On the evening of November 5th Zambia’s First Lady, Dr Christine Kaseba–Sata, made an earth-shattering statement about the need for dialogue on the status of men who have sex with men (MSM) in relation to access to health, and HIV and AIDS prevention at a UNAIDS meeting.
The media frenzy that followed her statement could be described as unfortunate at best – since most local media houses twisted the story, reporting that the First Lady was concerned that homosexuals are spreading HIV/AIDS. Some went a step further to – ludicrously – allege that the First Lady had appealed to the World Health Assembly and cooperating partners to help classify homosexuality as an illness so that the nation could openly debate the issue.
Credible sources state that this is not what the First Lady said in any way shape or form. Sadly, her important statement was twisted to suit the usual gay bashing that characterises the homosexuality debate in the Zambian press – and so an opportunity for meaningful dialogue and debate around this issue was lost.
I have often pondered what the role of the media in Zambia is. As the Fourth Estate objectivity is taught in the first year of journalism school and regularly re-emphasised by lecturers. And yet, most of the scribes who practice the profession these days appear not to have been schooled in the basic ethics of journalism – so that they routinely write subjective opinions that masquerade as news stories. Whatever happened to the five Ws and one H?
My opinion of Dr Kaseba-Sata’s statement is that it should be analysed in relation to her background as a respected physician, her current position as a ‘mother to the nation’ and her own personal ambitious and achievements to date – such as elevating cervical cancer treatment and prevention to a priority for the Zambian government. She also continues to work on sexual reproductive and health rights issues and has ventured into territory that most other Zambians fear to tread.
The reality is that Dr Kaseba-Sata is committed to the fight against HIV and AIDS and this is why she is now championing issues that are ‘lost causes’ in the eyes of the Zambian majority.
However, to set the record straight, MSM is not a new word in Zambia. In 2009, the National Aids Council (NAC) included MSM in its definition of most at risk populations without any fanfare or frenzied controversy in the press. Some may well argue that the NAC failed to operationalise this definition in its National Operation Plans but for most LGBTI activists, the inclusion of MSM was an enormous victory and one that was celebrated quietly.
And the NAC and the Ministry of Health continue to make enormous strides in ensuring that MSM and other most at risk groups receive much needed attention from a public health perspective. The pace may be slower than we would like but progress is being made, silently and quietly by some dedicated technocrats, who continue to support public health efforts that address the devastating consequences that HIV and AIDS has had on this population.
Sadly, a lack of cohesion between the Ministries of Health, Home Affairs and Justice often derail further progress – and often because of muck-stirring by the homophobic media.
The First Lady’s statement was not made in isolation. It was not an epiphany that came to her when she woke up that day – it was by no means a Damascene Conversion. It was more the result of countless hours of hard work that public health professionals, civil society organisations and human rights defenders have put in over the past decade to ensure that these issues are brought to the fore.
This in no way means that she should not be praised for her courage and commitment to public health issues. However, her words should not overshadow the work that others have put in – notably dedicated human rights defenders and government officials, who remain silent champions and work without enjoying the immunity that the First Lady enjoys.
The media has an important role to play in national conversations but that role should not be taken lightly or used carelessly. The media’s role should be to inform, educate and entertain, to unite and not divide, to build and not destroy. It is a sacred role and as such should be handled with sanctity.
Hate speech and vilification of minority groups are not traits that are taught in Journalism school – factual and investigative reporting, objectivity and good ethics form part of the curriculum. The fact that some Zambian media houses opted to twist Dr Kaseba-Sata’s statement fuels popular victimisation of a small but significant community – paving the way for more hate crimes and losing an opportunity for critical debate.
It is an unfortunate irony, that whenever, someone makes a statement concerning LGBTI issues in Zambia it is taken as a ploy by that individual or institution to promote homosexuality. Since the First Lady could not be attacked criticised – like other brave advocates are – her words were twisted into an awful parody of what she really meant.
And anyway, Dr Kaseba–Sata was not advocating for homosexuality. She was speaking about an urgent public health issue, which requires the nation to remember that access to health is a right under the Zambian Constitution. And furthermore, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex Zambians are not asking for any special rights but the rights that are afforded to each and every Zambian – notably the rights to life, health, dignity, privacy and self-determination.