Let’s take a walk down memory lane. On the 29th day of April 2017, Turkish authorities blocked online access to all language editions of the online encyclopedia- Wikipedia- throughout Turkey. The restrictions were imposed in accordance to Turkish Law No. 5651, due to the English version of an article on state-sponsored terrorism, where Turkey was described as a sponsor country for ISIS and Al-Qaeda, which Turkish courts viewed as a public manipulation of mass media.
Despite multiple requests by Turkish Information and Communication Technologies Authority, Wikipedia’s community, ascribed such claims to be referenced to reliable sources, refused to edit the article to comply with the Turkish law.
When the Turkish government suddenly banned Wikipedia in late April last year, it came as little surprise to many people in the country. Access to platforms including Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, and WhatsApp have been periodically restricted in Turkey numerous times since 2014, particularly after tumultuous events like mass demonstrations, suicide bomb attacks, or the failed coup attempt in July 2016. What’s strange is that the ban stayed. The country’s ban on Wikipedia is the most comprehensive in the world, as Wikipedia has been blocked in the country for a full year.
The ban caused Wikipedia’s traffic in Turkey plummeted by 90 percent months after the ban. The Wikimedia Foundation has been lobbying to restore access in the country. “We have asked Turkish courts to review the block, and have engaged in a series of discussions with Turkish authorities,” Samantha Lien, the Wikimedia Foundation’s communications manager, explains. She also adds that the company’s appeal has been under review of the Constitutional Court of Turkey for close to a year.
The site’s absence has caused a major impact on Turkish society and its ability to access information using one of the largest search engines, says Alp Toker, founder of the digital rights group Turkey Blocks, which keeps tabs on internet censorship in the country.
“The Wikipedia block is certainly part of a wider trend toward control of information online in Turkey. You have to look at the impact: 365 days without access to the world’s largest information resource and the ability to amend or correct information held within that resource” Toker tells The Verge. The ban followed a crackdown that escalated after the July 2016 coup attempt. Ever since, over 150 media outlets have been shut down by the government, and only a few critical newspapers and channels remain.
Toker argues that the Turkish government is shooting itself in the foot by continuing to restrict access to Wikipedia. “Essentially, Turkey has handed over editorial control of Wikipedia to its loudest critics and foreign interests abroad. Hence, the narrative about Turkey’s history, culture, and politics is today being written by outsiders who are even more critical than the country’s own citizens whose voices are now denied” Toker says.
People can access Wikipedia in Turkey through a VPN, but VPNs are often sluggish, unreliable, and incompatible with many sites, forcing the user to switch back and forth constantly when using Wikipedia alongside the rest of the internet. Toker doesn’t recommend using unofficial mirrors for the site as the authenticity of their articles cannot be verified.
“Turkey’s year-long ban on Wikipedia reflects the lengths the government will go to censor unfavorable news. Time after time, Turkish courts and administrative agencies have taken unnecessary and disproportionate steps to curtail the fundamental rights of Turkish citizens,” says Adrian Shahbaz, research manager for Freedom House’s Freedom on the Net.