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Independent media, open communication and community empowerment are what the nonprofit Internews Network strives to create — largely with the help of the U.S. government.

Since the early 1990s, Internews has been working to develop autonomous media outlets and fair media laws in more than 70 countries. In 23 countries the organization now has offices, most run by journalists native to the region in which they are working. The organization has given training to tens of thousands of journalists on issues such as diverse news coverage, media production techniques and the importance of government accountability.

Though Internews is an organization that promotes an independent press, its own autonomy is an issue it “wrestles with all the time,” said Annette Makino, the organization’s senior vice president for communications. The vast majority of Internews’ efforts are bankrolled by the U.S. Agency for International Development and other federal sources.

Internews’ donors over the years have included foundations, individual contributors, corporations, nongovernmental organizations and foreign governments. However, all but $1.6 million of the $26.7 million in revenue it reported in 2004 came from the federal government.

The group’s ties to Washington are more than financial. On its board of directors — consisting mainly of journalists, media analysts and philanthropists — sits U.S. Rep. Jim Leach, R-Iowa, whose 30-year run in Congress will end in January, and Lorne Craner, formerly a high-ranking State Department official under George W. Bush.

Although Internews has a working history with the U.S. government, it seems an unlikely candidate for funding from the President’s Emergency fund for AIDS Relief, a five-year, $15 billion initiative to fight AIDS in 15 focus countries (Vietnam, as well as 14 in Africa and the Caribbean) and more than 100 other nations.

In 2005, Internews received $902,000 from PEPFAR for programs in Côte d’Ivoire, Ethiopia and Kenya, plus funds subcontracted through another organization for its work in Nigeria.

History and PEPFAR programs

So how does Internews, which is not an international health organization, qualify for AIDS relief dollars?

Internews was founded in 1982 as a media initiative to improve U.S.-Soviet relations during the Cold War, but its activities soon changed. After the Soviet Union’s collapse, the organization started supporting independent media outlets emerging from state-controlled systems in the newly independent states.

In 1990, Internews was allocated its first U.S. government grant. Soon after, the news operations it had helped develop became more sophisticated — and so did the range of worldwide issues those outlets’ journalists were covering.

With the rise of globalization, Internews started training journalists to do effective reporting on issues such as government transparency, humanitarian crises, environmental concerns and — especially beginning in 2002 — the HIV/AIDS epidemic.

Over three decades, Internews held firmly to its original mission of promoting open communication between and within cultures. That might be one reason why PEPFAR has funded Local Voices, Internews’ HIV/AIDS reporting program. A fiscal 2005 PEPFAR document obtained by the Center for Public Integrity through a Freedom of Information Act request, described Local Voices as a program “which aims to promote responsible coverage of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, with the aim of increasing accurate knowledge and reducing stigmatizing and discriminatory attitudes towards people affected by HIV and AIDS.”

In the same document, however, Local Voices in Ethiopia also was categorized among “mass media HIV/AIDS prevention programs that promote abstinence and/or being faithful” — a claim with which Internews takes issue.

‘Abstinence and Be faithful’ advocacy or not?

Since its inception in 2003, PEPFAR has drawn criticism over a clause mandating that “AB” advocacy — abstinence and being faithful to one sexual partner — must be promoted in every focus country as the primary means of preventing the spread of HIV/AIDS. Under PEPFAR’s prevention strategy, one-third of all funding for prevention programs and two-thirds of funding for sexual transmission prevention must be spent on AB programs.

In turn, those spending requirements have trickled down into programs run by contractor organizations that educate focus country residents on HIV prevention methods, including mass media AB campaigns that fiscal 2005 government documents state that Internews conducted. The documents also said that the Local Voices programs in Ethiopia and Côte d’Ivoire were supported specifically by funds set aside for AB advocacy.

One document depicted Local Voices in Ethiopia as an AB mass media campaign intended to reach four million people. It also detailed that 80 people were to be trained to run AB programs. A similar PEPFAR document for the Côte d’Ivoire program states that “[a] specific focus … is to promote message development that supports all areas of prevention including abstinence and fidelity.”

Representatives of USAID, which administered the PEPFAR funds, did not reply to requests seeking comment on the issue.

Internews’ Makino denied that Local Voices has a specific focus on any HIV prevention method.

“We teach journalists about the science of HIV in a balanced way, so we would talk about abstinence and condoms and monogamy,” she said. “We don’t have a particular agenda in terms of what kind of prevention we’re educating on.”

Furthermore, impartiality is one of Internews’ ethical guidelines — a point Makino stressed.

“The effectiveness of our work on the ground really depends on our ability to be seen as independent,” she said. “We always make sure that our goals work with what the funders want to do and make sure we don’t need to compromise our principles.”

Hearing from local voices

Mia Malan, Internews’ first and former senior resident journalism adviser for Local Voices in Kenya, offered another goal of Local Voices. “Not many people [affected by HIV/AIDS] were heard on the radio,” she said. “We wanted to change that.”

In Kenya, where radio is the public’s most accessible news source, Malan said, the real news on HIV/AIDS simply wasn’t reaching the airwaves. Programs consisted of little more than readings of government statistics, usually not broadcast during peak listening hours. By seeking out “local voices,” she said, Internews empowers the media to take a more active, informative role in the fight against HIV/AIDS.

Malan, a South African native, previously spent five years as an award-winning national health correspondent for the South African Broadcasting Co. There she became a veteran at reporting on the African HIV/AIDS epidemic.

Once with Internews, she began recruiting for the Local Voices workshop in Nairobi mainly by asking radio editors to recommend reporters and talk show hosts to participate. Training focused on reporting skills such as Internet research, radio scriptwriting, recording for the radio and using digital editing programs. Journalists were also taught about the issues of mother-to-child HIV transmission, infected and orphaned children, counseling, AIDS testing and antiretroviral treatment.

Then participants were challenged to get “five good stories,” Malan said, and they were given travel grants to report on HIV/AIDS stories outside of Nairobi.

Since 2003, 70 Kenyan journalists have been trained by Internews and several have won acclaim. In 2005, a producer and a news presenter trained through Local Voices won an African broadcast union’s award for the continent’s best HIV/AIDS radio program.

“That program used to broadcast on Sunday evenings at 7:30, when nobody listens,” Malan said. “Now it’s an hour-long live show on Thursday mornings.”

More recently, on World AIDS Day this month, Kenyan journalists garnered all three top radio honors in this year’s United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) Red Ribbon Media Awards for excellence in HIV/AIDS reporting in eastern and southern Africa. They all were trained by Internews and produced their stories from the organization’s office in Kenya.

Local Voices is structured similarly — and has had similar success — in Côte d’Ivoire, Ethiopia and Nigeria. The initiative receives minimal grants in Côte d’Ivoire and is in discussions with PEPFAR to develop a full program there in 2007.

On 2006 documents, the classification for Local Voices in Ethiopia was changed from “Abstinence/Be Faithful Programs” to “Other/policy analysis and system strengthening.”

Makino said the new description better describes Internews’ work conducting new and follow-up training for journalists to better cover complex topics like antiretroviral treatment, AIDS orphans and HIV prevention techniques.

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