By Moses Magadza
Ezulwini, Swaziland : The SADC Parliamentary Forum is considering joint training sessions for journalists and Members of Parliament as it moves to strengthen the capacity of the two partners to advocate for universal access to sexual reproductive health rights and related issues.
The chairperson of the Human Development and Special Programme (HDSP) of SADC PF, South Africa Parliamentarian Ahmed Shaik-Emmam, revealed this last week. He was tabling the report of the HSDP at the 39th Plenary Assembly Session of SADC PF.
The HSDP is implementing a four year SRHR, HIV and AIDS Governance programme with funding from Sweden.
Shaik-Emmam said communication played an important role in the programme by ensuring that it was visible and that stakeholders were kept abreast of its achievements, challenges and aspirations in a timeous manner.
He said the programme, which seeks to build the capacity of female Parliamentarians in particular and National Parliaments in general to advocate for universal access to SRHR, HIV and AIDS Governance issues, had recently appointed a health communications advisory committee.
"This committee will serve as the programme's team of experts, providing guidance, advice and oversight on its media relations and advocacy components," he said.
Additionally, Shaik-Emmam said the HSDP was in the process of developing a "visibility pack" on emerging cross-cutting issues around SRHR, HIV and AIDS Governance for the media, Parliamentarians and other stakeholders with a view to provoking more advocacy through for universal access to health.
Recently editors and senior journalists from Mauritius, Namibia, Zambia, Lesotho, Tanzania and Zimbabwe attended the standing committee meeting of the HSDP. They made presentations in which they shared their thrills and spills in covering the work of National Parliaments. It emerged that relations between the media and Parliaments were not cordial, tainted in some cases by suspicion, ignorance and lack of respect for each other's roles.
Shaik-Emmam said the planned joint training sessions were meant to bridge this divide.
He said in some instances the media struggle to access Parliaments and Parliamentarians.
"Parliamentarians and the media are two sides of the same coin as they both represent the people. It is beneficial to both groups that they cultivate a healthy and sustainable working relationship in order to serve their constituencies better as partners, not as protagonists."
One Parliamentarians speaking on condition of anonymity, said some MPs preferred to stay clear of the media for fear of being misquoted.
The MP gave the example of a false story that appeared in some newspapers in Swaziland during the 39th Plenary Assembly session.
"That story said SADC MPs had passed a law supporting criminalization of HIV transmission. This was false. Our stance as SADC MPs is that criminalization has no place in the public health sector because it discourages people from testing and knowing their status."
That stance is consistent with a motion adopted at the 38th Plenary Assembly Session which took place in Namibia towards the end of 2015.
Lesotho MP Ms Mantabiseng Phohleli is Deputy Chairperson of the HSDP. She welcomed the planned joint training sessions, saying they would go a long way towards strengthening the collaboration between the media and Parliaments.
"Some of us are still very media-shy and do not see the media as partners yet the media is a conduit through which we can shape opinions, bring about change and demonstrate our relevance as well as that of our work," she said at the plenary.
She said it was important that the work of Parliament become visible through the media.
"We do a lot of work yet it seems to me that in many respects we are like a silent movie! People generally know that we are there somewhere but although we appear to be very busy, nobody really knows what we are doing or saying. That is terrible!"
She called on the region's MPs to embrace social media, if they were to reach the majority of their voters, especially young people.
"This (social media) is where important ideas are communicated or shared. Some of us need to be quickly weaned from analogue communication platforms and introduced to the digital era, lest we miss the boat," she quipped.
Veteran journalist Mr. Ally Saleh, an MP from the United Republic of Tanzania, commented SADC PF for taking issues of publicity seriously.
"In Tanzania little is known about SADC PF, even among members of parliament. I recommend that individual MPs go to the media in the different member states to expound about SADC PF so that the people can join us to support our work," he said.