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Archive for October 2nd, 2009

ZIMBABWE: Prevalence rate down

Posted by African Press International on October 2, 2009

Photo: IRIN
Getting the message

HARARE, – Zimbabwe’s adult HIV prevalence rate is continuing its downward trend, showing a drop from 14.1 percent in 2008 to 13.7 percent in 2009, according to new estimates released by the Ministry of Health and Child Welfare.

The 2009 Antenatal Clinic (ANC) Surveillance Survey, based on blood specimens collected from 7,363 pregnant women anonymously screened at 19 clinic sites throughout the country, estimated that 1.1 million Zimbabweans in a probable population of around 11 million were living with HIV.

A slowdown in Zimbabwe’s HIV/AIDS epidemic was first observed in the late 1990s and was supported by data from a 2005/06 population-based survey.

The prevalence rate is expected to continue decreasing; investigations have shown that the decline “most likely resulted from a combination of an increase in adult mortality and a decline in HIV incidence, resulting from adoption of safer sexual behaviours”, said Dr Douglas Mombeshora, Deputy Minister of Health and Child Welfare.

“When prevention programmes achieve heightened awareness, significant changes in behaviour will occur, and one of the main outcomes is the significant reduction in the need for PMTCT [prevention of mother-to-child transmission] services, as well as a reduced number of new HIV infections,” he noted.

Mombeshora acknowledged that even the 13.7 percent prevalence rate was too high, and called for continued efforts to reduce HIV infection. “These positive signs in our fight against HIV and AIDS should spur all Zimbabweans to redouble their efforts and commit themselves to further reduce the burden of HIV and AIDS.”

However, he noted with concern that while HIV infection at most survey sites had come down, some sites had registered notable increases, particularly those near border posts, mines and resettled farms. The highest rate was among women aged 20 to 39.


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GLOBAL: Inching towards universal access to PMTCT services

Posted by African Press International on October 2, 2009

Photo: Kenneth Odiwuor/IRIN
Just 21 percent of pregnant women in low- and middle-income countries are being tested for HIV

NAIROBI, – More than half of HIV-positive pregnant women in low- and middle-income countries continue to go without life-saving anti-retroviral medication that could prevent transmission of the virus to their unborn children, according to a new report, Towards Universal Access.

“Although there is increasing emphasis on women and children in the global HIV/AIDS response, the disease continues to have a devastating impact on their health, livelihood and survival,” Ann Veneman, executive director of the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF), said in a statement.

According to the report, in 2008, 45 percent of pregnant women in low- and middle-income countries received anti-retrovirals for the prevention of mother-to-child transmission, up from 35 percent in 2007 and 10 percent in 2004, but still far off the goals set in 2006 by the UN General Assembly Special Session on HIV to achieve universal access to HIV prevention, treatment and care for all who need it by 2010.

Just 21 percent of pregnant women in low- and middle-income countries were tested for HIV in 2008, a small jump from 15 percent the previous year.

“Loss to follow-up remains high – many women who come for antenatal visits do not get tested, or if they do get tested they don’t come for their results, and if they do get their results, they may not return for the medication,” Jimmy Kolker, chief of UNICEF’s HIV/AIDS programme division, said during a press conference.

Some regions registered impressive increases in the provision of ARVs for PMTCT – the Caribbean, for example, put 52 percent of HIV-positive pregnant women on ARV regimens in 2008, compared with 29 percent the previous year – while in other areas, the figures remain dismal; in North Africa and the Middle East, just 1 percent of pregnant women living with HIV received anti-retroviral drugs for PMTCT.

“The chief reason we are not reaching many of these women is that they do not give birth in medical facilities,” he added. “We need to improve the health system aspects of maternal and neonatal health in order to improve PMTCT.”

According to the UN World Health Organization (WHO), the global shortage of health workers exceeds four million; the report notes that in high-prevalence and resource-limited settings, health systems were “often weak, inequitable and unresponsive”.

''The chief reason we are not reaching many of these women is that they do not give birth in medical facilities.''

Loss to follow-up has implications for the health of children born to HIV-positive mothers – the report found that in 41 reporting countries, only 15 percent of children born to HIV-positive mothers received an HIV test within the first two months of life. Nevertheless, this is progress: an estimated 32 percent of infants born to HIV-infected mothers in 2008 were reached with anti-retrovirals, more than five times as many as in 2004.

