Any report or hint that links Turkey to jihadi operatives in Syria is certainly bound to draw ire of Ankara. And the world’s biggest online encyclopedia Wikipedia is no exception. It has become the latest victim of Turkey’s frenzy over the matter.
When Turkey blocked access to interactive online encyclopedia Wikipedia last week, it left seasoned observers and government critics bewildered.
The ban, which was imposed over notorious and far-reaching national security grounds, represented another milestone in the Turkish authorities’ clampdown on free expression and public right to access information.
However befuddling its echoes may be, blocking Wikipedia was not without precedents. The Turkish government has a well-established record of fighting bloody wars against Internet giants such as Twitter, Facebook, and Youtube over the past years.
But banning Wikipedia, according to critics, represents a high-water mark of censorship in Turkey where media landscape has been brutally gutted by an unabated crackdown on the press. Since a failed coup attempt last summer, 165 journalists have been jailed and more than 150 media outlets shut down.
In theory, the Information and Communication Technologies Authority oversees regulations and management of communication technologies in Turkey. But in reality, it is not entirely independent and autonomous authority as supposed to be; it operates under direct political influence from the sitting government in Ankara.
Turkey’s semi-official Anadolu news agency said last week that Wikipedia allowed “a smear campaign against Turkey in the international arena,” a factor that led Turkey’s communications watchdog to step in to protect Turkey’s global image.
Jimmy Wales, Wikipedia’s founder offered a scathing criticism of the Turkish decision, pledging a firm commitment to the Turkish people’s righteous battle for getting information uninterrupted.
“Access to information is a fundamental human right. Turkish people I will always stand with you to fight for this right,” Mr. Wales said on Twitter.
The ban prompted Wikimedia Foundation, which operates Wikipedia, to appeal the decision. On Friday, a Turkish court in Ankara rejected the appeal. Not surprisingly, the language in which the court ruling was framed reflects a deeply-rooted security mentality of the authorities. The court said while freedom of speech was a fundamental right, it can be limited in cases where there is a necessity for regulation.
Turkey’s broadly defined, and mostly vague, counter-terrorism laws are often cited by judges and prosecutors to prosecute activists, dissidents, and journalists in matters normally unrelated to security. Though the majority of cases in media trials bear no relevance to security matters, expression of freedom is systematically gutted for the sake of national security.
But what landed Wikipedia on the radar of the Turkish government was not just such concerns. A long-running pattern was the central motive that drove the Turkish action.
According to the Turkish media, two Wikipedia entries linking Turkey to Islamist radical groups in Syria was the chief cause of legal move against the global behemoth of digital encyclopedia, which is run by volunteers all around the world.
After the intractable Syrian conflict has become an incubator and a magnet of global jihadism, Turkey’s ‘open border’ policy facilitated border crossings of Syria-bound international fighters. From 2013 toward on, claims of Turkey’s collusion with extremist militant groups have spurred scrutiny from international media and outcry from Ankara’s Western allies.
Though the smoke has not been fully cleared over such claims, Turkey’s reaction has always been swift and furious. It has unequivocally rejected even the slightest hint of cooperation with radical groups in Syria.
Regarding Wikipedia entries touching the controversy, Ankara’s position has appeared to be unwavering. Despite the call from Wikimedia Foundation to restore the full access to the site, the court, in an obvious reflection of Ankara’s official policy, rejected that appeal.
Turkey’s targeting of foreign reporters who published stories sifting through the body of claims about murky relationships with jihadi groups operating in Syria has been well known. Reports combing through the probable correlation between the rise of Islamic State and Turkey’s evolving strategy toward the Syrian civil war since 2013, the year when President Barack Obama backpedaled in his vow to strike the Syrian regime over the use of chemical weapons, delve into a dangerous territory in Turkey.
— Can Dündar (@candundaradasi) May 2, 2017
One of the off-limits topics in Turkey has been government-sponsored weapons supply to Syria. Cumhuriyet’s former Editor-in-Chief Can Dundar and Ankara Bureau Chief Erdem Gul stand a high-profile trial over a report that uncovered the Turkish role in cross-border weapons transfer to Syria.
— Can Dündar (@candundaradasi) May 2, 2017
Both journalists in 2015 unearthed the systematic effort by the Turkish intelligence agency to coordinate arms shipment to warring groups. The Cumhuriyet story ruffled feathers in Ankara, with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan vowing to not let Mr. Dundar go unpunished. After 5 months in prison, the Cumhuriyet’s former editor was released pending trial on charges of treason and leaking highly classified state secrets.
He barely survived an assassination attempt outside an Istanbul courthouse while giving a live interview to NTV channel last year. That tragic incident and subsequent disquieting death threats forced him to leave the country.
Late last month, the Turkish government deported an Italian journalist after 10 days of detention. Gabriele Del Grande, 34, had been detained in early April in Hatay province near the Syrian border. After two weeks in jail, the Turkish authorities decided to release him when the Italian journalist went on a hunger strike.
His case illuminates how stakes become too high for foreign journalists working in war-torn southeastern Turkey or near the Turkish-Syrian border.
Turkish-German journalist Deniz Yucel is another case in point. The Turkish authorities jailed him after a diplomatic standoff with Germany, with the fallout of his imprisonment still fraying the bilateral relations.
What placed him behind bars was a similar reason. His work digging out the potential links between the Turkish state and radical groups, most notably ISIS, in Syria, secured a place for him in Turkey’s already overcrowded prisons.
President Erdogan vowed that Turkey will never extradite Mr. Yucel as long as he remains in power, dismissing German calls to release him.
The Wall Street Journal‘s astute reporter Dion Nissenbaum was deported on similar grounds in December. His story on the brutal killing of the Turkish soldiers by ISIS who released a video purportedly showing two captured soldiers being burned alive prompted his deportation, then the Wall Street Journal reported.
Several reporters and editors of left-wing online news portal Diken languish behind bars over reporting on leaked emails of Berat Albayrak, President Erdogan’s son-in-law, and Turkey’s energy minister. In his emails, reporters found a body of evidence showing existence of oil trade between the Turkish authorities and ISIS in 2014.
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