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Students should be encouraged to challenge ideas and question the world around them. Higher education is meant to teach us how to think freely, and for ourselves. Unsettling new data published by the Academic Freedom Index proves that this freedom is under threat. The report finds that academic freedom is in decline for over 50 percent of the world’s population and that many people on campuses worldwide have significantly less freedom today than they did ten years ago. In the past decade, academic freedom has improved in only a handful of countries, affecting just 0.7% of the world’s population. The most populous of these countries is Uzbekistan, a closed autocracy in which universities and scholars still face severe limitations, such as the government’s control over contacts between universities or scholars and foreign entities.
AFI’s data signals a decline across all regions and all region types. Our own ranking, the recently published Index Index, a project that uses innovative machine learning techniques to map the free expression landscape across the globe, shows just how this plays out on a country-by-country basis. Some obvious patterns can be drawn. Dwindling academic freedom clearly correlates to the deterioration of democracy in countries such as Poland, Hungary, Russia and Belarus. Political developments, including military coups in countries such as Myanmar and Afghanistan, have coincided with severe declines in academic freedom. In December 2022, the latter saw a ban by the Taliban on women and girls attending universities, a ruling that illustrates how academic freedom extends beyond what is taught on campuses and delineates one’s freedom to simply exist within academic spaces.
That said, the data shows that declines in academic freedom worldwide have occurred in different political settings and do not always follow the same pattern. Liberal democracies such as the United States of America and the United Kingdom are among the countries under which freedom is proven to be under threat. The AFI attributes this to ‘differences between individual and institutional dimensions of academic freedom’. This demarcates the difference between the freedom of an individual to teach, research and communicate freely and an institution’s autonomy and freedom to operate without government regulation. The AFI report gives a number of examples showing how disaggregation has occurred.
China, for instance, has witnessed a decrease in institutional academic freedom since 2010, when the State Council launched a ten-year strategy for education reform. Chinese universities have since remained in a subordinate position to the party-state, with universities that maintain leadership and management systems controlled by the university’s party committee. The party sets the boundaries of permissible research, exchange, and academics’ public speech. This system facilitated a serious decline in the freedoms enjoyed by academics under President Xi Jinping who has consolidated and centralised power, reestablished the party’s control over information, education and media, and made censorship in China a fact of life. Moreover, the draconian National Security Law enacted in Beijing in 2020 has exacerbated pressure on academic freedom.
The United States, however, presents an altogether different picture. Despite being lauded as a bastion of free expression, the US has seen a visible decline in academic freedom since 2021. This is because educational matters in the USA are largely regulated by individual states, which have increasingly used their authority to interfere in academic affairs. Several Republican-led states have adopted bills that ban the teaching of concepts related to “critical race theory” in universities. Conservative groups have lobbied state legislatures in attempts to withdraw funding from subjects such as gender, minority studies, and environmental science. Some institutions have introduced self-censoring measures following abortion bans to avoid persecution by state governments. In September 2022, Idaho’s flagship university curtailed individual academic freedom by blocking staff from discussing abortion or emergency contraception on campus.
Mexico’s government, led by Andrés Manuel López Obrador, has weakened institutional autonomy by regularly appointing university directors, often resulting in student protests. Attacks on (predominantly female) students, protests against these harassments, and a drug war fought on university campuses has also fuelled a decline in campus integrity, university safety and academic freedom.
The underwhelming glimpse of hope that emerges from this year’s findings (compared with 2022) is that the number of countries with improvements in academic freedom grew from two to five. Overall, the data signals a shift toward a less free world, in a worse state than it was 10 years ago. It’s a tough pill to swallow.
The title of the play Crimea, 5am refers to the time in the morning the authorities choose to raid the homes of activists in the Russian-occupied territory. It is a time of fear and horror for the Crimean Tatars whose voices make up the text of this verbatim play, taken from the testimonies of the men now held in Putin’s prisons and the families waiting at home for them.
Crimea 5am brings to life one of the lesser-known aspects of the brutal war in Ukraine, which began not in February 2022 but in March 2014. It draws on the oral history of the suppression of the Tatar Muslim minority, who returned to the peninsula in the 1990s following independence after years of exile from their homeland.