“It is very important that while trying to strengthen PMTCT services, we understand the interface and make the link between HIV/AIDS and maternal and child health,” said Teguest Guerma, interim director of WHO’s HIV/AIDS Department.

According to the report, there have also been significant increases in the number of women being placed on more effective combination ARV regimens rather than single-dose therapy. “In 97 reporting countries, around 31 percent of women receiving anti-retrovirals to prevent mother-to-child transmission were given a single-dose regimen, as compared to 49 percent in 2007,” it found.

“The medicines exist and there is demand for them, we just need to ensure that we strengthen the PMTCT package as a whole so that women have access to them,” said Karen Stanecki, senior adviser on epidemiology for UNAIDS.


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Analysis: Talk radio in hot water over Uganda riots

Posted by African Press International on October 2, 2009

Photo: Flickr Creative Commons
Three Luganda stations have been off air for more than a fortnight

NAIROBI/KAMPALA, – Criminal charges and the closure of several radio stations over alleged incitement to violence in Kampala have sparked a debate about the limits of free speech in Uganda.

The Uganda Broadcasting Council (UBC) silenced four Luganda* radio stations during three days of riots in September 2009 sparked by the government’s refusal to allow the king of Buganda, Kabaka Ronald Mutebi, from travelling to a district within his kingdom.

UBC accused the broadcasters, one of which has since gone back on air, of “inciting violence and hatred” during the riots. According to the government, 20 rioters and seven bystanders died.

Criminal charges have been brought against several guests and members of the public who telephoned the stations, while a handful of radio presenters have been questioned by the police’s Criminal Investigation Department.

Criticism of the UBC’s decision was swift and harsh, with media rights groups saying the government was not fooling anyone with its sweeping measures to crack down on critical media.

Opinion in the country, however, is more divided; while some feel shutting down the stations was the desperate action of an unpopular government, others felt the tone of some of the programmes was indeed inflammatory.

He said, she said

“The stations were merely expressing their support for the Kabaka; one of these stations, CBS [Central Broadcasting Services], is owned by the Buganda Kingdom, so inevitably they will side with Buganda in any debate,” said Ssemujju Nganda, a senior editor at The Observer, an independent newspaper. “The government knew this would always be the case when they gave them the licence to broadcast.”

Nganda did, however, admit that in the heat of the moment there may have been excesses by radio presenters.

Police documents charging Elias Lukwago, Member of Parliament for Kampala Central, with inciting violence after a 9 September talk-show on Akaboozi Kubiri, accuse the MP of making statements implying that it would be “incumbent or desirable to do acts calculated to lead to the destruction or damage of property”.

“Those of you who are working in markets, shopping arcades, canteens, restaurants, those of you seated idle on verandas and those of you who are tending their gardens, what have you done so far about all the challenges that have hit us before? Will you wait until you are hit directly?” reads part of an English translation of a police transcript of Lukwago’s appearance on the show. “Are you waiting for His Majesty to be attacked and in his palace?”

''If there is anything they think was inciting [violence], then it was not by design''

According to Godfrey Mutabazi, chairman of the UBC, presenters, guests and talk-show callers were indeed inciting hatred among the Baganda, much of it directed towards people from western Uganda, who are perceived to have been favoured above other ethnic groups during the presidency of Yoweri Museveni, who hails from that region.

“Sometimes the messages are coded and other times they were blatantly inciting violence and hatred,” he said. “I had no choice other than to suspend broadcasting by these radio stations otherwise we could have been dealing with a situation like Rwanda, where Radio Mille Collines was able to incite thousands into ethnic violence that resulted in the genocide.”

In addition, Mutabazi said, the stations were actively encouraging Baganda in general to defy the police’s orders and travel to Kayunga.

“After the police advised the Kabaka and his supporters not to travel to Kayunga for security reasons, CBS became like a mobiliser, openly defying the police, urging supporters of the king to go against the police directive and head there anyway,” he added.

The UBC was unable to provide IRIN with copies of transcripts from the broadcasts in question.


For their part, the stations’ managers have vehemently denied any of the charges made against them. “We did not make any broadcast that could qualify as inciting violence; we were reporting events as they unfolded,” said CBS chief executive officer Kaaya Kavuma. “We had reporters all over the place and they were telling us the reality on the ground; if that is inciting violence, then this is a matter of interpretation.”

However, some members of Kampala’s listening public disagree. “These radio stations are insulting even when there are no riots; during the violence the programmes definitely became more threatening to non-Baganda,” said Joseph Tushabe, a shop owner from western Uganda in the capital. “I am sure some of the rioters were responding to the attitudes they heard on the radio.”

