Coverage of 2022 bans reveals editors serving long sentences in Saudi Arabia since 2020: Long-time contributors imprisoned for 32 and 8 years after "swaying public opinion" and "violating public morals".
Wikipedians jailed for 32 and 8 years respectively
On January 5, 2023, we learnt that two Wikipedians, Osama Khalid (User:OsamaK) and Ziyad Alsufyani (User:Ziad), have been sitting in jail for more than two years, sentenced to serving 32 and 8 years respectively in al-Ha'ir Prison, a Saudi Arabian maximum security facility. The offenses with which they were charged, according to the press release that broke the news, were "swaying public opinion" and "violating public morals".
The press release in question was published jointly by Democracy for the Arab World Now (DAWN, a human rights organisation co-founded by slain Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi) and Lebanese NGO Social Media Exchange (SMEX). It said that Osama and Ziyad had been arrested on the same day in 2020, and sentenced to 5 and 8 years respectively. In September 2022, Osama's sentence was increased to 32 years after an appeal by the prosecutor; this reflects a recent trend in Saudi Arabia of imposing ever more draconian prison sentences for online criticism of the Saudi government, as reported by human rights organisation ALQST and The Washington Post. DAWN reports that in 2022, Saudi Arabia's Specialized Criminal Court sentenced women to 34 and 45 years of imprisonment for "tweeting in support of reform".
The DAWN/SMEX press release combined its report on Osama's and Ziyad's prison sentences with the news that the WMF had recently banned sixteen Wikipedians in the Middle East/North Africa region, including seven Arabic Wikipedia administrators, for alleged conflict-of-interest editing and advancing "the aims of external parties" (see Signpost coverage earlier this month).
Internal Wikimedia Investigation Results in Termination of Entire Saudi-Based Team of Administrators
(January 5, 2023 – New York and Beirut): The Saudi Arabian government infiltrated Wikipedia by recruiting the organization's highest ranked administrators in the country to serve as government agents to control information about the country and prosecuting those who contributed critical information about political detainees, said SMEX and Democracy for the Arab World Now (DAWN) today.
Following an internal investigation in 2022, Wikimedia terminated all of its Wikipedia administrators in Saudi Arabia in December. DAWN and SMEX documented Wikipedia's infiltration by the Saudi government based on interviews with sources close to Wikipedia and the imprisoned administrators.
The authors of the press release added:
It's wildly irresponsible for international organizations and businesses to assume their affiliates can ever operate independently of, or safely from, Saudi government control.
While these press articles followed the pattern set by DAWN and SMEX, covering the sixteen WMF bans and the imprisonment of the two editors together, it is unclear what connection there is between these two sets of events, or indeed if there is any connection at all. Ars Technica hypothesizes that the prior arrest of Osama and Ziyad may have been related to Saudi infiltration efforts that led to the bans. The Wikimedia Foundation's Trust & Safety office has stated that the December 2022 bans were unrelated to the 2020 arrests.
Both were longstanding Wikimedia contributors. Osama's first contributions to the English and Arabic Wikipedias date back to 2007. All in all, he made over 870,000 contributions to Wikidata, over 19,000 to the English Wikipedia, around 16,500 to the Arabic Wikipedia, over 16,000 to Commons, over 5,000 to the Arabic Wiktionary, and nearly 800 to Meta-Wiki.
Ziyad started editing Arabic Wikipedia in 2009, making over 20,000 edits to Wikidata, around 7,500 to Commons, about 6,500 to Arabic Wikipedia, and exactly 100 to English Wikipedia.
As medical students, both were particularly involved in editing and translating medical topics in Wikipedia. The Wiki Project Med Foundation, a Wikimedia affiliate specialising in improving Wikimedia projects' coverage of medical topics, issued the following statement to The Signpost:
Wiki Project Med appreciates the medical editing which Osama Khalid and Ziyad Alsufyani contributed to Wikipedia. They are both Wikimedia editors in good standing who have organized medical editing, training of physicians to edit Wikipedia's medical topics, and good community discussions about improving Wikipedia's coverage of medical topics for Arabic language. The arrest is shocking to us and beyond our understanding. We know nothing about this except that these two are friendly Wikipedia editors who have been highly engaged in our Wikimedia community activities.
