A few years ago I received a campaign e-mail from some students which, without any evident sense of irony, was entitled F**K CENSORSHIP. I replied under the new title FUCK C*NS**SH*P, only to be informed that while the sentiments were appreciated, the organisers didn’t want to upset anyone and were sticking to F**K. My further response, which elicited no reply, was entitled YOU SILLY C**TS.
Freedom of expression is a right we all assume we have but generally do little to protect, probably because when it comes to freedom of speech we are prepared to defend only those threatened ideas that we agree with. Defending someone’s right to talk complete bollocks seems to be at the end of the liberal to-do list.
David Irving, the Nazi apologist and revisionist historian jailed and awaiting trial in Austria, is a case in point: a man arrested basically for talking shite. It is absurd to lock up a man for what he thinks. The absurdity is equal only to that of a fascist embracing the concept of freedom of speech. But, as a supporter of the raised-right-arm tendency, Irving ought to approve of the Austrian state’s robust denial of his liberty.
And so it is that most debates on freedom of speech centre on the issue: what can we say and what can’t we say? The more interesting question, however, is to be asked from the other end of the problem: what has been censored, and why?
Consider the Turks. The renowned author Orhan Pamuk was scheduled to go on trial in Istanbul on 16 December over some comments he had made. “What unspeakable thing did he utter?” you may ask. Well, on the charge sheet he is said to have told a Swiss journalist, in February: “Thirty thousand Kurds and a million Armenians were killed in these lands and almost nobody but me dares to talk about it.” Yep, that is it. For speaking those words he stands accused under Article 301 of the Turkish penal code of insulting the Turkish national identity. He faces jail not for genocide denial but for suggesting that it happened.
Pamuk avoids using the word “genocide”, though there are few other words to describe the killing of more than a million Armenians. Yet it has been the subject of a national denial in Turkey. Even Adolf Hitler was aware of the lack of concern over it: once, speaking of the Final Solution, he reportedly remarked, “Who remembers the Armenians?”
Pamuk’s is a noble and just cause that has significant international support. The trial is being closely scrutinised by the European Parliament as a test of Turkey’s attempts at political reform, a condition for entry into the EU.
Among those taking a special interest in the case is the Labour MP Denis MacShane, who is in Istanbul to observe the trial.
A victory for Pamuk will be a victory for the more than 60 other writers also charged under Article 301 with insulting Turkey’s national identity. “Old” Turkey – the generals and right-wing judges – is giving way to a modern, pluralistic democracy. The battle will be won!
Except it won’t have been. The Kurds have fought a long battle against Turkey’s censors both inside and outside the country. In 1995, in response to sustained attacks on their human rights, cultural identity and language, a group of Kurds in exile set up Med-TV, a satellite station that broadcast in Kurdish (the Kurdish language was banned at the time in Turkey). It proved so popular with millions of viewers that the Turkish authorities arrested Kurds for having a satellite dish that could pick up the station’s signal.
Yes, Med-TV had interviewed representatives of the PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party), since listed as a terrorist group, as indeed it had interviewed a diverse range of people. For this crime, the Turkish authorities asked the UK government to shut it down, and the Independent Television Commission duly obliged in 1999, saying its broadcasts had contained “calls to direct violence and criminal actions of various kinds”. Such a declaration against the use of violence might appear strange given that the chairman of the ITC at that time was Sir Robin Biggam, who was also on the board of British Aerospace (now BAE Systems), which was engaged in an arms deal, via its subsidiary Heckler & Koch – now no longer part of BAE - to supply half a million guns to Turkey.
Another Kurdish satellite channel, Medya TV, was set up in Belgium. The Turkish authorities claimed Medya was funded by the PKK and demanded that it, too, be shut down. The Belgian authorities froze the station’s assets and launched an investigation. By the time Medya TV was exonerated it had collapsed. Still the Kurds sought to broadcast, this time from Denmark, in the shape of Roj TV. Now that, too, faces the wrath of Turkey, aided by the United States, which in November demanded that Roj TV be shut down because it had links to the PKK - a charge it denies.
This drive to silence and demonise the Kurds will do nothing to resolve the Kurdish question. But it shows America and Turkey working together to censor in furtherance of their “war on terror”. Just as our lack of support for the Kurds perhaps shows the limits of our liberal-mindedness.