The third week of July 2010 saw a huge HIV and Aids conference in Vienna, attended by a reported 20,000 people. Through the week, the Straits Times carried two reports in its print edition, both sourced from news agencies and placed in the World section. It did not take the opportunity to write about the still-growing statistics within Singapore.
In fact, I have observed that the newspaper almost never touches on the subject of HIV and Aids in the local context unless the Ministry of Health issues a media statement. It seems to me that there is an editorial policy of staying away from the subject until a clear go-ahead has been given by the government. Since I have not tracked the newspaper’s behaviour with respect to other diseases such as Influenza A(H1N1), diabetes or breast cancer, I am not able to say whether the reluctance is a reluctance to talk about diseases generally or just a reluctance to talk about HIV.
I suspect there are special difficulties for the newspaper with respect to HIV. It may not please the government, whose feelings the newspaper is always very sensitive to, for a newspaper to call attention to a festering problem that the State does little about.
The two reports the Straits Times carried were headlined:
- Cash payments to young ‘cut HIV rates’, with subheader World Bank studies show payouts can help discourage unsafe sex, in its edition of 20 July 2010 (story source: Agence France-Presse) and
- Huge challenge as millions of HIV patients age, with subheader Medical problems, loneliness, stigma and financial worries plague those who live longer, published in its edition of 23 July 2010 (story source: Agence France-Presse and Associated Press).
A notable story, also from Agence France-Presse, but one that the Straits Times didn’t carry, was Criminalised sex workers, gays at high risk of HIV in Asia. AFP’s story reporting from the conference began thus:
The criminalisation of sex workers, drug users, and men who have sex with men were highlighted as major sources of concern in the fight against HIV in Asia, at the world AIDS conference here Wednesday.
Twenty-five countries in the Asia-Pacific region still impose the death penalty for offences related to the possession and abuse of drugs, creating a huge stigma that means abusers often avoid treatment for fear of imprisonment, said Anand Grover, a lawyer and special rapporteur for the UN Human Rights Council.
Injected drug use is acknowledged as one of the main causes of the spread of AIDS worldwide, alongside sexual transmission.
In some countries, “drug users still have to go to jail before they actually can access harm reduction services”, said Rachel Ong, of the Asia Pacific Network of People Living with HIV (APN+).
Meanwhile, over 15 countries penalise consensual same-sex behaviour, pushing potential HIV patients further underground, according to Anand.
This trend of criminalisation is not customary for the region but rather an “alien British colonial legacy and we have to get rid of it”, he said provocatively.
Perhaps the last two sentences made Straits Times editors blanche and decide against carrying the story. It’s one thing to have stories about Aids in the outside world, it’s quite another to highlight the fact that it’s right here in Singapore and growing, and that the government is still in hock to the moralistic rightwing, who tend to believe that denial and criminalisation is the best way to fight HIV.
The stories that the newspaper did carry, about giving money to young girls so they do not have to sell their bodies to older (and more likely infected) men, and about HIV-positive persons living into their senior years, are rather more distant to the hot button issues we have in Singapore:
- Section 377A (the law that criminalises sex between men),
- the Education Ministry’s refusal to get beyond telling students that homosexuality is bad and criminal in its sex education programs, and
- the extreme reluctance of the Health Ministry to promote condom use to the general public (lest it be accused by the Christian Rightwing of “promoting promiscuity”).
This is what happens when the government’s censorious stand is that media must avoid controversy, as part of nation-building efforts. Never mind if a fire is raging, if putting it out is too controversial, then let’s not talk about putting it out.
* * * * *
Let me correct the Straits Times’ omission and give you a simple graph, showing the rising numbers of new HIV infections year after year. We have never seen a year in which HIV infections fell from the previous.
In 2009, there were a total of 463 news cases, about 90 percent male and 10 percent female. The above graph is drawn from data sourced from the Ministry of Health’s website, detailed numbers presented here:
While heterosexuals appear at first sight to dominate the graph, the rise among men who have sex with men (MSM) is the most serious. Heterosexual transmission increased about 56 percent 2009 over 2002, but homosexual transmission increased 363 percent in the same period. What little public health intervention there is among MSM is clearly not effective, and I stress the word “little”. Handicapped by the existence of Section 377A, the Health Ministry cannot openly engage gay men. In fact barriers are put up, from other branches of government especially, that stifle open discussion about gay sex and risks, and impede organising and fund-raising in the gay community.
