The other day an obscure news article caught my eye online: Wikipedia founder to visit Kazakhstan in 2013. Underneath one of Jimmy Wales’ favourite pictures of himself – the one where he is wearing a blue business shirt, nonchalantly leaning against a wall, his famous blue eyes smiling at the reader – the text said, “Wikipedia founder is expected to visit Kazakhstan in 2013, according to Rauan Kenzhekhanuly, founder of WikiBilim Foundation [an NGO to develop the Kazakh Wikipedia].” A little further below, the article said that the project to expand the Kazakh Wikipedia was supported by Karim Massimov, until recently the Prime Minister of Kazakhstan, and today President Nazarbaev’s chief of staff.
This piqued my curiosity. Supported by whom? Expanding the various language versions of Wikipedia is not usually a task performed with government support, least of all support from the sort of government Kazakhstan has.
An authoritarian regime
Kazakhstan, oil-rich and the worldwide leader in natural uranium production, is ruled by Nursultan Nazarbaev, a Soviet politburo veteran who has been president of Kazakhstan for as long as the nation has existed (1991). He was already its president when it was still a Soviet republic: he has been in power since 1990. A 2007 constitutional amendment made Nazarbaev personally exempt from any term limits, enabling him to remain President for life. He won his most recent term extension in April 2011, running against token opposition and winning 95% of the vote in an election deemed unfair by international observers.
His presidency has been criticised for human rights abuses and the curtailment of press freedoms, including attempts to control the internet. The Economist reported in early 2009 that the country’s most-read blogger was Prime Minister Massimov – the same Karim Massimov who now supports the Kazakh Wikipedia expansion. The article also noted efforts by the Kazakh parliament to shut other bloggers down, adding that –
Being an independent journalist in Kazakhstan is tough enough as it is. On December 30th one was stabbed three times in front of his house in Almaty; another was beaten up in January. And a court slapped a big fine on an opposition newspaper for slandering a parliamentarian.
Things indeed got tougher for bloggers later that year:
Government pressure on Kazakh websites was stepped up this month when legislation came into force that essentially qualifies all internet resources, including blogs, chat rooms and online shopping sites, as media outlets and subjects them to criminal statutes for disseminating illegal material. Critics say the law will be selectively applied to websites that criticise Mr Nazarbayev and his government and that it is impossible for websites to filter, for example, all offensive comments that readers may leave on blogs and internet forums. [...]
“Now any small-time bureaucrat can claim something is hate speech, whether on blogs or in forums, and our website will be closed,” Mr Mizinov [the editor of the website Zonakz.net] said. He said some of the material he is deleting includes negative comments about Mr Nazarbayev and others that could conceivably be considered hate speech, though he said a lack of manpower made it virtually impossible to catch everything. “But we have to save the website, so these are the steps we have to take,” he said.
Polishing a country’s image
To the general population in the West, Kazakhstan has to date been known mainly for Borat. But no authoritarian regime blessed with vast oil and uranium resources can rely on relative media obscurity forever. In January 2012, The Atlantic reported that –
The government of Kazakhstan has spent substantial sums on global public relations, striving to shape an image as a modern, open and investment-friendly nation by relying on a stable of top-tier public relations firms and international advisors.
Firms that have helped Kazakhstan burnish its international profile, either presently or in the recent past, include Tony Blair Associates, BGR Gabara, Portland Communications, and Berlin-based Media Consulta.
Astana’s recent PR push includes the placement of infomercials on global cable channels, including CNN International. And, using forensic investigative techniques, EurasiaNet.org also has uncovered evidence that suggests PR firms may have massaged Wikipedia entries in ways that cast the Kazakhstani government in a better light.
Clearly, you could not accuse the Kazakh government of being unaware of the power of the internet, or of the importance of Wikipedia.
So it is not particularly surprising to find that the Kazakh government, with a predominant population of native Kazakh speakers, is taking a keen interest in the development of the Kazakh Wikipedia. Until recently, the Kazakh Wikipedia was a very modest effort: Wikipedia tells us that it was started in 2002, but by 2011 numbered just 7,500 articles and four active users.
The government comes to the Kazakh Wikipedia’s aid
The WikiBilim Foundation changed that. As Kazakh news outlet Kazpravda reports, the Kazakh government realised that –
Wikipedia is the only internet resource of public format, which is one of the world’s top ten online brands. BBC named Wikipedia a most famous brand of the XXI century, along with YouTube and Facebook. Currently, Wikipedia, which is visited by 400 million people a month, operates in 281 languages and has more than 18 million items, including more than 3.5 million in English. The other two million-mark languages are German and French, more than 700 thousand articles are in Russian.
