In the information wars, we are on the front line

January 19, 2001

"We believe we have the right to create something new." That is how one student activist described the philosophy of Otpor (Resistance), the Yugoslav student movement that played a key role in forcing Slobodan Milosevic to relinquish power last year.

It is this belief in the right to create something new that makes institutions of higher learning engines of growth - economic, cultural and social. But, as documented by research at Human Rights Watch, the pursuit of new ideas too frequently leads to attacks on universities by those who resist political progress.

As the speed with which we can transmit information increases, so too does its value as a source of political and economic power, and we should expect the struggle to control it to increase in severity. Modern communications offer the promise of the wealth of the "new economy" and also the new thinking of Otpor and other academic critics of oppression.

The two trends are inextricably linked. Across the globe, institutions of higher learning are needed to train new generations in the use of this information, but they are often punished for fostering independent thought.

Otpor, which grew out of student and faculty resistance to the Milosevic government's attempts to impose direct political controls on universities, embodies the ability of university-centred groups to foment change. Campus groups in other countries, while not as sophisticated or successful as Otpor, are paying attention. In Iran, the students' mature policy of "active calm" has played a central role in creating what space there is for political and cultural debate.

This space has diminished across a wide swath of the world, from Central Asia to North Africa. Caught between the growing intrusiveness of western culture and the expanding popularity of religious fundamentalism, many governments in this region have clamped down on academic freedom. In Turkmenistan, the government boarded up the country's century-old central library because it was viewed as a wellspring of dangerous notions; in Egypt, the pro-democracy Ibn Khaldun research centre was shut on spurious grounds at the same time as dozens of religious teachers and students were jailed.

The results have been the same everywhere: a marked degradation in civil discourse, an alarming brain drain and a noticeable decrease in economic competitiveness.

This pattern is not limited to the Islamic world. China continues to silence scholars whose work questions official policies, while Hong Kong's universities suffer under the mainland's tightening grip. At the same time, China is one of the world's main exporters of students of higher education, as it attempts to narrow the technological gap between itself and the leading industrial nations.

The World Bank recently expressed alarm about what it calls the knowledge divide between the developed and the developing world, which threatens to exacerbate economic inequalities between these regions. The bank's research has established the necessity of a strong higher education system for competing in a global economy. At an even more basic level, the World Education Forum, held last year in Dakar, Senegal, documented the direct, self-perpetuating link between poverty and lack of education.

Unfortunately, globalisation also renders more countries vulnerable to market volatility, which often results in the loss of investment in education. At the same time, the adjustment programmes and debt-repayment schedules imposed by international financial institutions have hobbled the ability of the poorest countries to fund education.

The negative effects of globalisation on academic freedom are not limited to the developing world. In the United States, Britain, New Zealand and Australia, reports indicate that private corporate investments in universities often come with limits on academic freedom. A US pharmaceuticals company is suing the scientists whose work it funded to prevent their publishing research that contradicts company claims.

And the University of Denver withdrew a law review article it had published after Boise Cascade, a multinational paper-producing company, objected to the article's conclusion that the company's logging in Mexico had aggravated tensions between local farmers and the government. Most significantly, the article has been removed from electronic databases, which are one of the most promising aspects of the revolution in technology.

While the means of transmitting information may be new, the old impulse to control the academics who convey this information has also grown. In the information age universities will host the struggle for the future, and they require our protection.

Saman Zia-Zarifi is director of the academic freedom programme at Human Rights Watch

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