Much of what we know of life in Crimea since 2014 has come from activists turned citizen journalists. This is one of the reasons the Russian authorities have cracked down so hard on Tatars, characterizing them either as political extremists or Islamist terrorists linked to the group Hizb-ut-Tahrir.
Two examples from the play show how ordinary Tatars went from being activists, to journalists to dissidents in the face of Russian repression.
Tymur Ibrahimov, 38, moved back to Crimea from Uzbeksitan at the age of six in 1991 after the death of his father. In the play, his wife Diliara, explains his transformation from computer repairman to enemy of the state: “It used to be different, until 2014, you know, back then he would make home videos, he would take pictures of nature, like, of the bees and butterflies on flowers, just like that. It all changed in 2015 and he began making footage of what was going on in Crimea. That is, all the searches, court hearings, “Crimean Solidarity” meetings.” For the crime of recording the resistance of his people Tymur was sentenced to 17 years in prison.
Narminan Memedeminov, 39, also moved back to Crimea from Uzbekistan in 1991. After graduating in economics he became involved in human rights activism and media coordinator for the Crimean Solidarity movement. “Here’s an example: I went and took a video of somebody helping out a prisoner’s family, like, basic stuff, they would take the child to the hospital, help them hang the wallpaper, fix the plumbing, send off the parcels to the detention centre and so on… And in the end, everybody involved was at risk: those who took videos, those who helped, those who did anything at all.”
The stories have been brought together by two Ukrainian writers, Natalia Vorozhbyt and Anastasiia Kosodii and the project is backed by the Ukrainian Institute and the Ukrainian Ministry of Foreign Affairs as a way of bringing the situation to international attention. I had the privilege of watching a reading of of the play at the Kiln Theatre, Kilburn in London last week with professional actors alongside non-professional activists and supporters. Directed by Josephine Burton and produced by Dash Arts, the play focuses on the domestic lives of the families of the Tatar political prisoners and particularly the women.
Burton told Index that until the 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine, Crimea has drifted from international attention. “Helped by a media blackout, we forgot that the peninsula has been occupied by Russians for almost nine years now and its Tatar community oppressed,” she said. “Determined to fight this silence, the community has relentlessly documented this oppression – filming and uploading searches, arrests and court cases of its people by the Russian Security Forces. And for this act, these “Citizen Journalists” have been arrested themselves and given insanely long sentences, some for up to 20 years in penal colonies.”
Crimea 5am focuses on the everyday lives of Tatar dissidents, drawn from many hours of recordings with the families of 11 political prisoners. “It builds a beautiful and powerful portrait of a community, ripped apart by this tragedy, but also woven with stories of love and resilience through the prism of the wives left behind. It is this mix of tenderness and humour alongside the unfathomable darkness which enables its impact. We the audience become invested in their lives and feel the impact of their tragedy deeply.”
Dash Arts is looking for further opportunities to perform Crimea 5am: https://www.dasharts.org.uk/
[vc_row][vc_column][vc_custom_heading text=”حميد إسماعيلوف هو صحافي وكاتب أوزبكي اضطر إلى الفرار من أوزبكستان في عام ١٩٩٢ بسبب ما وصفته الدولة “بميول ديمقراطية غير مقبولة“.” font_container=”tag:h2|text_align:right”][vc_row_inner][vc_column_inner][vc_column_text]
Hamid Ismailov deserves an apology. Or at the very least, an explanation.
It has been 26 years since the events that led Uzbek journalist Hamid Ismailov to leave his home country of Uzbekistan and flee to the United Kingdom. In the 1990s, Ismailov was working with a BBC television crew to make a film about Uzbekistan. The repressive regime in power under Islam Karimov opened a criminal case against Ismailov. The authorities said Ismailov was trying to overthrow the government.
Friends advised Ismailov to flee Uzbekistan after threats against his family and attacks on his home. So he did. Twenty-four years later, he still hasn’t been back.
That’s not for lack of trying. Ismailov attempted to go back as recently as last year after the death of Karimov in 2016. He was denied entry.
