Methodology of the Academic Freedom Monitoring Project

Researchers: Scholars at Risk secretariat staff and a network of volunteer researchers around the world, including SAR scholars, faculty in SAR’s network, and students participating in SAR’s Academic Freedom Legal Clinics, identify and research incidents, draft, review, publish reports to the monitoring project, and advise on responses to severe attacks. All reports are reviewed by SAR secretariat staff before they are published to the monitoring project.

Identification: In most cases, initial identification and corroboration of incidents will come from secondary sources such as media stories and NGO reports. Where practical, researchers may attempt to collect primary source material also, including statements from victims, witnesses and/or perpetrators. These may be obtained as quotes in secondary reports (e.g. media stories), may be available as public statements on personal or organizational websites or blogs, or may be obtained through email/chat, VOIP, telephone, or in-person interviews. Researchers determine whether a suggested interview can be conducted ethically and with sufficient protection for the safety and security of the interview subject as well as the researcher. Scholars at Risk receives, reviews, and marshals reports from all researchers into a consolidated monitoring summary, and provides general oversight and support for all aspects of the monitoring project.

The 6 types of conduct the monitoring project tracks are:

Killings/Violence/Disappearances: Relevant incidents include killings and disappearances either in retaliation for particular academic content or conduct, or the targeting of members of higher education communities, including higher education leaders, academic and nonacademic staff, and higher education students. Disappearance includes arrest, detention, abduction, or other deprivation of liberty by government or quasi-government officials, or by groups or individuals acting on behalf of, or with support, consent, or acquiescence of the government, followed by a refusal to disclose the fate or whereabouts of the persons concerned or a refusal to acknowledge the deprivation of their liberty, which places such persons outside the protection of the law. Violence includes violent physical assaults causing serious harm to individual members of higher education communities, including beatings, shootings, or other injuries with weapons, and torture.

Wrongful Imprisonment: Relevant incidents include the arrest, interrogation, detention, and/or prosecution of scholars, students or other members of higher education communities on false or otherwise wrongful grounds or charges, directly relating to, or in retaliation for, the expression of academic opinions or other professional or student activity, as well as in retaliation against other exercise of fundamental human rights, including free expression and freedom of association. The latter may include incidents of scholars, students, or other members of higher education communities engaging in protected free expression, such as writing a letter to a newspaper or participating in a protest rally, even if such letter or rally is unrelated to the individual’s higher education sector status. (These incidents may not qualify as violations of academic freedom directly, but may still constitute violations of the human rights of members of higher education communities which in turn may indirectly impair academic freedom.)

Wrongful Prosecution: Relevant incidents include administrative, civil, or criminal proceedings against higher education leaders, academic and nonacademic staff, or higher education students involving false or otherwise wrongful grounds or charges directly relating to, or in retaliation for, the expression of academic opinions or other professional or student activity, or in retaliation for other exercise of fundamental human rights including free expression and freedom of association. (Note that charges may be grounded in local law but nevertheless violate recognized international human rights standards because they punish protected activity.) Relevant incidents may also include, among others, proceedings for so-called “reputational harms” (e.g. ‘insulting the State’ or ‘offending national leaders’) which may subject individuals to substantial monetary penalties or imprisonment, restrictions on travel during pendency of any action or after conviction, bankruptcy, loss of political rights (including right to hold or run for elective office) and loss of position at state enterprises, including universities. Also included should be documented incidents where State or other entities use the threat of defamation or similar legal action to intimidate and silence academic personnel or students, even if such an action is never formally commenced (e.g. a State minister makes a public speech threatening prosecution of a scholar or expulsion of students for publishing an article). Such proceedings may be brought on behalf of individuals and institutions including governments and other state entities (such as the military), officials, private citizens, state religions, and nations themselves. When reporting on incidents of this type, researchers are encouraged to identify and if possible attach copies of the legal provisions providing the basis for any charges or threatened charges and evidence, such as any photographs of incidents or copies of any allegedly offending statements or publications.

Travel Restrictions: Relevant incidents include improper travel restrictions on higher education leaders, academic and nonacademic staff, and higher education students in connection with academic content or conduct. These include, but are not limited to, legal, administrative, or physical restrictions on travel within a state; restrictions on travel between states; arbitrary restrictions on a scholar or student’s ability to obtain a visa or other entry or exit documents; denial of future permissions for travel; and retaliation for attempting to travel or after return from travel. Travel restrictions may be imposed by government authorities of the scholar or student’s home state, government authorities of the state to be visited, and/or higher education institutions, leadership or professional associations.

Loss of Position: Relevant incidents involving higher education leaders or academic staff include discharge, demotion, loss of promotion or other professional penalty for a scholar’s academic work and exercise of other fundamental human rights, including statements made in the classroom, writings, research, professional association/union activity, engagement with (and criticism of) higher education leadership or education policy, etc. Relevant incidents involving students include dismissal or expulsion from studies based on academic work or student activities, including statements made in the classroom, writings, research, student association/union activity, engagement with (and criticism of) higher education leadership or education policy, etc. The offending penalties may be imposed by state authorities, higher education institutions, or other higher education-related authorities.

Other Incidents: Researchers are encouraged to report incidents which do not fit squarely within one or more of the 5 defined types of conduct yet are of such importance, scale, scope and/or duration that they have already, or have the potential to impair significantly higher education functions, academic freedom, or the exercise of human rights by members of higher education communities. Such incidents may include occupation or closing of higher education campuses; destruction of higher education facilities, materials, or infrastructures; systematic or prolonged harassment or threats against members of higher education communities; systematic limits on access to higher education; and/or systematic discrimination based on gender, race or other grounds in access to, employment within, or other elements relating to higher education.

Corroboration: Researchers are instructed to provide at least two independent sources to corroborate each incident reported on the monitoring project. These may include secondary sources such as local, national, and international media outlets. They may also include primary sources such as interviews with victims, witnesses, or bystanders, and court/government documents. Researchers should strive to select sources that provide a reliable description of the incident (i.e. the reported events can be verified independently), or are well-recognized for high-quality, accurate reporting. Researchers are instructed to exclude sources that appear overtly biased. However, reports by non-governmental and advocacy organizations that have been deemed sufficiently objective and reliable may be used to corroborate incidents. Where multiple, reliable sources provide materially different accounts of relevant events, reports should acknowledge such discrepancies.

Evaluation and verification: Researchers and SAR staff review, evaluate, and strive to independently corroborate the key events, actors, and violations, described in each reported incident. Incidents that have been independently corroborated through sufficiently reliable primary or secondary sources are marked as “verified.” Incidents marked as “unverified” are those where only limited corroborating information is provided by the researcher or is otherwise available to SAR, but which are nevertheless potentially significant and merit reporting. SAR staff review and may include for reporting incidents that have garnered predominantly local attention, but which due to their impact on higher education communities, warrant broader international awareness.

Incident reports, links, and references are provided to assist users in evaluating alleged reports and do not necessarily represent the views of SAR, participating monitors, or respective members and partners of the Scholars at Risk Network.

SAR will not knowingly report or disseminate information that is false or uncorroborated. SAR welcomes submissions of additional corroborating, clarifying or contradictory information which may be used to further research or otherwise improve data reported. To share information about an incident or to report a new incident, please email us.

If SAR determines that a material correction to a report is required, SAR will update the report and issue a “correction” notice within the report. If SAR’s review of a published report indicates that the incident would not appropriately qualify under SAR’s reporting standards or scope, SAR will retract the incident from the monitoring index and archive it with a note explaining SAR’s reasoning (archived incidents found here).