Accuracy in Media

She’s now officially famous. Wangari Mathai become the first African woman to win the Nobel prize. Praised as a prolific tree-planter and environmentalist, Mathai now is mounting the international stage, monetary prize in tow, newly elevated to a platform where her influence will be greatly magnified. Her views on the environment are controversial enough. But the media have glossed over this celebrated tree-planter’s unusual views about AIDS.  She believes there is a widespread conspiracy to target blacks with disease and death. 

Mathai is Kenya’s deputy Environment Minister, and won the Nobel Prize for her founding of The Greenbelt Movement, a Kenyan NGO that focuses on environmental conservation and community development. Mathai is famous for leading 30,000 women over 25 years to plant 25 million trees. (That comes to between 2-3 trees a month per woman).

She gave the keynote address and presided over the official opening on December 6 of the British-led Commission for Africa, the CFA. The Commission is an independent international organization set up by British Prime Minister Tony Blair to create ways the international community can do more to support Africa’s development.

Ms. Mathai has been actively involved before in addressing AIDS concerns, but her new status as a Nobel prize winner will give her greatly increased influence over how people think about the problem. Many stories about the CFA and Mathai failed to note the irony in her presiding over the conference, given her previous voiced support for controversial conspiracy theories about the origin of AIDS.

As previously publicized in African newspapers, Ms. Mathai has said, “AIDS is not a curse from God to Africans or the black people. It is a tool to control them designed by some evil-minded scientists, but we may not know who particularly did.”

The CFA’s “Consultation Document,” published in November 2004, calls for rich nations to provide rapid and full funding for existing HIV/AIDS initiatives, including the Global Fund to fight AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria and the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunizations.

A UN report?Facing the Future Together?names Africa as the epicenter of the global AIDS/HIV pandemic.

It’s not beyond the pale to question the origin or nature of AIDS and how best to prevent or control it. But Mathai goes way beyond that to suggesting there is a group of people somewhere who somehow manufactured it. This is reminiscent of AIDS disinformation that emanated from the old Soviet Union. The KGB claimed that the Pentagon was behind AIDS?a bogus charge that was picked up by Dan Rather on his broadcast.

One has to wonder how Mathai’s thinking of AIDS as a conspiracy of rich nations against black people might shape her current ideas about how to solve the AIDS crisis.

In terms of biological warfare in general, Mathai has other conspiratorial thoughts aimed at the rich nations being asked to solve Africa’s crises. “We know that the developed nations are using biological warfare, leaving guns to the primitive people,” the Standard quoted Mathai as telling a public workshop in central Kenyan town of Nyeri on August 30. “They have the resources to do this.”

Mathai believes biologically engineered seeds can be a weapon against Africa as well, and those views have a much greater chance of being popularized given her new status as a Nobel winner. She says she fears that the seeds could be used as a political weapon specifically by the corporations to “starve” poor countries. ‘”The trouble with the terminator technology is that it can easily be used as a political weapon against poor countries, just like our people are dying because they cannot afford the cost of AIDS drugs.”

Omitted from her unbalanced appraisal are success stories like the more than 9,000 smallholder farmers who have embraced genetically engineered “Bollgard” cotton, a product of Monsanto and Delta Pine. Resistant to cotton pests, the crops require spraying only once or twice a season as opposed to five or ten times. Use of the seeds has decreased the need to handle hazardous chemicals, and saves time, energy and money, resulting in increased yields.

Even when Mathai won the Nobel, her embarrassing views were squelched by the press, including one Reuters wire report which was widely published. By shielding Mathai from hard questions on her conspiracy theories, the pampering media is not advancing African interests, despite the media’s congratulatory stance. One can only imagine the media outcries that would have ensued had the Nobel nominee been a white male who had expounded similar kooky views. If the goal was to award the prize to an African woman, surely there are many such women far more deserving of this prize, and of international fame, respect, and influence.

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