The Kazakh part of it is at a very low level, said Kazakhstani MP Murat Abenov. Only 25 000 articles are in Kazakh, 15 000 of them – in the last month. This is the project we really need and expect a lot from. After we raised this issue in the parliament, we are getting support from the government, and it is very important that involved is the public fund Wikibilim, purpose-organized by Kazakhstani activists of Wikipedia at the initiative and for the money of Samruk-Kazyna. It is necessary to make a quality resource so that the knowledge it contains can be effectively used and easily accessed to by the entire population.
[...] More encyclopedic knowledge in the state language will create favorable conditions for expanding the scope and range of everyday use and thereby will strengthen its role in public life. In addition, the project has a great potential to boost the country’s image.
Purpose-organized by Kazakhstani activists of Wikipedia at the initiative and for the money of Samruk-Kazyna? Who is Samruk-Kazyna? Samruk-Kazyna is Kazakhstan’s state-owned investment holding company, which in 2010 controlled assets worth $77.5 billion (this is not a typo: Samruk-Kazyna indeed controls more than half of Kazakhstan’s GDP). It is run by President Nazarbaev’s son-in-law, Timur Kulibayev.
Laptops for good editors
100 people who are to write 100 articles each within a given time frame and a satisfactory level. Nokia Kazakhstan granted 50 mobile phones to authors of featured articles. The contest is still running at present.
The website of Kazakhstan’s embassy in India similarly states,
With the aim of inspiring Internet users to contribute more articles to the Kazakh Wikipedia, a contest named “Wiki-baige” (baige means contest in Kazakh) was launched. Its main goal is to introduce 100 articles that will correspond to the Wikipedia format. The first 100 authors will be awarded laptops, and 40 best authors among them will be awarded new smart phones.
The developers of Kazakh Wikipedia hope that it will become a major online encyclopaedic resource providing accurate information in Kazakh that will continue to raise the awareness of Internet users and the status of the Kazakh language.
Is it likely that any of the participants in this contest, who will obviously have to submit their names and addresses to be able to claim a prize from the state-owned Samruk-Kazyna fund, will write anything unflattering about the President and his son-in-law, or the President’s style of government?
Wikipedian of the Year
WikiBilim is the organisation upon whose founder, Rauan Kenzhekhanuly, Jimmy Wales bestowed the Wikipedian of the Year award at the Wikimania 2011 conference in Haifa, Israel, as both the website of Kazakhstan’s prime minister and the Wikimedia blog proudly announce to the world:
In his “State of the Wiki” address at the 2011 Wikimania, Jimmy Wales awarded the first ever “Wikipedian of the Year” award to Rauan Kenzhekhanuly, a Wikipedian from Kazakhstan. Included with the honor was travel expenses to bring Rauan to Wikimania 2012 in Washington, D.C. [...]
WikiBilim has had support from many organizations in Kazakhstan, including the printed Kazakh National Encyclopedia, which donated content to the Kazakh Wikipedia. Success of the project brought attention of Kazakh Government, in November 2011 Prime-Minister of Kazakhstan Mr. Karim Masimov announced his patronage to WikiBilim’s projects. WikiBilim has also received support from the Sovereign Wealth Fund Samruk-Kazyna and the Wikimedia Foundation in their efforts to improve the availability of information on the Kazakh Wikipedia.
WikiBilim is not only well funded, but also well connected – it promotes Creative Commons standards adoption in Kazakhstan, and will soon cooperate with Google to create a Kazakh version of Google Translate.
The organization says it already has the right to use Wikimedia trademarks, and exercises this right on its website. In its application for official Wikimedia chapter status, it says that it collaborates with
Kazakh National Encyclopedia “Kazakhstan” – provided all own content under CC licenses.
National Academy of Sciences of the Republic of Kazakhstan – provides content and quality review process.
Ministry of Education and Science provides us organizational support to involve Kazakhstan universities and colleges to Wikimedia projects.
Ministry of Communication and Information provides organizational support to involve IT companies and universities as well as traditional media support.
International IT University – provided technical support, internet access, summer student internship etc.
Note that this openly states that the National Academy of an authoritarian regime provides a “content and quality review process” in the Kazakh Wikipedia, and that two government ministries are involved in organising the work.
According to an interview given to the Harvard Crimson in October 2012, WikiBilim currently has 25 full-time employees, who have been busy transferring the content of the Kazakh state-published national encyclopedia and other state-published reference works into the Kazakh Wikipedia.
