From Doha to Helsinki: in pursuit of press freedom

June 30, 2011

David Dickson

David Dickson
Director, SciDev.Net

“The revolution was the easy part. What is happening now is the hard part.”

These were the rousing words with which Nadia El-Awady, co-founder of the Association of Arab Journalists, president of the World Federation of Science Journalists – and an active participant of the events in Cairo’s Tahrir Square in January and February of this year – brought to an end three days of intense debate on the role of science journalism in the modern world.

Nadia, who is also a trustee of SciDev.Net, was referring primarily to the aftermath of the Arab spring.

She was reminding participants that those who had been successful in toppling an unpopular, authoritarian regime, armed with little more than a common cause and the convening power of the Internet, now faced the reality of putting an alternative, functioning system in its place.

But her words also reflected a theme to emerge from the conference itself. Ten years ago, the major task facing science journalists, particularly in the developing world, was to get scientists to take them seriously.

Journalists can play a key role in ensuring a political commitment to transparency. Credit: Flickr/Charles Mok

That struggle has now been won. But it has been replaced by an even more challenging one, namely to get governments to embrace, rather than seek to suppress, the power to expose and interrogate that even science journalists now enjoy.

Too often, as the conference heard, the official response to this new power is to attempt to shut down the possibility of open communication between scientists and journalists, allowing it only under strictly controlled conditions. This poses science journalists with a whole new set of challenges.

Some responses – such as avoiding press officers wherever possible – offer short-term solutions. In the long-run, however, the problem can only be solved through a political commitment to transparency and open government – and a recognition of the key role that journalists can play in ensuring that this commitment is honoured.

As eyes now turn to Helsinki, the location of the next world conference in two years’ time, these are the issues that need to be high on the agenda. They impact on the work of all science journalists, from developed and developing countries alike.

Tackling them together reminds us that we are a member of a global profession with a common set of commitments, not only to professional standards but also to transparency and accountability. This is perhaps the biggest legacy of the Doha meeting. Exploring how to put these commitments into effect must remain high on the agenda of the organisers of its successor in Helsinki.

How one man emerged from Tahrir Square with a passion for science journalism

June 30, 2011

David Dickson

Aisling Irwin
News and features editor, SciDev.Net

I’ve never heard a more passionate plea for rigorous science journalism in the developing world as I did at the closing session of the conference.

Arab science journalists who had been involved in the uprisings of Egypt and Tunisia earlier this year were describing their experiences.

And, for one of them, the events of Tahrir Square were a defining moment not just for his life as a citizen but also as a science journalist.

“Looking ahead I see a huge role for journalism and in particular science journalism,” Mohammed Yahia told the meeting. “All our problems are related to science.”

So how did he deduce this from his days of rebellion in the Square?

It began rather pragmatically. Yahia had been skiving from his duties as editor of Nature Middle East to play his part in the epochal events of late January and, after three days, his London bosses rang to inquire when he would be returning to his work.

Yahia said science journalism should be a push to hold people accountable. Credit: Flickr/ictQATAR

“I had to come up with a reason to be a science journalist in Tahrir Square,” he explained.

And he did. He roamed around finding stories about protesting scientists, angry students and makeshift instruments being used in contrived hospitals.

“If you looked closely enough there were so many science-related stories … there were tons of stories,” he said.

And thus the fight for democracy was fused with the quest for critical science journalism.

Now, as Egypt tries to pull itself together and tackle festering issues such as 40 per cent illiteracy and the scarcity of food and water, he sees that science journalists need to be monitoring his country, and in particular its pledge to put science at the heart of its recovery.

“It can’t be the passive science journalism that was taking place in many of the state-run agencies. It needs to be more active – we need to push for more freedom.”

Afterwards I asked him if his views applied beyond Egypt.

“A lot of people look at science journalism as a form that is not as critical as political journalism,” he said. “But that’s not right.

“The vast majority of problems that the developing world will be facing in the future are science-related.

“I really think science journalism should be a push to hold people accountable, to take a more proactive role.”

A subject close to our hearts at SciDev.Net.

News story from the conference: Dryland regions unite to combat food security

June 30, 2011

A. A. Khan

Credit: WCSJ

30 June 2011 | EN

[DOHA, QATAR] A global alliance to boost food security in the arid regions, through common research and adoption of new technologies is soon to be launched, a conference has heard.

