By Catherine Owen
Marking the 100th day since the arrest of Alexander Sodiqov in Khorog, Tajikistan, staff and students in the Universities of Exeter, Sciences Po and Toronto met to debate the wider implications for conducting fieldwork in potentially dangerous or rapidly changing societies. On 16th June 2014, Sodiqov, a PhD student at the University of Toronto, was detained by Tajik security officials in Khorog, capital of the autonomous province of Gorno-Badakhstan, while conducting research for the University of Exeter into conflict resolution in the region. He was subsequently accused of collecting information that undermined national security and of working for a foreign intelligence service. The Tajik government soon charged him with high treason, a crime that carries a punishment of 20 years in prison. After spending more than a month behind bars, Sodiqov was released but was required to remain inside the country. Finally – and although the charges are still to be formally dropped – Sodiqov was allowed to return to his studies in Canada on 12 September.
Clearly, these events, and others like them, have serious implications for scholars. The questions driving the meetings were: what implications does the arrest of Sodiqov have for the future of ethnographic research in changing political contexts around the world? And how can we, as an academic community, prevent such events from happening in the future? In Exeter, the packed meeting was organised jointly by the undergraduate Politics and Amnesty International societies, and drew both undergraduate and postgraduate students as well as faculty and management. Questions were raised about the specifics of the Sodiqov case before developing into a broader discussion about how to protect researchers conducting fieldwork in authoritarian states. In Paris, the meeting draw researchers from a variety of institutions, who discussed whether the flurry of events similar to the Sodiqov case indicates the development of a broader trend towards greater hostility regarding foreign researchers in authoritarian states and, if so, how the academic community can and should protect those researchers.
A number of ideas were discussed that could potentially alert those planning research trips to authoritarian states to emergent dangers or changing perceptions of foreign researchers. In particular, the creation of a website to which posts detailing any difficulties encountered in various locations could be anonymously uploaded, thereby alerting the academic community to the current situation ‘on the ground’. This idea, a project of John Heathershaw and Edward Schatz, and currently in the planning stage, could serve as an important resource for researchers working in potentially turbulent areas. Ideally, such a site could allow scholars and their institutions to make informed decisions about whether or not to risk conducting research in these areas. Indeed, a similar body had been mooted by the French academic community in 2011, but alas was not pursued.
While a website that collates information about the political risks to researchers conducting work in authoritarian societies is an excellent idea in theory, there are, perhaps, a number of problems in practice. The following is not meant to be taken as pessimistic or cynical, but rather as a contribution to the on-going discussion about how to prevent the imprisonment of another researcher while also being unafraid to ask challenging research questions.
My primary concern is that the widespread use of such a site would create a culture of fear among researchers working on these countries. Would the collation of stories of arrest, imprisonment, harassment or persecution discourage scholars, particularly junior or post-graduate scholars, from pursuing their ideal object of study? Secondly, and following on from this, would such a site inflate the dangers of working such places? It could be that many hundreds of researchers conduct successful projects in a particular region, but five cases of state harassment were uploaded to the site, thus creating the impression of severe repression. In other words, it may end up exaggerating rather than reflecting potential risks. Furthermore, if individuals were uploading their own stories, they would be less likely to admit their own errors that perhaps partially precipitated their problems. It would be hard to know whether a region was genuinely risky, or whether researchers had somehow been insensitive, naïve or otherwise foolhardy. In short, would such a site inadvertently ‘shoot itself in the foot’, having been founded through a commitment to academic freedom but resulting in scholars’ self-censorship? While an online tool that collates researchers’ experiences conducting fieldwork evidently an important and much-needed resource, the big question, in my view – as someone who has also confronted the authoritarian state’s boundary of ‘appropriate’ research – is how to ensure that such a site is used to empower, not discourage, pioneering research.
Are these issues resolvable? I cannot pretend to know the answer. The most important thing is to continue a broad discussion about how to protect scholars from state persecution arising from their commitment to the furtherance of academic knowledge.