On Saturday, April 29, 2017, Turkey banned Wikipedia. This came as a shock, even in a country with a history of banning everything from novels (Albert Camus’s “The Plague,” from public schools in 1987) to films (“Nymphomaniac,” in 2014) to entire genres of music (arabesk, from state channels in the ’70s and ’80s).
Previously, Turkey’s checks on the Turkish-language version of Wikipedia were limited to blocking only specific entries — like “vagina,” “human penis” and “2015 Turkey general election polls.” Someone in Turkey who followed a link to such a page would simply find it didn’t work. But why did the whole thing have to go?
Syria, it turned out, was the proximate inspiration. Wikipedia pages with headers like “State-sponsored terrorism” and “Foreign involvement in the Syrian Civil War” seemed to accuse the Turkish government of supporting ISIS — “a smear campaign,” according to officials. Some months later, after the full block went into effect, the Israeli newspaper Haaretz identified other entries that the government considered offensive: One was about 57,000 emails tied to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s son-in-law Berat Albayrak, which implicated him in having had indirect business relationships with ISIS; another entry, about “Benevolent Dictators,” like Napoleon and Fidel Castro, included Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, Turkey’s founding father. The government said it was banning Wikipedia, according to the law that allowed it to do so, for the protection of public order or national security.
For many years, the government had been more ad hoc in its policing of the internet. Then in 2007, Turkey’s Parliament, controlled by the still-young A.K. Party, passed a law numbered 5651, or “Regulation of Publications on the Internet and Suppression of Crimes Committed by Means of Such Publication.” Yaman Akdeniz, a Turkish cyberlaw expert, has noted that it passed after only 59 minutes of discussion. Around that time, one of the government’s many concerns was YouTube: Some users had reportedly said offensive things about Ataturk, including the claim that he was gay. When Turkish citizens complained about the insult — Penal Code Article 301 makes it a crime to insult Ataturk, Turkey or Turkishness — an Ankara court banned YouTube entirely.
The president at the time, Abdullah Gul, would later tweet that he didn’t support the ban. Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the prime minister, confessed that he had himself found ways to get on YouTube anyway. Those were the good old days.
That was the era I moved to Turkey. The deep skepticism that many Turks had toward their institutions — courts, police, politicians, newspapers — was apparent. Military regimes had been intervening in the country’s affairs for most of its existence, and despite democratically elected governments, a diverse media and outspoken artists and activists, the state always controlled some of the information in the country and persecuted those who defied its manipulation. Turks were used to wading through the propaganda, counterpropaganda and the heroic efforts of native truth tellers, sorting bits of insanity and logic into their respective mental bins. They had their own ways of judging whether a court ruling or a newspaper headline was accurate or fair: These depended on their previous knowledge of the traditions and biases of an institution, or on their politics, their sources of information, their common sense. Some fell prey or willingly succumbed to the official state line; those who rejected it were compelled to question everything, as if interrogating the very contours of reality.
The Turks were perhaps more prepared than many to deal with two of the most bewildering new features of what is now our shared global predicament: the chaos of the internet and the populist subterfuge of one-man regimes. But in recent years, both have accelerated to a scary degree in Turkey. What was once a semi-predictable stranglehold on official information has become a chaotic, repressive race to protect Erdogan’s interests. Much of this repression is by now well known. Hundreds of journalists have been jailed or fled the country in fear; hundreds more abandoned the profession; there is no longer an independent media in Turkey, save for a few small newspapers and websites; fake news is rampant. But the scale of Erdogan’s censorship works in far more diverse and insidious ways than most outsiders will ever understand. Erdogan is on TV and the radio so often — even a quick pop-in for a container of milk at the store means having to hear his voice — that it is very likely many Turks get their news directly from his mouth.
That leaves one public space where people in Turkey go to hash out the truth: the internet, though the Erdogan government has been doing its best to make it both a duller and more dangerous place. Turning points came in 2013 and 2014, when two events genuinely threatened Erdogan’s hold on power. The first was the Gezi Park protests, in which thousands of people all across the country demonstrated against environmental destruction and police violence; social media was often used to agitate for more dissent. The other was the release of taped recordings that seemed to expose the shady business practices of Erdogan and his allies. By 2014, the government’s requests to Twitter and Facebook to remove users’ accounts spiked.
