Attacks on scholars and students alarmingly frequent

Attacks on scholars, students, staff, and their institutions are continuing to occur with alarming frequency around the world, according to the 2018 Scholars at Risk Academic Freedom Monitoring Project’s latest annual report, released on 23 October.

The list of 294 attacks in the year to 31 August 2018 includes 77 deaths through killings, acts of violence or disappearances, 88 imprisonments, 60 prosecutions, 22 losses of position, 15 travel restrictions and 30 other incidents.

These attacks are carried out by both state and non-state actors, in open and closed societies, using a range of methods. Ultimately, these attacks “not only harm the individuals and institutions directly targeted; they undermine entire higher education systems and shrink everyone’s space to think, question and share ideas freely and safely”, the report says.

Through its Academic Freedom Monitoring Project, Scholars at Risk (SAR) responds to these attacks by identifying and tracking key incidents, with the aim of protecting vulnerable individuals, raising awareness, encouraging accountability, and promoting dialogue and understanding that can help prevent future threats.

Free to Think 2018, the fourth in a series of annual reports analysing attacks on higher education communities around the world, analyses the 294 reported attacks in 47 countries that occurred between 1 September 2017 and 31 August 2018.

It is not an exhaustive list of attacks, but an attempt to monitor as many attacks as possible with limited resources.

The Monitoring Project collects data on defined types of attacks on higher education. These include: killings, violence and disappearances; wrongful prosecution and imprisonment; loss of position and expulsion from study; improper travel restrictions; and other severe or systemic issues (including, for example, university closures or military occupation of campuses).

While they differ across states and regions and by severity and type, these attacks all share a common motivation: to control or silence higher education institutions and personnel, the report says.

Key trends and development

During the past year, SAR reported 79 violent attacks against higher education communities in 27 countries. At least 77 students, scholars, staff, campus security personnel and others died in these attacks, with hundreds more injured.

These include attacks in countries experiencing extremism or conflict, where higher education communities may be targeted as perceived symbols of state authority or sources of opposition to radical ideologies.

Significant attacks on universities occurred in Kenya, Pakistan, Nigeria and Afghanistan.

In Kenya, for instance, on 10 October 2017, a group of gunmen ambushed a van carrying students, staff and faculty from off-campus housing to the campus of the Technical University of Mombasa (TUM). As many as 10 gunmen had reportedly been hiding on the side of the road, apparently waiting for the vehicle. Two TUM lecturers were killed in the attack, while the driver and two police officers were injured. Authorities suspect al-Shabaab militants, with their history of violent activity in the area, of carrying out the attack.

There were also targeted attacks against individual scholars or students that are intended to retaliate against or deter inquiry and expression. Over the past year, SAR reported targeted attacks on individual scholars in Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, Turkey and Yemen.

In Bangladesh, on 3 March, Muhammad Zafar Iqbal, a professor of computer science and engineering, a fiction writer and a vocal critic of sectarian politics and radicalism, was attacked during an event at Shahjalal University of Science and Technology, where he teaches.

The attacker approached Iqbal from behind and stabbed him in the head at least three times, before he was stopped by others at the event and later arrested. Iqbal survived the attack. Authorities claim that the attacker is tied to an extremist internet forum that has accused Iqbal of being an atheist and, therefore, an appropriate target for attack.

Coercive state measures

State authorities use detentions, prosecutions and other coercive legal measures to retaliate against and deter academic activity, expression or association. In Iran, students and scholars have come under increasing risk of imprisonment, prosecution and custodial abuse.

And in China, authorities have detained a growing number of scholars and students from the Uyghur minority community in so-called ‘re-education camps’ and other facilities.

SAR has reported at least 875 students killed, arrested or subjected to other coercive force in connection with their expressive activity. These attacks are part of a long-standing global problem of attacks on peaceful student expression.

“Such attacks often trigger, and seek justification in, incidents in which some students engage in violent acts, including clashes with opposing student groups and authorities or the destruction of university property. Violent and coercive attacks on student expression threaten the future of strong, non-violent student movements,” the report says.

Turkish authorities have continued their campaign of sweeping and targeted actions against the country’s higher education sector, aimed at silencing and removing individuals from academia who have endorsed a petition critical of state military actions or who have been accused of association with groups disfavoured by the government, the report says.

They have also been used to punish and restrict student expression and academic activity generally.

These actions include imprisonments, prosecutions, dismissals, expulsions and travel restrictions against thousands of scholars, administrators, staff and students.

On 22 May, for instance, Turkish state prosecutors launched a criminal investigation against Dr Bülent Sik, a scholar specialising in food and public health, in response to a series of his articles about government research findings. In the articles, which were published on the website of the newspaper Cumhuriyet in April 2018, Sik alleged that the Turkish Ministry of Health withheld the findings of a study on cancer-causing agents found in several cities exhibiting above-average cancer rates.

According to Sik, who had worked on the research behind the ministry study, agricultural products and drinking water from these cities exhibited higher levels of pesticide, heavy metals and other pollutants.

The Ministry of Health public prosecutors opened an investigation against Sik, alleging that he violated Turkish Penal Code Articles 334, 336 and 258, which relate to the handling of so-called ‘prohibited’ information. According to Sik, public prosecutors are now considering bringing terrorism-related charges against him.

Travel restrictions

Authorities in at least nine countries have used travel restrictions, including restrictions on entry, exit and residence, to obstruct academic inquiry and expression. These include reports of travel restrictions by state authorities in Russia, Cameroon and Hong Kong that targeted individual scholars.

These also include broad travel restrictions on academic communities in Turkey, where thousands of academic personnel dismissed and banned from public service remain subject to a travel ban; in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, where foreign academics face opaque rules that threaten their ability to conduct work at universities there; in Tajikistan, whose government has tightened restrictions on academic travel outside the country; and in the United States, where academics and students from Iran, Libya, North Korea, Somalia, Syria and Yemen are barred from entry as a result of an executive order banning entry of all travellers from those countries, the report says.

Also in the United States, provocative off-campus groups and individuals have chosen colleges and universities as the sites of controversial speeches and rallies that frequently result in confrontations.

In several cases, these confrontations became violent, endangering students, faculty and others. Political actors seeking to expose alleged bias among scholars and students have taken a variety of public measures, including the creation of online watchlists, surreptitious audio and video recording, and advancing restrictive and potentially overbroad legislation, all of which have prompted concerns about a shrinking campus space for free, open inquiry and debate.

Attacks on autonomy

Governments around the world target universities and other academic institutions through legislative, administrative and political attacks on their autonomy and operations. These include both new and ongoing cases in Hungary and Russia, where authorities have threatened to close academic institutions and restrict academic disciplines.

SAR says the incidents covered by the report are only a small portion of all incidents involving attacks on higher education over the previous year.

“Nevertheless, they are sufficient evidence of a global crisis of attacks on scholars, students and other members of the higher education community, requiring a robust, global response.”

Scholars at Risk calls on states, higher education leaders and civil society around the world to respond to this crisis: to reject violence and coercion aimed at restricting inquiry and expression; to protect threatened students, scholars and universities; and to reaffirm publicly their support for the principles that critical discourse is not disloyalty, that ideas are not crimes, and that everyone should be free to think, question and share ideas.

“Higher education communities are attacked with alarming frequency,” said Robert Quinn, SAR’s executive director.

“From suicide attacks by extremists to state-imposed travel restrictions, this year’s report illustrates how scholars, students and higher education communities are on the front lines in the fight for the freedom to think and ask questions, especially of those in power.

“This report is a call to action: to states, to civil society and to the general public to demand greater protection for higher education communities everywhere.”