World Federation of Science Journalists

Impact of African and Arab science journalists

What is the usefulness of science journalists in Africa and in the Arab World?
Resuscitating weather forecasting for Cameroonian farmers

African and Arab journalists say they want to improve the wellbeing of their fellow citizens by putting pressure on governments to adopt relevant policies and programs. How successful are they at achieving that goal?

Influencing governments to adopt better programs and policies stood as a priority for the African and Arab journalists that participated in the SjCOOP project of the World Federation of Science Journalists – a broad effort at establishing science journalism as a profession in Africa and in the Arab World – which started in 2006.

In October 2012, the journalists participating as mentees in the SjCOOP project submitted many stories that they claimed initiated debates or decisions in governments. A team of external evaluators was by then in place to verify their claims.

Out of the 45 most promising stories suggested by the journalists, the SjCOOP evaluators Christoph Spurk and Jan Lublinski documented 12 stories that achieved impact and 3 cases where no impact was achieved but that provided interesting insights, as they are counterfactuals from the evaluation point of view.

Here we present very brief narratives of these stories, one of them augmented by a video on how Cameroonian journalist Adrienne Engono’s reporting led to improving national weather forecast to help farmers. Divine Junior Ntaryike, a colleague journalist, has produced a short video that captures how Ms. Engono’s journalism made a difference for African farmers. Watch the video: Adrienne Engono's Probe Into Cameroon's Dysfunctional Weather Forecasts

In March 2012 Adrienne Engono Moussang wrote in the Yaoundé based daily Le Jour on farmers being unable to plant their crops during the right periods, because of the absence of reliable weather forecasts. She managed to draw the attention of her country’s officials to this problem, urging them to taking action – but in the end nothing was done about the problem.

Five months later floods hit Cameroon due to heavy rain. The disaster’s impact would have been less dramatic if the weather installations of the country had been functioning properly. Adrienne wrote about this for her new employer the daily Mutations. In October 2012, the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) started distributing new forecast material to the weather stations of Cameroon. Although this action cannot be attributed to the journalist’s report alone, it is evident that she had set the grounds early and made it publicly known which actions needed to be taken. The farmers can now receive better weather-forecasts and better weather warnings in Cameroon.

Fifteen case studies of the impact of reporting in Africa and in the Arab World

The brief reports below give some insights on the relationship between the media, experts, and governments. They are followed by a discussion regarding the type of impact achieved. An article with more details and discussion of these impact stories has been submitted to a peer-reviewed journal.

In each case, external evaluators have documented detailed lists and dates of follow-up articles, radio and TV programs that amplified the initial story (the media echo), the reactions of NGOs, experts, government bureaucrats, and – in several instances – members of parliaments. Each of the following impact can be directly linked to an initial article by a journalist being trained in the SjCOOP program.

1. Triggering the urgent delivery of condoms, Kenya

Violet Otindo’s 14 minute TV report on Kenyan television K24 revealed for the first time to the Kenyan public that there was a shortage of (free) condoms. This problem was very acute in northern parts of the country and led to so far unheard of practices for protection against HIV/AIDS, like washing and re-using condoms or using plastic paper bags instead of condoms.

The issue was picked up by numerous news media. The Kenyan government, administration and parliamentarians reacted. The Red Cross started emergency shipments to the region Violet had reported about. A big public debate on shortages, causes, and actions to be taken followed.

2. Triggering the delivery of CD4 machines, Uganda

Hope Mafaranga published in November 2010 in the daily New Vision a story entitled “CD4 count test fees shoot up”. Her report described difficulties HIV/AIDS patients faced in a particular region in Uganda (Rwenzori region). In order to get the right dosage in anti-retroviral drugs (ARV) they need to know their immune system status which is measured by a so-called CD4 machine. The single machine used in that region was located in Fort Portal but it often did not work, and so patients had to travel far for their tests. Patients were at risk for not getting tested at all and not getting their ARV medication.

Two weeks after the publication of that initial report, a new CD4 machine was donated to the Kamwenge district hospital, i.e. on local level, and even closer to many patients than the previous machine at Fort Portal. This action was generally in line with the government’s plans to decentralize health services. Hope’s articles helped to speed up this process in this specific case.

3. Achieving a parliament debate about maternal mortality and request for policy changes in health, Uganda

Hope Mafaranga published in August 2011 the article “Uganda health centres in a sorry state” in the daily New Vision. It describes the lack of medical supplies, transport facilities and the shortage of medical personnel - nurses and doctors - in a specific Health Centre in Bwizibwera in Mbarara district in the West of Uganda. This article was inspired during visits to health centres that were organised during health journalism training by a health-oriented NGO. Hope was hired as a trainer but then decided to do a story on her own, as did some participants of the training.

