Freedom of Speech Laws Made to Order

By Edmond Y. Azadian

Laws, especially international laws, which are meant to govern harmonious relations between nations, are fashioned to fit the interests of the power brokers; they are like made-to-order garments or shoes, designed to fit the specific size of powerful nations or classes.

The most typical observation of this unjust system was made by the 17th-century French fabulist Jean de La Fontaine, who said, “The powerful of this world will win very argument.”

Now, the Armenians — the weak ones in this allegory — are facing the much stronger European Court of Human Rights, which passed a judgment last December that Dogu Perinçek, president of the Workers’ Party of Turkey, cannot be condemned legally for saying publically in Geneva that “the so-called Armenian Genocide is an imperialist lie.”

This judgment, in the first place, is a slap in the face of the Swiss judicial system, which had indicted Perinçek for denying the Armenian Genocide. The incident had taken place in 2007 and since the European Court had kept silent; one may wonder what had happened suddenly for the court to have overruled Swiss law?

The coincidence is unmistakable. For many years Armenia was negotiating with the European Union, but early last September, it made a U-turn and decided to join the Customs Union, headed by Russia. Therefore, that was partly a political decision, not necessarily judicial. The bigwigs at the European Court will try to convince ordinary people otherwise. Now the Coordination Council of Armenian Organizations of France (CCAF) has launched a petition asking Switzerland to appeal the most recent judgment of the European Court. It is certainly an uphill battle with dubious results anticipated.

The argument of the European Court is based on the presumption that the law infringes upon the right of free speech when it comes to Genocide denial.

France provides the typical example of the discriminatory application of the freedom of speech laws. Whereas the Gayssot law is in full force to prosecute Holocaust deniers, the parallel law which the French parliament had adopted against the denial of the Armenian Genocide was struck down by the French Constitutional Court, before the last presidential elections. The law was a victim of political machinations as both candidates had pledged to support it. Armenians all around the world became the witnesses of both candidates’ impassioned support for the law; Francois Hollande and then incumbent, President Nicholas Sarkozy were beating their chests at Armenian gatherings almost to bring tears to your eyes, that they would approve the law passed by the French parliament. Sarkozy delayed his signature in a cowardly manner to allow time for some parliament members to muster support and put to action the seldom-used Constitutional Court to declare the law unconstitutional and against the principles of freedom of speech. The current president, Mr. Hollande, seemed equally sincere in his pledge to revive the law, but he has yet to action on his pledge. One does not need to be a legal expert to extrapolate that if the Gayssot law is not an impediment against the principle of free speech, the ban of genocide denial falls exactly in the category of similar reasoning.

Some politicians — like Israeli President Shimon Peres — argue that the massacre of the Armenians does not amount to be called genocide, in order to avoid comparison with the Holocaust and continue the discriminatory application of laws against genocide versus Holocaust denials.

France has been a beacon of free thinking and free speech throughout the centuries and those ideals are best encapsulated in the writings of French philosopher Voltaire, one of whose famous quotes, can be roughly translated to “I totally disagree with what you say, but I am prepared to fight until death to protect your right to say it.”

But today the French courts do not follow Voltaire’s Enlightenment philosophy; instead they are guided by their political agenda. Indeed, these days, another scandal is gripping the French media and the courts are after a popular comedian, Dieudonne (God given) M’Bala M’Bala.

The French courts and the govnerment, which are so interested in zealously protecting the citizens’ freedom of speech, have been after Dieudonne to ban his appearances on TV and in public venues, free speech notwithstanding as he is accused of being anti-Semitic. These days criticizing the actions of the Israeli government against the Palestinians can be labeled anti-Semitic.

The issue here is not to defend Dieudonne, who has mocked and denigrated the Holocaust and its victims as well as coming up with his own perverted version of the Nazi salute. This is by no means a defense of his comments. In fact, Armenians, especially, must take offense at his foul statements. But the French courts have gone to unusual lengths to silence Dieudonne and trample on his right to free speech.

On January 6, 2014, France’s Interior Minister Manuel Valls said that performances considered anti-Semitic might be banned by local officials. In support of this measure, Valls has sent a three-page memo to all prefects of police in France titled “The Struggle against Racism and anti-Semitism, demonstration and public reaction, performances by Mr. Dieudonne M’Bala M’Bala.”

With respect to freedom of speech in France  and banning scheduled performances ahead of time, Valls has said, “The struggle against racism and anti-Semitism is an essential concern of the government and demands vigorous action.” The minister takes note of the liberty of expression in France but goes on to say that in exceptional circumstances, the police are invested with the power  to prohibit an event if its intent is to prevent “a grave disturbance of public order” and cites the 1993 law supporting the decision.

Even President Hollande, taking some time between his visits to his mistress and his girlfriend, offered his support to the interior minister, urging “the representatives of the state, in particular the prefects, to be vigilant and inflexible” in the face of “all the violations of the principals of the Republic.”

Incidentally, Mr. Dieudonne is of African descent, born in France to a Cameroonian father and a French mother. We cannot be sure if that aspect has cast him as a second-class citizen in France.

Time and again, the Armenian community in France has demonstrated robust political activism. And despite all its internal divisions, its members have been able to unite their forces for common causes. But a serious question begs for an answer: have they been able to mobilize the 400,000-strong Armenian community as a political force to combat the discriminatory laws made for the mighty?