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Rise of autocratic leaders poses threat to academia

Concern over the widening persecution of researchers and journalists under autocratic governments was raised by a panel of higher education and NGO – non-governmental organisation – representatives at a meeting in Bonn, Germany on 25 January, who called on Germany to apply more leverage to promote academic freedom abroad.

“Under Threat: International Academia and Press Freedom. In Memoriam Giulio Regeni” was organised by the German Development Institute – Deutsches Institut für Entwicklungspolitik – a leading think tank for global development and international co-operation, and Deutsche Welle, Germany’s public international broadcaster, both based in Bonn.

It marked the death of Italian Cambridge University PhD student Giulio Regeni almost exactly a year ago.

Regeni, who was also a guest researcher at the German Development Institute, disappeared in Cairo on 25 January 2016, the anniversary of the Egyptian Revolution, and was found dead with signs of severe torture 10 days later.

He had been working on a paper on “The Developmental State in the 21st Century” together with his colleague Georgia Vidican Auktor of the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg before setting off to Cairo to do field work for the paper, which has since been published.

On the panel, Deutsche Welle journalist Wafaa El-Badry gave an account of the precautions she has to take each time she travels to her native Egypt, such as notifying friends and colleagues before entering the country. “All journalists and researchers are targeted by the state authorities,” El-Badry explained.

Mehmet Ugur, a professor of economics and institutions at the University of Greenwich, London, spoke of similar conditions in Turkey. “As a critical academic, you are risking your career and also face the threat of having your passport withdrawn or even being imprisoned,” Ugur told the meeting. Hundreds of students had fled the country or were in pre-trial detention, one of them for the last 23 years.

“Students detained for such long periods and forbidden to take exams are in effect denied higher education even if they are proven innocent,” Ugur told the meeting. He explained that the legal framework for the clampdown on critical students and academics was implicitly provided by the country’s 1982 Constitution, which refers to “the concept of nationalism as outlined by Kemal Ataturk, the founder of the Republic of Turkey”.

Eradicating resistance from academics

The country’s ruling AKP party was committed to eradicating all forms of resistance from academics, Ugur maintained. “This is creating an atmosphere of fear, dishonesty and double standards, but it is certainly not promoting good higher education and research,” he told the meeting.

German academics and students and their organisations are providing considerable support for refugees, and panel member Enno Aufderheide, secretary general of the Alexander von Humboldt, or AvH, Foundation, drew attention to the Philipp Schwartz Initiative.

Schwartz was a Jewish professor of neuropathology who lived in Germany but was dismissed in 1933. In Switzerland, he founded the Advisory Service for German Scientists to help refugee academics find employment. Schwartz above all succeeded in moving the Turkish government to appoint persecuted German professors.

The AvH Foundation launched its Philipp Schwartz Initiative to provide funding for universities and research institutions to host threatened foreign researchers. The initiative works via Scholars at Risk, a New York-based international network involving more than 400 universities, research institutions and associations supporting academic freedom.

“These people are an enrichment for Germany,” Aufderheide noted. “But they can also play an important role in developments in their home countries.” Colombia, for example, had benefited from AvH Foundation grant-holders bringing back experiences that they had gathered in the course of German reunification.

“Building bridges has to be maintained,” Aufderheide stressed. “But we must also go to the limit in being outspoken about institutions in autocracies.”

“German universities should be sceptical in co-operating with a higher education system aimed to raise nationalists,” Ugur cautioned. “They should look at the records of institutions to see if they subscribe to academic freedom or act according to state-imposed dismissals.”

Aufderheide explained that the AvH Foundation assesses German university concepts for people under threat before providing funding. The foundation also supports the Academics for Peace movement launched by academics in Turkey early last year to campaign for peace in the country’s south-east.

The panel rejected any form of boycotts in the academic sector in relations with autocracies. Christine Meissler, adviser for protection of civil society to the German Protestant development NGO Brot für die Welt, maintained that it was important to strike a balance between academic freedom and maintaining a critical stance on repression.

Meissler noted that Germany could however apply more leverage to promote academic freedom.

Michael Gardner Email: michael.gardner@uw-news.com
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