Self-Censorship in Arab Higher Education: an Untold Problem

Editor’s note: This is the lead article in a package on the prevalence and consequences of academic self-censorship in Arab higher education, based on a survey conducted by Al-Fanar Media and the Scholars at Risk network. See other articles and commentaries in the package at this link.

About 75 percent of professors at Arab universities practice academic self-censorship in their professional lives—stopping themselves from saying what they believe to avoid getting in trouble—according to an online survey by Al-Fanar Media and Scholars at Risk. And considering the restrictions that officials in some countries place on what professors can say or do, actual levels of academic self-censorship could be much higher. This suggests that freedom of expression, one of the hallmarks of university education, is at risk

“The tendency to self-censor, which these key findings suggest, also matches with the data of the latest edition of the Academic Freedom Index, where the MENA region scores lowest in global comparison,” Benjamin Schmäling, director of the regional office in Amman of DAAD, the German Academic Exchange Service, wrote in an email. (See a related article, “Arab Region Scores Lowest in the World for Academic Freedom.”)

Self-censorship can have a drastic impact on the free and open exchange of ideas and information, said Mahmoud Naji, a researcher in the Academic Freedom Program of the Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression, a human-rights advocacy group based in Cairo.

“It reduces the area of freedom granted to professors during discussions with students,” said Naji. It also “limits their possibility in transferring knowledge to the student first, and in working on developing research.”

Of course, the fates of Galileo and Socrates are apt reminders that the history of speaking one’s mind in a politically contentious environment is long and fraught. But there’s something different about the self-censorship challenge in universities, especially in light of its toll on the quality of academic discourse.

“It hinders the ability of professors and academic institutions to solve the problems of society and push the wheel of development,” Naji said. “It affects the professional performance of faculty members, which in turn is reflected in the quality of university education in general.”

“It hinders the ability of professors and academic institutions to solve the problems of society and push the wheel of development. It affects the professional performance of faculty members, which in turn is reflected in the quality of university education in general.”

Mahmoud Naji
A researcher in the Academic Freedom Program of the Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression

Naji believes that academic self-censorship is a “reflection of the general climate” professors work under, which is limited by the “interventions of governments on higher education issues through directive policies and restrictive laws regarding teaching methods and their research.”

Survey Method

The survey is the first of its kind to investigate self-censorship in academia in the Arab region, and it comes as a joint effort between Al-Fanar Media and the Scholars at Risk Network, an independent not-for-profit organization based at New York University.

“Academic self-censorship is extremely difficult to measure,” said Robert Quinn, the founding executive director of Scholars at Risk. “If an individual is afraid to share their thoughts with even close colleagues, they are naturally reticent from sharing the fact of their fears with unfamiliar researchers. But we have to try. If we cannot measure the problem, we cannot see it, and cannot fix it.”

The survey was conducted online over a period of five months (November 2020 to March 2021) and obtained 190 responses from academics in 17 Arab countries: Algeria, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Morocco, Oman, Palestine, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, Tunisia, the United Arab Emirates and Yemen.

There were also responses from Arab professors in countries outside the region, including France, Ghana, India, Iran, Kenya, Malaysia, Mexico, South Africa, Spain, Turkey, the United Kingdom, the United States and elsewhere. Some of these respondents said the fear of consequences for relatives back home kept them from speaking their minds at their distant institutions.

“Even though I am not working at the region right at the moment, I do not feel I have full freedom to express my thoughts at my work as my family are still there and I am concerned about colleagues’ slandering,” said a Syrian professor who is currently working in Turkey.

Different Forms of Self-Censorship

The forms and degrees of academic self-censorship vary from one place to another. It is slightly less prevalent in classrooms, laboratories and libraries than in official meetings: Seventy-seven percent of respondents reported that they were somewhat likely, likely, or very likely to self-censor in classrooms, while 86 percent said they self-censored during official meetings, in the offices of administrators, or among faculty or student groups.

Self-censorship is also widely common in digital media, with 85 percent of respondents reporting that they were somewhat likely, likely, or very likely to self-censor in online classes, in emails or over social media.

“I have been harassed by the security authorities because of some posts on Facebook,” said an Egyptian professor who works at public university in the north of Cairo and asked not to be named. “I was defending the right of professors for better salaries and compensation to support their scientific research output. Since that time, I stopped posting anything on social media.”

Some believe that their email and communications are monitored.

“Everything is monitored. We have to be careful to not lose our jobs or maybe life by being sent to jail,” said a Lebanese female professor who also asked not to be named. “The space for free expression in Lebanon is rapidly shrinking,” she added. “Many prosecutions for free speech happen every day now.” (See a related article, “Freedom of Expression in Lebanon Faces New Threats.”)

Another researcher admitted he generally feels comfortable discussing issues in one-on-one conversations, but “over social media or in public, heck no.”

