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Must academics researching authoritarian regimes self-censor?

In the case of Rwanda, it is wrong to argue that only academics working outside the country are capable of critical comment, says Phil Clark

Rwandan parent and child

Source: Magnum

To claim that the Rwandan government has placed a researcher under surveillance can add enormous cachet to his or her work

How far should a journalist go to secure access to a violent or repressive country? This question grabbed the attention of academics earlier this year after the BBC used a group of London School of Economics students to disguise a visit to North Korea to film undercover for a Panorama documentary.

The broadcaster stood by its decision not to pull the programme, which aired in April, but the LSE’s director, Craig Calhoun, warned that the episode had put the institution’s staff and students at risk.

“The school works in politically sensitive and unstable countries,” Calhoun wrote on Times Higher Education’s website at the time. “We study democracy and democratisation, social movements and economic change, international politics and regional relations…We study them, often, by physically visiting territories where suspicion of foreigners asking questions runs high. That suspicion is heightened by incidents such as this. In order to pursue our academic mission, our students and our staff need to be able to move as freely as possible about the world without facing stigmatisation.”

While the objectives of journalists and academics can be very different, questions about access – gaining it, maintaining it and whether, in some cases, there may be too high a price to pay for it – are very familiar to researchers studying countries that are subject to authoritarian rule or where there has been recent mass conflict. Is access predicated on the assumption that certain research topics or views are “off-limits”? Do those granted access practise self-censorship?

Such issues are regularly debated by academics specialising in the countries where I conduct most of my research – Rwanda, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo – but it is in the case of Rwanda that debate about whether academics can combine fieldwork with criticism of national authorities has been most intense.

Rwandan man holding shoulder patch

Source: Getty

During the past five years, some academics, including seasoned scholars, have stopped travelling to Rwanda in particular because of fears for their safety or that of their local respondents. This has coincided with a sea change in international opinion of the country. After the 1994 genocide, Rwanda’s efforts to rebuild itself were lauded by foreign journalists and policymakers, and it was often held up as a global model of donor-assisted development and stability. In recent years, however, it has been criticised for the violent suppression of opposition at home and abroad, and because of the government’s support for various rebel movements in the east of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Debate about the viability of research in Rwanda came to a head after the publication in April 2011 of a collection of essays, Remaking Rwanda: State Building and Human Rights after Mass Violence, edited by two respected scholars, Scott Straus and Lars Waldorf. The book, which covered a wide range of political and social issues in post-genocide Rwanda, was – for the most part – highly critical of the authoritarian “social engineering” project undertaken by the ruling party, the Rwandan Patriotic Front. It gave cursory attention to the enormous strides the country has taken over the past 20 years in terms of economic development, health, education, judicial reform, gender equality and social cohesion. There was also surprisingly little debate among the volume’s 29 contributors, which masked the fervent disagreement among scholars on Rwanda more broadly.

Although critical of the book, I was nonetheless shocked by the venomous reaction to it by the Rwandan government and a range of national commentators. An anonymous blog featured on the website of the Rwandan Embassy in Washington DC, as well as a series of articles in the state-owned New Times newspaper, accused the collection’s editors and various contributors of being “vultures”, “genocide deniers” and “enemies of Rwanda”. It was even falsely claimed that one contributor had secured a “fake” doctorate and that the reason she wrote critically of the Rwandan judicial system was because she had fallen in love with a genocide perpetrator who lived in her backyard throughout her fieldwork.

In response, Straus gave a number of interviews discussing the broader relevance of this vitriolic reception. He told the African Studies Association that the government’s reaction simply confirmed a central argument in the book that “the government’s domestic and international strategy is to silence critics”. The response by foreign researchers, Straus told The Chronicle of Higher Education, is to “internalize the logic of intimidation, which means that many of us self-censor. We say to ourselves, in effect, if I speak out I jeopardize my access to the country and to my interlocutors…[which] ultimately produces a skew in the published scholarship.” This was particularly concerning, he said, because foreign academics and human rights organisations are among the few sources capable of openly criticising the Rwandan regime: “It is left to outsiders to make critical comments if the domestic political space is largely closed.”

Rwandan man holding vial

Source: Reuters

Local researchers continue to use research to challenge policies. They may not march down ­Kigali’s streets, but they are far from ineffectual

Straus’ views are widespread among researchers on Rwanda. Soon after the publication of Remaking Rwanda, I attended a US State Department briefing at which the majority of the 20 assembled experts on the country said that they had not been there for several years – some since the late 1990s – because they were either officially personae non gratae or believed they would personally be at risk if they returned. One well-known academic told the meeting that it was not possible to conduct fieldwork in Rwanda unless one toed the line on all aspects of government policy.