Following the attempted military coup in 2016, Turkey has become one of the world’s harsher regimes when it comes to internet censorship. Turks can be hounded on Twitter by violent pro-Erdogan trolls or be detained by the police for a tweet, for a Facebook post, for a joke, for a casual outburst that can be taken as “insulting” the president. The government censors whole websites and platforms at will. It has in the past shut down YouTube, Twitter and Facebook. According to a report produced by the Turkey-based Freedom of Expression Association, nearly 250,000 sites are inaccessible without virtual private networks, or V.P.N.s, which get users around regional restrictions. In 2018, Turkey sent 1,105 court orders to Twitter, compared with Russia and Brazil, which sent 372 and 107 orders. Turkey has asked Google to remove content more than 9,000 times in the last 10 years. It was supposedly because Wikipedia repeatedly rebuffed requests to remove things that the government decided to ban the site completely.
This past summer, Turkey gave its broadcasting ministry oversight of the entire internet, including sites like Netflix, as well as local Netflix analogues like PuhuTV and BlueTV. This time, it wasn’t Erdogan tapes or gibes against Ataturk that caused the panic; one of the causes for panic was homosexuality. Pro-government newspapers cited “Orange Is the New Black,” “Stranger Things,” “El Chapo,” “Narcos” and “Black Mirror” as troubling cheerleaders for homosexuality, even calling Netflix a purveyor of “moral terrorism.” The oversight means that even news sites may have to obtain operating licenses from the broadcasting ministry. The human rights lawyer Kerem Altiparmak called the move the “biggest step in Turkish censorship history.”
Every country’s mode of censorship varies in both severity and focus, and every society has its own ways of dealing with it. Turkey is not China, where Twitter is banned (though defiantly used by a small community), and yet it is a place where someone can be arrested for a tweet. Turkey’s style of censorship reflects its weird authoritarian-democratic state of being: The president’s office controls much of Turkish life, and yet the Turkish people can vote his party out of office in a mayoral election. Turks can be detained by the police for a Facebook post, but Facebook still exists. The most insidious and damaging effect of this political purgatory is that many Turks may not even know what information they are missing.
I don’t want to exaggerate the degree to which censorship in Turkey affects the daily search for facts. Turks can easily find everyday information: the size of an earthquake tremor, the source of a fire in a nearby neighborhood, the value of their often-depreciating lira. In 2016, they figured out in minutes that a military coup was underway. The internet is so vast that even if you censor one website, people can find an alternative one.
This government’s censorship is now often focused on subject areas that threaten the government: the failing economy, expressions of sympathy for people linked to “terrorism,” claims of corruption — and anything to do with Erdogan’s family. In the past, the Turkish state had a greater ideology to uphold; Erdogan has made censorship also about himself. If a piece of news doesn’t suit him, his government sees no reason it should exist.
For ordinary people who want the details on their leadership and the fate of their country, once a website or article is censored, blocked, otherwise disappeared, they must engage in cat-and-mouse games to find a still extant link or an alternative news source before those, too, are censored. After the Wikipedia ban went into effect, for example, the news spread quickly in Turkey that if you just typed a “0” or “1” before a Wikipedia link — 0wikipedia.org or 1wikipedia.org — you could still connect to the site.
But this workaround game can also favor those who speak foreign languages and have money. Turks evade many bans with V.P.N.s, but they’re good only for those who can afford them or put up with the glitchiness of the cheaper ones. Turks might also seek out information on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, YouTube and Periscope, or their own local sites like Dogruluk Payi or Teyit, whose mission is to fact-check the news. They might resort to WhatsApp groups where, perhaps even semiconsciously, they crowdsource information and dissect the latest news themselves.
