Doha, Qatar—The Arab Spring that toppled governments in North Africa and the Middle East turned into an Arab summer for science journalism, as more than 700 attendees from ninety countries gathered for four days last week in this Persian Gulf city to discuss the importance of covering science in a rapidly changing world and the crucial role of a free press in doing so.
“The revolution was the easy part. What is happening now is the hard part,” said Egypt’s Nadia El-Awady, co-director of the 7th World Conference of Science Journalists, on the meeting’s final day. “When you liberate people’s minds and creativity, it creates a healthy environment for science, and if we can create and hold on to democracy, we have a good chance to improve science.”
The groundbreaking international meeting—the first such gathering in the Middle East—was jointly organized by Arab and American science writers in collaboration with colleagues from around the world. The conference was originally scheduled to take place in Cairo, but the unanticipated political revolution in Egypt brought planning to a halt, as some of the organizers, including El-Awady, put their own lives on the line in the Tahrir Square protests that brought down the reviled government of former president Hosni Mubarak.
The unsettled situation following the January 25 uprising threatened the conference’s future until a last-minute plan emerged to keep the meeting in the Middle East by moving it to the tiny desert nation of Qatar. The decision to move the meeting to a more stable location was agonizing for the organizers and drew criticism from some registered participants who felt that it betrayed the sentiments of support expressed by many foreign science writers during the revolution. However, with violent clashes between protesters and police erupting in Cairo during the conference’s second day, and strong turnout for the meeting, those criticisms soon dissipated.
“We managed to pull through the challenges and difficulties,” said El-Awady, an understatement to say the least, given the turmoil she and others experienced personally and professionally during the eighteen-day Egyptian uprising. Her own world changed dramatically, as she found herself tweeting her experience to colleagues around the world as she transformed from a journalistic observer to a self-proclaimed “revolutionary.”
“Our most important goal was to bring the conference to a new region of the world for the first time,” said El-Awady, the retiring president of the World Federation of Science Journalists (WFSJ). “It was a chance not only to have developing world journalists learn from the developed world but also to have developed country journalists learn from developing world journalists. Our most proud achievement with this conference was that more than 50 percent of the delegates came from the developing world for the first time, from Africa, Asia, and Latin America, including the Arab world. For us nothing surpasses that.”
The new venue, Qatar, presented conference participants with a study in contrasts, however: a stable Islamic monarchy that has escaped recent Arab uprisings; a predominantly foreign population (Qataris number only about 15% of its 1.6 million people); home to the global Al Jazeera television news network (which broadcasts in Arabic and English); an outpost for several American universities in its futuristic Education City outside Doha; scorching 115-degree F. outdoor temperatures and overly air-conditioned buildings (which helps give it the world’s worst per capita carbon footprint); super-rich (world’s highest per capita income and highest per capita oil and natural gas production and reserves); and an ambitious goal of becoming a technological and scientific Arab leader.
The journey to Doha began in 2007, when Arab and American science writers began working together as part of an international project of the WFSJ to network and train journalists in developing countries. The federation, founded in 2002, includes nearly forty science journalism associations from Africa, Asia, the Americas, and the Middle East.
“When we first started partnering with Arab journalists, we were just trying to build bridges,” said Deborah Blum, a Pulitzer Prize-winning science journalist and professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, who chaired the international conference committee for the Doha meeting. “It was in the midst of the Iraq War and there was a great deal of conflict between our cultures. We thought, we can do better than that. We built relationships and trust and eventually decided to partner to hold this conference in the Arab world.”
The hard work began after the seventy-five-year-old United States’ National Association of Science Writers, with more than 2,000 members, and five-year-old upstart, the Arab Science Journalists Association, with about 200 members, won the competitive bid to co-host the 2011 conference.
Although the World Conference of Science Journalists took place in Japan in 1992, Hungary in 1999, and Brazil in 2002, the most recent meetings, in Canada in 2004, Australia in 2007, and the United Kingdom in 2009, had a decidedly Western bent. This time, organizers sought to not only bring in more science writers from developing countries but to create a program that reflected the challenges they face in writing about science, health, and the environment and important regional issues such as climate change, sustainability, agriculture and medicine.
