Screened by the regime

How undemocratic states influence academics

Propaganda art from North Korea: 'I’ll never be able to visit while the current regime is in power.'

By Marleen van Wesel

Yesterday, the court found Eritrea-expert Mirjam van Reisen not guilty of defamation and slander. She is not the only academic to be obstructed by the regime she is researching. “I’m supposedly planning a coupe.”

(Het originele, Nederlandstalige artikel staat hier)
“I received dozens of organised, shocking accusations after every paper on human trafficking”, explains Mirjam van Reisen, who was appointed Professor of Computing for Society at the Leiden Centre of Data Science (LCDS) this year. “I began my research into human trafficking in Sinai, particularly Eritreans, in around 2010. At first, the reactions were connected to our publications; I only went to the police when the messages were written in Tigrinya, the language of Eritrea, and were no longer accessible to me.”
“People in my network translated them for me: I was supposedly planning a coupe. It wasn’t about my research any more, but about loyalty to the Eritrean regime”, Van Reisen continues. But after making some remarks about intimidation and the influence of the regime through supporters in the Netherlands, Van Reisen found herself in court, defending herself in preliminary relief proceedings against charges of defamation and slander.
“While a court case really takes it out of you, it also reveals the dynamics of the long arm of Eritrea” –a long arm extending to night-time chases on the motorway and being called “the murderer of Eritrea.” “Well, it looks as if my research subject has come to me. I feel challenged rather than thwarted. Perhaps I could have used more tact, but at least this case is sparking an important political debate.” Yesterday she was found acquitted.
And she’s not the only professor to feel an undemocratic state breathing down her neck: university lecturer Max Bader is a specialist on Russia and Ukraine and often gives lectures, particularly now, in the run-up to the Ukraine referendum. “I notice trolls in the audience, people who work for the Russian embassy – often the same ones turn up. They disrupt the debate with their questions and their attitude. It’s intimidating. I don’t know if someone’s paying them, but it’s a frequent occurrence.” So far, he’s not been deterred. “I’m an academic not a politician. I want to help by sharing my knowledge, but they give the impression that I represent the West.”
Erik-Jan Zürcher, a Professor of Turkish Languages and Cultures, is familiar with the phenomenon. “At a talk on the Armenian genocide, the guest speaker was asked questions that had been distributed among the audience on notes. It was clearly pre-arranged.” They are online, too, as Zürcher found out: “We were verbally abused on our department’s Facebook page by people connected to the Turkish Nationalists. I don’t have a Twitter account, but an Erdoğan supporter has even created a fake account under my name – luckily, he doesn’t have many followers.” Bader adds: “It’s been established that the Russian government employs people to be active on the forums and Facebook, but we’re not sure which of them are paid.” He doubts that the Russians follow his academic work. “My research is published in journals with a paywall and is read by very few people – the tragedy of science. But my name is on a list, because sometimes I’m an election observer in Russia.”
There’s no doubt that Professor of Korea Studies Remco Breuker is being watched by North Korea. “I heard that a formal complaint had been filed with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs against me, with an urgent request to put a stop to my research.”
Breuker indicates around him in the Arsenaal Building where Asian Studies are concentrated in Leiden. “I think everyone in this building is under extreme pressure from all sorts of nations, not just North Korea. But when it comes to violations of human rights, I can’t look away and hide behind my specialisation in eleventh and twelfth century Korea. That’s why I’m studying the export of forced labourers. They are hired out to companies in Poland and other places in the EU as modern-day slaves. North Korea doesn’t worry too much about academics, but this research could affect the regime’s income.”
East-Africa specialist Jan Abbink at the Africa Studies Centre suspects that he is being watched. “The Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Ethiopia scans all academic research – but I’m not a problem case.”
“We know we’re being watched because we hear, on the grapevine, what the Turkish embassy staff say about us, but we haven’t been confronted any direct government intervention yet”, Zürcher says. It’s a different story for academics working in Turkey. “More than 1,100 Turkish academics signed a petition calling for an end to the armed combat against the Kurds. The reaction was harsh: a number of people lost their jobs.” Hundreds of researchers declared their support, as did Zürcher. “We didn’t give an opinion on the Kurdish issue, but on freedom for academics and that makes us vulnerable. We’ll find out just how much trouble people are in next year.”
He’s more worried about Turkish students who are graduating or doing a PhD at Leiden. “Two thirds of our PhD students are Turkish and to get a job at a Turkish university, they’ll need to have their Dutch qualifications acknowledged by a central agency. That wasn’t a problem until two years ago, when they started ploughing through the dissertations and disqualifying people without giving any reasons. They have already refused to acknowledge a Greek’s diploma – a man who did his PhD here. He lost his job in Istanbul and had to leave the country the next day. His dissertation was on the Cyprus issue – that might have had something to do with it: Turkey does not acknowledge Cyprus.”
Petra Sijpesteijn, Professor of Arabic Language and Culture, was subject to government intervention as a student. “In the mid-nineties, I was doing research for my thesis in Syria and shared a room on campus with two Syrian girls. Once we had become friends, one of them told me she had been assigned to that room to keep an eye on me and report on me. Sometimes it was quite useful: if you were on your way to a party for international students and you’d forgotten the address, you could always ask a man in black leather where the foreign do was. And someone gave me a tip: if you want to know who’s watching you, drop your purse deliberately and someone would come running after you.”
Nowadays, Sijpesteijn does not face any intervention but she’s had an Egyptian PhD student who turned down a request to write an article on the interaction between Muslims and non-Muslims. “It’s not a good topic if you want to get a job at an Egyptian university later.”
“Once every so often, someone is refused entrance to Russia and consequently you tend to avoid certain subjects for your research. Some countries are even no-go areas now: Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan are too dangerous to visit so we know very little about them”, says Bader.
Van Reisen, who is also Professor of International Social Responsibility at Tilburg, has never faced as much obstruction as now. “In Zimbabwe, which is also a difficult country, I had plenty of freedom.” Eritrea is refusing her entrance at present. “They’re refusing it to the UN, too. However, I’ve been before and I still have contacts there, so I know what’s going on.”
Researching a nation from the outside provides a less complete picture, says Abbink, who is still allowed into Ethiopia. “You have to be cautious with explicitly censorious research, but it’s three times as bad in Eritrea or Rwanda. Nonetheless, there are serious problems in Ethiopia and researchers should broach them. I wouldn’t give up my research because a country is too repressive; I think you should keep the lines of communication open.”
“I’m a negotiator by nature”, explains Remco Breuker. “But with North Korea, it’s once bitten, twice shy, so I’ve had to adjust my opinions. People are still being sent to concentration camps and murdered in the most horrific ways.” He invited the poet Jang Jin-sung, a North-Korean exile, to Leiden as a guest lecturer last year. “He warned me that doing so would mean I could never travel to North Korea again while that regime was in power.” That did not stop Breuker, however. In fact, he’s never been to North Korea.
“Only to South Korea. They’d never let me into North Korea, particularly after that complaint.” Nonetheless, he’s been to considerably more places than he ever thought possible when he started his academic career. “My dream was mainly to spend my time in libraries. But whether we want to or not, our findings mean that we academics are also politically involved. I’ve never even seen the ivory tower.”

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