Tuesday, July 20, 2010

AIDS activists need new communications strategies

VIENNA, Austria — In the history of AIDS, activists certainly deserve a place of honor for their persistence in pushing governments and donors to do more than they would have done on their own or, at least, not done as fast. But the new generation of AIDS activists sure don’t seem to be winning over the rest of non-activists here at the XVIII International AIDS Conference. And they could use some communications training.

At the opening ceremony on Sunday, they annoyed the vast majority of the audience — many of whom had arrived early to secure good seats — by disrupting the screening of a film produced by the Global Fund to shout for more funding. Ironically, the whole point of the Global Fund film was to raise awareness about the need for more funding in this, the third round of Global Fund replenishment. The Global Fund film makes this point more eloquently and convincingly than the protestors. But I know that only because I had seen the film previously, without disruptions; the audience could not hear the film because of the continuous chanting.

Another irony was that the official speakers at the podium continually agreed with the protestors, and agreed with great patience and politeness. And even some of these speakers were shouted down by much less articulate and more impolite activists. When the protestors finally left the state after an interminable period of time, the audience applauded, not in support but for gratitude that they were finally leaving.

Today, in the Media Centre, I witnessed another disruption, this one even more strident. A couple dozen demonstrators were allowed into the Media Centre — I’m not quite sure how the super alert security staff allowed them in when they don’t normally anyone, however inoffensive, to enter without media credentials — to disrupt a PSI press conference on male circumcision.

Now the demonstrators had no beef with PSI, nor with male circumcision. They were offended by the presence of U.S. Global AIDS Coordinator Eric Goosby, who was on the panel and who they blame for “the ongoing harm of PEPFAR’s anti-prostitution pledge requirement.”

Their indignation over the requirement is justified; their tactics are not. They were aggressive, they were rude. One or two of them sounded hysterical, screaming at Goosby, for 10-15 minutes.

This is the same Eric Goosby to whom former President Bill Clinton gave a huge shout-out in the opening plenary on Monday: “This man is your friend. He’s been working on AIDS since before the youngest people in this room were born. He is a good man.” Apparently, the demonstrators did not get that message, or chose to ignore it. The journalists working in the Media Centre were not impressed and mainly just ignored them, and deservedly so.

They need to find a more effective way of making their point, which is actually a point Clinton made in his speech: “You have two options here. You can demonstrate and call the President names or we can go get some more votes in Congress to get some money. My experience is that the second choice is a better one with a far better payoff.”

Yesterday, in the Media Center, the activists won no friends; they might have lost a few.

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