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Politique Institutionnelle

A Simple Point About Freedom of Expression –

Today, the Senate (Upper House) of the French parliament will vote on a bill to criminalize the denial of the Armenian Genocide. This bill was drafted by lawmakers from President Nicolas Sarkozy’s UMP party and approved by the National Assembly (Lower House) on December 22nd of last year. If it passes the Senate, anyone who publically denies the First World War mass killings of Armenians by Ottoman Turks constituted genocide will face a one-year jail term and a fine of up to 45,000 Euros. According to Patrick Ollier, a UMP parliamentarian, the bill simply conjoins a 1991 French law defining Shoah denial as a crime. “This is a simple coordination of punishment,” he said.

Reactions to the passing of the bill have so far been perfunctory. Turkish nationalists have flown their colors at home and abroad, and Turkey has enacted some sanctions against France, threatening more if the bill becomes law. This, in spite of the facts that the bill does not accuse modern Turkey of anything, nor does it in any way affect citizens of Turkey who choose to practice obfuscation and denial at home. Agence France-Presse quotes Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan as saying, “I ask you: Is there freedom of thought and freedom of expression in France? The answer is, ‘No.’ France has abolished the spirit of free discussion.” He also made a bizarre attempt to accuse the French of cooking Algerians in ovens akin to Nazi crematoriums.

Scores of other public figures, bloggers, and lawmakers have followed up with their own opinions on the possible ramifications for French freedom of expression and democracy were the bill to become law. They all have warned of eroding democracy and discrimination. Not a single one has considered how such a law might, on the contrary, enable the freedom of expression.

An example. In 1934, MGM Studios purchased the filming rights to Franz Werfel’s The Forty Days of Musa Dagh, a novel about the self-defense of an Armenian community on Musa Dagh, at the eastern end of the Ottoman Empire, during the First World War. Clark Gable was slated to play a leading role. Production on the film had just begun when MGM received word from the US State Department that the Turkish ambassador to the United States, Mehmed Münir Ertegün (father of Atlantic Records founder Ahmet Ertegün) was anxious for his country not to be poorly portrayed in Hollywood films. Several water-downed versions of the Musa Dagh script were sent to Ertegün but he remained recalcitrant. Losing patience with the idea of a foreign power making editorial decisions for him, MGM’s production chief declared, “To hell with the Turks, I’m going to make the picture anyway.” Ertegün responded with a threat: “If the movie is made, Turkey will launch a worldwide campaign against it. It rekindles the Armenian Question. The Armenian Question is settled.” Indeed, Turkey did launch a campaign. The September 3rd 1935 issue of the Istanbul-based Haber newspaper featured an editorial warning Jews and Jewish companies doing business in Turkey that they would suffer if MGM (owned by Louis B. Mayer, a Jew) produced the film. Mayer, reluctantly, threw in the towel and the film was never made. The French had their part to play in the censorship of this film in America, inasmuch as their interests in the Dardanelles, as well as their concerns about the relations between Nazi Germany and Turkey, ensured their loyalties to the latter. For a thorough treatment of this affair, see the 2007 book by Edward Minasian, published by Cold Tree Press.

Musa Dagh is a heroic novel about overcoming utmost adversity. As such it found appeal in one of Hollywood’s more anthemic directors, Sylvester Stallone, who in 2006 announced his intention to resurrect Musa Dagh, but quietly abandoned the idea after receiving threatening emails. In 2009, Mel Gibson reportedly expressed interest in directing and appearing in a documentary version of Musa Dagh, but also abandoned his ambition following an email campaign spearheaded by a Turkish-American lobby group known as ASIMED.

Whether or not one accepts there is a trade-off in freedoms of expression when censorship laws weigh in favor of one special interest group or another, this can be the case. It is especially noticeable when a loud voice is muted so that softer voices may be heard. Had there been an American law against Armenian Genocide denial in 1934, this extraordinary case of extra-national censorship would not have occurred. But such a law would also have prevented scholarship, however dubious, by Drs. Justin McCarthy, Heath Lowry, and Guenter Lewy all of whom have experienced some some degree of difficulty, however self-inflicted, in expressing their views over the years.

