Fears for academic freedom as Indonesia doubles down on scientists’ ban

Fears for academic freedom as Indonesia doubles down on scientists’ ban

  • Indonesian academics continue to question the government’s justification for banning five foreign scientists who called out the official narrative that the country’s orangutan populations are increasing.
  • The initial ban made nebulous accusations that the scientists had “negative intentions” that could “discredit” the government, but the environment ministry now claims they broke the law — without specifying how.
  • Indonesian scientists campaigning for academic freedom say the government’s move is a form of anti-science policy and power control over the production of knowledge.
  • The environment ministry has refused to engage with either the foreign scientists or the academic freedom caucus, with researchers saying this is part of a larger trend of independent science being constrained.

JAKARTA — Indonesian academics have called out the government for banning five foreign scientists after they questioned official claims of an increase in the country’s orangutan population, warning that the move sets a disturbing precedent for academic freedom.

In a statement to the government, scientists grouped under the Academic Freedom Advocacy Team called the ban on Erik Meijaard, Julie Sherman, Marc Ancrenaz, Hjalmar Kühl and Serge Wich a form of anti-science policy and power control over the production of knowledge.

“What Erik Meijaard et al. did is produce knowledge,” Herlambang Wiratraman, a law professor at Gadjah Mada University and member of the team, said after submitting the statement to the environment ministry in Jakarta on Dec. 1. “Banning [them] is an anti-science policy. It’s very regrettable.”

In September, the ministry banned the foreign scientists from conducting research in connection with the country’s national parks and conservation agencies. This move appeared to be spurred by an op-ed penned by Meijaard and the others in a local newspaper that took issue with the ministry’s claims that the country’s critically endangered orangutans were bouncing back after decades of steady decline.

The scientists wrote that a wide range of scientific studies show that all three orangutan species native to Indonesia have declined in the past few decades and that nowhere are populations growing — contrary to the ministry’s line that the three species’ populations are growing and will continue to grow.

The ministry accused the scientists of writing with “negative intentions” that could “discredit” the government. But Wiratraman’s team says the move violates the principles of academic freedom and scientific autonomy that are guaranteed under Indonesian law, specifically Article 8 of the 2012 Higher Education Law.

That provision reads: “In the implementation of education and the development of science and technology, academic freedom, freedom of academic speech, and scientific autonomy apply.”

If the ministry disagrees with the foreign researchers’ findings of declining orangutan populations, the team said, then it should refute them through scientific publications, not through bans, censorship or threats.

The public has the right to information from both the government and independent researchers, even if they conflict with each other, said Damar Juniarto, executive director of the Southeast Asia Freedom of Expression Network (SAFEnet).

“There [shouldn’t be] efforts to curb information flow by claiming that information from others discredits the government,” he said. “Or [giving] broad statements that information from sources other than the government can’t be trusted.”

Scientists grouped under the Academic Freedom Advocacy Team submit a formal administrative objection regarding the Indonesian Ministry of Environment and Forestry’s ban of five foreign researchers in December 2022. Image by Lusia Arumingtyas/Mongabay.

Undefined legal violations

In its response to the Academic Freedom Advocacy Team’s statement, the environment ministry said its ban on the five scientists was justified because they had “violated the law,” citing a 2019 law on science and technology and a 2006 regulation on permits for foreigners conducting research in the country. In the letter announcing the ban, it made no mention of any legal violations.

The ministry said the scientists did “not fulfill the conditions in establishing domestic partnership; cooperation mechanisms with local research partners are not transparent; and did not report the result of their research.”

However, the ministry didn’t specify which research project by the scientists violated the law. When asked by Mongabay, Alue Dohong, the deputy environment minister, didn’t answer the question.

“It seems like the problem [regarding the foreign scientists] is over now. There’s no need to keep blowing up this [story],” he said.

This non-response raises the question of whether any of the foreign scientists’ research had actually violated Indonesian laws, said public interest lawyer Jihan Fauziah Hamdi from the Jakarta Legal Aid Foundation. She also pointed out that all five scientists had said they hadn’t carried out research in Indonesia in years.

“If the scientists indeed violated the law, why didn’t the ministry bring this up in the original letter?” she told Mongabay. “The ministry failed to be specific on which research done by Meijaard and the others violated the laws. It might be research done a long time ago. So we’re trying to make an inventory” of all the research they’ve carried out in-country.

Separately, the scientists told Mongabay that their research in recent years relating to Indonesia had been carried out remotely.

“It’s been years since I last conducted research in Indonesia,” Meijaard told Mongabay. “For the past few years I have generally made short visits to Indonesia for meetings, conferences or short consultancies, always with a business visa.”

Like Meijaard, Wich, a professor of primate biology at Liverpool John Moores University, said he hadn’t been to Indonesia to collect field data in years.