Some academics said they choose to steer clear of addressing political topics on social media because “people are much more tactless behind a screen.”

“In countries where the law is absent, a slander by a colleague or misunderstanding a word can cost you your life, it’s not a joke.”

Ali Al-Buraihi
A former dean of the Faculty of Information at Sana’a University

Self-censorship is happening also in personal communications with international scholars or students. Still, it’s higher in communications at a home institution (76 percent) than with those abroad (70 percent).

“In countries where the law is absent, a slander by a colleague or  misunderstanding a word can cost you your life, it’s not a joke,” said Ali Al-Buraihi, a former dean of the Faculty of Information at Sana’a University.

Types of Retaliation

Around 60 percent of respondents reported that their greatest fear was of arrest or prosecution, while the rest had fears of loss of position or privileges, travel restrictions, threats of physical violence, and threats of physical harm to family or colleagues.

“Yes, I practice self-censorship all the time and on a daily basis,” said Tariq Al-Marhaby, a teaching assistant in the computer and networks department at Hajjah University, in Yemen. “You could be killed just because you have a different opinion. Many professors have been subjected to killings, beatings, and mobbing because of political opinions or affiliations.” (See a related article, “Attacks on Yemeni Higher Education Are Highlighted in ‘Free to Think’ Report.”)

Around 25 percent of respondents reported that they had experienced professional, legal or physically violent retaliation since the start of the last academic year.

Security authorities were seen as the primary source of threat, followed by university administrations and then co-workers.

“An informal conversation with a colleague could cause a big problem, if it was misunderstood unintentionally or intentionally,” said Nashwa Issa, an assistant professor of physics at El-Neelain University, in Khartoum.

Some said that social restrictions on freedom of expression are harder than those imposed by governments and employers, and that it could be almost impossible to tackle a forbidden topic in some societies.

“Working in the social science field is very difficult, as society is more dominating than politics,” said a female professor in Libya who asked not to be named. “Doing research or discussing topics related to sex or drug addiction are very critical. So we practice self-censorship regularly to avoid being hurt.”

This professor is among the 60 percent of respondents who reported that they had advised colleagues to self-censor.

Of course, there are some academics who believe there is no need to self-censor.

“I do not think that there is any reason to impose self-censorship here,” said Abdul Rahman Saeed, a professor of psychology at Umm Al-Qura University in Mecca, Saudi Arabia. “The kingdom has changed a lot and we are living in openness at all levels,” Saeed said. “We do not have any red lines, but there some topics that might have conflict with the values of society which we need to be careful about.”

Distorting Effects on Collaborations

Schmäling, of the DAAD office in Amman, believes that self-censorship implies that different aspects of academic discourse, ranging from the joint definition of research topics to the dissemination of research results to the scientific community or a wider public, are limited, distorted, or even blighted.

“In so far, it directly affects scientific cooperation, both nationally and internationally,” he said.

Finding a remedy, however, is difficult. Because self-censorship is something that takes place inside the mind of the individual, it resists policy-oriented solutions.

“I think it is important to attack the problem from different angles: Raising awareness and sensitivity for the issue of self-censorship, both on an individual and an institutional level, is of prior importance,” said Schmäling.

He added that advocacy groups, funding organizations or university rankings can play a decisive role. “They can not only take a stance on academic freedom and self-censorship at large, but also integrate specific aspects of it (and their avoidance) in their policies, programs, publications and activities. Here, too, the international exchange and cooperation in higher education and research can have a supportive function.”

“I think it is important to attack the problem from different angles: Raising awareness and sensitivity for the issue of self-censorship, both on an individual and an institutional level, is of prior importance.”

Benjamin Schmäling
Director of the Amman office of DAAD, the German Academic Exchange Service

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In turn, Naji calls academic institutions to work more seriously to protect professors and researchers from any threats, especially governmental ones.

“The absence of any party defending the rights of professors in the face of this incursion on their scientific and research rights is the main reason behind self-censorship,” he said.

Tarek Abd El-Galil and Amr El-Tohamy contributed to this article.

By: Rasha Faek

Rasha is an experienced journalist and editor, who has joined Al-Fanar Media since its launch early in 2013. She has contributed to international publications such as USA Today and Bloomberg BAN. Rasha holds three bachelor’s degrees in English literature from Damascus University, in dramatic arts from the Higher Institute of Dramatic Arts in Damascus, and in journalism from Damascus Open University. She was a keynote speaker at the Denver University Internationalization Summit in 2017, titled:  Refugees, Migration and the Internationalization of Higher Education. Rasha contributed to a manual on Education Journalism, produced by Al-Fanar Media in 2014, and put an Arabic guideline on how to write about Women, security and peace, published by the Syrian Female Journalists Network in 2018. She has also contributed a 7,000-word chapter entitled “Syria: Educational Decline and Decimation” for the book Education in the Arab World, published by Bloomsbury in 2017.

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