These are just a few examples of repression of academic freedom around the world in 2015 and 2016. Although the true scope is unknown and trends hard to identify, the incidents — monitored and catalogued from traditional and social media and also by eyewitnesses — all have one thing in common: a desire by the powerful and their proxies to silence freethinkers.
“The common thread through these attacks is the desire of states and also non-state groups to quell dissent, to quell the truth-seeking role that scholars and students have in the academic community and also in society in general,” said Daniel Munier, advocacy officer at Scholars at Risk, a New York-based academic rights organization.
On Oct. 31, SAR published its Academic Freedom Monitoring Project’s 2016 Free to Think report. It details 158 attacks on scholars, students and staff in higher education in 35 countries since May 2015. They range from killings and disappearances to wrongful imprisonment, expulsions, travel restrictions and university closures.
“The pressure might be soft: cancelling an event, pressuring a university to not publish something,” said Munier. “Or it might be much harder: arrests, prosecution, dismissals, threats against students and scholars who’ve spoken up about religion, or outright acts of violence, including armed groups attacking universities, which happened twice in 2016 in Pakistan.”
The benchmark against which repression is measured has long been the 1997 UNESCO Recommendation Concerning the Status of Higher-Education Teaching Personnel, the only inter- national document that lays out what academic freedom is and provides a standard for governments to respect. Academics “should enjoy freedom of thought, conscience, religion, expression, assembly and association as well as the right to liberty and security of the person and liberty of movement,” and “should have the right to fulfil their functions without discrimination of any kind and without fear of repression by the state or any other source,” the recommendation states.
Unfortunately, that’s often not the case. Repression takes many forms. “You have countries in the world where there’s active repression of academic freedom, usually through acts of censor- ship or through violent means,” said CAUT executive director David Robinson and an advisor to Education International whose online Barometer of Human and Trade Union Rights keeps a running tally of violations around the world.
Examples, Robinson said, include “the terrorist attack on Garissa University in Kenya in 2015, the targeting of schools in Israel and Palestine, repression of academics like Colombian Miguel Beltrán who was falsely accused of ties to terrorists, systemic problems in states like Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia and a lot of sub-Saharan African countries that don’t respect academic freedom.”
Are things getting worse? No-one knows for sure — although incidents appear to be increasing, which partly reflects the fact that more monitoring is taking place now than in the last decade, said Munier. His organization only began collecting data in 2011 from media reports, and is now trying to accumulate more reports from primary sources to expand its scope.
“On a global scale, it’s difficult to say if these incidents are increasing,” Munier said. “But when you zoom in to the country level, you will find examples, especially in places like Turkey, where thousands of academics have been suspended, lost their jobs, rounded up in mass detentions, removed from public housing, told they’ll never work in public service again and had their passports revoked. It’s unprecedented.”
In OECD countries like Canada or the United States, it’s a different story. “Here, the threats to academic freedom are more structural in nature — precarious work, for instance, where people on short-term contracts without tenure often can’t fully exercise academic freedom,” said Robinson.
But in the rest of the world, repression is more overt. “There are still countries like Turkey, Colombia, and Iran where it’s very dangerous to be an academic,” Robinson said. “It’s very important that we continue to monitor and intervene when necessary to safeguard academic freedom. It’s a constant battle.” In the last few years, Robinson says he’s seen positive results firsthand. In Zimbabwe, for instance, international pressure forced the government to back down from some of the drastic measures it took against the College Lecturers Association whose protests against poor pay and working conditions led to demotions, suspensions, fines and forced relocation.
Fighting repression with exposure doesn’t always work, but it’s worth the effort, Munier agreed. “It is incredibly frustrating, but I must say that since our first report was released (in June 2015) the issues of repression of academic freedom have gained much more attention. We’re making positive gains in opening up channels of communication with states and other groups that play a role in these attacks.”