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Saudi Arabia govt agents infiltrated Wikipedia to control content, imprisoned two independent Wikipedia administrators: Report

According to Democracy for the Arab World Now (DAWN) and Social Media Exchange (SMEX), Saudi authorities had recruited Wikipedia’s highest-ranking administrators in the country to serve as government agents in order to gain control over the information about the country on the website

On Thursday, January 5, Democracy for the Arab World Now (DAWN) and Social Media Exchange (SMEX), released an investigative report claiming that Saudi Arabia infiltrated Wikipedia and prosecuted Wikipedia editors who added critical information about the political detainees. According to the report, the Saudi authorities had recruited the organization’s highest-ranking administrators in the country to serve as government agents in order to gain control over the information about the country on the website. The report also states that earlier in September 2020, two high-ranking Wikipedia administrators were arrested by the Saudi government.

Democracy for the Arab World Now is a human rights group founded by slain Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, while Social Media Exchange is a Lebanon-based group promoting digital rights in the Arab world.

Citing an internal investigation conducted in 2022 by Wikimedia, which is the parent company of Wikipedia, the report stated that Wikimedia terminated all of its administrators in Saudi Arabia in December 2022.

Sarah Leah Whitson, DAWN’s Executive Director, said that the government agents acting as independent editors and imprisonment of non-complaint editors demonstrate the Saudi government’s use of spies in international organizations as well as the dangers posed by attempts to produce independent content in the country.

The Saudi government and Wikimedia, which provides free ‘educational’ content online through initiatives such as Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia, and Wiktionary, have not yet commented on the report.

It is pertinent to mention that Wikipedia operates through volunteer administrators and editors known as “Wikipedia users” who have been approved by Wikimedia. These approved users are not employees of Wikimedia and are not renumerated. There are, however, Wikipedia community rules that grant them privileges as trusted, independent editors who regulate and administer Wikipedia content. Administrators have the exclusive authority to use tools to edit, delete, and protect content pages, as well as to block and unblock lower-ranking users and editors.

Citing unnamed sources with knowledge on the matter, the DAWN and SMEX report claim that the Saudi government in 2020 arrested two top-ranking Wikipedia volunteer administrators in Saudi Arabia, identified as Osama Khalid and Ziyad-al-Sofiani. The arrested administrators had access to edit fully protected pages. Both the administrators were awarded 32 years and 8 years jail sentences respectively. They were charged with “swaying public opinion” and “violating public morals.” 

The report states that sources close to the case informed DAWN that the two Wikipedia administrators were prosecuted “because they had contributed information deemed to be critical about the persecution of political activists in the country.”

Wikimedia took cognizance of the fact that several of its administrators have been jailed for their work on Wikipedia pages. Taking note of this, Wikimedia on December 6, 2022, announced that it has banned 16 of its administrators following an internal investigation conducted in January 2022. DAWN and SMEX claimed that the 16 banned administrators were from Saudi Arabia and were banned for “conflict of interest editing on Wikipedia projects in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region.”

This report comes after a former Twitter employee Ahmad Abouammo was convicted of spying for Saudi Arabia by a US court. Abouammo was sentenced to three and a half years in prison. As per a release issued by the US Department of Justice, “the Court emphasized that defendant (Ahmad Abouammo) shared the user information with a foreign government known for not tolerating dissidents, and he did so while working with his even more culpable co-defendant Ali Alzabarah who fled to the KSA rather than face trial. This sentence sends a message to insiders with access to user information to safeguard it, particularly from repressive regimes, or risk significant time in prison.”

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