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.
Some people have no sense of irony. How can you whitewash a corrupt autocracy’s dodgy credentials, while passing yourself off as a news operation, and then complain you got cheated, alleging corruption by that country’s officials?
But that’s exactly what the man behind Central Asia Newswire – until recently, a slick, Washington D.C.-based, pro-Kazakhstan “news service” – seems to be doing through his new website.
Citing no one by name but its owner, Thomas Cromwell, the website, Universal Newswires (which until August, was called Central Asia Newswire), writes that, early this year, Cromwell’s lucrative spin contract with the Kazakh government got hijacked by his former partner, who abandoned him to start a new venture in Cyprus. The editorialized screed, bearing the byline “Staff Report,” implies that the ex-partner was able to do so through kickbacks to a high-level Kazakh government figure.
Besides prompting the obvious question – “What did you expect?” – the lurid tale adds a little more dirt to the growing pile of reports about Kazakhstan’s adventures in international PR. From the Universal Newswires “staff report”:
Graced with images of a steelworker, an athlete, OSCE banners and the Astana skyline at night, the Foreign Ministry's book echoes the cover of the American academic's 2002 tome. But inside, where Brill Olcott painted an unflattering view of Kazakhstan and its leaders, the Foreign Ministry has collected articles praising the country's progress since it gained independence in 1991.
A trawl of Almaty bookshops failed to come up with a copy of the book. It's either been very popular or is being reserved as a special Foreign Ministry freebie for distinguished visitors. According to the ministry website, the articles in the book focus on Kazakhstan’s achievements in areas such as nation building and developing a market economy and have been authored by ministers, heads of major international organizations, presidents of companies and -- servile, we assume -- foreign journalists.