Turkey blocked access to Wikipedia exactly a year ago, citing a “coordinated smear campaign” against Turkey by the free online encyclopedia. However, Haaretz can reveal there were four specific articles that got it banned, including one relating to the president’s son-in-law.
Turkish officials alleged that the smear campaign consisted of “articles and comments showing Turkey aligned with various terrorist groups” – specifically, Wikipedia articles in English that included claims Ankara had supported the Islamic State group.
The Wikipedia ban was implemented under a much-criticized internet law legislated by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government in the name of “national security.” However, the Wikipedia documents suggest it is not only national security concerns that irked the regime.
Officials in Ankara reached out to Wikimedia (the nonprofit that oversees Wikipedia) to request that content be changed on at least four different articles before the ban, on at least three different occasions.
These demands, which were turned down as a matter of policy, quickly morphed into an ultimatum by Turkey to the U.S.-based NGO and covered a range of topics. They reveal a fundamental misunderstanding by Turkish leaders of how Wikipedia works, but also highlight the issues the regime is ready to act upon. These include the country’s role in Syria; the reputation of Erdogan family members; and even Turkish national history.
Here are the articles that got Wikipedia banned in Turkey:
ISIS and Turkey’s ‘righteous’ war
When the ban was announced on April 29, 2017, a Turkish authority tweeted that it was due to content on Wikipedia alleging “Turkey’s support for terrorist organizations.”
“Instead of coordinating against terrorism, [Wikipedia] has become part of an information source which is running a smear campaign against Turkey in the international arena,” a statement by the Transport, Maritime Affairs and Communications Ministry said.
“Ankara warned it to remove the offending content but the nonprofit encyclopedia refused,” the statement added, with reports by the official news agency Anadolu adding that “the access ban would be lifted if Wikipedia meets Turkey’s demands.”
Both articles have subsections that address Turkey, and both contain claims that Turkey has supported ISIS. These articles were the ones invoked to justify the ban, according to a review of legal documents in Turkey by the Turkish-language Voice of America (a U.S. government-funded broadcaster).
Alp Toker, the founder of Turkey Blocks – a digital rights group that first reported the Wikipedia ban – said he was not surprised it was Syria-related articles that sparked the government’s reaction. “Crackdowns on the internet and the war in Syria have had a history of interplay in Turkey, and the demands on Wikipedia are only a more recent manifestation,” he said.
As an example, Toker cited “a brief but widespread [internet] outage” that “coincided with the early phase of [Turkey’s anti-ISIS] Operation Euphrates Shield” in Syria two years ago.
“Turkey’s leadership is at pains to present itself as the righteous combatant in Syria, and more recently in Iraq,” Toker wrote Haaretz via email.
Now it’s personal
The second instance when Turkey requested that Wikipedia change content concerned the massive leak of emails belonging to Berat Albayrak, a Turkish businessman-turned-energy minister who also happens to be Erdogan’s son-in-law. The so-called RedHack leak – published by WikiLeaks at the height of Erdogan’s post-coup purges in December 2016 – contained over 57,000 emails belonging to Albayrak. They detailed what Foreign Policy described as everything “from indirect involvement with ISIS’ oil trade to free press crackdowns.”
According to the WikiLeaks documents, a firm Albayrak was involved with – and profited from – was tied to alleged oil trade with ISIS through the abuse of a government exemption from doing business in Iraqi Kurdistan. The Turkish government did not want this fact recorded online – not on Wikipedia, and not anywhere else for that matter.
According to Toker, ahead of the email leak Erdogan’s government had attempted one of its harshest internet crackdowns yet – blocking the likes of Dropbox and Google Drive, thus preventing their documents from reaching Turkey. However, the move backfired, drawing widespread condemnation and causing the government to rescind the ban.
Toker called this a classic example of the “Streisand effect” – an attempt to hide a piece of information that has the unintended effect of publicizing the information even more widely.
