Human Rights WatchWorld Report ContentsDownloadPrintOrderHRW Homepage

World map Special Initiatives



Europe and Central Asia

Middle East and North Africa

Special Issues and Campaigns

United States


Children’s Rights

Women’s Human Rights


Academic Freedom

Academics in dozens of countries in 1998 were harassed, censored, dismissed, beaten, or imprisoned for peacefully expressing their ideas. Although governments increasingly recognized the importance of universities in promoting technological and economic progress, many continued to take aggressive measures to restrict the scope of expression and inquiry on campus. Respect for academic freedom and the basic civil and political rights of academics thus continued to be a sensitive barometer of free expression worldwide.

International human rights standards offer academics a principled basis for resisting authoritarian political pressures and defending the institutional autonomy necessary for academic excellence. Freedom of expression, defined in international treaties as “freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers,” is a precondition of academic freedom. 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. Although international attention to the right to free expression understandably has emphasized artistic freedom and freedom of the press, essential attributes of an open, democratic society, institutions of higher education have played a critical role in preserving and giving meaning to the right. Abuses tracked by Human Rights Watch in 1998 illustrated the often fragile status of the right to free expression on university campuses. Academics were most often targeted when they publicly criticized government authorities, were active in opposition movements or citizens groups, or investigated subjects deemed “politically sensitive” by the authorities. Reprisals against such professors, researchers, and students included harassment, censorship, arbitrary dismissal and expulsion, and, in the worst cases, imprisonment and torture. Although such reprisals most obviously violated the civil and political rights of the academics concerned, they also directly undermined academic freedom. Academics do not exist in a social or political vacuum, and participation in public affairs and contributions to public debate are important aspects of the academic mission.

The most dramatic campus developments took place in Serbia, where universities were subjected to de facto takeover by the ruling parties, and in Indonesia, where students and faculty, defying decades-old restrictions on the campus community, emerged at the forefront of a nationwide movement for political reform. Developments in Belarus, Burma, China, Cuba, Egypt, Ethiopia, Jordan, Malaysia, and Uzbekistan further demonstrated the range and continued prevalence of government efforts to rein in critical inquiry and expression by academics in 1998.

On May 26, 1998, under pressure from Yugoslav President Milosevic, the Serbian parliament passed a law that deprived faculty members throughout Serbia of their longstanding right to participate in the selection of rectors, faculty deans, and governing boards, and that effectively canceled—subject to renegotiation—the contracts of all professors and other teaching staff. Because the assault on the universities coincided with a crackdown on the independent media, coalitions of faculty that formed to protest the law had difficulty getting their message to the Serbian public. Demonstrations opposing the new law were violently suppressed. As the conflict in Kosovo intensified and Serbian nationalist rhetoric grew more strident, the pressures on critics of the new university law mounted.

The most dramatic changes under the new law took place at the University of Belgrade, which had long been a center of student protest and continued to be home to a number of prominent faculty critics of the government. At least sixteen faculty deans there were replaced shortly after the law took effect. Twelve were forcibly removed and four resigned in protest. Fifteen of the sixteen newly appointed deans were members of the ruling parties. None of the replaced deans were members of political parties.

At least thirteen influential politicians in Serbia’s ruling coalition—comprised of Milosevic’s Socialist Party of Serbia (SPS), the Yugoslav Left (JUL, a party led by Mira Markovic, Milosevic’s wife), and the Serbian Radical Party (SRS, led by Serbian Deputy Prime Minister and ultranationalist Vojislav Seselj)—were named to the governing and supervisory boards of the University of Belgrade and its component faculties. Another high-ranking member of JUL, Jagos Puric, was appointed rector.

The first professor to be fired under the new law was Dr. Vladimir Vodinelic, a law professor and one of Yugoslavia’s leading civil law theorists and one of sixteen professors in the Faculty of Law who had signed a declaration opposing the new law. Two weeks later, twelve law professors who had protested Vodinelic’s firing were suspended. In the Faculty of Philology, the new dean, Radmilo Marojevic (a member of the SRS), declared that his faculty was not doing “useful work,” announced his intention to close the World Literature Department, and moved to transfer thirty academics who had refused to sign new contracts to lower paying positions. Professors in other faculties, including philosophy and electrical engineering, also came under assault from the politically appointed deans.

