Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales is the latest demi-celebrity to find himself embroiled in a Kazakhstan-related controversy. The widely celebrated creator of the non-profit, freely editable website closed a Wikipedia discussion on December 21, 18 hours after a user asked Wales to explain his upcoming visit to Kazakhstan in connection with Wikibilim, a local NGO working to develop the Kazakh-language Wikipedia.
“As far as I know, the Wikibilim organization is not politicized,” replied Wales. He maintained his belief that there are “no particularly difficult issues” with neutrality in the Kazakh-language Wikipedia, and promised to stress press freedom and openness during a visit to Kazakhstan in 2013.
The exchange is raising questions, again, about the Kazakh government’s efforts to control Wikipedia content. But it also points to a fundamental problem in the Wikipedia movement – source material.
One user, PhnomPencil, noted that Wikibilim received, according to another Wikipedia entry, 30 million tenge ($200,000) from the state investment fund Samruk-Kazyna in 2011 “for editing, digitalization, and author rights transfer.” PhnomPencil questions Wales’ connection to a group that appears close to the authoritarian government, and asks whether the Kazakh-language Wikipedia has been hijacked by Astana's paid propagandists.
Wikibilim CEO Rauan Kenzhekhanuly has intimated that the organization’s 250 paid staff are engaged in recreating digital versions of the official state encyclopedia. In an interview published by the Harvard Crimson in October, he hedged on the quality of the articles, stressing instead his goal of improving resources in the Kazakh language.
Kenzhekhanuly later chimed in on the Wikipedia discussion, noting that his group also receives funds from the Open Society Foundations (under whose auspices EurasiaNet operates), and that rather than being a shill for the Kazakh government, Wikibilim has been criticized in Kazakhstan as being too “pro-American.”
Still, users point out that the Kazakh-language Wikipedia, which Kenzhekhanuly is working to expand, lacks balanced articles on controversial events in Kazakhstan’s recent history.
One user notes that the Kazakh version of the article on President Nursultan Nazarbayev appears to contain no criticism of his never-ending rule. The main article on Zhanaozen includes no mention of the bloody crackdown on striking oil workers there a year ago this month. While a separate entry on Zhanaozen includes multiple citations from Azzatyq, the Kazakh-language version of Radio Free Europe, the article’s narrative appears to follow the government’s version of events. Nearly all of the edits were by one user, Ashina, a self-described “Buerecrat [sic] and administrator of [Kazakh Wikipedia].”
Wikipedia’s premise is that accuracy and impartiality is derived from the crowd – from a plethora of authors contributing their own research and edits, making compromises, in the pursuit of objective truth. Wikipedians refer to this quality as “depth.” Had Wales taken a quick glance at Wikipedia’s own metadata, he would have seen that the Kazakh version’s depth score is 6, placing 48th in the 50 largest versions of the online encyclopedia. The English score is highest at 729; the Uzbek score is 35.
While helping run a US government-sponsored Internet development program in the region in the mid 2000s, I encountered similar questions about depth. A study we conducted on the usefulness of the Internet across the region found Kazakh-only speakers at a distinct disadvantage when seeking objective information. The Kazakh-language Wikipedia was woefully underdeveloped, particularly considering it was the state language of a middle-income country.
While a major goal of the project was to increase local-language online content, the result was content editors that created pages that closely conformed to “official” versions of events and biographies. Language barriers meant that government-issued history books and encyclopedias were often, de facto, the only sources available. Thus, many of the websites our students and volunteers created would reflect their only understanding of the world.
As Kazakh-language development is a major policy goal of the Kazakh government, Kenzhekhanuly must know how much favor his project curries with the government, just as similar projects sponsored by USAID, OSF, and Chevron have. Whatever the intentions of Kenzhekhanuly’s organization, or of Jimmy Wales’ cheerleading, the reality is that an authoritarian system, particularly one as well financed as oil-rich Kazakhstan’s, has thus far choked the idealist dreams of the crowd-sourced openness revolution. Without the freedom to express opinions openly in all fora, the online medium may remain a reflection of discussions in the rest of society, not an exception to them.