About a week later, the competing newspaper Daily Monitor published a dramatic story on the same general theme: The death of a pregnant woman who was denied treatment. It caused a public outcry, parliamentary debate and immediate reactions by the government: Among the action taken was the improvement of the system of supply delivery for the health centres.

4. Delivery of bednets and anti-malaria drugs, Uganda

In April 2011, Lominda Afedraru published in the newspaper Daily Monitor, Uganda, a two-page special report on the situation of malaria patients in the Apac community north of Kampala, Uganda. There were major public health difficulties and a shortage of supplies of drugs and bed nets in this area which is, according to the statistics cited in the article, the community most suffering world-wide from Malaria.

The National Medical Stores (NMS) reacted directly on this single publication and improved the supply of bed-nets and drugs. The administrative system of the NMS had just before been structured in such a way that it reacts quickly to reports on problems by the news media.

5. Accelerating government’s plans to fight Striga weed, Uganda

In the article “Striga Weed, The African Farmers Enemy”, published in October 2011, in the newspaper Daily Monitor, Lominda Afedraru describes Striga weed, a common parasitic weed in East African agriculture. It damages important cereal crops, like maize and sorghum. Many farmers are not aware of the problem and believe Striga is just a nice flower. Lominda’s article gives a lot of background information and practical advice to farmers.

As a direct reaction to the articles the scientists cited in the article were contacted by some farmers who asked for more information. Also the government acted on the issue: the head of the Crop Protection Department in the Ministry of Agriculture sent a team of Ugandan agricultural field inspectors to find out about the current extent of Striga infestation in the country. However this first study had been already planned before the publication of the article, with funding from an NGO, the Kilimo Trust. It yielded some rough figures on the extent of the problem. But it would take additional studies to understand the problem in detail. However the funding for such an in-depth study had not been committed at the time. Lominda’s article helped to support the actual start for this larger research project.

6. Stopping felling of trees for building military complex, Jordan

Farah Atyyat was among the first journalists who wrote about a decision of the Jordanian government to build a military school in Bergish forest and chop trees from the reserve. Her story appeared in Al Ghad newspaper in January 2011. Many other reports followed in different media, including those of another SjCOOP mentee, Tarik Al-Maidi. Farah herself also published follow-up stories. The whole campaign was led by the local peasants at the reserve who managed to win the cooperation of the media.

In September 2011, the government decided to abandon the project and build the military school elsewhere.

7. Putting on hold plans for a new petrochemical plant, Egypt

In September 2011 Nadia Al Dakroury published an article on plans for a petrochemical plant which was planned by British Petroleum (BP) in the town of Edko, in North West Egypt. On the website of Al Dostor (which at the time was only a website and not a printed newspaper) she gives scientific background on the dangers of this plant for the local population.

Through her journalistic research on the ground and the publication of the article Nadia managed to mobilize the people of Edko. They started to organise their protest and make their voices heard. Road blocks and violence followed. Both were covered by many other news media. The government negotiated with the protesters on a new site for the petrochemical plant as well as compensation for the local population. But the project was put on hold after the government could not reach an agreement with BP.

8. Mitigating shortages in anti-tuberculosis drug delivery, Cameroon

Adrienne Engono Moussang investigated in January 2011 shortages of tuberculosis drugs delivery in her country, Cameroon. At first, the authorities did not want to admit that there was a problem. But she took the opportunity to question the person in charge at a science café organized by the Cameroonian association of science journalists SciLife. Her article in the daily Le Jour and the reports that followed by other media, including another SjCOOP mentee Line Renée Anaba, eventually forced the health minister to act.

In the end, not only the supply problem was solved but also a long-term solution to the problem was reached through an assistance agreement with the Global Fund to Fight Aids. This agreement was already being negotiated between the government and NGOs, but it was Adrienne’s report that made the different actors find a quick agreement.

9. Improving national weather forecast to help farmers, Cameroon (see the video documenting the work of journalist Adrienne Engono)

In March 2012 Adrienne Engono Moussang wrote in the daily Le Jour on farmers being unable to plant their crops during the right periods, because of the absence of reliable weather forecasts. She managed to draw the attention of her country’s officials to this problem, urging them to taking action – but in the end nothing was done about the problem.

Five months later floods hit Cameroon due to heavy rain. The disaster’s impact would have been less dramatic if the weather installations of the country had been functioning properly. Adrienne wrote about this for her new employer the daily Mutations. In October 2012, the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) started distributing new forecast material to the weather stations of Cameroon. Although this action cannot be attributed to the journalist’s report alone, it is evident that she had set the grounds early and made it publicly known which actions needed to be taken. The farmers can now receive better weather-forecasts and better weather warnings in Cameroon.