One of the most widely published Uzbek writers in the world, Ismailov’s books are banned in his home country. Mentions of Ismailov are not tolerated. His existence has essentially been erased from the daily cultural life of his homeland. However, in the age of the internet, Ismailov has found ways to reach the Uzbek audience through social media sites like Facebook. He posts his novels to Facebook where Uzbeks can read them.
According to Reporters Without Borders’s press freedom index, Uzbekistan is ranked 169th out of 180 countries. With traditional media tightly controlled, the government’s attention has more recently begun cracking down on the independent news websites and instant messaging apps.
After Karimov’s death in 2016, Prime Minister Shavkat Mirziyoyev assumed power. On 2 March 2018, Uzbekistan released the world’s longest-imprisoned journalist Yusuf Ruzimuradov, who had been imprisoned for over 19 years. Ismailov expressed joy at the news of Ruzimuradov’s release but remains doubtful saying, “as much as I am hopeful, I am skeptical as well”.
In his time in exile in the United Kingdom, Ismailov has worked for the BBC World Services. In May 2010, Ismailov was appointed the BBC Writer-in-Residence, a position he held until the end of 2014. Ismailov is currently the editor for Central Asian Services at the BBC.
Hamid Ismailov spoke with Index on Censorship’s Sydney Kalich about the state of human rights in Uzbekistan, his time in exile and his newly translated book, The Devil’s Dance. Below is an edited version of their interview:
Index: What was the human rights situation like in Uzbekistan before you left and how has the situation changed over the last 23 years?
Ismailov: Unfortunately it has worsened over the years because of the autocratic regime of president Karimov, who was in power at that time and died in 2016. So all this time the situation with human rights was quite dire in Uzbekistan. Uzbekistan was always in the lower, in the bottom part of the human rights records in the world. So, nowadays with the new president, the way Shavkat Mirziyoyev acts makes us hopeful that the situation with human rights is improving because several political prisoners were freed from prison. Some activities and press have started to be more active and more open. There’s a glimmer of hope that things will improve. But at the same time — looking around at other countries with new leaders who pretended first to be reformers but then revert to the policies of previous rulers — I am also a bit skeptical. As much as I am hopeful, I am skeptical as well.
Index: You tried to go back to Uzbekistan last year and were turned away, do you think you’ll see your country again?
Ismailov: Yes, it was quite unfortunate because even under the previous authorities I attempted twice to enter Uzbekistan after the Andijan events of 2005, but the new administration did not allow me to enter the country. That was quite a shock. I think that they owe me an apology for why they didn’t allow me into my own country. I am one of the writers that is quite well known in the west and all over the world who promotes Uzbek literature, maybe most of all. So why haven’t I been allowed into the country? I need an explanation and at least an apology before I decide what to do next.
Index: And you’ve felt that way each time you’ve been refused entry, you just feel like you need an apology?
Ismailov: I think so. I didn’t commit any crimes against Uzbekistan. I didn’t do anything or any harm to Uzbekistan. All I am doing is promoting the literature and the culture of Uzbekistan all over the world. Therefore, I am a bit shocked and perplexed why I haven’t been allowed into Uzbekistan. It is where all my relatives live, I was planning on going to the grave of my mother to pay tribute. But when I planned everything, all of a sudden, I was kicked out of the airport.
Index: You haven’t lived in the country since 1992, but you still publish in Uzbek. Does this mean you still write with an Uzbek audience in mind, rather than a western audience?
Ismailov: I write in different languages. I write in Uzbek. I write in Russian. I write in English as well. So different languages for different audiences. If I write in Uzbek, it’s probably for Uzbeks, not many English people or Russians are reading in Uzbek. The translations serve me well because of the ban on my books in Uzbekistan. But in the age of the internet, the bans don’t matter too much because I can still publish my work on the net. Another thing is that people are afraid to name me or discuss me because they know the consequences of that. Nonetheless, the internet makes my life much easier.
Index: Your new book, The Devil’s Dance, is about to be released to the UK market in English, what is it about?
