Ties between the Kazakhstani government and WikiBilim, the NGO founded to promote the expansion of the Kazakh-language version of Wikipedia, have prompted critics of the online encyclopedia to accuse it of providing the Kazakh regime with an opportunity to use the website as a propaganda machine. WikiBilim founder Rauan Kenzhekhanuly denies that the government pressures editors to change articles, while Wikipedia’s Jimmy Wales says he takes up a nuanced approach in countries where freedom of speech is restricted.
Following up on an announcement that Jimmy Wales will visit Kazakhstan in 2013 to meet with Wikipedians, Andreas Kolbe, a vocal critic of Wikipedia’s management, said that Wikipedia in Kazakhstan is not an independent resource. Instead he believes the Kazakh-language Wikipedia, which under WikiBilim’s guidance has grown from 7,000 to 200,000 articles in two years, is a mouthpiece for the government. He notes that WikiBilim is sponsored by Samruk-Kazyna, the sovereign wealth fund of Kazakhstan, and that the National Academy of Sciences provides a content and quality review process, as well as adding 50,000 articles from the state-sponsored paper encyclopedia. According to Kolbe, a contest run by WikiBilim to encourage more people to write articles in Kazakh will lead to editors being uncritical if they want to collect prizes, which include laptops and mobile phones.
The critics also accuse Jimmy Wales of being too close to the regime due to his connections with Tony Blair and Alastair Campbell, who were present at his marriage to Blair’s secretary earlier this year. Blair’s PR firm works for the Kazakh government and is suspected of editing articles of the English-language Wikipedia.
In response, WikiBilim’s Kenzhekhanuly has stated that his organisation draws funds from a variety of sources, including the pro-democracy Open Society Foundation. He says that while they are accused of being government agents in the West, in Kazakhstan they are suspected of working against the state, and that neither is true. He adds that editors are not paid to write articles, nor is the NGO pressured by the government to change articles critical of the authorities.
According to WikiBilim’s mission statement, it exists to promote and develop access to Kazakh-language materials through modern technology. While its most eye-catching project is the development of the Kazakh-language version of Wikipedia, it is also cooperating with Google to add Kazakh to the languages of Google Translate, and it is establishing a free library of Kazakh books.
In his response to the criticism, Jimmy Wales denied being close to Tony Blair or the Kazakhstani government and maintains he works to ensure that Kazakh-language Wikipedia is neutral. When it comes to the question of neutrality in countries with limited freedom of speech, Wales acknowledges that there are a lot of difficult “middle ground” positions. “If, in order to have a chapter in Kazakhstan, we have to accept that the chapter, although independent, will have to deal with a very restrictive environment overall, and will not be able to approach political matters at all, but the chapter will be able to assist in getting scientists and academics and smart members of the general public to help contribute, then… well, that depends on a lot of complex variables.”