One of the stated aims of the drafters of the law was the “depoliticization” of the universities. At the time the new law was enacted, officials emphasized that higher education in Serbia had become inefficient because faculty were spending too much of their time engaging in opposition political activities. A more ominous rationale for the new law was articulated by new philology dean Marojevic: “Sadly, our country and our culture are somehow under occupation from within. We have a fifth column in scholarship, in culture, everywhere.” Marojevic praised the law as a “good attempt to return to Serbian character, [to bring] a national, cultural,and authentic character to this university.”

Academic excellence requires that decisions affecting teaching, scholarship, and research be made on the basis of academic merit, not political favoritism or ideological litmus tests. The danger of the new law was that such decisions were put into the hands of government-appointed officials, with no participation by independent faculty members. The new law removed existing safeguards for academic autonomy, opening the door to political meddling in academic affairs by both present and future governments of Serbia. In principle, the university should be an institution open to all on the basis of merit, an important intellectual resource not only to governments and industry, but also to individuals and interests independent of the state. The University Act, however, appeared to be turning universities in Serbia into institutions that exclusively served the interests of Serbian state authorities.

Developments in Indonesia in 1998 contrasted sharply with those in Serbia. In Indonesia, a nationwide student protest movement played an instrumental role in forcing the resignation of President Soeharto and in opening the door to democratic reform. Students and faculty emerged at the forefront of the reform movement in large measure because they publicly spoke their minds, courageously and consistently ignoring regulations banning campus political expression and activity, as well as other laws, regulations, decrees, and abusive practices that had long limited political and intellectual freedom on Indonesia’s campuses and in Indonesian society.

The transformation began in January 1998, when the collapse of Indonesia’s currency was greeted by an outpouring of demands for an end to Soeharto’s thirty-two-year rule. In early March, when opposition leaders failed to mount any significant challenge to Soeharto and Indonesia’s compliant and largely hand-picked parliament unanimously elected Soeharto for a seventh five-year term, the student protest movement became the nationwide focus of opposition to Soeharto.

The movement was not confined to campus radicals, but involved literally hundreds of thousands of students from hundreds of institutions, including private universities, academies, and institutes as well as leading public universities and state teacher training and Islamic institutes. The students were actively supported by many faculty, alumni, and university administrators. At a rally held during the last week in April at Dr. Soetomo University in Surabaya, for example, Poncol Marjada, the university rector, read a statement formally calling on students to participate in the demonstrations to express their concerns. At a rally at Gadjah Mada University in Yogyakarta the same week, senior professor Dr. Loekman Soetrisno declared to the crowd of students: “If Martin Luther King could trigger the birth of a new America, you, too, the young people, can create a new Indonesia.” The protests reached a climax in May, when students increasingly were joined by non-academics at rallies. Soeharto resigned on May 21 after security forces shot and killed four student protesters at Trisakti University in Jakarta on May 12, and in the wake of mass rioting in several cities which followed the killings and left more than 1,000 people dead.

President Soeharto’s “New Order” government had not been uniformly hostile to the academic community. Many academics and students backed Soeharto when he first assumed power, and the government’s emphasis on rapid economic growth created opportunities for a range of academic specialists. As Soeharto consolidated his power, however, he eventually turned his attention on the universities, which were emerging as a leading source of opposition to the policies of the new government. By the early 1980s, political controls over academic life in Indonesia were among the most intrusive in the world. Incoming academics were subjected to mandatory political background checks, students were subjected to compulsory on-campus ideological indoctrination sessions, students and academics who directly challenged the government were prominent among Indonesian dissidents imprisoned for exercising their basic rights, and political expression and activity were expressly outlawed on campus through a policy that the government called “Normalization of Campus Life.” In addition, a wide range of publications was censored, speakers were barred from campus by police and military authorities, seminars were monitored and subject to cancellation at the discretion of the authorities, and academic research was stymied by labyrinthine state research permit issuance procedures.

