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. As of this Sunday, Wikipedia has been blocked in the country for a full year.
Authorities said the ban was instituted when Wikipedia declined to take down content alleging that Turkey had provided support for terrorist groups. Since the ban, all language versions of the site have been inaccessible to Turkish IP addresses; a screen saying that the browser cannot make a secure connection to the server comes up when trying to reach the site.
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, tells The Verge. She adds that the company’s appeal has been under review of the Constitutional Court of Turkey for close to a year. Wikipedia’s traffic in Turkey plummeted by 90 percent in the months after the ban, Lien says.
The site’s absence has had a major impact on Turkish society and its ability to access information, 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. Since then, over 150 media outlets have been shut down by the government, and only a few critical newspapers and channels remain.
As President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan seeks to maintain his tight grip on power, he has also worked to curtail internet freedom in Turkey. “The country had one of the three largest declines in our index last year due to the repeated suspension of telecommunications networks and social media access, as well as sweeping arrests for political speech online,” Adrian Shahbaz, research manager for Freedom House’s Freedom on the Net, tells The Verge. (The other two countries are Egypt and Ukraine.) Lien says that Turkey’s ban on Wikipedia is the most comprehensive in the world; even China permits access to non-Chinese language versions of the site.
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. And 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,” Shahbaz says.
Meanwhile, all Wikipedia can do is attempt to generate public interest about its plight in Turkey. In March, it unveiled the #WeMissTurkey campaign, where the site shared Turkish history and culture-related content on its Twitter account and collaborated with Turkish artists to create posters featuring the phrase.
“We reached more than 17 million people on social media across 200,000 responses from people around the world expressing the loss of knowledge and perspective we all suffer as a result of the block of Wikipedia in Turkey,” says Lien. Wikipedia’s Facebook profile picture still features the words “We miss Turkey” pasted over its logo.
Despite Wikimedia’s efforts, it’s unlikely the ban will be overturned anytime soon, particularly in light of the early elections that were called for this June, over a year ahead of schedule. Toker and his colleagues are working on a system that determines how internet censorship negatively affects the economy, hoping a financial argument might have sway.
“We need to get the message through to the decision makers that free expression online is good for society and good for business,” Toker says.