workers” and “men having sex with men”, respectively.
The guidelines maintain that HIV cannot be termed a “scourge” and expressions such as “full-blown AIDS”, which are often used to denote the progression of the infection, are misleading and meaningless because there are no degrees of AIDS, as a person either has or does not have AIDS.
The new guidelines also mandate that before writing the story on any HIV-positive person, journalists will have obtain a consent form duly signed by the person.
As for images—in print or on television—the guidelines say the identity of the individual shouldn’t be disclosed. It has recommended that television cameras should be kept behind the person so that only a silhouette can be seen. Ideally, the camera should focus on the person’s feet, hands or back of head and not the face, the council says.
The guidelines prohibit the use of a hidden camera while shooting a person with HIV or AIDS. It also says that the address of the person and the location of the interview shouldn’t be disclosed, recommending that the images should preferably be organized at a neutral place.
The guidelines also say that “deeply” personal and accusatory questions are to be avoided. In case of infected persons, reporters are to steer clear of moralizing or even dwelling needlessly on how the person was infected. Alarming reports and images of the sick and dying are to be avoided and showing skulls, snakes and crossbones as accompanying graphics is banned.
Ranjan Dwivedi, technical adviser, UNAIDS, claimed that “intensive” consultations were held between activist groups, representatives of HIV and AIDS communities and select journalists from print and electronic media and that draft recommendations were “widely circulated electronically” before the new guidelines were finalized.
“We took six weeks to conclude the process,” said Dwivedi. “There was consensus on ensuring responsible and accurate coverage of issues related to HIV and AIDS. Misreporting interferes with confidentiality and comes in the way of voluntary testing and morale of people. Guidelines must educate about the disease.”
Mayank Agarwal, joint director, information, education and communication, National AIDS Control Organisation, says it has sensitized some 1,500 Indian journalists during 2005-07 to the nature of the disease.
“We are very sensitive to the issue of HIV reporting and do not do anything to socially or economically stigmatize patients. We routinely pixelate faces and mask identities of HIV-positive persons,” says Sagarika Ghose, senior editor and anchor of CNN-IBN television channel.
“Guidelines of any kind are statutory in nature and very sensitive. I haven’t seen these guidelines and can therefore not comment on them,” says H.K. Dua, editor-in-chief, The Tribune.