Ismailov: In fact The Devil’s Dance is not a new book. I finished it in 2012 and then published it in Uzbek on Facebook. It was quite viral at the time. It seems new because it’s been translated to English. In fact, I wrote three novels after that one and I just finished an English novel. The Devil’s Dance is the story of the iconic writer, Abdulla Qodiriy, the most revered 20th Century Uzbek author, who wanted to write a novel which would supersede all he had written before. We know what this novel was meant to be about but while he begun to draft this novel he was arrested. Ten months later, in 1938, he was shot dead in the Stalinien prisons. My novel is about Qodiriy’s days in prison when he thinks about his famous unwritten novel. There are two novels in one. I dared to write a novel for him. It happens in his mind so it’s not 100 per cent written but there are rough drafts, there are stories, there are intentions and ideas. It’s a written but — at the same time — an unwritten novel.
Index: How did your time as writer-in-residence at the BBC influence you as a journalist?
Ismailov: It was fun but at the same time I felt a great responsibility because I was representing this great cohort of writers like George Orwell, V. S. Naipaul and others. I was feeling like an embodiment of those people. I was trying to show what the writership means for the organisation, what the creativity means for this organisation.
Index: What do you think the most difficult part about being a journalist in exile has been?
Ismailov: The most difficult part is not being with your people on a daily basis. Though virtually you are with them on a daily basis but you don’t see them face to face, that’s the biggest part. There are bonuses to being in exile though. When you start to look at your part of the world or your country with a bird’s eye view in a way. You can see the perspective of your country within the world. You can compare the experiences of your country to other parts of the world and you can bring experiences or similar experiences of other countries into your world. So there are pluses and minuses.
Index: How do you think your reporting has changed since you’ve been in exile?
Ismailov: I think journalism in the former Soviet Union was a very conceptual one. It was about the concepts and big schemes rather than human stories. BBC Journalism is more about human stories, you approach the reality through human stories and human experiences. So that was the most striking difference and striking experience for me. As a writer, I always treat my stories through the experiences of my characters so that was a very similar in western journalism as well. So therefore, it was a harmony for me working in journalism here. As a writer, you approach through the characters, as a journalist here you do the same.
Index: You once mentioned that some people feel more connected to their home country’s culture and more pride in their culture after leaving their country, do you feel that way about Uzbekistan culture?
Ismailov: Yes, I do. Yes, I feel responsible for my culture because when I think about my forefathers, about my grannies and about my aunties, about all people whose input in my culture was so great – I have to return something to this culture which made me what I am today. But at the same time, I feel part of different cultures, of the Russian culture, of the English culture as well, now that I have been living in the London for the past 24 years. I have never lived in one place for so long. So therefore, I pay tribute to this country and I am in debt to this country. I am writing several novels in English as well to pay my tribute to this country and to this culture.
Maybe Uzbekistan even owes Ismailov a thank you.
[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column width=”1/2″][vc_video link=”https://youtu.be/tOxGaGKy6fo”][/vc_column][vc_column width=”1/2″][vc_column_text]Index on Censorship partner Global Journalist is a website that features global press freedom and international news stories as well as a weekly radio program that airs on KBIA, mid-Missouri’s NPR affiliate, and partner stations in six other states. The website and radio show are produced jointly by professional staff and student journalists at the University of Missouri’s School of Journalism, the oldest school of journalism in the United States. [/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][vc_custom_heading text=”Don’t lose your voice. Stay informed.” use_theme_fonts=”yes”][vc_separator color=”black”][vc_row_inner][vc_column_inner width=”1/2″][vc_column_text]Index on Censorship is a nonprofit that campaigns for and defends free expression worldwide. We publish work by censored writers and artists, promote debate, and monitor threats to free speech. We believe that everyone should be free to express themselves without fear of harm or persecution – no matter what their views.
Join our mailing list (or follow us on Twitter or Facebook). We’ll send you our weekly newsletter, our monthly events update and periodic updates about our activities defending free speech. We won’t share, sell or transfer your personal information to anyone outside Index.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column_inner][vc_column_inner width=”1/2″][gravityform id=”20″ title=”false” description=”false” ajax=”false”][/vc_column_inner][/vc_row_inner][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row full_width=”stretch_row_content”][vc_column][three_column_post title=”Global Journalist / Project Exile” full_width_heading=”true” category_id=”22142″][/vc_column][/vc_row]