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MIND THE GAFFE
- Free speech is under threat globally

On Monday, January 23, the French senate is to vote on a bill that will criminalize denial of the Armenian genocide of 1915, along with any other events recognized as genocide in French law. The bill has already passed through the national assembly, the lower house of the French parliament. The senate should reject it, in the name of free speech, the freedom of historical inquiry and Article 11 of France's path-breaking 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen (“the free communication of thoughts and opinions is one of the most precious rights…”).

The question here is not whether the atrocities committed against the Armenians in the last years of the Ottoman Empire were terrible, or whether they should be acknowledged in Turkish and European memory. They were and they should be. The question is: should it be a crime under the law of France, or of other countries, to dispute whether those terrible events constituted a ‘genocide’, a term used in international law? While not minimizing the suffering of the Armenians, the celebrated Ottoman specialist, Bernard Lewis, has in the past disputed that precise point. And is the French parliament equipped and entitled to set itself up as a tribunal on world history, handing down verdicts on the past conduct of other nations? The answer is: no and no.

In a further twist, the bill would criminalize not just the ‘contestation’ of the Armenian genocide but also ‘outrageous minimization’ of it. As Françoise Chandernagor of the Liberté pour l'histoire campaign points out, this introduces a concept vague even by the standards of such memory laws. If Turkish estimates of the Armenian dead stand at 500,000 and Armenian ones at 1.5 million, what would count as minimization? 547,000? And should the Turkish prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, be arrested for such ‘minimization’ on his next official visit to France? (The bill envisages a fine of 45,000 euros and a year’s imprisonment.)

Taking a benign view of human nature in general, and French politics in particular, you might say that this is a clumsy attempt to realize a noble intention. That would be naïve. There is a remarkable correlation between the appearance of such proposals in the French parliament and the proximity of national elections, in which some half a million voters of Armenian origin play a significant part. What happened to the Armenians was officially recognized as genocide in French law in December 2001, just before the presidential and parliamentary elections of 2002. A bill similar to this one was passed in the lower house in 2006 (but rejected by the upper) in the run-up to the elections of 2007. And what's happening this year? Yes, elections.

Not that all leading politicians of Nicolas Sarkozy’s UMP party have supported the bill proposed by one of their parliamentarians. The foreign minister, Alain Juppé, opposes it. But that’s because he’s worried about the implications for France’s relations with Turkey. The Turkish government’s reaction has been predictably vehement. It withdrew its ambassador in protest and Prime Minister Erdogan said “approximately 15 per cent of the population in Algeria was subjected to a massacre by the French, starting from 1945. This is genocide.”

Thus, a tragedy which should be the subject for grave commemoration and free historical debate, calmly testing even wayward hypotheses against the evidence, is reduced to an instrument of political manipulation, a politician’s brickbat. The corpse counts of yesterday are parlayed into the vote counts of tomorrow. You accuse me of genocide, I accuse you of genocide.

Meanwhile, Turkish intellectuals — such as the Nobel prize-winning writer, Orhan Pamuk — who have bravely said that what was done to the Armenians was genocide are liable to get prosecuted in Turkey itself. What is State-ordained truth in France is State-ordained falsehood in Turkey.

Yet these are increasingly symbolic rather than effective acts. In a country like France, and with rather more difficulty in Turkey, the internet allows people to find those forbidden views anyway. They are just a couple more mouse-clicks away.

So this is but the latest instance of a much wider challenge. What should be the limits of free expression in the internet age? What should be the free speech norms of an interconnected world? And who should set them? These are among the questions being addressed in a project called Free Speech Debate (www.freespeechdebate.com) that we have just launched at Oxford University. Among the 10 draft principles we offer for debate, criticism and revision, one is especially relevant to the Armenian genocide controversy. It says, “We allow no taboos in the discussion and dissemination of knowledge.”

Memory laws like the one currently proposed in France clearly fail this test; but they are not the only example. In Britain, the science writer, Simon Singh, had to defend a lengthy, costly libel action because of his criticism of claims made for chiropractic treatments. The Church of Scientology uses its copyright in the immortal words of L. Ron Hubbard to prevent people from seeing the higher secrets of the Operating Thetan. (Tip: if you’re interested, search for Operation Clambake.) On Wednesday, January 18, the English-language Wikipedia was blacked out for 24 hours to protest against the United States of America’s proposed Stop Online Piracy Act, which, in its current version, will have a disastrous, chilling effect on the free, online dissemination of knowledge.

There are also more genuinely difficult cases. Late last year, the US National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity asked the journals Science and Nature to redact details of a study about an easily transmitted form of the H5N1 virus, or bird flu, for fear that it could be misused by bio-terrorists. And what about AIDS denialism? When endorsed by Thabo Mbeki, then president of South Africa, this resulted quite directly in the death of hundreds of thousands of people who might otherwise have been properly treated. The ‘no taboos’ principle needs to be tested against such hard cases.

France’s opportunistic, misbegotten bill is not a hard case. It’s a no-brainer. Next week, let the French senate give an example to the US congress in the defence of intellectual freedom.