Ziyad uploaded this picture of himself to Commons in 2015, with the description "Arabic Wikipedian".
Both attended Wikimedia conferences. Osama joined multiple Wikimania events in person, and participated in the medical meetups there (see images on Wikimedia Commons); he also organized the Translation task force, importing Wikipedia medical articles from English to Arabic (and from Arabic to English).
Wikimedia responses to press coverage
Responding to the media coverage, Wikimedia Foundation spokespeople highlighted "material inaccuracies" in the press release. According to Ars Technica, for example:
A Wikimedia spokesperson told Ars that there are "material inaccuracies in the statement released by SMEX/DAWN" and in a Guardian report. "There was no finding in our investigation that the Saudi government 'infiltrated' or penetrated Wikipedia's highest ranks," Wikimedia's spokesperson told Ars. "And there are in fact no 'ranks' among Wikipedia admins. There was also no reference to Saudis acting under the influence of the Saudi government in our investigation. 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 also published a longer statement on the Wikimedia-l mailing list on 6 January, titled "Recent press around December Office Action":
Over the last couple of days, there have been several media reports about
the Foundation’s most recent office action, taken on December 6.
More are certain to follow. These media reports are based on a release from
SMEX and Democracy for the Arab World Now (DAWN) that contains many
material inaccuracies. Some of the errors will be obvious to our community
– for perhaps the most obvious, the report states that the 16 users are all
based in Saudi Arabia. This is unlikely to be the case. 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. Indeed, many of them are not active in the
Arabic language projects. These organizations did not share the statement
with the Foundation, and "sources of knowledge" as cited in their release
can get things wrong. In addition, we do not have staff in the country
named and never have, contrary to a message put out by the same groups on
As we noted in December in our statement, we are unable to discuss
Foundation office actions in detail. The Foundation always lists accounts banned as a result of its investigations.
It is our goal to be as transparent as we can be within essential
protection policies, which is why we do not ban in secret, but instead
disclose accounts impacted and (when large numbers are involved) have
disclosed the rationale.
The roots of our December action stretch back over several years. We were
initially contacted by outside experts who made us aware about concerns
they had about Farsi Wikipedia. We can’t comment on that report right now,
but it will be published by that organization soon. This report not only
contributed to our August 23, 2021 modification of our non-disclosure agreement to make it harder for rights-holders to be coerced, but led to further
evaluation of issues across MENA. The December bans were the culmination of
Wikimedia is, as mentioned above, an open knowledge platform, and it
thrives on open participation. Investigations and global bans are not
things that any of us take lightly, but the Foundation is committed to
supporting the knowledge-sharing models that have created so many valuable
information resources in hundreds of languages across the world. Our first
harm to our users and to the security of Wikimedia platforms, we will do
the best we can to protect both.
We trust and hope that our communities understand that misinformation about
this action has the potential to cause harm to the individuals involved. We
believe in the incredible value produced by our volunteers across the
globe, but even so we recognize that being found in contravention of a
enough to warrant a ban — is not the equivalent of being convicted of any
crime. Accordingly, we ask you to please be conscious of the real people
involved, in the spirit of our long established respect for living people on our sites. We realize that it is tempting to speculate, but we do ask you all to
recall that people’s employment options, their relationships, and even
their physical safety may be compromised by speculation.
If anyone feels unsafe on Wikimedia projects, please use the local
community processes or contact us. The Foundation and community will work
together or in parallel to enhance the safety of all volunteers. To contact
the Trust & Safety team please email ca(a)wikimedia.org .
Notably, this statement does not contain any reference to the two imprisoned Wikipedians. On the other hand, it does express consideration for the people behind the accounts banned last month, whose role in Wikipedia has suddenly become international news, in a way the Wikimedia Foundation clearly had not intended during their initial listing of the bans.
