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Old Saturday, April 22, 2006
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Lightbulb Barriers to Science Journalism in Pakistan

One of the prevailing maxims about science journalism in Pakistan is: 'If you want to commit financial suicide, launch a popular science journal'.

The country sees regular launches of new science magazines, but almost all of them have faltered after a fairly short existence

The short life expectancy of these popular science publications seems to be the result of a combination of factors. As someone who has worked in the sector for more than 17 years, I consider the following to be the real challenges for science journalism in Pakistan.

The first problem is a lack of government support, both financial and policy-related. Despite accepting that science is vital for the country's development, the government still treats the public communication of science as 'non-developmental' in other words, as an activity that does not contribute to the country's social and economic development.

As a result, science remains merely a pedagogical matter something belonging in the classroom. Little support is provided to those who seek to address a wider audience, and their work is given little priority in government policy at every level.

Only one government body, the Pakistan Science Foundation, has any responsibility for communicating science to the public (although the remit of the recently established National Commission on Biotechnology includes enhancing public understanding of biotechnology).

A lack of government interest in communicating science and technology to the public is reflected in comments made by the former minister of science and technology and renowned scientist, Atta ur-Rahman, who said in 2001 that he considered publishing popular science magazines to be less important than enabling young people to become IT-literate.

Other influential policymakers seem equally reluctant to distinguish between popular science journals and primary research journals. Even 57 years after independence, the government of Pakistan has no clear policy on whether it should support popular science journals.

This situation contrasts with that in India, where the government encourages popular science journals by providing grants to help ensure their financial viability. The difference between the two policies is reflected in the abilities of students and scientists the two countries produce every year, with India considerably outperforming Pakistan, according to international measures of scientific achievement.

Mindset of advertisers
Every industry in Pakistan owes its existence to science and technology. Despite this, the executives of private companies and state-owned organisations seem reluctant to acknowledge the importance of supporting the media's efforts to popularise science, and avoid advertising in science magazines.

A result of the lack of advertising revenue, particularly from large multinational companies, is that popular science journals in local languages can't offer competitive salaries to attract science-literate editors and writers. In many cases, publishers must also act as editors, writers, finance managers, advertising managers and circulation managers.

With such a workload, improving content or the overall standard of a periodical becomes a secondary priority. In contrast, English-language science magazines with limited circulation are rewarded with more advertisements, leaving popular science magazines in local languages out in the cold.

Problems within the media
Another problem faced by science journalism in Pakistan is the attitude of mainstream media. At present, the All Pakistan Newspaper Society (APNS) has 245 member publications, including 158 newspapers and 87 periodicals. Yet Daily Dawn is the only Pakistani newspaper with a long and sustained tradition of publishing science pages and supplements.

Another problem is that the rare science features or reports that do surface in the media tend to be inaccurate. This is less often the case for science articles published in English-language newspapers, which frequently reproduce articles by international news agencies such as Reuters and Agence France Presse.

Misreporting political issues can cost a journalist their job, but incorrect science reporting carries no such risk creating little incentive for accuracy.

Public universities, and many private institutions, offer degrees in journalism but they limit their scope to 'general newspaper journalism'. Science journalism remains an alien concept in Pakistani academia.

Even the country's great teachers of mass communication are ill-informed about science. For these reasons, most science journalists in Pakistan are self-taught, or owe their expertise to the previous generation of self-taught science journalists such as Azmat Ali Khan and Maj Aftab Hassan.

Another problem is that although Pakistan has good scientists and researchers in both the government and the private sector, they tend to be unwilling to share knowledge with the public. Neither the government nor research organisations in the private sector offer an incentive to do so.

It was against this background that we launched the monthly Global Sa'ins. The magazine devised a two-point strategy focusing on increasing circulation and appealing to readers. As well as working with bulk distributors in major cities, we compiled a list of hundreds of small street vendors (booksellers and hawkers) and urged them to stock Global Sa'ins.

During the past seven years, we have carried out surveys to discover what our readers like to see in the magazine. Global Sa'ins was launched in January 1998, and the success of this strategy is reflected in the fact that the magazine now has more than 65,000 readers.

Although we suffer from a lack of government or corporate advertising, this has some advantages. In particular, it leaves us free to criticise policies of the government and private sector organisations, a liberty not enjoyed by many publications in Pakistan, where the threat of withdrawing advertising is often used to persuade publishers and editors to restrict their criticism of both public and private sector organisations.

Time to rethink
In the light of history and challenges of science journalism in Pakistan, the country's political leaders, policymakers, intellectuals and scientists should rethink their stance on the dissemination of scientific knowledge.

Strengthening public understanding of science must, in principle, help education and knowledge grow and evolve and improve the economy as well. And science journalism has a vital role to play in orchestrating efforts to achieve this national goal.

By Aleem Ahmed
14 March 2005
Source: SciDev.Net
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