“It was a lot harder than I expected,” admitted Blum. “We were always on a learning curve…. asking what’s important in Ghana, what’s important in Pakistan, and making sure it was not just token representation.”
In the end, 195 speakers discussed a broad range of issues in science journalism around the globe. The attendees—from Nepal to Norway—and the program were remarkably diverse. Some 726 people attended, including staff and exhibitors, and 641 science writing delegates from Africa (21 percent); Arab countries (20 percent); Australasia (11 percent); Latin America (4 percent); Europe (27 percent); the U.S. (12 percent); and Canada (5 percent), said conference planner Sarah Willan. During the formal sessions, often in both English and Arabic (with headphones for simultaneous translation), and in the crowded conference hallways, the importance of science and reporting about it to the public about it were often intertwined in ways that went beyond traditional Western approaches to journalism.
In the opening session, Nobel Prize-winning chemist Ahmed Zewail, an Egypt-born professor at the California Institute of Technology (who has become an increasingly prominent figure in his native country since the revolution, with some calling on him to run for the presidency), stressed that the “Arab region needs you in terms of science reporting.” However, as many conference participants noted, that task is easier said than done: recruiting and training reporters to write about science, and scientists to talk more openly about their work, is a challenge in the Arab world and many developing countries.
Hala Al Khairy, a veteran medical and science reporter for Al Jazeera Arabic, noted in an interview that “the best journalists prefer to write politics or be in war zones. There is money and reputation there… In a large part of the developing world, we don’t see good science writing.”
Al Khairy said that for the most part, she is free to report as she sees fit, but must avoid cultural taboos of Islam involving sexual activity, such as discussion of combating HIV-AIDS with condoms or references to gays and lesbians. “We can’t talk about that,” said Al Khairy. (Indeed, at a post-conference workshop on science journalism in Cairo organized by the US embassy in Egypt, Ashraf Amin, the deputy head of the science department at El-Ahram, the country’s largest daily newspaper, talked about the difficulties in covering the subject. In an effort to break down those barriers, he was handing out a pamphlet he’d created in association with the Egyptian Anti-Stigma Forum called Letters from Egypt—HIV/AIDS: Testimonials of stigma and discrimination.)
Lebanon’s Raghida Haddad, executive editor of Al-Bia Wal-Tanmia, one of the leading environment magazines in Arabic, said that “reliable sources of environment information are rare or hard to access, especially in the Arab world. Scientists are often not authorized to talk about research on health, medicine, the environment or other scientific issues.”
In a panel on sub-Saharan Africa, Ochieng’ Ogodo of Kenya outlined the science-based challenges facing his continent, including its vulnerability to climate change; water stress and scarcity; widespread diseases from HIV-AIDS to malaria; lack of innovative new products coming to market; and the underlying problems of poverty and hunger. “Africa requires science as an agent for change,” said Ogodo, news editor for sub-Saharan Africa for SciDev.net, an international online news and information network that focuses on science in the developing world using local journalists and editors.
He was critical of past reporting by Western news agencies that focused on natural disasters and military coups in Africa. “Africa was seen as a place that has all the bad things,” said Ogodo. “We need local science journalism. There’s no doubt about that,” he said. It provides a means for empowering the public with “new ideas and knowledge .If we really want to get people to know what’s happening, we must communicate in a language that everyone understands,” including “things that people can do to change their own systems.”
As is true elsewhere in the world, he and other African science journalists are faced with the challenging assignment of trying to separate science from pseudoscience, including “demystifying some diseases” and challenging false claims that divine healing powers could cure HIV-AIDS and other diseases. Marina Joubet of South Africa said at a workshop that in her country, “80 percent of people go to traditional healers rather than medical doctors.”
Experiences in Asia vary greatly, with Chinese science writers limited by a lack of transparency in government agencies, scientists who are reluctant to deal with media, and public information officers who “propagandize” scientific research. “This is the situation in many developing countries,” said Jia Hepeng, a World Federation board member and senior science journalist in Beijing who founded the China Science Media Center.
At a session added on the Fukushima nuclear power accident in Japan, Hajime Hiniko, a senior science writer for Chunichi Shimbun and the secretary-general of the Japanese Association of Science and Technology Journalists, criticized the multiple failures to listen to earlier warnings about a largescale earthquake in that region. “Seismologists warned, regulators neglected, and the media didn’t know,” he said, arguing that Japanese scientists needed to do a better job of expressing “their opinion to the public and to the media.”