These concerns are not without foundation. Working in a post-genocide society – with its inevitable divisions, tensions and trauma – and in an environment in which political and social interactions are sometimes controlled presents researchers with substantial problems. But those who claim that it is impossible to conduct field research on politically sensitive topics in Rwanda without self-censoring and that only those working outside the country are capable of critical comment about its government overstate the case.

There is a tendency among some foreign scholars and students to exaggerate the difficulties of conducting research in post-atrocity environments. To claim that the Rwandan government has placed a researcher under surveillance can add enormous cachet to his or her work: it is assumed that it must be sufficiently important and damning of state wrongdoing to warrant such close attention. This gives some academics an interest in magnifying the perils of their research.

On a Kigali hotel balcony several years ago, I met an American PhD student whose thesis explored the role of women in religious orders since the genocide. Given that the Roman Catholic and Anglican churches in Rwanda are trying to reinvent themselves after their institutional complicity in the violence – and that the government has an extensive programme focused on women’s empowerment – this struck me as an interesting although not particularly controversial subject. The student leaned across the table and whispered conspiratorially: “Ever since I got here, I’ve been followed everywhere I go.” I gently asked who she thought was following her. With great exasperation, she replied: “Well, the government of course.” Given the nature of the research, this seemed very unlikely.

I have had countless conversations of this self-aggrandising nature with foreign academics, students and journalists. The most extreme version involves the claim that a particular researcher has been blacklisted from Rwanda because of the sensitivity of his or her work. Yet, with the exception of a handful of senior academics such as Filip Reyntjens, René Lemarchand and Gérard Prunier, who fell out with the Rwandan government in the years immediately after the genocide, I know of no foreign scholar or student who is officially persona non grata in the country. While others claim to be blacklisted, none has to my knowledge attempted to enter Rwanda and been turned back from its borders. The reality is probably much less dramatic: they may have met some resistance in securing government interviews or permits to sensitive spaces such as prisons or military camps, or they may simply imagine that things will be difficult when they next return to the field.

Rwandan immigration office queue

Source: Getty

Claiming that it is impossible to conduct research in Rwanda is also often about protecting one’s patch. When I taught at the University of Oxford several years ago, two of my master’s students returned from a conference in the US to announce that they had decided against conducting their dissertation fieldwork in Rwanda. When asked what had brought about this change, they said that a prominent scholar had advised them that no Rwandans would be brave enough to speak truthfully about their research topic. I said that the academic in question had recently published an article on the same subject, based on fieldwork she had conducted the previous year, so it certainly seemed feasible to research the topic in the country. Both students went to Rwanda, gathered impressive empirical material and received distinctions for their dissertations.

The claimed impossibility of researching sensitive topics in Rwanda also overlooks the important ways in which many academics succeed in voicing critical views on the country while retaining access to their field subjects. Rwanda is not North Korea: foreign researchers and journalists travel there freely and frequently, including some of the contributors to Remaking Rwanda. Some are more adept at maintaining access than others and the most effective continue their research over many years. While recognising the undeniable challenges of fieldwork, we should shift the rubric of respect from those who claim that researching in Rwanda is too fraught to those who continue to do complicated work on the ground.

From my own experience and that of others who have conducted sustained research in the country, the key is to be discreet, patient and respectful in the field and to build close relationships with local respondents, researchers and (where possible) government officials. Difficult environments require difficult, and savvy, research. It is possible to publish controversial findings and continue discussions with officials, provided one adopts a fair and considered tone. In many cases, researchers who have met closed doors in Rwanda have been bombastic or hectoring during their research, belligerently “speaking truth to power”. Such activist scholarship – which favours a certain political agenda over exploring complexities and contradictions – tends to make government officials in any country, not just Rwanda, defensive. Some foreign researchers adopt an all-knowing attitude in developing countries that they wouldn’t dare attempt at home and then wonder why local officials don’t assist them.

Building relationships with state actors and navigating officialdom often involves long and heated discussions. But adopting a balanced research approach – highlighting positives and negatives – and a respectful tone enables access and the open debate of controversial issues. At two large government-run conferences in Kigali last year – one to commemorate the 1994 genocide and the other to mark the closure of the 10-year process of genocide trials through the gacaca community courts – I gave presentations that included discussion of the charged issue of crimes committed by the Tutsi-dominated Rwandan Patriotic Front against Hutu civilians immediately after the genocide. My comments included direct criticism of ruling party behaviour at official events where government ministers and other senior officials were present. Not unexpectedly, on both occasions some expressed their severe displeasure with me verbally and by email. However, after lengthy discussions, each one acknowledged that I had no axe to grind and that my criticisms accompanied an analysis of the many virtues of Rwanda’s approach to justice and reconciliation since the genocide.