The Global Dry Land Alliance, a Qatar government initiative, would enable member states to pool their research efforts to strengthen food security in arid countries.

Drylands make up about 45 per cent of the world’s land area where around two billion people live. But these countries do not share equal financial resources for combating food insecurity. The Alliance would provide technical or financial support to struggling member states through food security programmes, agricultural development investment partnerships and new regional centres of excellence.

Full news story here

An agricultural journalist struggles on

June 30, 2011

Farmers' stories still get little space in the mainstream media. Credit: Flickr/IRRI Images

250,000 is the estimated number of Indian farmers who committed suicide between 1997 and 2010, whose troubles Jaideep Hardikar has been trying to expose while reporting farm issues in his country.

Despite the sense of urgency, Hardikar, a veteran journalist at Indian newspaper The Telegraph, still finds himself struggling to get agricultural stories published.

All farming journalists face it and, despite the looming threats against farmers’ livelihoods, their stories still get little space in the mainstream media.

“People who we report on are not our readers, not ones who are poor,” Hardikar told the meeting. “So, we the media tend to avoid telling the stories that our readers are not interested in … we prefer to pick stories relating to stock markets, industries, and so on.”

Hardikar said he has tried tactics like adding more human angles to farm stories or even trading off his stories with economic angles.

“It’s still difficult,” he said.

Despite all the setbacks, he has not given up, and urged the audience: “Your readers might not like it, but it is the truth. So, try to find space for it as you can”.

If he has not yet given up, why do other journalists working in far more comfortable settings give up so easily on reporting on those who often lack a voice?

Pratchaya W., SciDev.Net contributor

Sperm made from brain bones? Surely some mistake?

June 30, 2011

The news was flashed across the Arab world on the website of a well-known news organization: sperm had been created from the bones of a woman’s brain, eliminating men from the process of reproduction.

But Bothina Osama, SciDev.Net‘s Middle East and North Africa editor, who was at the time an editor with IslamOnline, knew there was something wrong, and she soon worked out what had happened.

The journalist who wrote the story had seen a press release in which the English language term ‘bone marrow’, which refers to the tissue at the centre of the bone that produces new blood cells, had been correctly translated into its Arabic version  ‘bone brain’.

From there it was a simple step, for a journalist who knew nothing about the science, to draw his rather exotic conclusion.

“I have suffered as a science editor for more than 10 years from bad translatons,” she told a session on reporting science in the non-English-speaking world.  “Much of this problem is due to the weak scientific background of the science journalist. ”

This, along with the difficulty that science is mostly published in English, created the lethal combination.

This raises the question of how much of a scientific background someone who practices science journalism should have.

In my opinion, a journalist can write about science without having studied it at university but a scientifically educated editor needs to be around to catch any mistakes.

Hazem Badr, SciDev.Net contributor, Egypt

The role of social media doesn’t stop at Tahrir

June 30, 2011

We have heard again and again about the way in which social media propelled – or at least accelerated – the Egyptian revolution.

Social media can be used to collect ideas from people on how to move forward. Credit: Flickr/Asthma Helper

But what is less well recognised is the transformative role it can continue to have in shaping a new democracy, according to Adel El Zaim, of the Information and Networks Programme at the International Development Research Centre, Canada.

Following Tahrir, which means ‘liberation’ and is the name of Cairo’s central square, comes ‘Taamir’, which means ‘to build’.

Social media such as Facebook could be powerful in the new phase of building good governance. It could help to build a transparent society and fight corruption, he said.

People want to participate in the rebuilding of society, but they lack an opportunity to do so.

Social media can be used to collect ideas from the people on how to move forward. It provides a huge potential for a communication channel between citizens and the government, he added.

It also provides a channel through which government can share data with the public.

“If they open up their data, it will give less room for corruption,” he said, adding that it also offers business opportunities.

Social media should also be harnessed to do intensive research after the revolution.

“We need to do research about changes, their impacts, how to build society, and so on,” said El Zaim.

Pratchaya W., SciDev.Net contributor

Denialism, the easy approach to climate change

June 30, 2011

When the climate change debate became inflamed in Australia this month, because of  the government’s plans to introduce carbon tax, researchers at the Australian National University received death threats.

Denialists – those who deny reality as a way of avoiding uncomfortable truth – have over the years attacked evolution, the cause of AIDS, and the link between smoking and cancer. They see conspiracy in everything.