One homegrown Turkish website, called Eksi Sozluk, which means Sour Dictionary, could be called the Turkish Wikipedia. (In fact, it appeared online two years before Wikipedia.) It differs from its more famous cousin in significant ways: Rather than allowing users to collectively edit one dictionary entry, it encourages select contributors to add whatever entry they want, in the form of a list. Eksi Sozluk’s founder, a self-taught programmer and former software engineer at Microsoft named Sedat Kapanoglu, once explained: “The ones who consume the information provide it themselves — something very different from what we had seen in our education life in Turkey. To us, the textbook was the authority.” In effect, Eksi Sozluk is not only an online dictionary but also a record of the Turkish people’s quest to define their own lives.
It is also a chronicle of their frustrations and their humor. There are about 10 headlines on Eksi Sozluk concerning the 2017 Wikipedia ban: “29 April 2017 Wikipedia Access Ban,” “29 April 2017 Reason for Wikipedia Access Ban” and so on. Some entries on the subject include technical, historically accurate information. But many entries are simply jokes, small acts of defiance: In Turkey, there’s no need for information. Everyone knows a ton. And: How nice it is to feel this freedom everywhere.
More often than not, the very censoring of articles serves as a weird confirmation of the truth of their content (even if they’re not true). The specificity behind removing a Wikipedia page like “2015 Turkey general election polls,” for example, suggests that the ruling A.K. Party didn’t want the Turks to know that it was doing poorly in the 2015 elections. Recently, when some websites and newspapers reported a rumor about the personal life of the president’s son-in-law and those sites promptly disappeared into the ether, a friend, after admitting to clicking on “so many” headlines, said: “If they went to all that trouble to remove it, then you think it must be true.”
Taking down a website because of its lame gossip reminds Turks that at all times they could be punished for even the most minor infractions on Facebook or Twitter — or in any other realm of life. The government doesn’t necessarily succeed in preventing its people from learning or reading or watching things. But it succeeds in letting its citizens know that there are limits to their personal freedom. The people in Turkey who want to produce or consume truth end up doing so online or in their living rooms, among friends and family, huddling together and preserving their little spaces of sanity, a million bunkers of truth waiting for the abusive storm to pass.
There are moments of collective reckoning with the truth, however. Earlier this year, just before a mayoral election in Istanbul, a financial crisis led to soaring food prices. Pro-government media channels for the most part played down the crisis. But Turks going to the bazaar or the grocery store found they could no longer afford fruits and vegetables. Low-budget videos appeared on social media showing something that Turks rarely saw in the mainstream press: the intensity of the anger at the government. These videos featured a single reporter with a mic standing somewhere in Istanbul — often in neighborhoods far from the more prosperous city center — asking people whom they planned to vote for. Many were elderly or mothers or fervent supporters of Erdogan. They yelled about the prices of tomatoes and onions, about the tax on plastic grocery-shopping bags. All of a sudden, it felt as if the mayoral candidate from Erdogan’s A.K. Party could actually lose the election — an unthinkable outcome in a city his party had ruled for 25 years. And in fact, the A.K. Party candidate lost. It came as a surprise to everyone, even if they’d seen the videos.
Anyone could have heard those complaints all over town, it’s true. The street is perhaps one of Turkey’s last great bastions for both reliable gossip and facts. But the impact of seeing women on a screen complaining about onions was electrifying. The videos were a reminder of what a diverse media, a free internet, is supposed to do — bring the world to the people. In those moments, seeing real life on a screen again, Turks might have been reminded, after years of media censorship and the government’s relentless production of its desired reality, how little they knew about their fellow Turks anymore.
That ignorance — and the appeal of its antidote — may be especially prevalent during wartime. In October, Turkey invaded Syria, and the war against information in Turkey reached a new pitch. The most repressive measures against the internet have always focused on the government’s enemies — primarily the P.K.K., or the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, and often anyone affiliated with the fight for Kurdish rights. In 2015, during the war in the southeast against the P.K.K., the government shut down all internet service in specific locations across the region. Turks heard only snippets of horrific stories from the front lines. Much of the despair activists expressed during that time had to do with the feeling that they might never know what happened in the southeast at all.
