Government interference ‘impeding science reporting’

Nalaka Gunawardene Copyright: SciDev.Net

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[MELBOURNE] Government interference is impeding reportage of public-funded research in developing and emerging countries, say journalists.

In a session at the World Conference of Science Journalists in Melbourne, Australia, delegates were told that governments are interfering with science reporting in Africa, Asia and Latin America.

Governments in these regions tend to guard information about “charismatic mega scientific” research projects ― large and expensive public-funded research programmes ― in areas such as nuclear energy and telecommunication.

According to Sri Lankan science journalist Nalaka Gunawardene, the big projects often drain public research funds, and any journalist who questions their viability is branded an enemy of national development.

“These projects are beyond both public and parliamentary veto as they involve sensitive state information. Whoever questions how they are done, let alone criticises them, is met with state force,” he said.

Gunawardene said these projects are driven by “government ego” in Asia, where senior officials develop an abrasive approach to the media.

He noted that while the public funds research, they rarely receive information about its outcomes. He gave the example of the Sri Lankan government, which had prior warning of the Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004 but decided not to alert the public.

He said that scientists in Sri Lanka are intimidated by government control. Referring to the tsunami, he said “scientists knew the threat but they could not disclose it as the government had not given an approval”.

Talent Ngwande, a SciDev.Net correspondent from Zambia, said that most governments in Africa police what goes to the media and any article thought to be anti-government is blocked.

“Its very sad to see a minister of information going through the newspaper before it goes to print, removing any ‘offending’ articles. It gets worse when it’s a science article,” said Ngwande.

“The good thing with science journalists is that we are like bacteria, always mutating to adapt to the current challenge,” said Christina Scott, SciDev.Net’s sub-Saharan Africa regional consultant. “This gives us hope.”