Turkey cracks down on academic freedom
External groups hope scrutiny will restrain government.
03 July 2012
More than 700 people protested at the trial of political scientist
Büşra Ersanlı in Istanbul this week.
Turkey is upping the pressure on scientists and students who question
its policies, and international human-rights advocates are taking
In the past few years, the government has clamped down on the
independence of the Scientific and Technological Research Council of
Turkey and the Turkish Academy of Sciences (see Nature 477, 131;
2011). It has also harassed and jailed individual academics and
students. Now, an international network is launching a campaign to
support Turkish scientists whose academic rights it considers to have
been violated. The network has issued a report and this week carried
out its first concerted street action, when more than 100 of its
supporters joined a large protest at the opening of the trial of Büşra
Ersanlı, a political scientist at Marmara University in Istanbul.
Ersanlı was arrested last October, under Turkey’s 2006 anti-terrorist
laws. A member of the legal Peace and Democracy Party, which promotes
the rights of Turkey’s Kurdish minority, she denies charges of
supporting an outlawed separatist terrorist organization, the Kurdish
Authorities have tried to prevent other scientists from speaking out
against industrial interests, says Nesrin Uçarlar, a political
scientist who has worked with Ersanlı at Marmara University. One
targeted researcher is Onur Hamzaoğlu, an epidemiologist at Kocaeli
University in İzmit, who revealed that the region’s industrial basin
has high pollution levels and increased cancer rates. Hamzaoğlu is now
being investigated for unethical behaviour leading to public alarm,
and faces a jail sentence.
Ersanlı will be tried alongside 204 others charged with illegally
promoting Kurdish rights. Her arrest prompted colleagues in France to
launch the International Workgroup on Academic Liberty and Freedom of
Research in Turkey (GIT) on 21 November. The group is also drawing
attention to the more than 770 students who are in prison in Turkey,
most arrested for protesting against government policies, including
the introduction of university fees.
“Freedom of expression in academia is being increasingly clamped down
on in Turkey,” says Vincent Duclert, a historian at the School for
Advanced Studies in the Social Sciences in Paris and a founder of the
network. “The GIT initiative will keep the cases in the eye of the
international public, and this may bring pressure on Turkish
Uçarlar, whose PhD thesis on Kurdish language rights was derecognized
by Marmara University in 2008, launched GIT’s node in Turkey last
December. Since then, six further branches have been established in
North America and Europe.
GIT Turkey issued a report last week listing a selection of cases of
academic rights violations, from arrests on terrorist charges to
dismissals for trade-union membership and prosecution for statements
deemed harmful to industry. “We don’t really know how many cases are
out there, because university staff are afraid to speak out,” says
Uçarlar. “But now we have a platform, people are starting to contact
us about their experiences.” The group has sent its report to the
European Parliament, and has asked that the European Union’s annual
report on Turkey’s bid for membership rates the country on freedom of
expression for academics.
Erol Gelenbe, a computer scientist at Imperial College London who was
educated in Turkey, points out that although the erosion of academic
freedom in the country has accelerated in the past two years, “there
has always been little tolerance for independent thinking”. He says
that at different times over the past few decades, “academics have
been expelled from universities either because they were to the right
or because they were to the left of the particular government”.
Uçarlar agrees that the political situation is “complicated”, with
right-wingers, left-wingers and staunch secularists all under attack.
“I never agreed with the policies of Kemal Gürüz,” she says, referring
to a former president of the Turkish higher-education council who
enforced a ban on wearing the Islamic headscarf in Turkish
universities. “But I’m appalled he was arrested on 25 June without
Ayşe Erzan, a GIT supporter and a physicist at the Istanbul Technical
University who co-founded an alternative science academy when the
Turkish Academy of Sciences was put under government management last
year, says that “people are getting nervous and there is a feeling we
need to resist further slide into undemocratic measures”.