UNICEF’s avian influenza workshops educate Thai local media
By Nattha Keenapan
CHIANG MAI, Thailand, 30 January 2007 – When Arntai Khaikharnfa, a reporter from the Chiang Mai-based Shan Herald Agency for News, was assigned to attend a training workshop on bird flu, he was not very enthusiastic. Avian Influenza (AI) had never been of much interest to him, despite the fact that the virus has now spread to more than 45 countries and killed 164 people globally, including 17 people in Thailand. Neither Arntai nor his colleagues had ever reported on it.
“Before the training, I didn’t even know what H5N1 meant,” said Arntai, referring to the scientific name of the deadly flu virus. “I wasn’t really interested and I didn’t think the outbreak was a big deal. Now I know I was wrong.”
Arntai, who was born in Myanmar’s Shan State and migrated to Thailand at the age of five, was one of fourteen journalists who attended a recent AI training workshop organized by UNICEF with financial assistance from the Japanese Government. The three-day workshop was aimed at educating reporters on how to cover AI in an accurate, balanced and informative way. UNICEF has supported similar workshops for more than 250 journalists in Indonesia, Lao PDR, Mongolia, Myanmar, Thailand and Viet Nam.
Arntai says he now realises the ever-present danger of a bird flu outbreak in Thailand’s ethnic Shan villages. Several hundred thousand Shan, including migrant workers, refugees and permanent residents, live in Chiang Mai and nearby provinces. More than half of them raise chickens at home.
“I don’t think the villagers know how to protect themselves from bird flu. Many still have problems even getting access to mainstream Thai media, let alone understanding the Thai language and the information it conveys,” said Arntai, who is writing his first-ever article about the spread of bird flu and how villages can protect themselves. His news magazine, which appears monthly in Shan and Burmese, reaches 3,000 households across Thailand.
Even workshop participants from larger publications in Chiang Mai, the largest city in northern Thailand, and Phitsanulok, a central province where bird flu broke out for the second time early this year, say they knew very little about AI before the UNICEF workshop.
“One problem is that we didn’t know where to get information on bird flu or who to go to because there is not enough coordination between provincial authorities and local media,” said Pichit Pongjirangkan, producer of a popular radio program in Chiang Mai. “I used to think bird flu was irrelevant because outbreaks nearly always occurred in other provinces.”
Pichit said local and community radio stations usually take stories from major newspaper websites – especially “breaking news” pieces, and that getting such stories broadcast quickly is more important than accuracy. By contrast, official information from the authorities, such as how to protect yourself from bird flu, often fails to reach local media in time to be included in broadcasts about bird flu outbreaks. This is especially true for community radio stations in remote areas, he said.
“Because of these constraints, it is very important to have knowledgeable DJs to communicate with our audiences,” said Nongluk Puttawong, a disk jockey at Mae Chaem Community Radio. Most of her listeners are villagers in remote areas that don’t receive the signals of terrestrial television stations. Nearly all of them have chickens at home.
“Community radio has a big influence on villagers,” Nongluk said. “Sometimes they even carry their radios out to the rice fields and they believe what DJs tell them. It’s too bad that some DJs still don’t even know how bird flu is transmitted to humans.”
More training is needed if journalists are to understand the bird flu virus well enough to educate people on how to protect themselves and what to do if an outbreak occurs.
“If we get the right messages and know how to communicate them, we can change people’s behavior,” Nongluk said. “I’m sure we can help protect the community from bird flu.”