Screened by the regime: How undemocratic states influence academics

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.”

“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.”

Continue reading at This article is written by Marleen van Wesel and was originally posted at Mare, the newspaper of Leiden University. Used here with permission.


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