Denialists have attacked the cause of AIDS, among other things. Credit: Flickr/edifica

Cristine Russell, president of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing, thinks that denialists get caught up in a bigger, anti-science movement.

“These are people who do not know the facts and they become actively involved in the anti-science crusade without consciously knowing it,” she said.

Russell said some of them derive their views from religion, while others are driven by business motives.

“[The latter] is deliberate, calculated use of nonsense,” said Philip Hilts, director of the Knight Science Journalism Fellowships at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, United States.

Climate denial is a good example of the clash between scientific findings and political and economic expediency, Alan Leshner, chief executive officer of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, told the conference earlier.

“The scientific evidence is actually quite clear. But if you acknowledge it, if you say: ‘Aha! The world is warming’, you have to do something about it.

“It is much more convenient to deny it: the consequences on a personal level [in the US] are actually quite small.”

So that explains why the noise of climate denialists in Africa and the developing world is so muted.

Little to lose, and much to gain, by accepting it.

Munyaradzi Makoni, SciDev.Net contributor in South Africa

Japan says tsunami won’t halt its science collaborations

June 30, 2011

Japan will continue to support its Strategic International Cooperative Program to promote good science communication and collaborative research in developing countries, despite the economic disaster that has followed the country’s earthquake, tsunami and nuclear meltdown earlier this year, said Akira Takamatsu, executive director of the Japan Science and Technology Agency.

Japan's earthquake will not affect the country's collaborative research with developing countries, the conference heard. Credit: Flickr/yisris

“The earthquake that happened in Japan will not in any way make us stop the collaborative research that we had started with developing countries,” said Takamatsu.

“We have adopted 60 projects in the developing world, and we are looking into various aspects of research in areas like environmental and energy preservation, bio-resource utilisation and natural disaster prevention. ”

The program also focuses on fostering technological exchange between Japan and developing counties.

Mercy Adhiambo, SciDev.Net contributor in Kenya

Crucial science stories get lost in a time of political turmoil

June 30, 2011

It is easy to forget, amidst the violence in so many Middle Eastern countries, that the Arab region will face enormous food security problems unless action is urgently taken.

Only science research and technology transfer can hope to solve this enormous problem, said experts from the International Fund for Agriculture Development.

Important science stories get lost during political turmoil. Credit: Flickr/Kodak Agfa

Lack of water, and degradation of the agricultural land because of climate change are the key threats to the future of the region, said Mahmoud El-Solh, director-general of the International Centre for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas.

Besides these problems, transborder diseases – such as the wheat rust, Ug99 – threaten agriculture. But science research and technology transfer cannot play their role unless the politicians are convinced of their necessity.

“We cannot do anything  if the politicians do not make serious policy to fight this challenge,” said Hussein Awad, of the West Noubaria Rural Development Project in Egypt.

The Arab region suffers from many problems at all levels, especially from a lack of security caused by political conflict, revolution and an increase in organised crime.

As a science  journalist in the Arab world it is difficult to draw the attention of politicians to this. How do we go about this? That is our challenge.

Hichem Boumedjout, SciDev.Net contributor in Algeria

Science journalism courses in the developing world

June 30, 2011

Science journalism should be introduced in universities in the developing world, a workshop linked to the 7th World Conference of Science Journalists agreed.

Delegates at the workshop approved a UNESCO-developed “Model Science Journalism Curriculum for Universities of the Developing World” which was first outlined in 2007.

The meeting, held in Georgetown University School of Foreign Services in Qatar, heard that the majority of journalism degree programmes in developing countries do not have n a single module on science reporting.

And most journalists who report on science also report on other subjects. One day they report on science, the next day on crime and the next on fashion.

Panellists provided examples of possible structures for science journalism courses in universities.

Bruce Lewenstein, Professor of Science Communication from Cornell University in the United States, told me: “Effective science communication in the developing world is not possible unless we produce science journalists there by introducing science journalism as university discipline”.

Meeting participants agreed that materials related to science journalism as a masters degree should be developed with attention to local and regional requirements.

The meeting recommended launching the model science journalism curriculum at Arab-world universities first with support from local universities and partners to be identified by the end of the year.

Deborah Blum, a professor of Journalism at University of Wisconsin-Medicine (USA) also cautioned, however, that “training, in the developing country context, is more important than introducing degree programmes because there are many science journalists from the developing world doing good reporting without a journalism or science background and their skills just need to be polished”.

AA Khan, SciDev.Net contributor, Pakistan

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