Turkey’s Constitutional Court has ruled the government’s decision to ban access to Wikipedia in April 2017 was a violation of freedom of expression, a constitutionally-protected right. The decision represents a reversal of a Turkish court ruling from 2017 and comes just a month before an expected ruling from the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), a body which has ruled against Turkey more than any other country in its purview. No timetable has been put forth for when Turks might regain access to the online encyclopedia, which had been blocked as a "national security threat" under Turkish law.
The Wikimedia Foundation, the nonprofit that owns Wikipedia, is doing a victory lap, congratulating the Turkish people on being reconnected with what it never stops reminding the world is the largest online repository of human knowledge. The Foundation bragged that despite the two-year blackout, it never caved to Ankara’s request to remove negative information showing Turkey "in coordination and aligned" with ISIS and other terrorist groups, information the government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan denounced as a "smear campaign." Wikipedia, it boasted, would never give in to governments trying to quash free speech.
But there are more than a few holes in the Foundation’s version of events, starting with its boast that it stands for freedom of expression against repressive governments. While the Foundation very rarely obeys requests to remove information, whether they come from governments or individuals, it admits to having done so once. In 2014, the newly-installed US-backed Ukrainian government made a request to take down content on the English-language Wikipedia, and the Foundation acquiesced (it’s not clear what the information was). Why obey the dictates of Kiev but not Ankara? The puppet government of Petro Poroshenko was certainly no friend to free expression - its launch of a Ministry of Information Policy in December 2014 was widely ridiculed as a ham-handed censorship effort heavy on the propaganda, no different from Orwell’s “Ministry of Truth.” Thousands of journalists were doxxed through a site called Mirotvorets, declared “terrorist collaborators” for nothing more than obtaining accreditation from the separatist eastern regions of Donetsk and Luhansk. As a result, at least 14 journalists had been killed by 2016, and many more were threatened and attacked. While some politicians advocated punishing the publishers of Mirotvorets, others called for revoking the press accreditation of the doxxed journalists and declaring them enemies of the state, and the Ministry of Information Policy itself praised the site for its "principled stance concerning defending national security."
This is not the behavior of a government that supports free speech. Yet Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales and the Foundation made no secret of their support for the coup that replaced Russian-sympathetic Viktor Yanukovych with the neo-Nazi Poroshenko government. Not only had Wales nominated a Ukrainian Wikipedia editor shot to death during the Maidan Square riots for ‘Wikipedian of the Year’ (without explaining how or by whom he came to be shot), but he would go on the record during the Yalta European Strategy conference of December 2014 calling on Ukrainian editors to skew the narrative in the Russian-language Wikipedia to retroactively whitewash the color revolution (and demonize Crimea's reunification with Russia). Russian Wikipedians, Wales said, deserved to be bombarded with “alternative views, alternative statements” - a.k.a. Trumpian “alternative facts” - through the supposedly-neutral encyclopedia.
Additionally, Turkish editors determined to circumvent Ankara’s ban on Wikipedia never really lost access to the site - it was a simple matter to use a VPN or other location-spoofing tools to read and edit to their heart’s content. Indeed, by blocking the average Turk’s access to Wikipedia, the government only ensured that whatever slander against Erdogan and his administration already existed on the site would metastasize, reproducing without interference by pro-Erdogan editors who might otherwise have pushed back against negative portrayals of the country. If anything, the ban handed control of Turkish Wikipedia to dissidents - a self-sabotaging move that may explain why the Turkish court was willing to reverse course on the ban. Others have speculated that the ruling by the Turkish court was meant to preempt yet another negative ruling from the ECHR, which never misses a chance to censure Turkey.
Turkey’s reasons for banning Wikipedia - the site wouldn’t remove information about government officials being involved with ISIS in trading oil, or about Turkey’s sponsorship of ISIS and other terror groups - are somewhat petty, as the information is true, no matter how negatively it reflects on Turkey. For all that Wikipedia is positively bristling with libel about any government that has gotten on the bad side of the US, UK or Israel, the relationship between Turkey and ISIS is real. While Saudi Arabia, Israel, and the US provide funding, weapons, protection, and PR, Turkey assists in the movement and protection of people and supplies - and oil. If Turkey didn’t want the world learning about their support for terrorists, they might have thought of that before getting into bed with the governments that have done more than anyone else to unleash chaos upon the region.
Even if Turkey is in the wrong, however, for the Foundation to cry “freedom of expression” is disingenuous when it is willing to give other countries a pass on their own human rights violations, even working with them to oppress their populations. The case of Wikipedia in Kazakhstan is an instructive example of what a repressive government can do when it cooperates with the encyclopedia, instead of kicking it to the curb. In March 2011, a month before Kazakh dictator Nursultan Nazarbayev changed the country’s official language from Russian to Kazakh, a group of Kazakhs bankrolled by the ruling family operating under the name WikiBilim began transferring material from the government-sanctioned Kazakh encyclopedia into the Kazakh-language Wikipedia. WikiBilim soon arranged with the Wikimedia Foundation to have all 15 volumes of the encyclopedia piped in, overwriting the work of any Kazakh Wikipedia editors who might have thought they were entitled to something more than the government-approved version of reality.
Wales didn’t merely allow the Nazarbayev regime - which has been repeatedly sanctioned by the ECHR for human rights violations and which has a lengthy track record of jailing and even killing journalists critical of the government - to seize control of the Kazakh Wikipedia. He declared Rauan Kenzhekhanuly, director of WikiBilim, Wikipedian of the Year and awarded him a $5,000 prize. Wales for years insisted WikiBilim was an independent organization, but when it later emerged that he had discussed the project with the group’s government patron at Davos the previous year, he was left scrambling for excuses. When Kenzhekanuly, a former government official, was appointed governor of the Kyzylorda region in 2014, Wales finally gave up on pretending everything was kosher in Kazakhstan, implying in a Reddit Ask Me Anything the following year that he’d been tricked into assisting the repressive regime.
Kazakhstan is only one of the countries that has received the Foundation and Wales’ stamp of approval despite (because of?) an adversarial relationship with freedom of expression. Wales is married to the former diary secretary of Tony Blair, who has followed up his warmongering stint as British PM with a lucrative lobbying career, hopping from one despot to another to help them whitewash their human rights records and reposition themselves as ripe for foreign investments. The United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Oman, Azerbaijan, and Israel have all fostered friendships with the Foundation to various extents, despite atrocious track records in human rights. For the Foundation to cry foul in Turkey’s case is hypocritical in the extreme - Erdogan's crime, in their eyes, is not jailing journalists but failing to work out a lucrative agreement that would allow him to whitewash his human rights record by lining the Foundation's pockets. Wikipedia no more supports free expression than Turkey fights terrorism.
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