Turkey’s pro-gov’t media still trying to get Wikipedia banned

In January 2020, after two and a half years of blocking Wikipedia, Turkey’s Constitutional Court ordered the online encyclopedia to be unblocked. This came after the Wikimedia Foundation, the charity that runs Wikipedia’s servers, took their case to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), which ordered Turkey to stop censoring the internet encyclopaedia.

But it seems that Turkey’s pro-government media have not given up accusing Wikipedia of various crimes. Last time, the reason for blocking Wikipedia was a number of articles on the English Wikipedia, including Foreign Involvement in the Syrian Civil War, which contained references to a Turkish Cumhuriyet daily article about weapons being sent to militant groups in Syria, as well as the article on President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s son Bilal. 

When I worked for the U.K. charity that supports the Wikipedia community, one Wikipedia editor (whose particular Wikipedia subject is editing the biographies of millionaires) told me that he had been partly responsible for the Bilal Erdoğan article, and he was concerned that his diligent recording of all the facts he could find about the Turkish president’s son could have contributed to Turkey blocking the website. So you see, Turkish government, there’s not some CIA backed conspiracy to discredit you using Wikipedia, it’s just Ed, the millionaires guy from North London who, like any good Wikipedia editor, simply recorded what other journalists had already published about the president’s son on his Wikipedia page.

So now we come to Türkiye newspaper, which recently published an incredibly paranoid article alleging that “Wikipedia is in the service of FETÖ traitors,’’ which aims to somehow tie Wikipedia to the Gülen movement, a religious group led by exiled cleric and borderline cult leader  Fethullah Gülen, who Turkey claims was the mastermind of the failed 2016 coup d’etat. When writing this sentence I thought about whether it was fair to describe Gülenism as a cult. But since the group’s own website has a page questioning whether the Gülen Movement is a cult, I think it’s fair to say that if you’re constantly getting accused of being a cult, you might be one.

According to Türkiye, Wikipedia “is full of content that praises the terrorist organization FETÖ.” Now, let’s say this is true. It could be, I don’t know, I don’t use the Turkish Wikipedia very often, but it’s possible. There may be lots of Gülenists in the United States who are writing things on Wikipedia, but if they were writing subjective opinions that praise Gülen or his organisation, that would be clearly against one of Wikipedia’s primary rules, which is that Wikipedia is an encyclopaedia written from a neutral point of view. 

Neutral Point of View, or NPoV as Wikipedians tend to shorten it, is hugely important to Wikipedia’s reputation for objectivity, and many of the edits that I make to Wikipedia are simply to remove subjective language and weasel words (like ‘some people say that…’) from articles written by people who don’t understand Wikipedia as well as those of us who have been editing it for 10 years and have read all the rules.

“In the Internet encyclopedia Wikipedia, FETO members accused Turkey of supporting Syria's civil war,” Türkiye claims. It’s truly amazing that the anonymous staff editor of this newspaper knows exactly who wrote the content on the Foreign Involvement in the Syrian Civil War article, which I can only assume this claim relates to, since all of Wikipedia’s editors are anonymous.

Anybody can see the openly available statistics about the Foreign Involvement in the Syrian Civil War article for themselves right here. It has a wealth of statistics on this page, including the top editors, total number of edits and so on.

A total of 369 editors have made 1188 edits to this page, and User:Gog the Mild is the top editor of the page. Gog the Mild describes themselves on their user page as a fan of military history, and doesn’t seem to have ever edited any pages related to Turkish politics, so I think we can conclude that this person is not a Gülenist. You can do the same as this for every single person who has edited this page, and I highly doubt you will find any Gülenists.

Ömer Fatih Sayan, a ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) politician, who spoke to Türkiye newspaper, said, “We also spoke to Wikipedia's officials during the negotiation process. We said “come and establish a proper editorial structure in Turkey. A Gülenist in the United States, who has become a ''super editor,'' said that the set up in Turkey is such that corrections cannot be made, even though it is evident the information at hand is entirely incorrect.''

So apparently they are now claiming, without any evidence that I have seen, that this  “Gülenist super editor’’ is preventing them from writing things in Wikipedia. It all sounds highly unbelievable to me.

And what of this “proper editorial structure’’ that Sayan wants Wikipedia to establish? First of all, Wikipedia is just a website, the Wikimedia Foundation is the charity that supports the website, but is not responsible for editing it, so even if there was a Wikimedia office in Turkey, the people in that office would have no authority over the content of the site. 

Having worked in the Wikimedia community, I can say that there’s a very good reason why the 'User Group' of Wikipedia editors in Turkey does not set up an office and request funding from the Wikimedia Foundation in San Francisco: because over the last 10 years, the Turkish government has repeatedly interfered in the work of charities that receive foreign funding, and setting up an office would put at risk those people who work there.

The bizarre article continues, saying that “Wikipedia, which takes a stand against Turkey, praises terrorist organizations, especially FETÖ. The terrorist organization FETÖ is reflected in Wikipedia as the ‘Gülen movement’.” 

The English Wikipedia article on this subject states that “The Gülen movement (Turkish: Gülen hareketi), referred to as Hizmet (Service) or Cemaat (Community) by its participants and as FETÖ (Fethullahist Terrorist Organisation or more commonly Fethullah Terrorist Organisation) (Turkish: Fethullahçı Terör Örgütü), by the Government of Turkey after 2015.”

So basically the author is complaining that Turkey cannot unilaterally change the name of this page from “Gülen movement’’ to “FETÖ Terrorist Organisation.’’ I would tell Türkiye newspaper, Sayan or anybody else who is annoyed that Wikipedia doesn’t say exactly what they think it should say, exactly what I would tell anybody else. If you disagree with something on a page, go to the Talk Page of the article and start a discussion and argue your case about what should be changed.

“This article needs to be updated to provide more accurate and reliable information,” Sayan told Türkiye. Ok, well you do it then. I know this may be hard for you to understand, Dr. Sayan, but there’s no dictator of Wikipedia, who tells everybody what to do. It’s up to you to argue your case based on Wikipedia’s rules, and seek consensus from other editors in a democratic fashion. You remember democracy, don’t you?

When I worked at Wikimedia U.K., there were all kinds of people who were annoyed at Wikipedia because it failed to say exactly what they wanted it to. There was a middle aged radio DJ, who was annoyed that Wikipedia made his date of birth and age so easy to search for online. There were the Indian nationalists, who were angry that Wikipedia’s page for the K2 mountain said the mountain was in  “Pakistani controlled Kashmir,’’ because they believe that all of Kashmir should be part of India, and that Wikipedia should reflect their aspirational nationalist desires, rather than reality. Nationalists in particular are likely to get angry at a neutral depiction of the facts.

Wikipedia’s core rules are contained in a page called the Five Pillars of Wikipedia. Like Islam, we also have a set of rules that editors should abide by. The first rule is ‘Wikipedia is an encyclopaedia’, but “Wikipedia is not a soapbox, an advertising platform, a vanity press, an experiment in anarchy or democracy, an indiscriminate collection of information, or a web directory.”

The problem that the Turkish government has with Wikipedia is that it cannot control what is written there. The AKP is used to controlling the Turkish news media landscape, with 90 percent of Turkish news publications having some connection to the state. The Turkish government can try to block Wikipedia again, but that will simply land them with another case at the European Court of Human Rights.

What Turkish government supporters should do is to learn Wikipedia’s rules and engage in good faith editing, like everybody else does, and accept that in life, you cannot control everyone and everything.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.