In brief: Saudi Arabia has jailed two senior Wikipedia administrators for a total of four decades after infiltrating the website’s senior ranks in the region in an attempt to gain control of the online encyclopedia’s content.
An investigation by parent body Wikimedia discovered that the Saudi government deployed a number of its citizens, some of them by force, to act as agents in the infiltration of Wikipedia. “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.
Washington-based Dawn was founded by Jamal Khashoggi, the Saudi journalist who publicly criticized Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman and his policies. He was murdered by a team of Saudi agents in Saudi Arabia’s consulate in Istanbul in October 2018, an assassination believed to have been ordered by the prince.
Wikimedia, which started the investigation last January, said it “was able to confirm that several users with close connections with external parties were editing the platform in a coordinated fashion to advance the aim of those parties,” a reference to the Saudi citizens acting at the behest of the kingdom’s government.
The two high-ranking volunteer administrators—Osama Khalid and Ziyad al-Sofiani—who could edit fully protected Wikipedia pages were arrested on the same day in September 2020. Khalid was jailed for 32 years, while Sofiani was sentenced to eight years.
“The arrests of Osama Khalid and Ziyad al-Sofiani on one hand, and the infiltration of Wikipedia on the other hand, show a horrifying aspect of how the Saudi government wants to control the narrative and Wikipedia,” Abdullah Alaoudh, Dawn’s director of research for the Gulf, told AFP.
The news comes just a month after Wikimedia announced global bans for 16 users “who were engaging in conflict of interest editing on Wikipedia projects in the Mena [Middle East and North Africa] region.”
In mid-December, former Twitter manager Ahmad Abouammo, a dual US-Lebanese citizen, was convicted of acting as an agent for Saudi Arabia. He was sentenced to 42 months in federal prison and ordered to pay $242,000 to cover the cost of bribes he received for his actions. Abouammo and fellow Twitter employee Ali Alzabarah, who is wanted by the FBI, were accused of being enlisted by Saudi officials between late 2014 and early 2015 to attain private information on accounts critical of the Saudi regime.
Saudi Arabia changed its counterterrorism laws in 2017 to add dissent as a crime. Insulting the king and the crown prince can result in a ten-year prison sentence, while those engaged in “other acts of terrorism” can receive the death penalty.
Via The Guardian