The law and our censorship policies continue to reinforce stigma against gay people, making it extremely difficult for those most at risk of HIV to approach teachers, counsellors and health professionals for information and assistance. This is what Anand Grover meant when he spoke of “pushing potential HIV patients further underground”.
There is a tendency among heterosexuals to dismiss the HIV problem among MSM as a matter of little impact on them. This is extremely short-sighted. The disease may be concentrated among gay men but it will not be confined there, not with bisexuals being the bridge.
Consider, for example, bird flu. It tends to first affect people who work or live in close proximity to birds, e.g. chickens. A pool of infection may begin among chicken farm workers, for example, but if you ignore them, it will spread to the general community. A wise public health program must focus on the most vulnerable population if it is to have any hope of stopping or slowing general spread. With bird flu, it is obvious and everybody will agree that that is what we must do, but with HIV, we seem to do the opposite: to ignore and even shackle (through laws such as 377A) efforts to deal with HIV among gay men. This is plain stupid.
The ministry also gave data by ethnic breakdown. What struck me was the Malay percentage. It jumped from 11.1 percent of all new cases in 2007 to 16.4 percent in 2009, as shown in the pie chart at right, which means it roughly matches the proportion of Malays in the general population.
I mention this because over the last decade or so, there had been speculation that circumcision protects men to some degree from HIV infection. To my knowledge, the data behind this theory is very incomplete, yet twice in the last two or three years, I’ve heard Malay Singaporeans mention this in passing as fact, causing me some concern. I think the emerging local data shows there is no room for complacency.
* * * * *
Interestingly, the week before the Aids conference in Vienna, the Straits Times carried a news story about Argentina’s legislature passing a bill legalising same-sex marriage. President Cristina Kirchner subsequently signed it into law a few days ago.
I was a little surprised, I have to admit, that the story was placed as prominently as it was, at the top of Page B12 in the World section. This especially as Argentina does not usually figure at all in our news selection.
I then went to the library to research Straits Times’ coverage of Spain’s and Canada’s legalisation of gay marriage in June/July 2005. Was the newspaper silent on those two events? (The reason I don’t remember was because I wasn’t in Singapore that period.) I found that both events were carried in the print editions of the newspaper.
30 June 2005
Straits Times, page 19, almost at the bottom just above a small ad:
Canada passes bill to legalise gay marriage
OTTAWA – Canadian Prime Minister Paul Martin’s minority liberal government passed a contentious Bill late on Tuesday to legalise same-sex marriages. MPs voted 158 to 133 in favour of the legislation that allows gay couples to marry.
Canada’s appointed Senate must still weigh in on the issue, but this is considered a formality before the country joins the Netherlands, Belgium and soon Spain in allowing gay nuptials.
— AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE
The very next day:
1 July 2005
Straits Times, page 23, bottom left corner:
Spain approves gay marriages
MADRID – Spain’s Parliament approved a law yesterday allowing same-sex couples to marry and adopt children despite opposition from the church.
Spain, which has about four million homosexuals, according to gay associations, becomes Europe’s third nation to legalise gay and lesbian marriage after Belgium and the Netherlands, and the fourth in the world after Canada, which passed its law on Tuesday.
Spanish deputies approved the text by a majority of 187 votes out of 350, with 147 voting against and four abstentions.
The law, bitterly opposed by conservatives in the influential Roman Catholic church, will go into force later this year after being signed by King Juan Carlos.
— AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE
The newspaper’s print edition did not carry the more recent news about Iceland’s legalisation of same-sex marriage, but perhaps Iceland was too small a country to be newsworthy. The above examples seem to show however that when it happens in biggish countries, the Straits Times does appear to have a habit of carrying the news.
What explains the Straits Times’ greater willingness to carry stories about gay marriage gaining ground abroad when it won’t carry criticisms about countries like Singapore keeping anti-gay laws, such as Anand Grover’s presentation at the HIV conference? This is a bit of a mystery to me. One possibility is that gay marriage is seen as so remote that it cannot be controversial in Singapore, therefore it is safe for editors to publish such news. By contrast, reporting criticisms of anti-gay laws might be seen as being embarrassing to our government which trumpetted its decision to keep the law in 2007 — only to be shown up as behind the times when big, conservative India junked it less than nine months later.