“So I am not sure how the regulations apply to what I did as I did not do research in Indonesia myself,” he told Mongabay. “When I did in the past collect data for my research I did have LIPI permits,” he added, referring to the Indonesian Institute of Sciences, which has since 2019 been merged into the National Research and Innovation Agency (BRIN).

Ancrenaz, the scientific director of the French NGO Hutan, said he had been to a national park in Indonesia to study orangutans only once, back in 2004, and it was for consultation under WWF.

“My research takes place in Malaysia where I am based and for which I have a research permit under Malaysian law,” he told Mongabay. “It is true that I have been to Indonesia a few times recently, but, as written above, not to visit national parks and not to do research on orangutans per se.”

The two other scientists, Sherman and Kühl, also denied having ever conducted research while in Indonesia.

“I have not conducted research in person in Indonesia,” Sherman told Mongabay. “My work has focused on remotely collecting data from public sources.”

BRIN confirmed separately that none of the scientists had applied for a research permit since BRIN was established in 2019.

With none of them doing on-the-ground research in the country in recent years, Jihan said, it’s hard to see how they violated 2019 law as the environment ministry claims.

A Bornean orangutan.
A Bornean orangutan in Indonesia. Image by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.

Lack of ‘fair and legal process’

BRIN said it would investigate any potential violations. But it added that if the scientists’ work had been done from outside Indonesia and without collaboration with local researchers who collected data from the field, they wouldn’t have needed research permits, hence ruling out any permit violations.

Lilis Mulyani, a law and human rights researcher at BRIN, said that even if the scientists had violated regulations, they still had the right to a “fair and legal process,” including at the very least to know which specific rules they had violated, instead of an immediate ban.

Lilis added it appeared the government took issue with the scientists’ op-ed because it contradicted the government’s own narrative of “showing the world that its efforts to protect biodiversity are going well.”

Alue, the deputy environment minister, acknowledged that the scientists may have carried out their research from outside Indonesia, but suggested this made them even less credible.

“If [they] use secondary data, fabricating data using remote sensing without ever going to the field, then it’s not good,” he said.

Meijaard agreed that remote research on its own, just like field research on its own, couldn’t give an accurate assessment of orangutan population trends. He said that’s why he and his colleagues also looked at remote-sensing data from satellites that show loss of orangutan habitat, publicly available information on law enforcement and orangutan rescues, and historical data on species distribution.

“Such multidisciplinary science is essential in conservation, and field work alone will never result in the same insights,” he said.

A Bornean orangutan.
The Bornean orangutan (Pongo pygmaeus). Image by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.

Fears for academic freedom

Lilis from BRIN said it’s important for the government to engage with researchers who have data that contradict the government’s own findings.

“Research is like a big puzzle. We might have one piece, while the others have another piece. That’s why it’s important to have discussion with researchers and other stakeholders like the government, so that the data can complement each other,” she said.

But instead of engaging through discussion and collaboration, the environment ministry has shied away from constructive discussion, Jihan said.

Following the ban, Meijaard sent two letters to the ministry in September, requesting a meeting with the environment minister, Siti Nurbaya Bakar, or the ministry’s conservation department, to discuss the differences in orangutan population data. The ministry has still not responded to either letter, Meijaard said.

On Oct. 27, the Indonesian Caucus for Academic Freedom (KIKA) and with the Indonesian Young Scientists Academy organized a public discussion responding to the government’s ban on the foreign scientists.

KIKA reached out to six ministry officials, including Siti, but none were willing to attend as a speaker, according to the group.

“This means that the government failed to practice good governance, which requires it to be open [to dialogue] for the public interest,” Jihan said. “What Meijaard [and the others] did is for the public interest.”

Lilis said the ministry’s refusal to have an open dialogue with the foreign scientists is part of a larger trend where independent science is being constrained. She noted that this isn’t the first time the environment ministry has had issues with foreign scientists or organizations.

In 2020, the environment ministry severed a 25-year partnership with WWF, apparently over forest fire prevention programs for which the global conservation group received praise and the ministry criticism. That same year, French landscape ecologist David Gaveau was deported after he published an estimate of damage from 2019 forest fires that far exceeded the ministry’s own estimate.

“The impact is clear: researchers and scientists, not only foreign but also local, are worried about restriction [of academic freedom],” Lilis said. “There’s a chance their research, based on scientific methodology that is accountable, could be refuted by the authorities without going through a discussion that’s balanced and hearing arguments [from the researchers].”

Jihan said the case of Meijaard and the four others could be the tip of the iceberg, given that the ban only came to light after the ministry’s letter, meant for internal purposes only, was leaked.

“What if there are other internal letters that have not been leaked to the public, which also limit our freedom [of research]?” she said. “Today, this might happen to Meijaard [and the four others], but tomorrow, this could happen to other scientists as well.”


Banner image: Orangutans. Image courtesy of Darren Pearce via Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0).


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