PBS Panel on Armenian Genocide Stirs Protest

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Thousands of Armenian Americans are protesting the Public Broadcasting Service's planned panel-discussion program about Turkey's role in the deaths of Armenians during and after World War I. The 25-minute program has generated an outcry because the panel will include two scholars who deny that 1.5 million Armenian civilians were killed in eastern Turkey from 1915 to 1920.

The program is scheduled to air April 17, a week before the annual Armenian Remembrance Day commemoration, and will follow a one-hour documentary, "The Armenian Genocide," which describes the events surrounding the deaths, as well as denials of complicity by successive Turkish governments.

Armenian Americans have publicized an online petition that asks PBS to drop the discussion program. As of last night, more than 6,000 people had electronically added their names to the petition, making it one of the largest organized protests of a PBS program.

"We strongly feel that debating the Armenian Genocide is akin to arguing about the Jewish Holocaust in order to project a sense of balance," the petition reads. "Would PBS ever contemplate such a program?" Noting that the film already includes Turkish denials, the petition concludes that the panel discussion "would serve to emphasize the Turkish state's official position and undermine the non-political nature of [PBS] programming."

The events surrounding the deaths of Armenians in Turkey by factions of the ruling Ottoman Empire remain emotionally charged and politically contentious. Armenians have long contended that the killings were government policy designed to suppress an Armenian uprising and Armenian support for invading Russian forces. Armenians also call it the 20th century's first genocide, a view that has gained acceptance among Western scholars and governments.

Successors to the Ottoman Turks have acknowledged that there were a substantial number of Armenian deaths -- Turkish estimates range from 300,000 to 600,000 -- but Turkey maintains that the deaths resulted from warfare, starvation and epidemics that affected all segments of Turkish society.

The controversy continues to resonate in Ankara and Washington. Turkish prosecutors last year indicted the country's best-known novelist, Orhan Pamuk, on charges of denigrating the country's national identity after he asserted, in an interview with a Swiss magazine, that Turkey was denying the extent of Armenian killings. His indictment became an issue with European countries that are considering Turkey's application to join the European Union; the charges were dropped this month.

For decades, U.S. administrations have dealt tentatively with the issue, not wishing to offend Turkey, a key political and military ally. In its Remembrance Day message last year, the Bush White House noted "the forced exile and mass killings" and "horrible loss of life" of Armenians but avoided referring to the events as genocide.

As the title implies, "The Armenian Genocide," a documentary by New York filmmaker Andrew Goldberg, is unequivocal in its take on history. PBS agreed to air the film -- whose $650,000 budget was partly funded by Armenian Americans -- without major changes, said Goldberg and Jacoba Atlas, a top PBS programming executive.

In the course of reviewing rough cuts of the film, however, Atlas said PBS officials agreed to add the panel discussion to explore other views, particularly the question of why denial exists. "It's a terrific documentary, and while we believe [the genocide] is settled history . . . you still get dissenters," she said in an interview yesterday. "We said, 'Let's approach this head-on and say why this is still contentious.' We thought it was a good thing to have both sides talking to each other. We felt the more you can shed light on an argument, the more the truth becomes clear."

"This remains a contentious piece of history," Atlas added. "There are just questions around it. Rather than have those questions dismissed, it seemed like a good idea to have a panel and let people have their say."

Atlas acknowledged that such an approach is rare for PBS and said that the Alexandria-based service has not had other panels to discuss opposing views of documentaries during her five-year tenure. She declined to say whether a documentary about the Holocaust or about the genocides in Rwanda or Cambodia would require a similar post-documentary discussion. "Those are hypothetical questions," she said.

The panel discussion, hosted by NPR's Scott Simon, was taped last week. Colgate professor Peter Balakian, an adviser on the documentary, and University of Minnesota professor Taner Akcam supported the film's view. University of Louisville professor Justin A. McCarthy and Turkish historian Omer Turan offered an alternative perspective.

Balakian, an Armenian American who wrote the best-selling "Tigris Burning: The Armenian Genocide and America's Response," said that he did not want to participate in a panel with "two bona fide deniers" but that he felt "backed into a corner" by PBS. If he had boycotted the panel, he said, it would have jeopardized the broadcast of the documentary, which Balakian called "a major and comprehensive piece of work."

Goldberg, the filmmaker, said he did not think the panel was necessary, "but I didn't fight it. It wasn't up to me and I had nothing to do with its production."

In an interview yesterday, McCarthy said the history of the period is complex and does not lend itself to simple judgments and labels. He said that he could not find evidence of 1.5 million Armenian deaths. He also said 3 million Turks died during the same period.

"If saying that both sides killed each other makes me a genocide denier, then I'm a denier," he said.

Titling the documentary "The Armenian Genocide," he said, "is a false description of a complicated history."

PBS said it is up to its 348 member stations to decide individually whether to air either the panel discussion or the documentary.

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John W Bland - 2/19/2006

That is something I'd like to know more about—and the panel discussion attests to PBS neutrality. Are we gonna start burning movies (deja "view?") whenever matters of serious value to general enlightenment, but offending to some subgroup, are presented. I'm looking forward to both programs. I think I can still think for myself.