Wikipedia Beats Erdogan's Censorship – and Turks Are Flocking Back

Turkey's case highlights how blocking Wikipedia can exact a price first and foremost on local knowledge

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Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.Credit: Presidential Press Service/AP
Omer Benjakob
Omer Benjakob

After almost three years, access to Wikipedia was restored in Turkey two weeks ago, bringing to an end a lengthy political and legal drama that kept over 50 million Turkish residents from reading or editing the free online encyclopedia. Wikipedia in all languages was banned in Turkey in April 2017 after the nonprofit that runs Wikipedia refused requests by the Turkish government to change content in articles relating to Turkey’s ties to ISIS and the Erdogan family’s good name.

Haaretz revealed the following year that ahead of the ban, the Wikimedia Foundation, which as a matter of policy does not intervene in Wikipedia’s content, received demands to change the content in at least four articles, two relating to alleged ties between the Turkish government and ISIS, and one related to the financial dealings with ISIS of a family member of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Over a million Turks visited Turkish-language Wikipedia the week after the ban was lifted, in the wake of a ruling by the country’s Constitutional Court, which deemed restriction of access to the online encyclopedia an infringement of human rights – specifically, of freedom of expression.

Tellingly, it was not just Turkish readers who flocked back to Wikipedia, but also local editors who were offline for the past three years, and whose voice was all but absent from the Turkish version of the collaborative encyclopedia during that period. Since access was restored, the local community has been keeping itself busy, and the most “active” article (in terms of editing and internal discussion) in Turkish Wikipedia the week after access was restored was the main entry for Wikipedia itself, followed by the article dealing with why it was banned. The list of most-active articles also included those about Qassem Soleimani, about Erdogan and about jailed Kurdish leader Abdullah Öcalan. The entry for Öcalan’s militant Kurdistan Workers’ Party, which is viewed, like the leader himself, as terrorist by the authorities, was among the most edited articles.

However, in an example of the real toll taken by local restrictions on internet access (in a 2018 report, Freedom House deemed Turkey’s internet “not free,” with many websites and social media platforms being regularly banned), many of the Wikipedia articles that have been seeing a surge in activity relate to nonpolitical and uncontroversial topics. For example, among the first articles to be created after ban’s lifting were entries about American football player Colin Kaepernick and soccer superstar Cristiano Ronaldo. Moreover, many of the particularly active articles had a distinctly local flavor – such as that for Turkish author and political activist Rahsan Ecevit, and Turkish painter Tamer Sahinoglu. Another article that was recently created – about a hit Turkish TV show that began airing following imposition of the ban – highlights how blocking Wikipedia can exact a price first and foremost on local knowledge.

While English and Spanish Wikipedia enjoy a wide and diverse community of editors, smaller, localized Wikipedias – including the Hebrew and Turkish versions – tend to have a national, if not nationalistic bias. In many senses, Hebrew Wikipedia is more Israeli then Hebraic, and Turkish Wikipedia is, well, Turkish. In this sense, Turkey’s decision to ban Wikipedia may have inadvertently served the cause of Turkish nationals living abroad who are more critical of the regime, because they were still free to write and add content to entries in the Turkish Wikipedia.

This is ironic, considering Ankara’s official reason for the ban in the first place. It claimed that Wikipedia was involved in a “smear campaign” against the regime and its war efforts in Syria and against the Kurds. Turkey’s communications authority sent the San Francisco-based Wikimedia Foundation requests to change the content in a number of different articles, two of them, as reported by Haaretz in 2018, concerning allegations that Turkey was indirectly supporting ISIS as part of its battle against Kurds in the border region with Syria. Another entry concerned allegations that Erdogan’s son-in-law had overseen deals involving oil extracted from fields that were under ISIS control at the time. The last article is perhaps most telling: Turkey demanded that Ataturk, the modern state’s founding father, be removed as one of the examples of an “enlightened dictator,” in an article on that topic.

The Wikimedia Foundation explained, in its response to the Turks, that the content in its articles is determined by a community of local, volunteer editors who are required to abide by certain strict, universal editorial policies (for example, providing a source for every claim). But Turkey refused to be placated, and, invoking a law intended to protect national security, blocked access to the encyclopedia in all its versions in April 2017.

In response, the WMF took Turkey to the European Court for Human Rights, while also filing suit in the country’s constitutional court, which ruled three weeks ago that access must be restored. According to senior WMF sources, Ankara accepted the court’s ruling and agreed to implement it a few days later, in an attempt to stave off a ruling later this month by the European Court, where the case has now been rendered moot.

According to Turkish editors, the prohibition on access to the encyclopedia exacted a heavy, albeit hard-to-quantify price on the local Wikipedia, with an effect more cultural than political. According to Firat Ozak, a local editor, most of the more active editors had no problem circumnavigating the ban by using a VPN. However, Ozak added, “The most important thing Turkish Wikipedia has lost was the edits from local IP addresses. What we missed most was random people updating small things, like the name of the new mayor of a small village or the number of yellow cards in a Turkish soccer league. These edits have less controversy and are less ‘sexy,’ and can be easily forgotten.”

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