Deportation as a tool to stifle academic freedom

Academic freedom, which includes the freedom to conduct research, is not guaranteed in Zimbabwe. This reality was underscored by the deportation of researchers from the organisation Good Governance in Africa (GGA) ahead of the country’s 23 August crunch elections.

The researchers were set to conduct field research on the elections but made it no further than the airport. They were deported upon arrival.

Zimbabwe has a long history of deporting academics and researchers, a phenomenon that dates back to the colonial era. It appears that the government of Zimbabwe uses deportation as a tool to prevent academics from doing their work, much to the detriment of academic freedom.

An inherited tactic?

The notorious Federal Intelligence and Security Bureau (FISB), a spy agency for the colonial government and precursor to Zimbabwe’s Central Intelligence Organisation (CIO), was quite active in the vetting, surveillance and deportation of expatriate lecturers of the University College of Rhodesia and Nyasaland, now known as the University of Zimbabwe.

This is according to Tapiwa Zimudzi in his academic article titled, ‘Spies and Informers on Campus: Vetting, surveillance and deportation of expatriate university lecturers in colonial Zimbabwe, 1954-1963’.

During the colonial era, it was simply not safe for expatriate lecturers to share opinions or research contrary to government interests. Any expatriate academic who did so risked deportation.

One prominent victim of deportation as a tactic to silence academics was Terence Ranger, a University College of Rhodesia and Nyasaland lecturer who was sympathetic to the African liberation movement.

In Ranger’s obituary published in the Guardian, Jocelyn Alexander and David Maxwell wrote: “In 1963, Terence Ranger, who has died aged 85, was deported from Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe).

“He had earned the enmity of the country’s minority government for his engagement with a burgeoning African nationalist movement and for doing so from within the respectable halls of what was then called the University College of Rhodesia and Nyasaland, the only university in Salisbury (now Harare).”

The Robert Mugabe administration which took over from the colonial government continued to use deportation as a tool to silence academics, with the most prominent case being that of Shadrack Gutto.

In 1988, Shadrack Gutto, then a lecturer at University of Zimbabwe’s faculty of law, was deported from the country, accused of assisting students to draft an anti-corruption manifesto.

A tactic used sparingly

In as much as deportation has been used to silence academics in Zimbabwe, it does not appear to be the government’s favourite tool for thwarting academic freedom.

It cannot, for instance, use it against the majority of academics and researchers the government seeks to silence as they are locals who cannot be deported from their own country.

Other tactics to stifle academic freedom are used against them instead. These include refusal by the government to clear them when they seek to study public institutions. University World News, for instance, covered this topic extensively in an article, ‘Can you do research on Zimbabwe’s public universities?’

Global media attention often accompanies the deportation of academics. Much unlike silencing local academics who might not even make the local news, silencing foreign researchers through deportation often comes with a lot of negative international publicity, international publicity the government most likely prefers to avoid.

That is, except in a few cases where the government deems a researcher to be a bigger threat to it than the negative publicity that will ensue from deporting such a researcher. The recent deportation of GGA researchers could be an example.

Academic freedom and the constitution

Zimbabwe’s Constitution, introduced in 2013, expressly protects academic freedom. Section 61 of the constitution reads: “Every person has the right to freedom of expression, which includes freedom to seek, receive and communicate ideas and other information; freedom of artistic expression and scientific research and creativity; and academic freedom.”

The same constitution, however, limits the right to access information, which is an integral part of academic freedom, to locals and permanent residents.

Section 62 reads: “Every Zimbabwean citizen or permanent resident, including juristic persons and the Zimbabwean media, has the right of access to any information held by the state or by any institution or agency of government at every level, in so far as the information is required in the interests of public accountability.”

This means the constitution of Zimbabwe is self-contradictory because it guarantees academic freedom for “all persons” in one section, but limits its enjoyment to locals and permanent residents in the following section.

The reason why this constitutional confusion is important in the discussion of deportation as a tool for silencing academics is because many researchers come to Zimbabwe to study public institutions which, by law, they have no right to study.

Simply put, when researchers who seek to study public institutions are deported from Zimbabwe, they cannot, from a purely legal perspective, claim that their right to academic freedom has been infringed because, in Zimbabwe, they have no such right when it comes to researching public institutions.

Zimbabwe’s constitution is fundamentally flawed in this regard and needs to be amended. Other countries that guarantee academic freedom in their constitutions, such as South Africa, do not limit its enjoyment to locals and permanent residents.

Section 16 (1) of the South African Constitution states: “Everyone has the right to freedom of expression, which includes (a) freedom of the press and other media; (b) freedom to receive or impart information or ideas; (c) freedom of artistic creativity; and (d) academic freedom and freedom of scientific research.”

There is no follow-up clause that limits any of the rights contained in that clause to locals and permanent residents.

Prospects for academic freedom

The issue of academic freedom in Zimbabwe should not be viewed in isolation of the broader context of human rights in the country. It would be counterintuitive to assume the academic freedom situation in Zimbabwe is good when civil liberties such as freedom of speech and freedom of association are not being respected.

Where many civil liberties are disregarded, academic freedom is also likely going to be disregarded. Suppression of civil liberties, academic freedom included, normally occurs in countries presided over by authoritarian regimes.

This is the case in Zimbabwe which is ranked by Freedom House as not free.

A change in the type of government presiding over Zimbabwe will most likely result in improvement of the country’s academic freedom and general civil liberties situation.

Change in type of government does not necessarily mean change of government as the current government could change from authoritarian to democratic through reform.

This, however, is highly unlikely as the ruling Zanu-PF has maintained that it will “not reform itself out of power”.

Prospects for Zimbabwe’s changing type of government through an elective process, and consequently, improvement of the academic freedom situation, are also very bleak.

Elections in Zimbabwe are normally disputed, with widespread reports citing lack of freeness and fairness in the electoral process.

Zachariah Mushawatu is a freelance journalist. He recently completed a masters thesis on academic freedom at the University of Bergen, Norway, and is also the former national spokesperson of the Zimbabwe National Students Union, or ZINASU.