10. Setting up a new policy for treatment of Buruli Ulcer infection, Cameroon

In May 2011, Joseph Léger Ntiga published in the daily paper Mutations an article entitled Buruli Ulcer: How surgeons repair lives in Ayos (Ulcère de Buruli/Comment des chirurgiens réparent des vies à Ayos). In it he gives background on the disease Ulcer Buruli, a chronic debilitating skin and soft tissue infection that can lead to dramatic disfigurement and disability - which is in the population often attributed to sorcery. Joseph Léger also reports on two patients that were going to undertake reconstructive surgeries and details the activities of an international research team.

During his journalistic research for the article Joseph Léger was in touch with several actors: doctors in the town of Ayos, a Swiss NGO active in the field and also with the municipal officials. The NGO seized the occasion of Joseph Léger’s article and pushed for action. Eventually the treatment of the disease could be improved: a committee for specific tropical diseases was founded which issued directives for the management of U. Buruli. And the hospital in Ayos was renovated and better equipped. It became the hospital of reference for the disease in the country.

This impact story is a very good example of the kind of ad hoc coalitions that journalists can strike temporarily with scientists and activists for an investigative story.

11. Supporting action against the abduction of women, Burkina Faso

Boureima Sanga published in the Sidwaya newspaper in March 2012 an article about women who are kidnapped and thus forced to marry against their will, a practice that is widely tolerated by the Gurma people living in Eastern Burkina Faso. He carried out this investigation at the request of the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA). The organization wanted to use this report to mobilize partners for a larger scale study that would enable the Fund to put this type of violence against women in its next action program.

After the article appeared an anthropologist was appointed for a first pilot study into the issue. Boureima’s article played a key role in getting this process going.

12. Raising public awareness about dealing with toxic wastes, Côte d’Ivoire

Six years after the toxic waste dumping in Abidjan by the Probo Koala cargo vessel, Ghislaine Atta and her colleague, Jules Claver Aka, chose to look deeper into the story again, after noticing that people in the waste dump area were living normally, without health problems or abnormal death. Their investigations lead them to discover international reports that were kept hidden by the government. These reports stated that the waste was not toxic but suggest preventive analysis of the water and the soil in the future. Ghislaine and Jules also found out corruption evidence, flaws in contracts and financial abuses. They published the results of their findings over five days, in the daily newspaper Fraternité-Matin in April 2012.

The publication led to manifestations the associations of victims in front of the publishing house of the newspaper. Other news media went on to report on irregularities in the management of the toxic waste dump. The president later dismissed one of his ministers.
Overall the report published by Ghislaine and Jules raised the awareness that some things went wrong. They started the search for truth in the Propo Koala case. However the government chose not to reopen the investigations into the matter.

13. Status of science funding in Uganda, Kenya, Nigeria, Senegal, and Rwanda

Three SjCOOP journalists were the core of a team that published in 2011 various stories on the current status of science funding in Africa: Vivienne Irikefe (Nigeria), Esther Nakkazi (Uganda), and Aimable Twahirwa (Rwanda). The main article of this group was published in the renowned science journal Nature. The most newsworthy content was Esther’s findings on the Ugandan government’s move of not putting a further request for grants by the World Bank’s Millennium Science Initiative (MSI). The organisation had financed in the previous four years the bigger part of operational research in Uganda. This resource was about to come to an end if no further request was officially launched.

Although these findings were also published in national papers and on TV, the media echo and the action taken by other actors (scientists, government, politicians) turned out to be very limited, if at all existent. There are probably several reasons for this. Among them: the articles did not contain concrete cases and the issue of science funding was not at all on the public agenda.

14. Dealing with electronic waste, Jordan

A Jordanian journalist wrote in November 2011 a story on the problems of electronic waste in two countries: in Jordan and in Lebanon. His article is based on interviews with NGO-representatives he met at a conference in Lebanon. They were campaigning for the protection of the environment in both countries. The story however does not contain any new or recent information on the issue. It is also weakened by the fact that it stays very general in covering two countries. It basically repeats only the arguments the NGO had been spreading for some years.

The administration did announce some time later that it would make some changes in policy toward a better waste management, but these changes had been discussed already before Tarik’s article appeared. And they have so far not been put into practice. With his article Tarik missed the chance to present some new, relevant and specific scientific facts to put more pressure on the administration.