However, according to Bogere Masembe, CEO of Ssuubi FM, there was no plan to incite violence. “If there was anything they think was inciting, then it was not by design,” he said.

One thing most analysts agree on is that the UBC was excessive in its decision to take the stations off the airwaves completely.

Photo: Buganda Post
The Kabaka of Buganda, Ronald Muwenda Mutebi II


“Whatever the presenters said, there are ways of dealing with it within the law without using such arbitrary methods as closing stations down,” Nganda said.

CBS’s Kavuma accused the UBC of failing to follow the rule of law in the decision to close down the stations; the council, he said, broke into the station’s transmission system with the aid of the Uganda People’s Defence Forces. Ssuubi FM’s Masembe said his station was attacked in a similar manner.

“The Broadcasting Council wrote to us two days after we were closed down; we were not given any hearing or a warning,” he said. “When you break the law, there are institutions that are supposed to interpret the law; it was high-handedness.”

“One of the complaints we keep hearing from government is that the presenters are not professional journalists, but you cannot criminalize lack of professionalism,” said Peter Mwesige, an independent media consultant and one of the founders of Uganda’s Daily Monitor newspaper.

“We don’t see the UBC on a day-to-day basis regulating station programming; they seem to exclusively focus on sanctions,” he added.

Mwesige noted, however, that there was a need for greater professionalism in political talk-radio in Uganda, as without it, broadcasts could turn dangerous.

“There is a legitimate case for greater professionalism, for proper research and better moderation of talk shows,” he said. “But the way to do this is to engage with radio stations’ management in order to achieve this, not to shut them down.”

*Buganda is a kingdom in south-central Uganda inhabited by the Baganda people, who speak Luganda.


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Analysis: The dangers of Sudan’s elections

Posted by African Press International on October 2, 2009

Photo: Tomas de Mul/IRIN
The threat to boycott Sudans first elections in two decades was issued in Juba, capital of Southern Sudan, by some 20 political parties, which demanded changes to laws relating to civil liberties, such as press freedom, and democracy (file photo)

JUBA/NAIROBI, – A new boycott threat by several political parties in Sudan illustrates how next years elections, billed as a milestone in democratic transformation, in fact present considerable challenges and could destabilize the country and further undermine an already shaky peace deal between north and south.

The threat to boycott Sudans first elections in two decades was issued in Juba, capital of Southern Sudan, by some 20 political parties, which demanded changes to laws relating to civil liberties, such as press freedom, and democracy.

A few days earlier, the London-based African Centre for Justice and Peace Studies said there had been an increasing crackdown on freedom of expression in Sudan, targeting public discussion of, and preparation for, the elections. Since the beginning of August, Sudanese authorities have systematically targeted any activities, symposia, public rallies or lectures related to the elections.

Signatories to the Juba Declaration include the Sudan Peoples Liberation Movement (SPLM), which governs the semi-autonomous Southern Sudan and has been a partner in a fragile national government since a 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) put an end to 20 years of north-south war.

In the Juba Declaration, the parties also said they would stay away from the presidential, parliamentary and local polls unless a row over the results of a census which affects electoral constituencies – was resolved.

The National Congress Party (NCP), led by President Omar el-Bashir, did not take up an invitation to participate in the talks.

The argument in favour

Although neither the SPLM nor the NCP was keen to include elections in the CPA negotiations, foreign sponsors of the peace process were convinced polls would help reverse the extreme centralization of power that has long been a major driver of conflict in Sudan.

The CPA originally scheduled elections for 2009, halfway though an interim period that culminates in an independence referendum in Southern Sudan in 2012. It was foreseen that the elections would also serve as plebiscite on the CPA, engage political forces that were not included in the agreement and instil among the Sudanese population a sense of ownership of the peace process, states Ticking the box – Elections in Sudan, a report by Jort Hemmer of the Netherlands Institute for International Relations Conflict Research Unit.

Photo: Derk Segaar/IRIN
Southern Sudans President, Salva Kiir Mayardit

Opening the Juba conference, Southern Sudans president, Salva Kiir Mayardit, said: I believe that the general elections, if properly conducted, shall be a critical impetus for change and empowerment of our people to choose their political leaders and elect their democratic institutions.

If properly conducted… elections shall be a good opportunity for the Sudanese people to bring a real change through their free will as one major impetus to the process of democratic transformation, he said, adding pointedly: But those are two big ifs.