In the last years of Soeharto’s rule, mounting pressures for greater political openness and respect for citizen’s rights in Indonesia led to a number of concessions by the government. The government’s relaxation of controls, where it occurred, however, was not accompanied by formal repeal of regulations legitimating the government’s intrusive policies or by the implementation of institutional protections for basic rights. The result was continuing uncertainty about the boundaries of the permissible. This uncertainty, together with periodic government crackdowns on dissent and intimidation of those who delved into matters that the government viewed as sensitive, created a climate hostile to intellectual innovation and vigorous debate. The lack of clear boundaries also created a black market in ideas, a continued gap between what people said in private and what they were willing to say in public, depriving the society of the intellectual dynamism that results from open expression of competing viewpoints.

Although significant institutional and legal barriers to freedom of expression remained in place in Indonesia after Soeharto’s resignation, the reform movement opened the door to more wide-ranging public debate in Indonesia. The changed climate was evident as early as April 1998 when Soeharto’s minister of education, Wiranto Arismunandar, invoked the twenty-year-old “Normalization of Campus Life” regulations in an effort to quell the mounting campus protest movement. Arismunandar’s remarks immediately became the subject of heated media debate. His invocation of the repressive campus regulations was roundly criticized in the press and his warning was completely ignored in practice by students and their faculty supporters. Subsequent efforts to control the protests—including attempts to portray the student movement as infiltrated by communist agitators, the abduction and forced disappearance of more than two dozen political organizers by groups within the military, and a nationwide ban on public protest marches by students—did nothing to stop the protests and indeed sparked an indignant counterresponse.

After Soeharto’s ouster, the country continued to face daunting challenges, including government corruption and nepotism, social unrest fueled by a steadily worsening economic crisis, an entrenched military with a prominent role in politics, a history of militaryatrocities in such places as East Timor, Aceh, and Irian Jaya, and deep-rooted ethnic hostility directed against Indonesians of Chinese ancestry. For the first time, however, these issues were being discussed openly. Scholars and students, well-situated to explore the social and political realities that underlie such problems and help in the search for solutions, were prominent among those participating in the discussions.

Reprisals against Dissenting Academics

Although developments in Serbia and Indonesia provided the most dramatic illustrations of the intimate connection between academic freedom and protections for basic rights, activist professors, researchers, and students were targets of government repression in a wide range of countries. Due to the high public profile of universities and of the academics who were involved, such attacks often played an exemplary role, serving as a warning to individuals throughout society that dissent and political opposition would not be tolerated.

In Cuba, professor Felix A. Bonne Carcasses, economists Marta B. Roque Cabello and Vladimiro Roca Antunez, and attorney Rene Gomez Manzano were imprisoned throughout 1998 for their membership in an opposition group and for publicly insisting that greater democratization was a prerequisite to effective economic liberalization. In Ethiopia, the government continued to imprison Dr. Taye Wolde Semayet, a former professor and president of the Ethiopian Teachers’ Association (ETA), which had emerged as a leading critic of the government’s policies. From July to September, Dr. Taye was shackled twenty-four hours a day. Although the government initially had alleged that Dr. Taye was involved with terrorist attacks on the government, the most serious charges against him were dropped for lack of evidence and the remaining charges related solely to Dr. Taye’s alleged association with a proscribed organization, charges which he vehemently denies.

In Malaysia, students at a number of universities were harassed and some were suspended in September 1998 for joining peaceful rallies in support of deposed Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim. The Malaysian University Act forbids students from participating in opposition politics. In September, Education Minister Datuk Seri NajibTun Razak announced that the ministry was monitoring students involved in Anwar’s “reformasi” or reform movement, the general objective of which was to reduce corruption in government. Student supporters from the Mara Institute of Technology (IT) were threatened with expulsion and blacklisting from government educational institutions for being involved in Anwar’s campaigns. Six students of Universiti Utara Malaysia were arrested and subsequently suspended for involvement in political activity related to a September parliamentary by-election.

In Uzbekistan, dozens of students were expelled from state institutions of higher education for wearing Islamic attire. In May, the government adopted a repressive law on religious organizations that, among its provisions, prohibited the wearing of “ritual” dress in public. Under the law, viewed by critics as an attempt to marginalize religious groups perceived as a potential source of political opposition to President Islam Karimov, female students who wore the hijab (Muslim clothing usually including a head scarf and a long robe) were expelled and male students with beards were subjected to pressure to shave or else were expelled. The National Security Service (SNB) followed several expelled university students who had met with Human Rights Watch and warned them not to speak with foreigners. The expulsion of students for religious dress in Uzbekistan was the mirror image of policies pursued in Iran after the 1979 revolution and in Sudan in the early 1990s, where students and professors have been expelled or dismissed for failing to demonstrate “proper” religious comportment.

