Turkey lifted its more than two-and-a-half year block on Wikipedia on Thursday, after the country’s top constitutional court ruled the ban unconstitutional. The ruling comes as a win for free speech advocates in a country whose government is widely accused of increasingly eroding citizens’ democratic rights.
“We are thrilled to be reunited with the people of Turkey,” Katherine Maher, executive director of the Wikimedia Foundation, said in a statement Thursday as the online encyclopedia celebrated its 19th year in existence. “We are excited to share this important moment with our Turkish contributor community on behalf of knowledge-seekers everywhere.”
Wikipedia was blocked in Turkey in April of 2017, after an English language page on the volunteer-powered site linked Turkey to support for terrorist groups including Al Qaeda and IS. Turkey’s government, led by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, enacted the ban by citing a law that enabled it to block access to websites deemed threatening to national security, public order or public well-being.
“Instead of coordinating against terrorism, it has become part of an information source which is running a smear campaign against Turkey in the international arena,” Turkey’s communications ministry said of Wikipedia in a statement at the time of the ban, which applied to the entire website and all its different language pages, not just those in English.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan attends a news conference in Budapest, Hungary, November 7, 2019.
Bernadett Szabo | Reuters
The Wikipedia page in question, which remains published, noted many countries’ accusations of Turkey as sponsoring Islamist rebel groups in Syria like Al Nursa front, which is Al Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate. Former Vice President Joe Biden in 2014 accused Turkey of being among a group of countries “pour(ing) hundreds of millions of dollars and tens of thousands of tons of weapons into anyone who would fight against (Bashar) Al-Assad.”
Erdogan’s son in law has been accused of facilitating and profiting off of IS’ oil sales, and in early Kurdish battles against ISIS, the Islamist militants were able to attack the Kurds from the Turkish side of the Syrian border, suggesting Turkish support. Former U.S. envoy to the global anti-IS coalition Brett McGurk in 2019 accused Turkey of providing weapons and logistical support to IS. Ankara has denied the charges.
Turkey accused the free online encyclopedia of “manipulating the public through mass media,” and Wikipedia did not comply with requests by the government to edit the articles in question.
The Turkish embassies in London and Abu Dhabi did not reply to CNBC requests for comment on Thursday.
The ban came several months after Turkey’s 2016 attempted coup, the aftermath of which saw Erdogan consolidate power and fire, jail, or suspend thousands of Turkish military personnel, civil servants, judges and educators suspected of being dissidents. Turkey has been listed among the world’s top jailers of journalists by the Committee to Protect Journalists.
Wikimedia filed a series of appeals after the ban was upheld by a court in Ankara that ruled against the foundation. In March of 2018, it began a campaign with the hashtag “We miss Turkey,” translated into Turkish as “Ozledik,” and an image of a black censor bar over the Wikipedia logo.
But in late December, the Turkish Constitutional Court – the highest court able to rule on such an issue – ruled that the ban constituted a “violation of freedom of expression provided in Article 26 of the Constitution,” according to a statement from the court’s general assembly. Access to Wikipedia was restored on Thursday, though some parts of the country are regaining access more slowly than others.
The Wikimedia Foundation said in May of last year that it also challenged the ban in a case put forth to the European Court of Human Rights, to which Turkey is expected to respond in January.
“We will continue to advocate for strong protections for free expression online in Turkey and around the world,” the foundation said in its statement.