But what about other contributors who may believe in Wales’ vision of anonymous crowdsourcing? Kazakhstan’s government clearly has the technological and financial means to scrutinise volunteers’ contributions to the Kazakh Wikipedia for political correctness, and to identify the authors. What if they cite Western sources describing Nazarbaev as a dictator? Wikipedians have voiced concerns that Wales and the Wikimedia Foundation may be blissfully unaware just how much risk Wikipedia contributors in Kazakhstan who do not toe the party line might be exposed to if they contribute material to Wikipedia that cites foreign sources.
I recently questioned Jimmy Wales about the Kazakh Wikipedia’s government links on his user talk page. I said I could not understand why he would bestow an honour like the Wikipedian of the Year title on a foundation that is bankrolled by an authoritarian regime, funded by an organisation run by the son-in-law of a man widely described in the Western press as a dictator who suppresses freedom of speech in his country.
It seemed so incongruous with the Wikimedia ethic that I felt compelled to note that several prominent people who attended Jimmy Wales’ recent wedding to Tony Blair’s former diary secretary – namely Tony Blair himself, as well as his spin doctor Alastair Campbell, who played bagpipes at the event, and Peter Mandelson – have well-publicised links to Kazakhstan’s regime that have raised eyebrows across the political spectrum.
The Guardian for example commented, “Tony Blair’s moral decline and fall is now complete”. The Telegraph, referring to Kazakhstan as a “post-Soviet human rights desert” in which –
Criticising the president is an illegal offence, the police routinely torture civil society activists, any independent press is bullied and children are used in the tobacco industry
expressed much the same view:
If you want to know what price a great man will sell his legacy for – it’s $13 million. That’s how much it is costing President Nursultan Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan, a spiteful autocrat, to employ former Prime Minister Tony Blair as his adviser. The man who ushered in the post-Westphalian era, the anti-Kissinger who prevented the genocide of Kosovan Muslims and defended the rights of Sierra Leoneans, is now the counsel of oil-rich dictators. [...]
It’s not just Blair but some of his closest confidents who are working in Kazakhstan: Alastair Campbell has been spotted by the FT flying back from the capital Astana, Jonathan Powell (appropriately the author of a book on Machiavelli) is also apparently involved. Former BAE systems Chair Sir Richard Evans is now Chairman of the state enterprise Samruk, worth a staggering £50 billion that in turn has hired Lord Mandelson for speeches.
Wales blustered. He tried to close the discussion on his talk page, but then a Wikipedian opened it again. He deleted a post that detailed just how much money the Kazakh government had invested in WikiBilim, and which linked to coverage of past PR manipulation of Kazakhstan entries in Wikipedia. He said that he believed in free speech, that his “position on working with companies and organization in difficult jurisdictions is, I think, thoughtful and nuanced” and that it was wrong to say he was “helping the Kazakh regime whitewash its image”, and “absolutely silly to suggest that I’m in any way actively supporting tyrants”.
Yet WikiBilim’s Wikipedian of the Year award is touted on Kazakhstan’s embassy websites, and on the website of its prime minister. When Wales goes to Kazakhstan to be given the VIP treatment, there will no doubt be photo opportunities … and the photos of a smiling Jimbo shaking hands with Nazarbaev will turn up on Kazakh embassy websites.
Wikipedia’s fundraiser banner claims, “We take no government funds.” But the tax-exempt Wikimedia Foundation supports, rewards and is represented by an organisation in Kazakhstan that is funded by an authoritarian regime – an organisation that employs paid editors to transfer state-published material into the Kazakh Wikipedia, and proudly displays a Wikimedia trademark on its website. Yet Wales says, “The Wikimedia Foundation has zero collaboration with the government of Kazakhstan. Wikibilim is a totally independent organization.”
Don’t mention Blair
But Wales seems to have been most stung by the reference to Blair. Mentioning Blair, with whom Wales has spent leisure time on Richard Branson’s private island, was clearly one bridge too far: lèse-majesté. Wales told me to stay off his talk page:
I’ve had enough of you. I’ll delete anything you post there, and if you persist, I’ll ask others to help delete anything you post there. –Jimbo Wales (talk) 17:19, 21 December 2012 (UTC)
An allergic reaction to mentions of Tony Blair is something he shares with President Nazarbaev, as can be seen from this report in The Daily Mail last month: Kazakhstan dictator axes paper critical of Blair’s £8million job as adviser.
It’s one thing Kazakhstan and Wikipedia have in common. Free speech only goes so far.