By Gregory Kohs
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December 23, 2012
Over the past 48 hours, something very strange and disturbing has been panning out on one of Wikipedia's most popular pages -- the Talk page of the project's co-founder, Jimmy Wales. Accusations have been leveled about the Wikimedia Foundation (which Wales created), saying that the non-profit organization is working too closely with the government of Kazakhstan. Kazakhstan's president has been the target of many worldwide criticisms for his authoritarian crackdowns on free speech in the former Soviet republic. The Kazakh government funds a new wiki-focused project in that country, called WikiBilim.
Wales sounded off on Friday:
The Wikimedia Foundation has zero collaboration with the government of Kazakhstan. Wikibilim is a totally independent organization. And it is absolutely wrong to say that I am "helping the Kazakh regime whitewash its image". I am a firm and strong critic. At the same time, I'm excited by the work of volunteers, and I believe - very strongly - that an open and independent Wikipedia will be the death knell for tyranny in places like Kazakhstan. Perhaps I'm wrong, but it is absolutely silly to suggest that I'm in any way actively supporting tyrants. -- Jimbo Wales, 15:33, 21 December 2012 (UTC)
These are very strong and emphatic words of denial, but the facts seem to support most of what Wales denies. Examiner takes a look at the facts in the case, leaving it to the reader to decide if Jimmy Wales is either telling the absolute truth, is ignorant of his Foundation's ties to Kazakhstan, or is simply lying about it all.
The WikiBilim project
The WikiBilim Public Foundation was created in May 2011 by Khazakhstan's Rauan Kenzhekhanuly, a government official. The stated goal of the group is to develop and enrich Internet content in the Kazakh language, and the first project they zeroed in on was the Wikimedia Foundation's Kazakh-language Wikipedia. They had a paid staff of 10 people, but Kenzhekhanuly more recently reported 25 persons on the payroll. How do they get paid?
The Kazakh state-supported Samruk Kazyna Foundation is headed by the son-in-law of Kazakh president Nursultan Nazarbayev. The joint stock company controls $78 billion in assets, which is over half of the gross domestic product of Kazakhstan. Samruk Kazyna sponsored WikiBilim's expansion of the Kazakh Wikipedia, with funding of $340,000 spent in part on paid editing (71 contracts signed), digitization of documents, and conversion of the licensing rights of the "official" state-authored Kazakh encyclopedia, so that it could be copied (largely verbatim) into the Kazakh Wikipedia. Samruk Kazyna awarded 100 laptop computers to editors for transcribing articles within a given time frame and written to "a satisfactory level". Nokia Kazakhstan granted 50 mobile phones to authors of featured articles. Note that paid editing is heavily sanctioned on the English Wikipedia, but it is apparently welcomed with government and corporate sponsorship on the Kazakh Wikipedia.
Additionally, the Kazakh government has mobilized two different interior agencies to assist with editing the Kazakh Wikipedia -- the Ministry of communications and information, and the Ministry of education and science. This in a country where the president received nearly 96% of the vote from about 90% of registered voters persuaded to cast ballots. Transparency International has ranked Kazakhstan as one of the globe's most corrupt governments -- 122nd out of 146 countries evaluated. A United Nations University study concluded that Kazakhstan's president has transferred at least $1 billion worth of oil revenues to his private bank accounts in other countries.
The WikiBilim organization says they have obtained the right to use the Wikimedia trademark in their own communications, and Jimmy Wales initiated an April 2012 WikiBilim conference that received a $16,600 supporting grant from the Wikimedia Foundation. Earlier in the summer of 2011, Jimmy Wales had appointed the founder of WikiBilim as "Wikipedian of the Year".
The Jimbo connection
When he was confronted with these various and detailed connections between his Wikimedia Foundation and the Kazakh government, Jimmy Wales not only denied the evidence (see direct quote in the lede above), he closed the discussion and hid the documentation from plain view. Several Wikipedian editors would not be censored, and they continued the discussion anyway, at which point "Jimbo" (as he is affectionately nicknamed on Wikipedia) formally censored one of the investigators, Andreas Kolbe, telling him:
Please stay off my talk page...
I've had enough of you. I'll delete anything you post there, and if you persist, I'll ask others to help delete anything you post there. -- Jimbo Wales, 17:19, 21 December 2012 (UTC)
Kolbe happens to be one of Wikipedia's more prolific editors, receiving many commendations from other editors for his work on the project. Indeed, last year, Jimmy Wales himself awarded Kolbe a "barnstar" of appreciation. But, Kolbe is now forbidden to communicate with Jimmy Wales.
Censorship has a strong role in Kazakhstan, as well. After a newspaper criticized the Kazakh president's £8 million payments to former British prime minister Tony Blair's consulting firm for public relations polishing, Nazarbayev ordered the newspaper shut down for "propagating extremism". Blair's former director of communications, Alastair Campbell, has also been providing PR support to Kazakhstan.
Now, what do Tony Blair and Alastair Campbell have to do with Jimmy Wales?
In 2008, Wales was introduced to Tony Blair on Richard Branson's private Caribbean island. One thing led to another, and in 2010, Wales had fathered a child with Tony Blair's former diary secretary, Kate Garvey (who is also a PR specialist with Freud Communications). Eventually, in October 2012, Wales would marry Garvey (his third marriage), with Tony Blair attending the church ceremony, and guess who played the bagpipes for the happy couple? None other than Kazakhstan public relations consultant Alastair Campbell.
These may be personal "coincidences", but any neutral observer would likely conclude that there are enough connections between Jimmy Wales, the Wikimedia Foundation, and the Kazakhstan government, that the Wikimedia Foundation was probably not entirely truthful in recent fundraising messages stating that "We take no government funds".
Examiner asked on Quora.com, why does it appear that Wikipedia's co-founder is covering for Kazakhstan's government manipulation of Wikipedia? Wales reiterated to Examiner on the Quora site (in which Wales has invested money), "This question is ridiculous. There is no serious suggestion from anyone that I'm doing any such thing." He then asked that the question be removed, and Quora staff removed the question for him within a few hours. However, behind the scenes at Quora, Wales appears to be hitting the panic button, as multiple Quora users report receiving private e-mail from Wales, asking them to "Please downvote the smear campaign and upvote my answer."
Your thoughts are welcome in the Comments section below, and for even more detailed information about this scandal, please read Andreas Kolbe's own account.