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Coverage of 2022 bans reveals editors serving long sentences in Saudi Arabia since 2020

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By Andreas Kolbe and JPxG
Former Arabic Wikipedia administrators Osama Khalid (left) and Ziyad Alsufyani (right), both now in prison in Saudi Arabia.
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More articles

DAWN (Democracy for the Arab World Now) was co-founded by murdered Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi
Osama organized this Wikipedia medical training and editing event at King Saud bin Abdulaziz University for Health Sciences in 2015
Ziyad uploaded this picture of himself to Commons in 2015, with the description "Arabic Wikipedian".
Sarah Leah Whitson, the Executive Director of DAWN, is a former director of the Middle East and North Africa division of Human Rights Watch.
Radio Farda, the Iranian branch of the U.S. government-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, reported on alleged manipulation of Farsi Wikipedia content by Iran's government in 2019. The WMF says concerns expressed about the Farsi Wikipedia a few years ago eventually led to its 2022 investigation that resulted in 16 global bans in December 2022, including bans of seven Arabic Wikipedia administrators
The Arabic Wikipedia community has condemned the WMF action, arguing the bans are at odds with the model of decentralized governance that the Foundation always talks about.
Vinicius Siqueira, Osama Khalid, Netha Hussain, Emily Temple-Wood, Anthony Cole, Jake Orlowitz, Daniel Mietchen, Lane Rasberry, James Heilman and Peter Coti (clockwise starting front left) at a WikiProject Med meetup at the 2013 Hong Kong Wikimania conference
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From what I remember reading on the Arabic Wikipedia discussion about the bans, there were a significant number of other editors there making blatantly pro-SA government statements and were angry at the editor accounts being banned in relation to that. I have concerns that the Arabic (and possibly Persian) language Wikipedia communities are entirely subsumed by blatantly biased pro-government accounts. Because the reason for the bans was never a mystery to anyone, not seriously. Even if the WMF has been trying to be vague about it all. Even this very Signpost article is quite clear and direct on the fact that we all know that the banned accounts were people working directly for the SA government in order to push their own personal views of events and to downplay the ongoing human rights atrocities that Saudi Arabia's administration is committing. With our unfortunate two editors discussed above being only a single example among many. SilverserenC 05:43, 16 January 2023 (UTC)Reply[reply]

That is an absolute monarchy for you. scope_creepTalk 13:38, 16 January 2023 (UTC)Reply[reply]

I've said this before, but I believe that if there's any way for the WMF to use its considerable funds and influence to promote the spread of free knowledge in autocratic nations, then that should be one of its highest priorities. Free knowledge is why we're here. We as the Wikipedia communities, regardless of language, should be some of Khalid and Alsufyani's strongest advocates. Thebiguglyalien (talk) 17:38, 16 January 2023 (UTC)Reply[reply]

+1 CactiStaccingCrane 16:19, 17 January 2023 (UTC)Reply[reply]

Do we have a mainspace article on this? DFlhb (talk) 18:30, 16 January 2023 (UTC)Reply[reply]

@DFlhb: There isn't a stand-alone article, but it is mentioned here. — Preceding unsigned comment added by ThadeusOfNazereth (talkcontribs) 18:35, 16 January 2023 (UTC)Reply[reply]
@DFlhb: A list article has just been created: List_of_people_imprisoned_for_editing_Wikipedia. I have a feeling that list will get longer as time passes. Andreas JN466 19:52, 16 January 2023 (UTC)Reply[reply]

Thanks for this report, and closing on the most important note. "But the most pressing question is perhaps what we, as a movement, can do to help Osama and Ziyad. [...] According to DAWN Executive Director Sarah Leah Whitson, who discussed the case with The Signpost, campaigning for their release at this point, over two years into their sentences, is very unlikely to do them harm, and may do some good." Does a nascent campaign exist? Is there anywhere to donate funds or efforts? Mike Linksvayer (talk) 20:18, 16 January 2023 (UTC)Reply[reply]

@Mike Linksvayer: DAWN are working on the case; for now I would recommend donating to them. Andreas JN466 18:19, 17 January 2023 (UTC)Reply[reply]

