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Lecturer faces disciplinary committee, possible dismissal, as free expression declines at university

(FXI/IFEX) - The following is a 9 October 2006 FXI press release:

FXI Concerned about growing "climate of fear" at UKZN

The Freedom of Expression Institute is very concerned about the state of freedom of expression and academic freedom at the University of KwaZulu Natal. Free expression and academic freedom are in severe decline at the university.

The latest incident causing concern is the matter of Fazel Khan, who is being hauled before a disciplinary committee. Khan, a sociology lecturer at UKZN, gave interviews to certain media that had approached him regarding the publication of an article in the latest issue of ukzndaba (Vol. 3, No. 6/7, June/ July 2006), a newsletter published by UKZN's Public Affairs and Corporate Communications Department. The article is about a film Khan had co-directed, but the article makes no mention of him or his involvement in the film, while naming his co-director as the director. The article was accompanied by a picture showing Khan's co-director. The original picture had included Khan but he was cropped out in the newsletter. An aggrieved Khan was very critical of the newsletter when approached for comment. The criticisms will be used against Khan in the disciplinary hearing where he faces possible dismissal.

The university's action is appalling. Only in the most authoritarian societies do universities prevent academics from speaking to the media about their work, their research and their opinions and criticisms on the development of society and of their own institutions.

Khan acted on the basis of his constitutional right to free expression. Any disciplinary action taken against Khan would constitute an unreasonable limitation on his right to freedom of expression and would thus be unconstitutional. Most worrying is that this is not an unusual case. Particularly in the past six months, a climate of fear has taken root at the university, where academics, workers and students are afraid of challenging or criticising the university administration. Such a climate seriously threatens the spirit of enquiry and academic freedom. It also can have a chilling effect on freedom of expression more generally. A number of incidents over the past year:

1. A recent report found that, "The executive management of the University of KwaZulu-Natal is not trusted by a significant number of faculty and staff to follow through on its promises or to honour its commitments," (The Mercury, 25 September 2006). The report also found there was, at the university, a lack of consultation and a lack of meaningful communication; an authoritarian attitude; the privilege of position; intimidation and bullying; a lack of transparency and democratic procedures. The fact that such perceptions exist among staff should be extremely worrying - whether they are true or not. It is disconcerting in an institution that is supposed to be a bastion of free thinking when those who have the responsibility to foster such free thinking believe it to be authoritarian and bullying.

2. The refusal by the University Vice-Chancellor, Malegapuru Makgoba, to meet with representatives of the Student Solidarity Counselling and Appeals Committee and the Socialist Student Movement to discuss student exclusions simply because they had spoken to the media.

3. An email notice from Professor Dasarath Chetty, head of UKZN's Public Affairs and Corporate Communications Department, in March 2006, to the university community informing them of the university's intention to prevent them from speaking to the media about impending strike action by staff.

4. An academic from Rhodes University, Professor Jimi Adesina, being sued by Chetty for defamation for an email Adesina had sent out wherein he had criticised Chetty's email notice to the university community (referred to in 3. above).

5. An email notice from Makgoba in August 2006, informing them that the "Senate resolved that all members of the University Community should exercise due care when communicating with the media, so as not to bring the University into disrepute."

6. The UKZN "Electronic Communications Policy" which has been effective from January 2006. This policy is a gross violation of academic freedom and freedom of expression more generally. Apart from allowing the university to spy on individuals' email correspondences, it also allows the university to read documents on staff members' PCs. Further, it makes "illegal" any email and web content that "contains material that is unlawful or in violation of any University Policy including but not limited to pornographic, oppressive, racist, sexist, defamatory against any User or third party." This is a severe restriction on academics conducting research on various aspects of racism, sexism, feminism, freedom of expression, etc.

7. A recent incident (The Mercury, 28 September 2006) when an academic was prevented by software the university IT department had installed on his computer from sending out emails because he had not assented to the "Electronic Communications Policy".

UKZN has fostered an environment of fear, apprehension and uncertainty among many staff and students. It is a climate where those who are outspoken and controversial have to be silenced.

If allowed to go unchallenged, the decision about Fazel Khan will set a negative precedent for freedom of expression in South Africa's academic institutions, because it will create a climate of self-censorship at the heart of intellectual life in this country. It will mean that academics will have to refrain from any form of commentary on or reasonable criticism of their universities out of fear of being dismissed. Academics have an inalienable right to engage in political speech about matters of public interest, and should be able to do so freely.

We believe the impending action against Fazel Khan is unnecessary. We have therefore urged Professor Makgoba to withdraw all charges against Khan and to begin the process of transforming the fearful environment at the university.

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