15. Supporting Yakouba, the fool, who stops the desert, Burkina Faso

Boureima Sanga published in Sidwaya newspaper in June 2011 an article entitled "Yacouba, le "fou" qui arrête le désert". It tells the story of a man who planted a forest in the region of Gourga (Burkina Faso) in order to save it from desertification. Despite all the efforts he made to create an area rich in biodiversity amid the desert Yacouba might lose part of this land. The government wants to use it for a housing project. This story had already been covered internationally by several media before Boureima looked in to it. His own national coverage led to some reaction by the authorities: some meetings were held between the different ministries concerned – but no concrete action was taken. Yacouba still does not have a title deed.

Overall the issue seems to have been raised too sporadically and too few actors for change to happen. A concerted action might have helped here: If several international and local media would have managed to focus and keep the attention on the problem, they might have been able to increase the pressure exerted on the authorities.
Various types of impacts

The above stories achieved impact on different levels. Looking into the stories, we saw the following different achievements that can be attributed to the stories, some of the stories achieving more than others.

Stopping a questionable project

This was the main achievement in the Arab group: Mentees’ articles finally helped to stop projects: building a military complex in a forest in Jordan, setting up a new petrochemical plant in Egypt. Both projects were stopped due to danger of environmental damage.

Helping to solve an immediate problem

There are several cases for this achievement, like the condom delivery in Kenya, the delivery of bednets and anti-malaria drugs in Uganda, the ending of a shortage of anti-TB drugs in Cameroon, and the replacement of broken CD4 machines and delivery of new ones in Western Uganda. In one case (Striga weed), the impact of the story was limited to accelerating governments decision for conducting studies that were already planned before.

Getting an important issue on the public and political agenda

Often impact stories work by getting a topic first to the public attention as this effect makes the government aware that the public cares about the issue, which in some cases raises the need for action. This was definitely the case for the stories where a questionable project was stopped and for most of the stories where an immediate problem was solved. Often, parliament takes up the discussion, led by motivated parliamentarians.

Yet, there are also stories where the public attention effect is a remarkable stand alone impact. This is for example the case for the impact story of raised public awareness about the practice of irregular disposal of toxic waste in Côte d’Ivoire.

However, most of other impacts we have seen had a component where raising the public attention was crucial as an intermediate step to more impact, for example when NGOs were enabled to enlarge their activities, based on the increased public attention to a specific problem.

There is an interesting exemption from that rule. The story on the abduction of women in Burkina Faso was not so much discussed in the general public, but in the political sphere between intergovernmental and international agencies (UN family) and various government offices. Thus, it mainly gained momentum within the political circles, and triggered action by issuing an in-depth expert study which is then intended to further action against the practice. It seems that in specific cases it is possible that journalists and other stakeholders form a “coalition” to bring an issue forward not mainly on the public agenda but directly to political action. It seems that those coalitions can work when there is a window of opportunity, but this needs to be further investigated.

Evidence for this kind of “ad-hoc coalitions” has been collected by David Protess. But it has so far not been followed up in other studies.

Triggering structural changes

It is self-evident that structural changes in government policies are more difficult to achieve than short-term action.

Only for some stories an impact on this structural level could be achieved, for example in the case of the fight against Buruli Ulcer infection, a new policy was issued and was in the process of implementation at the time of writing this report. In the case of improving the weather forecast new infrastructure equipment was finally delivered to improve the weather forecast in Cameroon where the administration now offers a weather forecasting service on the national TV stations as a news ticker (crawl). Both these impact stories are also good examples of ‘ad hoc coalitions’ described by David Protess.

For other stories, this kind of impact was intended but could not be achieved or was rather small. For example the story on the poor state of health clinics could achieve a better drug delivery but finally not a change in government policy to hire more nurses and doctors due to the fact that the government was not ready to invest more resources in staffing. Or the condom story in Kenya triggered a debate in Parliament about questioning the structural dependency on donor agencies for condom supply, but not much followed thereafter.

Also the story on the abduction of women has to be seen careful, structural changes are planned, but not yet materialized.

Supporting science uptake

Only one of the impact stories contained as well an uptake of science and technology. Sound information on weather forecast is a scientific result that is now successfully distributed to a TV audience in Cameroon. There were other stories (Striga Weed, Buruli Ulcer) with a potential of having latest scientific knowledge been taken up. The stories did not focus directly on research uptake but they definitively had a strong scientific angle and content.
All impact and no-impact stories were analysed and compared regarding the following factors:
  • Type of achievement
  • Size of media echo
  • Size of public debate
  • Involvement of other stakeholders (NGOs)
  • Government reaction

A follow-up report will describe and analyse the factors that contribute to the influence of a story.