As soon as Turkey invaded northern Syria in October, the government repeated some of these measures, including disrupting social media networks like Facebook and Twitter in spots along the Syrian border, like Hatay and Gaziantep. “We will not tolerate broadcasts that serve the purpose of terrorism,” the Turkish Supreme Council for Radio and Television announced, “that might mislead our citizens with false and biased information.”
As the Turkish military moved into Syria, a new English-language website appeared in Turkey called Duvar English. The Turkish version of the site had been one of the last remaining relatively free and independent sources of information and opinion; the English-language site signaled greater ambitions. Many of its editors, columnists and journalists had either been fired by or pushed out of Turkish newspapers and universities. In its first days, a few of the columnists wrote about censorship and its effects. “War’s first casualty is truth,” the editor in chief Cansu Camlibel wrote in her inaugural column, quoting an American politician from the 1910s.
Another columnist, Mehves Evin, tried to posit exactly what was being lost in this conflict. Since the invasion, she noted, some 186 Turks had been taken into custody for comments made online; 28 were imprisoned. The Chief Public Prosecutor’s Office of Istanbul and the General Directorate of Security issued a warning “that any news, analysis or social media comments ‘targeting the Turkish army and its operation, attempting to destroy public peace and unity,’ would be investigated under Turkey’s Penalty Code and Anti Terror Law.” Even more sinister, the Interior Ministry had announced that something called “cyber units” were patrolling “social media 7/24.” “Those voices urging peace and pointing out that military intervention will destabilize the country can only be heard in alternative digital media,” Evin wrote. If so, “one might wonder whether the vast majority of Turkish society really is opposed to the prospect of a peaceful solution.”
The videos were a reminder of what a free internet is supposed to do — bring the world to the people.
Even if you believe most Turks backed the invasion, it’s hard to miss Evin’s point. After so many years of censorship, who is to say what anyone really feels or believes in Turkey anymore? By what method would anyone even gather and represent those feelings? During the Istanbul mayoral election, the country surprised itself, and its citizens surprised one another. During the war in Syria, it has made sense to ask how much of the country does not reflexively support Erdogan’s foreign war. There is no way to know. A heavily censored society not only loses access to information; it ceases to know itself. The greatest loss the Turks face under Erdogan might be their knowledge of one another.
There is another loss, an international one. What was striking about the advent of Duvar English was how often more than one columnist described the challenge of transmitting news and information to the West. “Ten years ago, it was impossible to translate Turkey for the foreign audience,” the columnist Ece Temelkuran wrote. “It wasn’t because we the English-speaking Turks didn’t have the vocabulary; it was because what we went through politically simply did not make sense to the Western audience.” She also asked: “When some nations are written off as lost, is there really such a thing as a connected humanity left on the planet? And if my country is now treated as one of those crazy countries where anything can happen, is it still worth trying to write in this language of strangers?”
Her sentiments are ones I hear with increasing regularity in Turkey, from those who feel the foreign news about Turkey is so obsessed with Erdogan as the all-powerful, evil authoritarian that they miss the country’s many complexities, of even the government and especially of the opposition. Foreigners, above all Westerners, are disposed to ascribe the tendencies of the ruler and the deteriorating state of a democracy to the people themselves. A country enduring authoritarian rule can be simply dismissed, written off as a place “lost” to humanity, as a “crazy country.” But it’s the country — the people — who have been the ones persevering, hoping for better, protecting their bunkers of truth and facts for the future. The columnists at Duvar English were reminding the West that even though their voices were being silenced, that did not mean the rest of the world should stop listening.
Suzy Hansen is a contributing writer for the magazine. She is also a practitioner in residence at N.Y.U.’s Kevorkian Center and a Future Security fellow at New America. She last wrote about how Turkey purged its intellectuals. Maurizio Cattelan is an Italian artist whose work has been the subject of numerous solo exhibitions, including at the Guggenheim Museum in New York and the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris. Pierpaolo Ferrari is an Italian photographer and, along with Cattelan, is a founder of the magazine Toiletpaper, known for its surreal and humorous imagery.
Additional design and development by Jacky Myint.