Dismal state of academic freedom in Turkey described by HRW

Turkey’s universities are experiencing a period of self-censorship and a lack of academic freedom as hundreds of academic staff face prosecution and thousands more have lost their jobs, international non-governmental organization Human Rights Watch (HRW) said in a report it published on Monday.

The dismissals and prosecutions result from an ongoing government crackdown launched in the wake of the July 2016 coup attempt in Turkey. Since then, nearly 6000 academics have been dismissed from universities for alleged ties to terrorist organisations. This includes around 400 academics who signed a petition in 2016 condemning the government security operations in the Kurdish dominated south-east of the country. Many other academics have simply left Turkey.

HRW investigated 8 cases of academics dismissed from their posts under emergency decrees. It found, “it was impossible to determine the reasons for their dismissal as the decrees include no evidence of alleged wrongdoing or individualized justifications. The decrees only refer to generalized alleged links to “terrorist organizations.”

In other cases examined by HRW evidence cited to justify dismissals included, “the use of legal bank accounts, sending their children to private schools, or travel and research associated with their work as academics.”

University students have also faced the prospect of arrest and expulsion from their universities as the crackdown continues.

“On March 19, 2018, a group of students peacefully protested a stand set up by another group of students on the campus of Istanbul’s Boğaziçi University to support the Turkish military operation in the northwest Syrian district of Afrin. Erdoğan called the students who joined the protest “traitors to their country” and “terrorist youth” and demanded that their right to study at the university be revoked.”

In addition to the devasting consequence for those dismissed and their families, academic freedoms have come under increasing pressure.

“In one case, the university ethics commission delayed for four months a request for the required permission for a six-month research project related to the Kurdish issue on the grounds that the research topic was too sensitive,” the HRW report said. 

Academics and students speaking to HRW said that even discussing some topics, such as the ongoing state of emergency, is now out-of-bounds.

Yücel Demirer, a political scientist dismissed via an emergency decree said, “Universities are in a dire state. The quality of academia has significantly decreased. Nobody can speak out freely and without fear anymore.”

Another academic, Kerem Altıparmak, said, “Critical speech has been stifled. Even on the university public email list nobody makes any comment anymore that could be understood as being critical of the university, the administration, or the government. Many professors and lecturers are very careful of what they say in front of students.”

The Turkish government’s clampdown on academic freedoms comes despite them being protected by international human rights law. As the HRW report points out, “The International Covenant on Economic Social and Cultural Rights, to which Turkey is party, protects the right to education. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), to which Turkey is party, protects the rights of individuals to freedom of opinion, expression, association, and assembly.”