If we believe in freedom of expression as a dialectical tool in sustained reasoned discussion, as John Stuart Mill prescribed it, then the French bill, along with similar laws regarding Shoah denial, is counterproductive. But neither Mill nor any of his inheritors, to my knowledge, including Michel Foucault, has analyzed the nature of censorship as a political pendulum within the greater historical dialectic of free societies. Is freedom of expression really an inert force to which everyone has access at all times? It seems to me it is eminently alienable, made so by those who have the coercive power to impose consequences. When the interests of two competing, asymmetrically proportioned groups are at stake, freedom of expression would seem to favor the one with more institutional power, yet public opinion and media must be taken here as a special cases of institution.

Fewer than twenty people have been convicted of Holocaust denial in Europe, and most of them invited the conviction as a martyrdom opportunity. Following Mill, if the most egregious result of Shoah Denial laws is the thirteen months David Irving spent in an Austrian jail for his opinions, then this must be weighed against tendencies for potential harm caused right-wing extortions against scholars and entertainment industry executives. Then again, if Pamela Pilger can mouth off, why can’t John Galliano?

If Turkish groups feel free to extend their own peeves into American art and commerce through extortion, then we are already practicing self-censorship. Though a criminalizing of Armenian Genocide (as well as Shoah) denial in the USA seems ill-advised, it should be noted that no one screaming about free expression is advocating for US recognition of the genocide, however much freedom of expression it would abet.

None of these countermeasures would be necessary without Article 301 of the Turkish Penal Code, which makes it illegal for anyone to insult Turkey, the Turkish ethnicity, or Turkish government institutions. The original 2005 wording was even vaguer, making it a crime to insult “Turkishness”, whatever that may be. In 2008, the article was amended to its present form. Far more draconian than any European form of censorship, a number of high profile charges have been brought due to 301, including against Turkish author Orhan Pamuk, who said in an interview with Das Magazin, a Swiss weekly newspaper supplement, “Thirty thousand Kurds have been killed here [in Turkey], and a million Armenians. And almost nobody dares to mention that. So I do.”

In 2006, Armenian-Turkish journalist Hrant Dink was also prosecuted under the Article 301 for “insulting Turkishness” after a rather mild and conciliatory article about the Armenian Genocide. He received a six month suspended sentence, but was assassinated by Turkish nationalists before he could serve it. He was acquitted posthumously. In 2007, Hrant’s son, Arat, and Serkis Seropyan were convicted under 301 to one-year suspended sentences under for reprinting Dink’s articles. Ironically, Hrant Dink’s experiences with censorship taught him to loathe it, and he on several occasions said to his friends he was not in favor of the nascent French bill, and moreover would personally travel to France to break it.

In the end, the Armenian Genocide bill has nothing to do with freedom of expression, per se. There are two main motivations behind it, one being the guaranteeing of half a million French-Armenian votes for Sarkozy in upcoming elections; the second and more relevant being the acid test for Turkey in its European Union ambitions. Turkey’s poorly calculated and emotional responses to the French bill, whose mirror image it upholds and enforces as a law, are good indicators of the arrogance and self-servitude it will bring to all questions of internal policy as an EU candidate. They have triggered the pratfall and kicking is only making them look worse.

In the likely event the bill does not pass the Senate, Sarkozy knows he has, for his efforts, already curried the favor of his French-Armenian population and secured the votes he wanted. The bill’s rejection will relieve the French Turks and he will be on his way to victory. This is a baiting method he learned from Obama. But Sarkozy is not the only one eager to harvest the echoes of this sad historical episode and their ramifications on freedom of expression in Europe. On January 3rd, wealthy French businessman and political aspirant Rachid Nekkaz created a 1 million Euro fund to pay the fine of anyone convicted in France of denying the Armenian Genocide. Formerly, he also offered to pay fines imposed on French Muslim women caught wearing a burqa. Nekkaz, who has quite a lot to learn about both historiography and the limits of the French bill (see the hapless December 27th 2011 entry of his French-language blog), is also hard at work purchasing political capital. Were he so concerned with constitutional freedom of expression as he claims to be, perhaps he would be willing to help fund and promote a Sylvester Stallone feature film called The Forty Days of Musa Dagh? Something tells me his priorities are further from freedom of expression and closer to himself, as are those of nearly everyone involved in this affair.

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