“For many working and investing in Turkey with little interest in politics, the leaks will forever be remembered as the ones that triggered massive disruptions to Turkey’s core internet infrastructure,” Toker explained. “The loss of cloud services [like Google Docs] had a knock-on impact on countless business services,” he added.
However, an email purportedly from Turkey’s media regulator to Wikimedia reveals that although Ankara lifted its internet restrictions, it did not curtail its efforts to kill the story. According to the email, leaked to the left-leaning Turkish paper SoL, Turkey’s Information and Communication Technologies Authority (known as the BTK) demanded that Wikipedia delete any references or hyperlinks to the WikiLeaks claim regarding Albayrak’s potential ties to the ISIS oil affair. The claim can still be seen in Albayrak’s English Wikipedia entry.
The third incident where Turkey requested content be changed has less to do with Erdogan and more with a perceived slight to Turkish national pride. The article was the Turkish Wikipedia entry on “Benevolent dictator.”
Among the examples listed in the article are Napoleon Bonaparte, Fidel Castro, Ho Chi Minh – and Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, Turkey’s founding father.
According to Wikimedia’s transparency report, “In April , we received an email from the Information and Communication Technologies Authority of the Turkish government, claiming that the Turkish Wikipedia article on Musfik diktatorluk (benevolent dictatorship) violated Turkish law.”
According to the report, like nearly all other such requests, it was rejected with Wikimedia offering “to pass the message on to Turkish Wikipedia volunteers.”
Ironically, “benevolent dictator” is the title humorously bestowed by the Wikipedia community upon founder Jimmy Wales to describe his role in the famously decentralized online project. An avowed libertarian, Wales has repeatedly refused to intervene in Wikipedia’s content, taking a laissez-faire approach to solving its problems.
“This is perhaps one of the great ironies of the Wikipedia block: Because Turkish citizens are no longer able to edit the world’s most popular source of trusted information, editorial control has been de facto ceded to external actors, who tend to hold an even less favorable view of Turkey’s actions,” said Turkey Blocks’ Toker.
“The wealth of knowledge outside the dispute is collateral damage that positions Turkey as the only country blocking its citizens from the whole of Wikipedia,” he concluded.
Fighting on two fronts
In the meantime, Wikimedia is fighting in the courts and Wikipedia is fighting for hearts and minds with a #WeMissTurkey campaign, aimed at highlighting all the Turkish-related content that Turks are missing.
At the time of the ban, Wikimedia responded by saying that “A number of claims attributed to Turkish authorities in the press have suggested that Wikipedians have been part of a ‘smear campaign,’ or created content ‘supporting terrorism.’ We are deeply concerned by any suggestion that freely sharing the encyclopedia articles created by the worldwide volunteer editor community could be misconstrued as supporting a violent or hateful agenda. We believe there has been a misunderstanding. Wikipedia’s purpose is to share encyclopedic information with the world. At the Wikimedia Foundation, we unequivocally condemn and reject terrorism.
“The Wikimedia Foundation calls on the Turkish government to restore full access to Wikipedia for the Turkish people, and empower them to once again share in the world’s largest free knowledge resource,” it wrote.
In a response to Haaretz, Wikimedia said: “The Wikimedia Foundation has made restoring access to Wikipedia in Turkey a high priority over the past year. Every day the block continues, more than 80 million people cannot access free knowledge, and the world misses the opportunity to learn from the people of Turkey on Wikipedia.
“Immediately following the block, we asked Turkish courts to review the order. After our appeal was rejected at two levels of Ankara courts, we appealed to the Constitutional Court of Turkey in early May 2017, but have seen no action from the Court to date.
“We continue to explore other opportunities to lift the block of Wikipedia in Turkey and remain committed to restoring access to Wikipedia in full. While we are open to conversations with Turkish authorities, we would never stray from our values, opposition to censorship, and our goal of restoring access to Wikipedia in its entirety.”
Turkish officials did not respond to requests for comment for this story.