Government to ban academics from political activity

The government is seeking a blanket curb on the political activity of academics in a bill drafted to tighten the disciplinary system in universities.

Activities banned would include membership of political parties, political campaigning or activism and joining or supporting acts of “terror or division”, according to amendments to a draft bill that will change the disciplinary system in universities, Hurriyet Daily News has reported.

The bill, drafted by the ruling Justice and Development Party or AKP, specifies four types of punishment: reprimands, forfeiture of allowances, suspension of career promotions and suspension from duty.

Under the proposals, the head of Turkey’s Higher Education Council, or YÖK, will have the power to launch a disciplinary investigation against any academic.

Robert Quinn, executive director of the New York-based Scholars At Risk Network, said the proposed changes were an attack on university autonomy and would cause Turkey’s top academic talent to look for opportunities outside the country, fuelling a brain drain.

“Bestowing the head of YÖK with broad powers to initiate investigations of academics across the country is an affront to institutional autonomy,” he told University World News.

“Combine this with the attempt to strip academics of basic political rights due all citizens and you eviscerate academic freedom.”

The move to curb academics’ freedom to engage in political activity follows a wave of criminal investigations, arrests and dismissals of academics since January, when 1,128 academics from 89 universities, calling themselves Academics for Peace, signed a petition criticising military operations in the south-east of Turkey and urging the opening of talks to find a peaceful solution to the Kurdish question.

Turkish armed forces had begun renewed military operations against Kurdish militants in August 2015 and by this April the civilian death toll had reportedly risen to 1,100, with 355,000 people forced out of their homes, Kurdish media reported.

Some of the Turkish scholars have been investigated for and-or charged with criminal offences including spreading “terrorist propaganda”, “inciting people to hatred, violence and breaking the law”, and “insulting Turkish institutions and the Turkish Republic”.

According to data obtained from Academics for Peace, as of 12 April, 159 legal investigations and 533 administrative investigations were being carried out against academics who signed the petition, 38 academics had been detained, 38 dismissed, 30 suspended and one forced to resign.

The number who signed the petition has reportedly increased to more than 2,000, according to the website Open Democracy.net.

Four academics were freed from jail in April on the first day of their trial for “spreading propaganda”. Meral Camci, Kivanç Ersoy, Muzaffer Kaya, and Esra Mungan were on trial, accused of engaging in terrorist propaganda and inciting hatred, because they had signed the Academics for Peace petition.

They were released pending a request from prosecutors to the judge to change the charges to a lesser offence of denigrating Turkishness, which carries a maximum jail sentence of two years. Previously they faced charges carrying a jail sentence of between four and seven and half years. The case was adjourned until 27 September.

The four defendants were reportedly selected for arrest because they had read out on 1 March at the offices of the Education and Science Workers' Union, EGITIM SEM, a press statement affirming their commitment to the petition’s statement, “We will not be a party to this crime”, referring to the military operations.

Robert Quinn of the Scholars At Risk Network said: "With regard to academic values and the future quality of Turkish higher education, the proposed changes would make a bad situation worse.

“This will not only hurt the scholars who signed the 'Academics for Peace' petition – whom YÖK and other public officials want to see punished precisely because they expressed views critical of state policy.

“This will fuel brain drain from Turkish universities by driving talented, industrious students and junior scholars to seek educational and professional opportunities outside Turkey, or outside academia altogether, setting Turkish higher education back decades."

Constitutional guarantee

The Turkish constitution and laws currently “guarantee university autonomy and academic freedom”.

But YÖK in January issued a statement saying: “The declaration issued by a group of academics that describes our state’s ongoing struggle against terror in the south-east as ‘massacre and slaughter’ has put our entire academic world under suspicion.

“This declaration cannot be associated with academic freedom. Providing the security of citizens is the primary responsibility of the state,” it said.

As reported by University World News in March, earlier this year the then minister of education, Nabi Avci, sent a private letter to the New York-based Scholars at Risk Network in which he said as an academic he agreed that “academics should not be put under pressure for their opinions”.

But he went on to claim that the petition falsely accused the government of a “planned massacre” and denied that the investigation was “related to restricting academic freedom or freedom of expression” but was a response to a public outcry over the petition and “alleged criminal offences including making ‘terrorist propaganda’”.

He was replaced last week by Ismet Yilmaz in a cabinet reshuffle.

According to Hurriyet Daily News, the bill also includes provisions punishing plagiarism, sexual or physical assault and other crimes.

In addition, it is being suggested that the retirement age for academics will be pushed up to 75.