Rwandan men consulting map

Source: Reuters

Similarly, at the Kigali launch of my book on the gacaca courts in 2011, the deputy chief justice (and now chief justice) of the Supreme Court, Sam Rugege – an Oxford-educated professor of law – opened the event by saying: “I have read this book and it contains much that I agree with and much that I disagree with. It is important that we have this time to discuss it, even if we disagree.” I had sent the book to Rugege a month before the launch and we discussed it in person. These conversations laid the groundwork for the open debates at the book launch, which included some biting commentary from Rwandan academics and civil society actors on aspects of my analysis and of government policy.

Certainly Rwanda represents a tense, sensitive environment for local and foreign researchers. But many of the former, who understand the domestic terrain better than any foreigner, continue to use their research to challenge existing policies. They may not wave banners and march down Kigali’s streets, but they are far from cowed or ineffectual. Rather than being viewed as such, many of them would benefit from collaborations with foreign scholars and students, who possess crucial resources and access to international networks.

The danger of overstating the risks of researching in Rwanda is that it will discourage vital fieldwork and instead produce a generation of armchair critics who prefer to denounce Rwandan authoritarianism from afar but without deep empirical knowledge of conditions there. This will lead only to self-satisfied activist scholarship and uniform opinion, oblivious to the nuances and complexities of life inside the country.

It is pleasing to note that despite the doomsaying of some established academics, a new generation is ignoring their elders’ advice and getting about the challenging business of empirical research in Rwanda. In organising a recent conference at Soas, University of London on the Rwandan Patriotic Front, my colleague Jason Mosley and I received more than 60 abstracts, the majority from young academics who have recently conducted field research in Rwanda and elsewhere in central Africa. This new wave of researchers is proof that it is possible to be critical of the Rwandan government and maintain access to the country. Some of them contest the image of a despotic Rwanda in which citizens are merely ciphers of the government, while others argue that the state is authoritarian but, unlike many of their predecessors, support their claims with deep empirical knowledge of the inner workings of the government and its impact on the lives of everyday Rwandans.

Field research in post-conflict or repressive societies is never going to be easy. But it is possible, through respecting and building relationships with local actors, to research in these environments and to be critical of domestic trends. The outcome is a deeper understanding of complex societies, which is vital for shaping international narratives and can benefit local citizens.

Four Rwandan women

Source: Reuters

Beyond ‘pro’ and ‘anti’: the dilemmas of post-conflict research

It is not necessarily difficult for academics who are critical of the current Rwandan government to gain access to the country. I know students and academics who have undertaken what could be construed as controversial field research without being intimidated, threatened or prevented from returning.

However, questions about access and self-censorship need to be considered in the context of the wider research issues faced by scholars who conduct fieldwork in post-conflict environments or in countries where there is a history of political divisions. There are few guidelines and research frameworks available to researchers working in these contexts.

In my view, there are two fundamental problems with the current dominant research programme focusing on post‑conflict state building in Rwanda.

The first is the assumption that Rwanda is a “unique” case because of the 1994 genocide. There is relatively limited comparative analysis of Rwanda and other countries where governments have implemented similar state-building projects around land reform, education, healthcare and local justice. A comparative approach would allow a richer, more informed critique of the current government.

The second problem, which can occur in area studies and interdisciplinary research, is the fairly inadequate discussion about the research methodologies used by academics conducting social science fieldwork in Rwanda.

As a result of the reticence of academics to examine and debate these two problems, researchers tend to fall back on a series of assumptions about Rwandans’ attitudes towards politics and governance in their country, and this can serve to perpetuate polarising standpoints.

Many researchers and academics find themselves caught in a dilemma. They recognise the complexity of researching in this environment and they feel they do not want to have to choose between presenting their research as either “pro” or “anti” the current Rwandan government.

As one early career academic said to me last month, “I have my criticisms of the Rwandan government, but the current paradigm does not work”. I share this view.

Scholars should certainly continue to conduct fieldwork in Rwanda and we should not neglect the opportunity to draw on their experiences. Doing so will help to improve the quality of future research.

Georgina Holmes is lecturer in international relations at the University of Portsmouth and author of Women and War in Rwanda: Gender, Media and the Representation of Genocide (2013).

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