A new scandal: Saudi Arabia infiltrated Wikipedia and imprisoned two of its moderators

Human rights circles revealed that the Saudi authorities hacked Wikipedia and imprisoned two of its moderators to control the electronic encyclopedia’s content.

This disclosure related to a new scandal for Saudi Arabia comes less than a month after a former Twitter employee was sentenced to prison on charges of “espionage” for the Saudis.

The Washington-based Democracy for the Arab World Now (DAWN) and the Beirut-based SMEX organization said in a joint statement that “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.”

The Washington-based DAWN, which was founded by the late Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, and the SMEX organization defending digital rights in the Arab countries, indicated that they had received this information from “whistleblowers and reliable sources” in the Middle East and North Africa.

DAWN and SMEX’s joint statement comes after Wikimedia announced a global ban for 16 users who “were participating in a conflict-of-interest editing process on Wikipedia projects in the Middle East and North Africa region.”

It explained that it had decided to block “given the seriousness of the situation and to preserve the safety of users and projects.”

Wikimedia said in a statement that it had launched an investigation last January, which provided “confirmation that several moderators with close links to external parties were carrying out the editing process on the platform in a coordinated manner to further the goal of those parties.”

DAWN and SMEX confirmed that Wikimedia was referring to the work of Saudi users under the influence of the Saudi government.

The two bodies added that two high-level moderators, volunteer administrators with privileged access to private Wikipedia tools, including the ability to edit protected pages fully, remained imprisoned since their arrests on the same day in September 2020.

The two institutions said the arrests appeared to be part of a “crackdown on Wikipedia administrators in the country” and named the two imprisoned Saudis as Osama Khaled and Ziyad al-Sufiani.

“The arrest of Osama Khaled and Ziyad Al-Sufyani on the one hand, and the hacking of Wikipedia on the other hand, show a terrifying aspect of the way the Saudi government wants to control the narrative and Wikipedia,” Abdullah Al-Awda, director of the Gulf region at the DAWN organization, said.

He pointed out that the Saudi authorities sentenced Khaled to 32 years in prison and Al-Sufiani to 8 years.

And last month, a San Francisco court sentenced a former Twitter employee, Ahmed Abouammo, to three and a half years in prison for crimes, including illegally working for a foreign government.

Prosecutors accused Abouammo and his colleague on Twitter, Ali Alzabarah, who is wanted by the US Federal Police, of working for Saudi officials between late 2014 and early the following year to obtain private information on accounts critical of the Saudi regime.


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