The case of Matthew Hedges, the PhD student from Durham University’s School of Government and International Affairs, who has been detained in the United Arab Emirates since May 2018, drew significant attention from the media and the academic community in the United Kingdom and worldwide. Over 600 scholars from all over the world have signed an open letter expressing their concern over the circumstances surrounding Hedges’ detention, and the charges he is being held against (i.e. gathering information to share with a foreign agency), and demanding his immediate release.
Hedges’ case highlights the perilous nature of conducting fieldwork in field sites where violence is prevalent, and comes two years after the academic community was shaken by the murder of Cambridge University’s student, Giulio Regeni, in Egypt.
What has been particularly troubling about both incidents is the absence of clear safety and survival guidelines for both researchers, who were approved by their respective research institutions to go into the field after having checked the right boxes in the Ethics and Risks forms. But does the responsibility of an academic institution end there?
Ethics and Risks forms tend to be standardised templates that presume the research field to be one that is free from vulnerabilities, such as conflicts and natural disasters, and often place the wellbeing of participants and the indemnity of institutions against liabilities above the safety and security of the researcher. While the most recent iteration of such forms at the University of Cambridge have built in additional safeguards, questions nevertheless remain. Questions of individual and instituational responsibility can make sense in theory but become fraught with difficulty in practice in areas of violence. There is a tricky balance to strike for Western institutions that strive to safeguard their tradition of promoting free speech and intellectual rigour through world-class research, while continuing to attract investment in the form of overseas students, some of whom may come from vastly different national backgrounds than their hosting research institution.
Certainly part of the allure of pursuing a degree at a renowned research institution comes with unstated expectations, such as the ability to open up the world to scholarly inquiry. However in practice, some parts of the world are more open than other parts. By taking a seemingly passive stance against the rights violations that students may be subjected to when conducting such field research, one of the fundamental purposes of the university as a research institution — that of academic freedom — itself becomes at risk.
Maintaining contact with students in the field can often provide inadequate safeguards in the face of real danger, such as in the case of Hedges, whose wife, Daniela Tejada, could only campaign via social media through her own efforts for the release of her husband. The burden often falls on the family to extract their loved ones from hostile fields, with the universities offering little more than token words of support, and no official platform to address the dismal failure of institutions to intervene on behalf of their researchers.
For new researchers, sites of research remain ambiguous and they may have little more than intuition and a personal network to help to navigate the unwritten rules and restrictions of an unfamiliar place and culture. More restrictive governments may also more jealously guard and police the discourse around their official narratives; hence research in such areas is widely viewed as suspicious to such governments — even more so when conducted by a foreigner (Carapico, 2006). This growing mistrust within Arab countries against those presumed to be ‘foreign agents’ has been cultivated over the past years, following the Arab Spring, wherein reigning governments have tightened security measures, particularly around education, to combat foreign influences and what they perceive to be destabilising ideas (Nagel, 2018). Often, these ‘harmful ideas’ may simply be inquisitive and curious research-based questions, as in the case of Matthew Hedges. Absent from the narrative of Hedges’ case is the nature of information he had collected and their public availability. In countries that heavily censor media, citing an unfavourable source may even be charged as a criminal offense. What is known thus far is that Hedges had obtained permission to conduct research around civil-military relations in post-Arab Spring UAE, and had conducted interviews with officials, who have disclosed information that was later deemed ‘confidential’, ‘sensitive’ and ‘compromising’ by the country’s judiciary. Nothing was said of the native informants, who are presumed to have consented in writing to being interviewed by Hedges, and voluntarily disclosed information that he could not have coerced them into sharing. Who, then, is responsible for the breach of the country’s unwritten laws in this instance: the researcher or the local informant?
The UAE’s judiciary has released Matthew Hedges on bail as of last week and has agreed – possibly under pressure from the UK Home Office – to re-examine the evidence against him. While this happens, Hedges will have unwillingly compromised the confidentiality and anonymity of all his interviewees, whose fates will remain unknown. Perhaps the recent examples of Hedges and Regeni will prompt further much-needed discussion about the precarious balancing act that involves researcher, researched, and research institution.
The author of this blog post wishes to remain anonymous.