Kiirs principal caveat concerns this years population census, whose results he described as too flawed and lack[ing] the minimum acceptable level of credibility.

Without the resolution of this issue the election process, despite our preparedness for it, may be put in jeopardy.

There are also concerns about the level of this preparedness. In late August, the Carter Center warned in a report of serious concerns about slippage in the overall electoral calendar as well as delays in key operational, policy, and budgetary decisions; continued restrictions on civil liberties; and the lack of adequate reform legislation needed to fully protect the fundamental freedoms of Sudanese citizens.

It said the ambitious election schedule would only be viable if swift steps were taken to ensure further delays are avoided.

US Special Envoy to Sudan, Scott Gration, has spoken of the many challenges for the electoral process. Not only do all the legislative laws need to be passed, but there is also election training, voter education, the security that is involved in it, the ballot boxes, the monitoring – all those kind of issues are very, very difficult.

In a country where many citizens have never voted in their lives, the complexity of the poll is likely to be bewildering. The election will determine the presidencies and legislatures of both the Government of National Unity and Southern Sudan, state governorships and state assemblies. Some victors will be chosen under a first-past-the-post system, others by proportional representation.

Photo: IRIN
Elections were included in a 2005 peace deal.

In a recent report, the Rift Valley Institute noted that the numerous elections and referendums held in Sudan since 1953 have not so far produced the kind of stable yet dynamic government that the secret ballot is intended to encourage largely because of widespread and massive fraud under authoritarian regimes and lack of necessary resources.

While the report argued that elections should take place in Sudan, it warned of a strong possibility that the forthcoming election will suffer from a combination of all the weaknesses that have undermined previous elections. There is widespread public scepticism and suspicion of possible malpractice, based on peoples experience in previous authoritarian elections; and there are immense logistical challenges.

The stakes are very high. If the election should lack credibility, it is hard to see how the Comprehensive Peace Agreement can survive, it said.

In Ticking the Box, Hemmer wrote that Sudans political context presents an extremely unfavourable environment for an open and honest competition for power.

Contested elections that spark large-scale political violence and, in the worse case, constitute a prelude to a new war is a realistic scenario, he added, concluding that Sudan had much to lose and little to gain from holding elections in 2010.

This sentiment is shared by Sudan analyst John Ashworth. By having elections you could actually derail democracy because of the context a ceasefire between two warring parties. It doesnt make sense to disrupt that before the end of the interim period.


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GUINEA: “The barbarity we saw cannot be described”

Posted by African Press International on October 2, 2009

Photo: Nancy Palus/IRIN
Billboard of Guinea’s junta leader Moussa Dadis Camara in the capital Conakry

DAKAR, – Guineans strain to find the words to describe the violence they saw on 28 September when soldiers opened fire on demonstrators, stabbing people with bayonets and gang-raping women and girls. Hundreds of Guineans have been unable to collect the remains of their loved ones, as soldiers blocked entry to morgues and residents say loaded up bodies in trucks and took them away.

Residents of the capital Conakry said tension was high on 2 October, as the junta held a ceremony to bury the bodies of the 57 people it says died, most”by asphyxiation” in a stampede.One man searching for his brother went to the morgue where the corpses were brought out; hesaidthe stench from decomposing bodies was overwhelming.

Here is some of what Guineans told IRIN on 28 September and the days following:

“Thebarbarity we saw cannot be described.”

“We saw soldiers walking on cadavers.”

They shoved their Kalashnikovs into womens vaginas I saw this.

“I was completely destroyed by the brutality I saw. If I had a bomb that day I would have pulled a kamikaze.”

“The military is loading up bodies in trucks and hiding them. At the very least leave us the bodies of our loved ones.”

“People were afraid to seek treatment in hospital because some doctors refused to treat the injured, saying the demonstrators were to blame for the violence.”

“We fear civil war. There were militias who were out the next day going through neighbourhoods with machetes.”

“Soldiers are prowling the neighbourhood [Bambeto, on 29 September]. When they see a resident they say: “You move, we shoot’. They say: ‘It’s you, Peulhs, who want to get in our way. We are going to exterminate you all.'”
[Peulh is one of Guineas main ethnic groups; junta leader Camara is Guerze, a group from the Forest Region]

“Anyone who is not on their [the soldiers’] side, they are going to slaughter us all.”

“If the impunity continues, that is it for Guinea. Civil war. It will be worse than Liberia.”

“No one is safe.”


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