Amnesty International considered that the revelations that the Saudi authorities employed volunteer Wikipedia editors to control information about the country are a reminder of how far the kingdom can go to silence critical opinion.
The organisation said on its Twitter account that while the world celebrates Saudi “progress”, the Saudi authorities are making unprecedented efforts to control the dissemination of information about the country and polish its image.
This is not the first Saudi authorities have infiltrated global media platforms. Last month, a former Twitter employee was convicted of spying for Saudi Arabia by using his position to search for personal information about Saudi dissidents.
Human rights circles revealed that the Saudi authorities hacked Wikipedia and imprisoned two 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” organisation said in a joint statement that an investigation conducted by the Wikimedia Foundation, which runs the electronic encyclopedia, concluded that “the Saudi government has infiltrated the ranks of senior Wikipedia workers in the region” and forced Saudi citizens to act as “agents” for it.
DAWN and SMEX 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.”
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, citing their sources, 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 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 organisation, 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.