Trinity’s academic freedom fighters

How Trinity students can help scholars wrongfully convicted worldwide

The right to speak out and publicise what one believes in is essentially a privilege. Even within democratic countries, there are varying levels of this freedom. Journalists are often targeted by their states and attacked for speaking up. Not only journalists, but often times academics fall victim to restrictions in their freedom of speech. Researchers, writers, professors, and even students fight against some of the most oppressive systems in the world but are often forgotten or intentionally ignored by national and international media.

Imagine being falsely convicted for discovering some major political scandal, or simply speaking out against the government in power and being attacked or threatened for it. More often than not, news about such incidents are suppressed and swept away before the national media can access it. Even if it is covered by international media, the lack of sensation surrounding the story means it might not reach as many people. The perpetrators of such attacks are usually linked to the state, although it is equally likely that the attacks are perpetrated by a member of an attached community or society. Examples of attacks include writers and academics who speak for secularism in Bangladesh, or protestors in Turkey wrongfully accused of terrorism. In every case, there is a threat to the life and freedom of these academics – either they are jailed or killed.

Scholars at Risk (SAR) is an international network that seeks to protect these individuals. They do this through the Academic Freedom Media Review, Scholars in Prison Project, and Academic Freedom Monitoring Project. Universities can help in several ways by joining the network. They can host a scholar, hold student advocacy seminars, contribute to the academic freedom monitoring project, and hold workshops, conferences and working groups to help scholars at risk.

Trinity is a member of SAR and groups that focused on the Academic Freedom Monitoring Project were initiated early this year, in order to contribute to the monitoring website. Launched in 2012, the Academic Freedom Monitoring Project started out as a collaboration between researchers who volunteered their time to document the attacks on higher education across the world. The purpose of this project is to “identify, assess, and track incidents involving one or more of the six defined types of conduct which may constitute violations of academic freedom, and/or the human rights of members of higher education communities.”

According to the SAR website, these include killings, violence, disappearances, wrongful imprisonment or detention, wrongful prosecution, restrictions on travel or movement, retaliatory discharge, loss of position or expulsion from study, and other significant events. Its first report “Free to Think”, analysed 333 attacks in higher education communities in 65 countries between January 2011 and May 2015. In order to write for this website, students select a region of interest, for example the Middle East, and set Google Alerts for infringement of academic freedoms in the countries of the selected region. Speaking the language of that region is beneficial as it facilitates the further research of local newspapers, or even conducting telephone interviews. Once an incident is selected, a report is written with the help or area supervisors, before writers send it to SAR to publish on the monitoring website. This helps in identifying and reporting the incident and raises awareness about the lack of freedom of speech in the affected areas.

Dr. Ross Holder, a supervisor for the project, explains: “For centuries, higher education institutions have played a central role in the production of knowledge through intellectual inquiry while serving as a public fora for the sharing of ideas for the benefit of wider society. In a time of almost breathless social and political change heralded through rapid advancements in technology and the impact of globalisation, higher education can continue to serve as a vital means with which we can develop an understanding of how to address the challenges of our evolving world.” On the role of educational institutions, he believes that “the continued ability of higher education institutions to fulfil this role must not be taken for granted. The principle of academic freedom, crucial in the production and dissemination of knowledge, is under threat. Around the world, scholars and students are increasingly subject to restrictions raging from arbitrary detention to violent repression. While such violations are often associated with autocratic regimes, recent developments in otherwise liberal societies should be seen as a cautionary example that academic freedoms must be continually defended and advocated for.”

Audrey Williams, a recent graduate of European Studies, who revived the academic monitoring project in Trinity, explains why she got involved: “I attended the Scholars at Risk Network conference in Maynooth last year, where I first learned about the organisation and their work to defend academics around the world. Depending on the country and context, scholars face a number of threats including surveillance, intimidation, exile, wrongful prosecution and imprisonment, torture, and extrajudicial killing, often as a result of their work or their connections with the international higher education community.” Furthermore, she argues that as students, “we need to stand in solidarity with persecuted members of the global academic community by advocating for their rights”. Soon after, she decided to take action: “When I found out that Trinity had a Scholars At Risk Committee, and that my professor Dr. Roja Fazaeli was the heading it, I got involved by helping to establish a chapter of the Academic Freedom Monitoring Project, a research project where students track and assess violations of the academic freedom and/or the human rights of scholars across the globe.”

Dr. Holder emphasises that “organisations such as the Scholars at Risk Network play an important role in providing protection to vulnerable individuals within higher education. Through several initiatives, including the provision of sanctuary and assistance to over 300 scholars facing grave threats each year, and the Academic Freedom Monitoring Project which develops reports on academic freedom violations around the world, SAR is dedicated to the promotion and protection of academic freedom.”

Speaking at a conference on Scholars at Risk, hosted by the Long Room Hub in 2016, President Michael D. Higgins asserted that “scholars and universities are not simply the collateral casualties of conflict; they very often are the very focus for such conflict”. He also emphasised the benefit to academia of hosting scholars as refugees or/and immigrants: “The movement of scholars across continents is one that never fails to give way to a cross-fertilisation of ideas, a renewed flourishing of knowledge.”

Trinity’s Academic Freedom Monitoring Project is set to launch again for this academic year.

Navika Mehta

Navika Mehta is a former Features Editor of Trinity News. She is a PPES graduate.