Whitson told Ars that Wikimedia is "playing technical word games" in its statement and that "it's really important for Wikimedia to be transparent about what they have described as a conflict of interest among its editors." She said that Wikimedia should "provide more transparency about the 16 users that they banned" and "the safety precautions they're going to take to avoid further endangering Wikipedia editors in totalitarian states, because there's no denying that two of them are now languishing in Saudi prisons" and the problem goes "well beyond Saudi Arabia." Whitson urges Wikimedia to reconsider its global model of relying on Wikipedia editors based in totalitarian states, not just because it can endanger the editors, but also because Wikipedia "loses its credibility" when information edited in these states cannot be trusted.
These are important points. The WMF is now widely reported to have "denied claims the Saudi government infiltrated its team in the Middle East" – as a BBC article puts it – but this does create some inconsistencies. A month ago, on December 6, the WMF's Trust & Safety office issued a confident assertion that "we 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". The post stated that "these connections are a source of serious concern for the safety of our users that go beyond the capacity of the local language project communities targeted to address" and emphasised that the Foundation had issued these bans "to keep our users and the projects safe". But it has provided no information on who these parties threatening users' safety are, if they are indeed unrelated to the Saudi government.
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 DAWN/SMEX press release and the many press reports based on it did contain errors. The press release referred to "16 Saudi administrators"; as reported earlier this month in The Signpost, only seven of the ten banned Arabic Wikipedia users were administrators, and six of the 16 banned users were contributors to the Farsi Wikipedia rather than the Arabic Wikipedia. Moreover, Osama and Ziyad, the two imprisoned Wikipedians, were not administrators at the time of their arrest – both had had their adminrights on Arabic Wikipedia withdrawn years before. The reason? They weren't using them, both having scaled down their Wikipedia activity considerably in recent years, presumably to focus on their medical studies. Ten years ago, however, Osama had uploaded pictures of a number of Saudi human rights activists to Commons; Ziyad uploaded Wikipedia's image of Loujain Alhathloul in 2016.
The headline of the article in The Guardian read: "Saudi Arabia jails two Wikipedia staff in 'bid to control content'". This will have left many readers once again with the false impression that Wikimedia Foundation staff administer Wikipedia's day-to-day content and community processes. (There is a reason headlines are not considered reliable sources in Wikipedia – the body of The Guardian's article referred correctly to "volunteer administrators".)
The WMF's claim that admins have "no ranks", however, is less persuasive. Two of the bannedusers, for example, had bureaucrat and checkuser rights in addition to administrator privileges (elevated rights that require users to sign non-disclosure agreements). Moreover, the entire Arabic Wikipedia – a project with 1.2 million articles – only had a grand total of 26 administrators prior to the global bans (it is now down to 20). To a person in the street, surely that makes any of the 26 people administering the project "high-ranking".
Even more significant is the fact that the banned Arabic Wikipedia administrators include three of the four people who founded the Saudi Wikimedia User Group, the Wikimedia Foundation's official affiliate in Saudi Arabia – among them the affiliate's principal contact person. In total, seven of the ten banned Arabic users are listed as members of the Saudi user group. As for the other three, two, including one of the checkusers, say on their userpages that they are members of the Arabian Gulf Wikimedia User Group, which does not seem to be an officially recognised affiliate yet, and one (the other checkuser) says they're from Kuwait.
The Wikimedia Foundation made another statement on 8 January, saying, in part:
Our investigation and these bans are not connected to the arrest of these two users. The ban decision impacted 16 users, not all of whom were administrators, from Arabic and Farsi Wikipedia. As stated below, we have no reason to believe that these individuals are all residents of Saudi Arabia; on the contrary, this seems extremely unlikely. Further, we imagine you are all aware that editors are volunteers, not paid by the Foundation, and that the Foundation does not have offices or staff in Saudi Arabia.
While, as stated, the December office action is unrelated to the arrests of
two Wikimedians in Saudi Arabia, the safety of Wikimedia volunteers always
remains our utmost concern. We understand the desire to take action or
speak out. Know that we need to act in the interests of any volunteer whose
safety is under threat. As indicated in yesterday's message, additional
publicity around such cases can cause harm, as can speculation and
misinformation. We are confident that everyone values the safety of their
fellow volunteers and can understand the constraints this might create.
