Why Did Uzbekistan Ban Wikipedia?

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by Sarah Kendzior on 2/21/2012 · 8 comments

Uzbekistan’s ban on Wikipedia is censorship as performance art. The ban, enacted late last month, blocks all articles written in Uzbek while leaving articles in other languages accessible. Unlike earlier acts of online censorship, the ban on Uzbek Wikipedia articles does not prevent citizens from accessing political information. On the contrary, it blocks a prime venue of innocuous diversion: the thousands of articles about pop stars, national heroes, and sports figures that comprise the Uzbek-language Wikipedia. Uzbeks unable to access the Uzbek-language Wikipedia may now turn instead to the Russian-language Wikipedia, a virtual treasure trove of Uzbekistan’s state-suppressed memories that could not possibly merit official approval. So why block the Uzbek version? What does it accomplish?

Like its English-language counterpart, the Uzbek Wikipedia is an idiosyncratic collection that represents the diverse interests of its users. The best entries, as rated by moderators, are Cristiano Ronaldo, the Republic of Korea, Philosophy, and Alisher Navoi (a 15th century Uzbek poet). Other user favorites include Kelly Clarkson, Nirvana (the band), Internet Explorer, and a Finnish symphonic metal group called Nightwish. Pop culture entries tend to skew toward foreign tastes: the recently updated Uitni Hyuston entry, for example, is longer than that of popular Uzbek singer Yulduz Usmonova. Though the Uzbek government can be capricious in its censorship, the Uzbek Wikipedia is assiduously unprovocative – indeed, Uzbeks writing about national hero Navoi is exactly the sort of thing that the state encourages. Skimming the list of 7,890 entries, I found more of the same apolitical fare: an epic piece on FIFA; a treatise on plov.

What is missing from the Uzbek Wikipedia? Information on contemporary political life. President Karimov has a short, perfunctory entry, and all opposition figures and parties are absent. The chronology of the autonomous republic of Karakalpakstan, a source of domestic tension for decades, terminates in 1991. The Uzbek entry for Andijon, the site of the brutal state crackdown on civilian protest in 2005, contains two lines detailing its geographic location and its founding as a city in 1297. Contrast this with the entry on Andijon in the Russian Wikipedia – not banned in Uzbekistan –  a long, contentious account that notes the deaths of innocent citizens and their subsequent labeling as “criminals” by the Karimov regime.

I have a suspicion that what prompted the Wikipedia ban at the end of the January was the addition, on January 24, of the following entries: “seks”, “penis”, “gey”, and “jinsiy aloqa” (sexual relations), which come complete with helpful illustrations. This would be in keeping with the government’s aversion to overt sexual content, which they believe threatens national values. (Note that this is simply a theory – I have no inside knowledge as to the reason for the ban, nor has the Uzbek government addressed it. ) But that still leaves the question of why the Russian or English Wikipedias remain open to the public when they contain even more sexual imagery and political content.

Here it is useful to look not only at what is being censored, but where – because the question of “where” content exists online is more complex for regimes that derive their power from narrow definitions of nationalism. Uzbekistan’s ban on Wikipedia has less to do with blocking access to information than it does with territorializing an ambiguous Uzbek ethnolinguistic virtual space. As I argued in a 2010 article, the Uzbek government views the Internet as a virtual extension of its sovereign dominion, and sees Uzbek-language content as subject to its jurisdiction. Under this logic, state intervention is  more justified when Uzbeks write encyclopedia entries in Uzbek than it is when Uzbeks read encyclopedia entries in Russian, because those entries do not lie on the state’s ethnically demarcated virtual “territory”. (That said, I see censorship of the Russian version in Uzbekistan’s future.)

Censorship in authoritarian states is not purely practical – it is an act of showmanship, and in this case, one-upmanship over a foreign threat. Large, foreign platforms challenge the Karimov regime not only through the interaction they facilitate, but through their ambiguous territorial standing. Last summer, Uzbekistan’s state officials responded to Facebook by creating Muloqot, a state-run social media network which only Uzbeks in Uzbekistan can use. By censoring the Uzbek-language Wikipedia, state authorities mark a similarly ambiguous collaborative space as Uzbekistan state territory — territory subject online, as it is on the ground, to strict government control.


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This post was written by...

– author of 22 posts on Registan.net.

Sarah Kendzior is an anthropologist who studies politics and the internet in the former Soviet Union. She has a PhD in cultural anthropology from Washington University in Saint Louis and an MA in Central Eurasian Studies from Indiana University. Her research has been published in many academic journals and media outlets, including American Ethnologist, Central Asian Survey, Demokratizatsiya and the Atlantic. She is currently an instructor at Washington University, where she teaches a course called "The Internet, Politics, and Society." Follow her on Twitter.

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{ 8 comments }

Will February 22, 2012 at 10:58 pm

Why can’t I post here?

Sarah Kendzior February 22, 2012 at 11:21 pm

What do you mean? Everyone should be able to post fine. Although I was wondering why I had no comments!

Email me if you are having trouble and I will ask Nathan to look into it.

Sarah Kendzior February 22, 2012 at 11:31 pm

OK, I think I fixed it myself. For some reason your comment went to spam, but it’s posted now (hopefully the version you want).

Will February 23, 2012 at 9:09 am

Thanks!

Nathan Hamm February 23, 2012 at 1:16 pm

Sorry about that. I don’t know why the spam filter does that sometimes. Never hesitate to shoot me a message (there’s a contact form here) if things are getting blocked.

Will February 22, 2012 at 11:03 pm

Ironically, there is a censorship here too.
I looked up the couple of Wikipedia pages you mentioned. Them some written of is.., well that is exactly how some of them is written in Uzbek and it took me a while before figuring out that gibberish (I don’t know whether it written by someone whose mother tongue is not Uzbek or whether it is Wikipedia making it look that way). Wikipedia pages can be redacted and the illustrations to that particular content (the topic itself is not strongly a taboo in Uzbekistan, books on that particular topic can be found at the book stands) can be removed by anyone, including those who blocked the Uzbek Wikipedia. That might also explain the absence of political information in Uzbek Wikipedia though Uzbeks are not very active in contributing to Wikipedia. From my experience with English Wikipedia on Uzbekistan, I often see, especially Iranians or Tajiks, contributing to Wikipedia pages relating to Uzbekistan, claiming everything to belong to Persians.

Justin February 29, 2012 at 5:28 am

Sarah, you are obviously not aware that the official language of Uzbekistan is Uzbek. Therefore, and by Karimovian decree, nobody can speak, write or understand any other known language. So by blocking Uzbek Wikipedia all is blocked. BTW the Great Karimov hurridly taught himself Uzbek on Independence and naturally everybody else followed suit.

Dmitriy Nurullayev March 13, 2012 at 11:49 am

Lol

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