BY JEFF SHARLET–From the Journal of Higher Education
* Covering up genocide is a tricky business.
Probably the best place to start is with the word itself. Coined in 1944 to describe Nazi Germany’s systematic murder of millions–it’s since been disputed in nearly every other usage–from the US government’s early waffling on whether Rwanda’s Hutu annihilation of the Tutsis qualified–to the Turkish government’s continuing campaign to convince the world that several hundred thousand starved Armenia’s does not a genocide make.
That’s where Microsoft’s Encarta comes in.
Helen Fein–executive director of the Institute for the Study of Genocide–says the online encyclopedia almost helped deny the genocide.
In 1996–Encarta asked Ms. Fein to write an entry on genocide. Her short essay–which included a brief mention of the murder or deportation of at least 1.1 million Armenia’s by the Turkish Ottoman government during World War I–was accepted and published.
But this past June–Encarta called Ms. Fein and asked her to revise her entry–in response to "customer complaints." She learned that Ronald Grigor Suny–a political scientist at the University of Chicago and the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor–had been asked to revise his entry on Armenia as well.
Ms. Fein says Encarta wanted her to include a few lines on the "other side of the story"–the Turkish government’s side–that is. Mr. Suny says an Encarta editor named Frank Manning explained to him that the revision would leave the facts in place–but remove the word "genocide."
"Their proposed changes suggested that all narratives are equal–that we can’t know for sure whether or not the Armenia’s brought the massacres on themselves," says Ms. Fein.
According to Mr. Suny–Mr. Manning told him that the Turkish government had threatened to arrest local Microsoft officials and ban Microsoft products unless the who–what–and why of the massacres were presented as topics open to debate.
Microsoft representatives would neither confirm nor deny the threats–but Namik Tan–a spokesman for the Turkish Embassy–calls the charge "so ridiculous I cannot speak." He acknowledges that the embassy wrote at least two letters to Microsoft urging it to remove the term "genocide" from the two entries–and to cite Armenian rebellion as the cause of any suffering–but he insists that the Turkish government "does not make threats."
When Ms. Fein and Mr. Suny threatened to remove their names from the articles and to publicize Microsoft’s censorship–however–Encarta editors backed down. Ms. Fein and Mr. Suny agreed to add that the Turkish government denies the genocide–but held firm on the facts of its occurrence.
When The Chronicle attempted to reach Encarta’s editors–a publicist for the company said they were all on vacation. A second publicist added that every story has two sides–even one about genocide.
Indeed. Ms. Fein notes that the Encarta entry on Turkey–which is unsigned–still doesn’t mention the Armenian genocide at all.