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This report examines barriers to academic freedom and the exercise of basic rights erected during the thirty-two year authoritarian rule of President Soeharto in Indonesia. As this report was being prepared, Indonesia was undergoing what appeared to be a momentous transition, spurred on by students and faculty, toward a more democratic society. Although many of the barriers had been rendered ineffective by the momentum of the reform movement, a series of legal limitations on citizens’ exercise of basic rights remained in place and military authorities continued to have broad discretionary power to limit citizen’s rights in the name of “national stability.” Indonesia was also facing a deep economic crisis and sporadic outbreaks of violence against ethnic Chinese. One of the central contentions of this report is that, under Soeharto, open inquiry and debate on just such issues was stymied by far-reaching censorship, surveillance, and ideological pressures, and by intimidation, harassment, and imprisonment of outspoken critics. Scholars and students, well-situated to explore the social and political realities that underlie such problems and help in the search for solutions, were among those targeted by the government. Objective criticism is the basis of social progress; it is difficult to imagine how that progress can be achieved without uninhibited research and dialogue.

The preamble to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights declares that “every individual and every organ of society, keeping this Declaration constantly in mind, shall strive by teaching and education to promote respect for [human rights].” To this end, the declaration specifically provides for the right to education, mandates that access to educational institutions and to the cultural and scientific resources of society shall be available to all, and provides that “education shall be directed to the full development of the human personality and to the strengthening of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms.” Human Rights Watch believes that educational institutions cannot fulfil their mission of strengthening respect for human rights when the basic rights of educators and students themselves are not respected.

While academic freedom is not a self-contained right, the freedom to pursue research and scholarship unfettered by censorship and persecution cannot be separated from freedom to exercise basic civil and political rights as set forth in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). This essential linkage is expressly recognized in the Lima Declaration on Academic Freedom and Autonomy of Institutions of Higher Education, adopted by the World University Service in 1988 as a guidepost for the defense of academic freedom worldwide. The Lima Declaration states: “Every member of the academic community shall enjoy, in particular, freedom of thought, conscience, religion, expression, assembly and association as well as the right to liberty and security of person and liberty of movement.” As a human rights organization, it is not our intention to support or dispute the opinions, ideas, or research findings of the academics and students whose cases we discuss. It is, however, a central feature of our mandate to defend their right to express their views and to study, research, teach, and publish without interference.

As set forth in Article 19 of the ICCPR, freedom of expression “shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers.” This freedom is essential to academic excellence. A university fulfills its mission when academics are not forced to support an official line, an economic agenda, or a political ideology, but rather are free to use their talents to advance human knowledge and understanding. Freedom of expression is also a core civil and political right essential to citizen autonomy. There can be no liberty and no meaningful citizenship where individuals are denied the basic right to ask questions and seek information about what is going on in society, and to share their ideas and views with others. To date, international attention to this basic right has understandably emphasized artistic freedom and freedom of the press, essential attributes of a free society. Relatively little attention, however, has been paid to the crucial role played by academic institutions, dedicated to inquiry, information and ideas, in preserving and giving meaning to the right.

In principle, the university is an institution open to all on the basis of merit, and should serve as an important intellectual resource not only to governments and industry, but also to individuals and interests independent of the state. In practice, attacks on campus-based critics and politically motivated government interventions often threaten to turn the university into an institution that exclusively serves the interests of state power holders. Because the great majority of universities around the world are public institutions or are dependent on government funding, and because such institutions typically are viewed by governments as “prime instruments of national purpose,” governments have considerable power to influence what takes place on campus and an incentive to wield that power.

A wide range of governments abuse their power. In cases such as Indonesia under Soeharto, politically motivated attacks on dissident faculty and students were accompanied by damaging ideological and institutional constraints, including political screening of faculty, restrictions on what could be discussed in seminars, limitations on autonomous organizational activity on campus, and restrictions on access to campuses by groups and individuals whose ideas did not meet the approval of state authorities. Political assaults on the academic community thus not only claimed individual victims, they also served as a crucial component in broader government efforts to limit citizens’ basic rights and as an important barrier to the development of independent institutions and a dynamic civil society.

There is another reason why we have published this report: Compared to other professional groups, including doctors, scientists, journalists, writers, and lawyers, academics worldwide have been slow to campaign against human rights abuses, and slow to take action aimed at addressing the plight of colleagues overseas. Higher education is fast becoming a global concern. As barriers fall, there is increasing opportunity to assist those who have been arbitrarily targeted by their governments, and increasing need to articulate principles for the defense of academic freedom worldwide. By visiting or attempting to visit students and scholars in prison, keeping in touch with their families, colleagues, and unions, raising money for their legal defense and medical needs, raising their cases with governments and international organizations, academics ensure that their colleagues are not forgotten. By speaking out when students and scholars are censored, constrained in their exercise of basic rights as citizens, or targeted for imprisonment and torture, academics fulfill an important part of their mission as educators.

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