Arabic Wikipedia community statement
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.
The Arabic Wikipedia community has released a statement on the global bans, adopted with 38 in support, 2 opposed, and 0 neutral. What follows is an English translation of the community statement originally issued in Arabic:
Wikipedia: Statement regarding the events of December 6, 2022
This is a statement issued by the Arabic Wikipedia community to comment on the events of December 6, 2022, and the accompanying global ban that included ten user accounts on the Arabic Wikipedia, including seven administrators.
In the Arabic Wikipedia, we focus on a decentralized governance model in which all community members play roles in the decision-making process, oversight over the drafting of the encyclopedia's policies as well as guidelines, and their enforcement. This can be achieved through direct participation in the election of administrators, and in resolving conflicts and disagreements that occur in the encyclopedia. We do expect the Wikimedia Foundation, which has always supported this governance model, to follow it when dealing, not only with the Arabic community but with all other communities to ensure full transparency and mutual accountability.
We do condemn, in the strongest terms, the work model based on confidential complaints and non-public investigations, which creates a toxic work environment that is incompatible with the nature of volunteering and undermines the main Wikipedia principles of transparency and the assumption of good faith. At the same time, we call on the Foundation to adopt a transparent model in which it has no guardianship over communities, and where it accepts, without restrictions, mutual accountability from communities. The relationship should be based on the grounds that all parties, involved in a transparent governance process, are equal in all the stages of the process.
We also understand the existence of complications associated with attempts to manipulate the content of the Arabic Wikipedia, to polish or distort the image of certain parties; we condemn all these attempts without any reservations and stress the need for Wikipedia to be a platform that adopts a neutral point of view. At the same time, we call on the Foundation to involve local communities in the content protection process by sharing information with them in a way that does not harm the privacy of the users involved in the process and does not put them at risk.
If a user violates the policies, even if they hold administrator rights, they will be dealt with firmly in accordance with the local policies approved by our community. We do not tolerate the abuse of administrative powers nor the manipulation of encyclopedic content to serve third parties whatsoever, including directed editing, and we have policies governing these matters. They apply to all users equally without distinction. Therefore, we are surprised, in light of all this, that the institution imposes its supervision on our self-governing society without prior notice and issues irrevocable decisions without explanation.
We also point out the severe harm that the ban has done to our local community. We lost seven active administrators in one fell swoop! This represents 30% of the administrators in our community, including two bot operators. This has set our community back years and does not, surely, contribute to encyclopedia growth. Mainly, we have suffered the consequences of this ban at the technical level in the encyclopedia, and we appeal to the technical team in the Foundation and the open-source communities to provide the necessary technical assistance to maintain the continuity of the project as much as possible.
The Arabic community has chosen a committee of four people to follow up with the Wikimedia Foundation on the basis of mutual accountability on the issue of the above bans. We are waiting, and we hope, for the Wikimedia Foundation to cooperate with this committee, facilitate its work and share with it the information in its possession without harming the privacy of any user on the Arabic Wikipedia or its sister projects.
Wikimedia Foundation reply posted on the Arabic Wikipedia
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
On 10 January, the Wikimedia Foundation replied to the Arabic Wikipedia community statement on the associated talk page. It is the first Foundation statement to actually use the imprisoned Wikipedians' names. The reply was posted in Arabic; a machine-aided (Google/Bing) translation follows below:
Update from the Wikimedia Foundation
We know the past few weeks have been difficult for the community. We also realize that this situation remains confusing and worrying in light of the media reports that have emerged. As an organization, we regret the distress and concern this situation has caused the community. While we know we can't answer all of your questions, we want to make sure you understand our processes and the rationale behind them. We also want to ensure that our actions are in the best interests of the community to the best of our ability and with the tools available to us. As mentioned, the measures were not linked in any way to the recent media reports that are currently circulating, nor in any way to the arrests. The Foundation has learned of the arrest of Osama and Ziyad, and is actively following up on their situations.
We realize that media reports and recent actions in December 2022 make many of you skeptical and perhaps even apprehensive about participating in the projects. We want you to know that the projects are owned by everyone, and most of all, that you are the creators and curators of the content. Foundation interventions in content or management issues on the sites are rare and limited to exceptionally problematic circumstances. No one should fear that the Foundation will take action on unintentional mistakes made while participating as editors in good faith.