In Belarus, Human Rights Watch documented seven cases of politically motivated dismissals, warnings, and expulsions of academics that formed part of a broader government crackdown on independent political expression. One case was that of Liubov Lunyova, a human rights activist who prior to her dismissal had worked as a lecturer on a fixed-term contract in the history department at the Belarusian State University (BGU) in Minsk. Although Lunyova was told by university officials that she was let go because of lack of funds, she was fired shortly after Belarussian President Lukashenka had publicly berated the university rector for keeping activist teachers on staff. Lunyova told Human Rights Watch, moreover, that despite the alleged lack of funds, new lecturers had been hired after her dismissal. When Lunyova sought a job at another school, the director of the school told her that he “would be fired within half an hour” if he gave her a job.

Censorship and Ideological Controls

In China, continuing Communist Party control of the universities was strengthened with new legislation in August 1998 giving campus-based party officers the power to override administrative decisions made by university presidents. Scheduled to take effect in January 1999, the law also gave campus-based party committees responsibility for “enforcing the policies and guidelines of the Communist Party related to political, ideological and moral education.”

In Malaysia, after reports began circulating in late 1997 of the adverse public health consequences of the dense haze that was then enveloping much of the country from uncontrolled forest fires in Indonesia, the government issued a decree requiring that all researchers investigating the subject have their work screened and preapproved by “higher authorities.” In Egypt, the government successfully pressured officials at the American University (AU) in Cairo to censor the book Muhammad , a classic text by the internationally renowned scholar, Maxime Rodinson. The book had been available in Egypt since the 1970s and was included on a course syllabus in 1998. After a prominent Cairo journalist published an article alleging that the book contained passages that insulted Islamic beliefs, President Mubarek, through the minister of education, ordered AU to ban the book. In response to the president’s order AU administrators informed professors that they could no longer include the book in their reading lists and ordered it removed from the library and the campus bookstore.

In Jordan, the government enacted a broad new press and publications law giving government authorities broad powers of censorship. Among the requirements of the law was that universities and scientific research centers obtain prior permission from the Ministry of Information before importing potentially controversial books and writings. The new law also imposed onerousrequirements on independent research centers, including a provision forbidding such institutes and their employees from “receiving any financial assistance or support from any non-Jordanian party” and providing for steep fines and closure for up to six months of any institute that violated the policy.

Crackdowns on Student Protest

In many countries, governments responded to student protests with violent crackdowns and at times the indiscriminate use of force against protesters. In Indonesia, the Soeharto government’s nationwide ban on public marches by students early in the year backfired when violent clashes between students and hundreds of police and troops massed at campus gates added fuel to an already developing, nationwide political crisis. In countries including Kenya, Zimbabwe, and Nigeria, governments used school closures as a weapon to stop demonstrations and penalize students for expression of their political views.

Government suppression of student protest continued to be extreme in Burma, where most universities remained closed throughout 1998, the country’s intellectual resources and institutions paralyzed. Universities in Burma had been closed for seven of the ten years since the 1988 pro-democracy uprising was crushed by the army. The closures in 1998 dated from December 1996, when the government shut down the universities following major campus rallies protesting police violence against students.

Relevant Human Rights Watch reports:
Academic Freedom in Indonesia: Dismantling Soeharto Era Barriers , 8/98
Republic of Belarus; Turning Back the Clock , 7/98
Republic of Uzbekistan; Crackdown in the Farghona Valley: Arbitrary Arrests and Religious Discrimination, 5/98
Prohibited Persons,” Abuse of Undocumented Migrants, Asylum Seekers, and Refugees in South Africa, 3/98
Ethiopia: The Curtailment of Rights , 12/97


Academic Freedom

Child Soldiers

Corporations and Human Rights

Drugs And Human Rights

Freedom of Expression on the Internet

Human Rights Watch International Film Festival

The International Criminal Court

Lesbian and Gay Rights


Refugees, Displaced Persons, and Asylum Seekers



Copyright © 1999
Human RIghts Watch