At Science Journalism Confab, Arab-Israeli Tensions Caused Disruptions

By all accounts, the World Conference of Science Journalists (WCSJ) in Doha, Qatar, last month was an impressive feat, marking the first iteration of the conference hosted by an Arab nation. More than 120 Arab science journalists attended, and half of the 724 attendees were from developing countries. Previous WCSJ meetings had lacked such turnout from those sectors. BBC reporter Pallab Ghosh, a former president of the World Federation of Science Journalists, which sponsored the conference, said it was "for the first time a truly international [science journalism] meeting."

But behind the scenes, political problems caused extensive debate and several disruptions. The inclusion of U.S.-Israeli journalist Anna Wexler on a panel caused divisions within the Arab Science Journalists Association (ASJA), a co-sponsor of the conference. After Egyptian reporter Bothaina Osama objected to appearing on a panel with her, meeting organizers removed Wexler from that panel and gave her a spot on a different session with no Arab speakers. Under pressure from their journalists' union that objected to Wexler's presence, two Jordanian journalists decided to boycott the meeting altogether; they may be removed from an international science journalism training program as a result. Meanwhile, Israel barred a Palestinian journalism professor from attending the event.

"In this region you have to expect there will be sensitivities on these issues," says Nadia El-Awady, the conference co-chair.

Wexler, who holds U.S. and Israeli citizenship, was slated months before the conference to appear on a panel about science reporting in non-English languages with three other reporters. Both Qatar and Egypt, the original site of the conference, had agreed that Israeli reporters could participate in the event; Egyptian authorities even offered to help Wexler with visa issues. (The conference was moved after the February revolution in Egypt.)

But in May, Osama and other members of ASJA raised concerns about Wexler's participation. Egyptian and Jordanian press associations prohibit members from conducting activities that constitute "normalization" with Israel, a loosely interpreted term that for reporters can mean not even interviewing Israeli citizens. Some ASJA members felt sharing a panel with Wexler—or attending a conference at which she spoke -- constituted normalization. Others disagreed but felt pressured by their press associations or employers to boycott the meeting. ASJA rank and file as well as board members debated the issue, but in the end the association's board decided not to oppose Wexler's inclusion and not to support calls by some to boycott the meeting.

"ASJA did not have any objection to the presence of Anna Wexler. … The basic principle was: This is an international conference involving all nationalities without exception," says ASJA President Nehal Lasheen.

In a May letter published in English and Arabic, the World Federation of Science Journalists board expressed "full support" for the ASJA board and the conference organizers' decision to run an "all-inclusive" conference.

But some ASJA members were not happy and criticized Al-Awady and other organizers for their decision to allow Wexler to speak. ASJA board member Hanan Alqueswany from Jordan decided to boycott the conference, and Algerian journalist Mohammed Hussein Tolby canceled his membership of ASJA, which has roughly 200 members.

Deborah Blum, program chair for the conference, decided to remove Wexler from the original panel and create a new one, devoted to film, to allow her to speak while keeping Osama on the program. (Wexler had done video journalism, suggesting a way to keep both journalists on the program.) "I was really pissed … but this was the best way," says Blum, a journalist and professor at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. "I considered this a totally inclusive conference."

"I didn't want to be engaged in sending any unintended political messages by joining the same panel with Anna, so I thought it was best that each of us participate in the conference but in separate sessions," said Osama, who would not say whether she agreed or not with her journalists' union's position. "Engaging in the process of normalisation can tarnish one's professional reputation. So Arabs of all professions need to deal very sensitively with situations in which an Israeli representative participates, whether there is a rule against this or not."

The 22 Arab journalists participating in a training program run by the World Federation were told by program managers that attending the conference was mandatory. All attended except for two Jordanian journalists, who had signed a pledge with their national press union not to attend the event because of Wexler's inclusion. The World Federation is debating whether they will be forced to leave the tutoring program, says Director Jean-Marc Fleury. But one of the trainees who declined to attend, Farrah Attyat of Al Ghad Newspaper in Amman, has no regrets. "It's not that my union said something. I am not going to any conference that Israel is a part of," she says.

"There was plenty of drama before the conference … and there was a point where I was considering whether I should withdraw," says Wexler. But in the end she says she accepted the new arrangement; she calls the conference a "good news" story. The audience of her session included a number of Muslim women wearing head scarves, and nobody objected to her speaking, she says.

Meanwhile, a session on teaching science journalism in the Arabic-speaking world lost one of its speakers because Israeli officials at a checkpoint prevented Palestinian journalism professor Farid Abu Dheir of the An-Najah National University in Nablus from leaving the occupied West Bank. He was trying to travel to Doha the day before the conference.

Abu Dheir, who had proper exit documents, says he was given a document that said his ties to "Hamas outside of Palestine" were the reason for him being stopped. "I totally deny this, and I offered to sign an obligation not to be part of any political outlawed activity," says Abu Dheir. "They also rejected this." The Israeli government did not answer requests for comment.

"I was angry about it," says Blum. "Here you have someone who is, for all we know, just a journalism professor who wants to teach science journalists. It sends a message of ill will." Several professional academics in Israel tried to help Abu Dheir, says Cornell University science communication professor Bruce Lewenstein, who organized the panel Abu Dheir was slated to be on.

Despite some difficulties, "we were able to get through [the conference] with very minimal consequences," says Al-Awady.