Interesting that Arabic Wikipedia doesn't support the bans. Trust and Safety's lack of transparency is creating several issues here. Trust and Safety should consider releasing more information. –Novem Linguae (talk) 07:46, 18 January 2023 (UTC)Reply[reply]

I do get trying to be more transparent, but on the other hand... saying a lot more info might put other WIkipedia editors at risk. Trust and Safety would have to weigh the potential harm of letting other authoritarian nations improve their infiltration methods (for lack of a better term) versus the need for transparent dealing. And I certainly don't want more innocent Saudi editors to end up like Osama and Ziyad, or worse... like Khashoggi. Dial (talk) 07:00, 23 January 2023 (UTC)Reply[reply]

Democracy Now! interview with Sarah Leah Whitson (17 January 2023)

This interview discusses further details of the above story: "From Infiltrating Wikipedia to Paying Trump Millions in Golf Deals, Saudis Whitewash Rights Record" Andreas JN466 22:25, 17 January 2023 (UTC)Reply[reply]

It seems that this interview perpetuates the same "infiltration" idea that's at best misleading regarding the structure of Wikipedia communities and the WMF. Thebiguglyalien (talk) 06:11, 18 January 2023 (UTC)Reply[reply]
@Thebiguglyalien Let's have alook at what's being said:

So, what we learned following the December 2022 ban by Wikimedia of 16 administrators and users in the Middle East is that they had apparently an infiltration by what they called external parties. We were able to piece together that the infiltration was by the Saudi government – of administrators, users and editors who were based in Saudi Arabia and who were apparently editing, posting, deleting content relevant and important to Saudi Arabia in a way that promoted a positive image of Saudi Arabia and blocked information that appeared critical of Saudi Arabia.

What we also learned and pieced together was that two former administrators in Saudi Arabia had been arrested on the same day and ultimately — originally sentenced five and seven years in Saudi Arabia for what our sources tell us was their refusal to post propaganda for Saudi Arabia, and the Saudi government’s discovery that they had in fact posted critical information about the country. This all became much more apparent when, in September of 2022, a Saudi prosecutor increased the sentence of one of those Saudi administrators to over 30 years in prison. So, through this effort of research and investigation, basically, we were able to uncover how the Saudi government had pressured administrators and editors in Saudi Arabia to post flattering content and ban critical content about the country.

If all of that is true, is "infiltration" the best word to describe it? What other word would be more appropriate? Andreas JN466 15:21, 18 January 2023 (UTC)Reply[reply]
The English Wikipedia, for example, has been subject to countless attempts by different parties to make information about them or about specific issues more favorable. There are plenty of long-time WP:SPAs the exclusively edit for a viewpoint on controversial issues. Have we ever given credence to the term "infiltration" in these circumstances? It's needlessly sensationalist and doesn't reflect how the Wikipedia system functions. The more I read DAWN's coverage, the less I trust them as a reliable source, which is really unfortunate, because democracy in the Arab world is so important. Thebiguglyalien (talk) 15:59, 18 January 2023 (UTC)Reply[reply]
@Thebiguglyalien Hmmm ... not to downplay problems in the English Wikipedia, but the Arabic admins banned included three of the four founders of the WP:Saudi Wikimedia User Group and represented more than a quarter of all Arabic Wikipedia admins.
If three of the four founders of Wikimedia France were banned from Wikimedia projects, along with a quarter of all French Wikipedia admins, we wouldn't call that "business as usual". Andreas JN466 16:53, 18 January 2023 (UTC)Reply[reply]
Oh, I certainly don't consider this business as usual, hence our talking about it. I just don't feel that the story is being given justice through accurate or reliable reporting. The big kicker here is that this "infiltration" broadly seemed to be the will of the community supported by consensus. Thebiguglyalien (talk) 17:06, 18 January 2023 (UTC)Reply[reply]

If these users' country of residence was a concern, they could have asked them to relinquish their accesses. The way this issue has been handled is a total mess, and shows a blatant lack of respect from the Wikimedia for the user community who spend countless hours to build these projects. If there are risks to users, it must be clearly and specifically communicated. Transparency has been non-existent and creates a toxic environment and undermines sense of collaboration in Wikimedia projects. Drako (talk) 21:27, 27 January 2023 (UTC)Reply[reply]

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