What’s free speech? Depends on who’s speaking, at least when it comes to whether Turkey committed genocide against Armenians in the early 20th century.
The French Senate on Monday the 23rd passed a bill making it illegal to deny any genocide officially recognized by the government. Only two incidents qualify: the Holocaust of Jews and Roma in Nazi Germany and the death of more than a million Armenians in Turkey between 1915 and 1923. There’s little doubt which one this legislation is meant to target, despite French claims to the contrary, as denying the Holocaust is already illegal in France.
Turkey says the Armenians were killed legally in a civil war and that no systematic slaughter occurred. In December, when the French lower house approved the law, Turkey recalled its ambassador from Paris and severed military ties. Now French president Nicolas Sarkozy is set to sign the bill within two weeks despite the objections of his foreign minister and the Senate’s Constitutional Commission. Turkish prime minister Recep Erdogan is predictably livid. In an address to Parliament Tuesday, he said France’s decision would “murder freedom of thought.” Turkey’s foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, warned the new law would be “a black stain on France’s intellectual history.”
And yet Turkey itself has no problem abridging the right of free speech in order to promote its own version of history: it is illegal under Turkish law to say the Armenian genocide did happen. In 2005, the Nobel prize-winning novelist Orhan Pamuk made such a claim and was promptly charged in court with “insulting Turkishness.” Two years later, the Turkish-Armenian journalist Hrant Dink was assassinated by a young nationalist after calling on his government to acknowledge its historical crimes against Armenians and Kurds. Dink also criticized French efforts to criminalize denial, saying they were a danger to intellectual inquiry. Before his death, he said he would challenge both laws and let France and Turkey duke it out for the dubious honor of arresting him first.
Twenty other countries and forty-four US states have given legal recognition to the Armenian genocide. Most historians believe it was a real genocide. Members of the U.S. Congress have proposed a similar law in each of the last eleven years but a bill has yet to reach the floor. Although he supported such legislation as a candidate in 2008, President Obama opposed the most recent measure, saying it could damage a possible reconciliation between Turkey and Armenia and threaten the U.S.’s military relationship with Ankara.