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Patents, Pills, and the Press

The Rise and Fall of the Global HIV/AIDS Medicines Crisis in the News


Thomas Owen

HIV/AIDS is a global health crisis of unprecedented proportions. Afflicting millions worldwide, its social, political, economic, and ethical dimensions have rendered explicit the vast inequalities of our «negatively globalized planet». Since the late 1990s, a major feature of the crisis has been the dispute over intellectual property protection and medicines access.
In this book, Thomas Owen examines the mediatization of this dispute. Weaving together contemporary media theory and interdisciplinary research with computer-assisted news analysis and interviews with journalists and civil society campaigners, the book illuminates the intersecting constitutive relationships between global crises, global governance, and global media. In a context of changing media technologies, logics, and practices, this book observes where the mediatized conflict surrounding global medicines access has at times consolidated elite political economic power, and at other times provided civil society campaigners their greatest opportunities for global social change.
With an interdisciplinary approach, this book is suitable for courses on global media communication and global journalism, as well as advanced undergraduate and postgraduate courses in public health communication, political communication, social movement studies, and international relations.
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Chapter 2. The Crisis Meets the Media: ACT UP vs. Al Gore 1999


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ACT UP vs. Al Gore 1999

We went armed with information about the vice president’s role in denying AIDS drugs to poor South Africans and signs reading “Gore’s Greed Kills—AIDS Drugs for Africa.” Leaving ACT UP/NY’s media machine behind us to spin the story, a handful of activists hit the road, driving all night to change history.

—ACT UP co-founder and protest organiser, Eric Sawyer (2002, p. 99)

In early 1999, US AIDS activists discovered a US State Department report titled: “U.S. Government efforts to negotiate the repeal, termination, or withdrawal of Article 15(c) of the South African Medicines and Related Substances Act of 1997” (Larkin, February 5, 1999). Article 15(c) of the Medicines Act allowed South Africa to import generic copies of HIV/AIDS medicines (Bond, 1999). At the request of Big Pharma companies, the US government had pressured South Africa to rescind the Act’s generics provisions (Bond, 1999; CPTech, 1999). The State Department report outlined the extent of this pressure, including measures to withdraw South African trade privileges, and the threat to cancel foreign aid funding (Larkin, February 5, 1999). The report also described US Vice President Al Gore’s lead role in the bilateral negotiations. When civil society organisation ACT UP discovered the report, they dubbed it the “smoking gun,” and embarked upon a cross-country tour to disrupt ← 35 | 36 → Gore’s presidential campaign and publicise the global...

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