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Saudi Arabia 'infiltrated' Wikipedia to control content, activists say

The Wikimedia Foundation disputes report by rights groups and says no evidence of government infiltration was found
Co-founder and promoter of the online non-profit encyclopedia Wikipedia Jimmy Wales (L) attends a hackathon in Jeddah on 31 July 2018 (AFP)

Saudi Arabia infiltrated Wikipedia by recruiting the organisation's highest-ranked administrators in the country as government agents, in a bid to control content on the website, activists said on Thursday, citing an investigation.

"Wikimedia's investigation revealed that the Saudi government had infiltrated the highest ranks in Wikipedia's team in the region," Democracy for the Arab World Now (DAWN) and Beirut-based SMEX said in a joint statement on Thursday.

The Wikimedia Foundation, a non-profit organisation that operates Wikipedia, disputed some of the claims, stating late on Thursday that there were "material inaccuracies" in SMEX and DAWN's statements. 

The foundation said that its investigation did not find that the Saudi government "infiltrated" Wikipedia, but that some users it banned "may have been Saudi". 

DAWN, a Washington-headquartered human rights group founded by slain Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, and SMEX, a group promoting digital rights in the Arab world, documented Wikipedia's infiltration based on interviews with sources close to the company, "whistleblowers" and the imprisoned administrators.  

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In September 2020, the Saudi government arrested Osama Khalid and Ziyad al-Sofiani, two high-ranking volunteer administrators at Wikipedia with privileged access to the website, including the ability to edit fully protected pages. The men were handed down jail sentences of 32 years and eight years, respectively.

The arrests were part of a "crackdown" on Wikipedia administrators in the country, DAWN and SMEX said. The men were prosecuted because they had contributed information deemed to be critical about the persecution of political activists inside the country, the activists said, citing unnamed sources. 

"It's despicable but entirely predictable that the Saudi government has prosecuted Saudis merely for posting content about the government's human rights abuses," said Raed Jarrar, DAWN's advocacy director. "But Wikimedia also needs to take responsibility for the fact that its authorised editors are today languishing in prison for work they did on Wikipedia pages."


After an internal investigation in January 2022, Wikimedia Foundation banned the accounts of 16 administrators, "who were engaging in conflict of interest editing on Wikipedia projects in the MENA (Middle East and North Africa) region" DAWN and SMEX claimed. 

In a statement made in December 2022, Wikimedia said they "were able to confirm that a number of users with close connections with external parties were editing the platform in a coordinated fashion to advance the aim of those parties".

Sources with knowledge of Wikimedia's operations revealed to DAWN and SMEX that the ban was against 16 Saudi users - Wikimedia's highest-ranked editorial team in the region - following its discovery that they were serving as agents for the Saudi government to promote positive content about the government and delete content critical entries, including information about political prisoners in the country.

"While we do not know where these volunteers actually reside, the bans of any volunteers who may have been Saudi were part of a much broader action globally banning 16 editors across the MENA region," the Wikimedia Foundation said in its latest statement on Thursday.

There was no immediate comment from the Saudi government.

The revelation comes after a San Francisco court sentenced Ahmad Abouammo, a dual US-Lebanese citizen who oversaw Twitter's media partnerships in the MENA region, to three-and-a-half years in prison after being convicted of spying for Saudi Arabia.

This article has been updated to clarify that the Wikimedia Foundation is not the “parent company” of Wikipedia, but a non-profit organisation that operates Wikipedia. The 16 administrators were not terminated by Wikimedia Foundation, but banned. 

A Wikimedia Foundation spokesperson added that Wikimedia became suspicious of an alleged conflict of interest editing on Wikipedia projects in the MENA region before it launched its January 2022 investigation. 

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