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Turkey sued at European human rights court over Wikipedia ban

The case brought by the Wikimedia Foundation argues that the ban, in place since April 2017, violates freedom of speech
Turkey and China are the only two countries in the world to ban the online Encyclopaedia (AFP)

The Wikimedia Foundation, which runs Wikipedia, has filed a lawsuit with the European Court of Human Rights to lift Turkey’s two-year block of the online encyclopaedia.

Turkey blocked all access to the site in April 2017, claiming that Wikipedia content was creating a perception that Turkey was supporting militant groups.

In its application to the Strasbourg-based court, the Silicon Valley non-profit argued that the blanket ban of Wikipedia violated rights to freedom of expression as guaranteed by Article 10 of the European Convention of Human Rights, to which Turkey is a party.

The move comes after a protracted campaign to lift the ban, Wikimedia said.

“This is not a step we have taken lightly," the foundation said in a statement. "We are doing so only after continued and exhaustive attempts to lift the block through legal action in the Turkish courts, good faith conversations with the Turkish authorities, and campaigns to raise awareness of the block and its impact on Turkey and the rest of the world."

Wikimedia added that two years after it appealed a domestic court decision that initially upheld the ban, it has yet to hear back from Turkey’s highest court. The organisation had argued that the block violated rights to freedom of expression and freedom of the press.

“The block continues despite numerous good faith discussions with Turkish authorities to understand their views, including through an open letter to the Turkish Minister of Transport, Maritime, and Communication, to discuss Wikipedia’s open editing model, values, and strong opposition to impermissible censorship of any kind,” the statement added.

The issue began after the government demanded the removal of two English-language pages on state-sponsored terrorism and the Syrian civil war that Ankara believes linked it to militant activities.

According to Stephen LaPorte, Wikimedia Foundation’s legal director, Ankara’s demand came “without any official explanation of what part is allegedly illegal”.

Turkey accused Wikipedia of running a "smear campaign" against it, though its pages are not run centrally and are technically free to edit by anyone.

Executive Director of the Wikimedia Foundation Katherine Maher said the foundation refused to comply with the request on the basis that "we believe that the content in question was legally-protected free expression", according to AFP.

In a statement, Maher said that Wikipedia was a “global resource” and that access to information would “allow us to build the foundation for a more just and tolerant society”.

“We believe that information - knowledge - makes the world better. That when we ask questions, get the facts, and are able to understand all perspectives on an issue, it allows us to build the foundation for a more just and tolerant society,” Maher said.

“Wikipedia is a global resource that everyone can be actively part of shaping. It is through this collective process of writing and rewriting, and debate that Wikipedia becomes more useful, more comprehensive, and more representative. It is also through this process that we, a global society, establish a more comprehensive consensus on how we see the world.”

Turkey has a past track record of temporarily blocking access to social media websites, particularly after mass protests or militant atrocities. 

Turkey currently ranks 157 out of 180 countries in Reporters Without Borders’ 2019 World Press Freedom Index.

Wikimedia said it was exploring ways to lift a block in China, which was broadened this month to include all language editions, making it the only other country after Turkey to do so. Most editions of the online encyclopaedia, except the Chinese language version, were available previously in the country.