As many of you already know, the Foundation fully supports community autonomy and the principle of subsidiarity as part of our commitment to respecting and promoting community autonomy. Not only do we feel this is the right approach to our shared values, but it is the only approach that can make these amazing projects work. To ensure we maintain this commitment, we do not deal with general community or community member disputes that might otherwise be addressed through existing community actions, nor do we act as a means of appealing community policies and decisions. If such situations arise, we look forward to working to help the community members who need help, but most of the time, this assistance will consist of guiding the community members to find the right community avenue that will solve their problem.
Our December 6 Office action was the result of the Foundation's multiple, long-term investigations undertaken as part of our duties as a platform provider. It was not related to the media reports currently circulating. While there are still limits to what we can disclose in order to protect the safety and privacy of our users, we truly understand and sympathize with the fact that this continues to be an upsetting situation and would like you to know that we would not have taken this action if it were not necessary.
We also want to acknowledge that the media reports have created significant doubt in people's minds about the safety of participating in Wikimedia projects, because of their direct linkage to cases of volunteers being arrested. It is unfortunate that many organizations relied on incomplete facts and indirect sources in their coverage, which directly contradicts our principles. Regardless of the current situation, the Foundation is well aware that such risks exist globally, and we want our community members to be aware too - and work with us to take precautions to stay safe. Six months ago, the United Nations published an article describing the rise of disinformation as a "global disease".
In late May 2020, the Board included protecting projects and communities from "misinformation and bad actors" in its Statement on Community Culture. On August 23, 2021, we amended our Non-Disclosure Agreement to make it more difficult to coerce rights holders, by restricting access in certain high-risk regions where individuals may be particularly vulnerable to threats to themselves and their families. We continue to work to secure the safety of those combating this "global disease" – disinformation – not just through Office actions but in terms of proactively encouraging safe practices, as in our recent blog post on protecting online anonymity. This assessment by external experts has identified a number of areas to support our approach, the Board has issued a policy symbolizing our commitment to this improvement, and our Human Rights Team continues to work to provide resources of information and support to users on the ground. We are also working on making additional digital security resources available to community members who feel unsafe online, which we will finalize soon.
We respect and realize that this action represents a major setback for the community and that is why we are open to providing the community with the support needed and what help we can provide. If there is anything we can do to help the community during this time, please do not hesitate to let us know via firstname.lastname@example.org. As mentioned earlier, we are ready to provide you with the required support to the best of our ability.
Wikimedia Foundation Office WMFOffice (talk) 09:09, 10 January 2023 (UTC)
The Foundation shall not grant Foundation volunteer NDA recognition to applicant(s) for volunteer roles if the applicants live in jurisdictions that block(ed) access to Wikimedia projects AND there is reason to believe that their domicile is known to others than the individual applicant(s) and the Foundation. Exemptions may be granted in individual cases following a request for review by the Legal department. Granting such NDAs would put the applicant(s) as well as other volunteers relying on the Foundation’s platform at undue risk. All NDA-based access rights granted to users fulfilling both criteria in the proposed adjustment shall be revoked at the point of policy adjustment.
This still seems weak, given the risk of decade-long prison sentences served in high-security facilities. Even if an editor's place of residence is only known to them and the Foundation today, there is no guarantee at all that others won't discover it at some point in the future. A checkuser whose identity becomes known to a present (or future) authoritarian government would not just be at risk personally, but could also be compelled – legally or otherwise – to collect user data and pass these on to state organs, putting other users at risk of prosecution.
There is much to ponder here about project governance, government influence on Wikimedia projects, and the vulnerability of editors and administrators to coercion and imprisonment. But the most pressing question is perhaps what we, as a movement, can do to help Osama and Ziyad.
The Wikimedia Foundation, DAWN and SMEX clearly got off on the wrong foot – it would be good to see them engage in constructive dialogue now, and pool their resources, at least inasmuch as our fellow Wikimedians are concerned. 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.