Censorship as Performance Art: Uzbekistan's Bizarre Wikipedia Ban

The country's decision to block the Uzbek-language wiki may be more about showmanship and nationalism than controlling information.

Wiki-feb23-p.jpg

Wikipedia.org

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.

This post originally appeared at Registan.net and is reproduced with permission

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Sarah Kendzior is an anthropologist who studies politics and the Internet in Central Asia.

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