SA month ago, Wikimedia, the foundation behind the freely accessible online encyclopedia Wikipedia, justified simply with “conflicts of interest” why sixteen users in the world region MENA – the abbreviation stands for “Middle East and North Africa” - with a “global ban” were occupied. Now two organizations fighting for freedom of expression in the Middle East have revealed what is behind Wikimedia’s stating that some users “closely related to third parties” have edited content in a way that serves the interests of those third parties. At the beginning of December, the foundation regretted in its publication that it could not be more specific for legal reasons and to protect members, called the situation “serious” and asserted that it was working to ensure the safety of all its users.
According to SMEX, a Beirut-based organization protecting digital rights and freedoms in western Asia and northern Africa, and DAWN (“Democracy in the Arabic World Now”), founded in America by Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, Saudi Arabia has the Sixteen of the country’s now-banned top Wikipedia administrators have been recruited as government agents to control information about the country and track users who contribute critical information about political prisoners. Jamal Khashoggi was also a critic of the Saudi government. On October 2, 2018, he was assassinated in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. Both a UN special envoy and the US CIA have determined that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was directly involved in the murder.
As reported by DAWN and SMEX, the two Saudi Wikipedia administrators Osama Khalid and Ziyad al-Sofiani were arrested in September 2020. They were sentenced to five and eight years’ imprisonment, respectively, for “influencing public opinion” and “offending public decency”. In September 2022, the court increased Osama Khalid’s prison sentence to 32 years.
Volunteers in authoritarian regimes
“The fact that the Saudi government has infiltrated Wikipedia with government agents working as independent editors and jailed uncompliant editors not only demonstrates its constant use of spies in international organizations, but also how dangerous it is in this country to attempt to create independent content “DAWN director Sarah Leah Whitson comments on the process. It is grossly negligent for international organizations and companies to assume that their subsidiaries can operate independently of, or safely from, the Saudi government’s control.
Wikipedia editors and administrators are not employees of Wikimedia worldwide, but rather unpaid volunteers. Again and again, there are fights over the sovereignty of interpretation in the free online encyclopedia, in which users want to enforce their representation of a fact. Cases are also known from Germany in which authorities have modified Wikipedia content. Depending on their rank, editors and administrators not only have the ability to edit content and overwrite the edits of others, but also to “protect” certain entries, i.e. to reserve the right to edit them themselves. They can also block and unblock users of lower rank.
From the point of view of the two human rights organizations, the banning of sixteen editors by Wikimedia is not enough. Wikimedia must take responsibility for authorized editors being imprisoned for their work on Wikipedia pages. In addition, the foundation must block all pages edited by the Saudi agents so that they can be examined independently. Even beyond the case in Saudi Arabia, Wikimedia must check the pages managed by administrators in countries with authoritarian regimes and provide warnings. And the foundation needs to reconsider how far it wants to rely on administrators who live in countries with restricted freedom of expression and what risks administrators are exposed to there.