In less developed parts of the continent, reporters face an even larger plethora of challenges. During one presentation, T.V. Padma, the India-based South Asia coordinator for SciDev.net, called science journalism in the region “patchy and uneven.” According to one government estimate, India devotes roughly 3 percent of its news hole to science coverage. There is “some degree of science coverage” in Pakistan, Padma added, and even less in Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal, the Maldives, and Bhutan.
The challenges are multifaceted, Padma said. Some editors claim there’s no demand for science news due to low levels of literacy and even lower levels of scientific literacy; there are few trained science journalists and limited education opportunities; and there is a lack of scientific information networks. Nonetheless, she added, there are positive trends as well. Interest in science has survived the conflict in Afghanistan; in Bangladesh, scientists have been asking editors to devote more time and resources to science coverage; community radio programs are catching on in Nepal, with potential for science coverage; and in 2008, the United Nations organized a science journalism workshop for reporters in Sri Lanka.
Similar examples of the ups and down in various corners of the world abounded at the conference. But the meeting’s most dramatic moments came on the last day, with a session about the Arab Spring and the role science journalism might play in the future. Mohammed Yahia, a young Egyptian science writer, found himself changing hats in the wake of the January 25 uprising. “Sometimes I was a journalist,” he said, but increasingly he found himself on the front lines in Tahrir Square, rocks raining down on him. “At that moment, I couldn’t be a journalist,” he said. “I had to take part.”
Yahia, the editor of Nature Middle East, a Nature Publishing Group website on emerging science in the Arab world, is pushing for more proactive science journalism in his country and throughout the Arab world to hold the governments to task and flex more journalistic muscle, in contrast to the more passive approaches of the past. “Science journalism has a big role to play,” he said. “All our problems were related to Mubarak. Now, they’re related to water and food security, education, and scientific development.”
Tunisian Rafik Ouerchefani, founder of a science and technology website, Webdo.tn, was also drawn into the conflict in his country, which sparked the Arab Spring. He said he risked arrest by writing about deaths in the uprising there. Now, rather than returning to science and technology coverage, he is doing investigative reporting about how the former regime controlled the press and the Internet. “The press has its freedom now,” he said. “We need to insure its freedom will stay forever.”
The Doha conference included more than thirty sponsors from around the world. The bulk of the funding ultimately came from the Qatar Foundation for Education, Science and Community Development, a private non-profit founded in 2005 by the Emir of Qatar. Blum said that with the move to Qatar, the Foundation “continued to allow us complete independence with the program.” Other key sponsors included the Qatar Science & Technology Park; Carnegie Mellon Qatar; Weill Cornell Medical College in Qatar; the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Science and Eurekalert!; Johnson & Johnson; the Arab Science & Technology Foundation; and Egypt’s Research, Development and Innovation Programme. About 100 speakers and more than 200 participants, including a group involved in a WFSJ program that mentors and trains journalists from Africa and the Middle East, received travel support from the conference. In addition, many science journalism associations independently provided travel grants for some of their members to attend.
For science journalists, the challenge ahead is to maintain the momentum and spirit of the Doha gathering as the next world conference moves to the land of the midnight sun—Helsinki, Finland—in late June, 2013.
“I definitely hope that the Finnish Association of Science Editors and Journalists benefits from the many contacts we made to bring as many people from the developing world as possible to the next conference and to create an inclusive program that covers the needs of journalists from all over the world,” said El-Awady. “I’m very optimistic that will happen.”
Editor’s Note: Russell, president of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing (CASW), served on the steering committee for the World Conference of Science Journalists, and CASW was a seed sponsor. Brainard received financial support from the World Federation of Science Journalists to attend the meeting. A Twitter feed of the conference can be found at #WCSJ2011. The conference website has coverage of the meeting, including stories, photos, and videos.
Correction/Clarification: The text has been altered to reflect the fact that the WCSJ in Doha was not the first held in the developing world, and that while the most recent conferences prior to Doha had been held in Western countries, earlier meetings took place in Japan, Hungary, and Brazil.