Using Media to Change Opinions: An Interview with Light of Hope

Maxim Demchenko is the Chief Executive Officer of Light of Hope—an Open Society Foundations grantee based in Poltava, Ukraine, which provides health and social services to people who use drugs or who are living with HIV. Earlier this year, Maxim and his colleagues used a hidden camera to shoot a powerful video showing how difficult it is to get tested for Hepatitis C in Ukraine—despite the fact that it is a major public health problem, with as many as one million people living with Hepatitis in Ukraine (most of them unknowingly).

Gabriel Mumjiev, a Program Officer with the Health Media Initiative of the Open Society Public Health Program, asked Maxim to share his experiences and some of the lessons learned at Light of Hope.

Light of Hope mainly works with people from marginalized and at-risk social groups—people who are often discriminated against by state agencies and the medical establishment. What is your organization’s strategy for ensuring these problems get covered by the media?  

Our media strategy is based on three principles. First, we aim for wide coverage of incidents where doctors violate the rights of patients. For example, the chief obstetrician of Poltava region denied urgent medical care to one of our clients, after her fetus died during the 13th week of pregnancy. Thanks to our efforts, six local newspapers reported on this case over two days. As a result, many people learned about it, including senior health care officials and the prosecutor’s office. The prosecutor investigated the case and in the end, the chief obstetrician had to resign.

Second, we build partnerships with journalists. It is important for us to communicate with them on a regular basis. Collaborations are most efficient when they are supported by activities such as training seminars, preparation of information materials, and regional competitions for journalists covering such topics as HIV and AIDS, drug policy, and so forth.

And third, we try to show the “faces of the problem”—stories of real people. This is always interesting to journalists and if it’s a success, helps to create a human attitude towards our clients. An example is the story of a young woman, a participant in a substitution therapy program, who gave birth to twins and is now giving them a good education. Or the story of a guy who spoke about being tortured by the police and how they forced him to frame somebody by planting drugs in the person’s belongings.

Mass media can be an efficient tool for changing people’s opinions and views. If we want to change attitudes toward drug users and HIV-positive people, we have to learn how to use media. We should be professionals, prepare quality materials, and make use of every opportunity that arises. It is important to keep at it, and then we’ll be able to change the situation.

What needs to be done to conduct a successful media advocacy campaign in Ukraine on protecting marginalized social groups’ rights to accessible and quality health care?

NGOs should learn how to create catchy informational products. It is necessary to intensify one’s presence in social networks, conduct regular journalistic investigations, and attract national media coverage of relevant topics and events. But the most important thing is to have a consistent strategy and permanent activity. For example, imagine that if in all of Ukraine’s cities all the NGOs started media campaigns on the same topic and with the same frequency. This would lead to a huge presence in the information-space, and powerful advocacy on any topic.

How does social media influence the work of your organization, and how do you use it to advance your goals?

We actively disseminate information about our organization and its work through social networks, like Vkontakte, Facebook, Twitter, and Livejournal. Our information manager regularly updates our pages. The youth are one of the main target groups that we try to reach through social media. They are our future doctors, politicians, social workers, state administration employees, businessmen, and teachers. Working with them today, we can help shape their viewpoints, attitudes, and consequently their behavior in the future. Moreover, young people are an at-risk group. Using online networks we can effectively work with them in the areas of education and prevention.

What are the biggest obstacles you come across in working with mass media?

Given that we have clearly established relationships with mass media in our city, we manage to avoid problems and obstacles in our work with journalists. Media representatives show active interest in collaborating with us because we can give them new and useful information. Our organization closely collaborates with three Poltava-based TV channels that regularly cover our activities. The same goes for local online news resources, which readily post information about our work. There are some problems when it comes to the print media, because practically all of them are politicized and they don’t always rush to tackle social issues. We’ve also started to work in the area of billboard advertising, though here we also have some obstacles to overcome, since not all businesspeople are ready to host public interest advertising for free.

World Hepatitis Day is an important event for Light of Hope. How did your organization participate in this year’s events, and are there any “best practices” you would like to share? 

We organized various events in Poltava on World Hepatitis Day.  The first stage was a rally near the headquarters of Poltava’s administration. The goal was to get the authorities to pay attention to the Hepatitis C problem and to do something about it. More than 100 people attended the rally; most of them have this disease and need treatment. We invited journalists to the event and the authorities to have a dialogue. Beforehand, we prepared activists with Hepatitis C to give media interviews. At the end of the rally, the deputy head of Poltava regional administration and the chief of the main health care department came out and invited us to their cabinets to discuss the situation and help them find solutions. During the discussions we decided to create a committee that will be dealing with prophylaxis and treatment of Hepatitis C in the Poltava region. We also addressed the issue of including the costs of 10 courses of Hepatitis C treatment in the draft of Poltava’s budget for 2013. We think this is quite an achievement. A number of things were important for us:

  • Journalists’ reaction: Every major media outlet in Poltava came to our rally. There were 12 media shows about it.
  • Authorities’ reaction: The invited officials were tense. A couple of hours before the rally some wanted to withdraw from the public event and instead resolve matters in the cabinet. During the rally they publicly made promises and admitted the existence of the problem. We can use this in the future.
  • Interviews and stories by people living with Hepatitis: These carried weight in the discussion with authorities. When a patient comes out in public, in front of the media, and talks about how much he or she has to pay for treatment and the poor quality of medical care, then the authorities have to justify themselves and admit that this problem should be solved. This kind of dialogue is much more interesting and convincing to the media and the audience than simple interviews or reports about statistics.

That evening, together with a clinic and friendly young people, we also conducted an event focused on prevention. Social workers distributed informational booklets and condoms, and hepatitis tests were made available for everyone who wanted to take them. We collected more than 500 citizens’ signatures for our petition to support and ensure Hepatitis C treatment in the Poltava area.

Thank you, Maxim.

For more information, see the organization’s webpage: http://www.lightofhope.com.ua/eng/

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