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Justice for Iran: The investigation on Persian Wikipedia must guarantee the rights to freedom of speech and access to information

By October 9, 2019 No Comments

Following the alarming reports questioning the independence and neutrality of Persian Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation (Wikipedia’s host) has opened an investigation.

One of Wikipedia’s inspectors (CheckUser) has confirmed in a tweet that the investigation involves the 2018 meeting between the Persian Wikipedia team and Iran’s Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance. However, it is unclear whether the investigation encompasses all concerns over the way the Persian Wikipedia editors manage content.

In the 2018 meeting at the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance, one point of discussion was the protection of personal pages of Iranian public figures, including Iranian state officials, from what Ziaei Parvar (the then head of the Ministry’s Bureau of Media Studies and Planning) called “attacks and campaigns”. The protection is provided by Wikipedia administrators through locking pages, and prevention of adding or removing any new information. The meeting justified this tactic as “protecting people’s private space,” where one of the editors of Persian Wikipedia said:

“… in Iran we have witnessed cases where an individual, who has yet to be formally convicted by a court of law based on evidence, and remains a mere suspect until proven guilty, is subjected to humiliation and dishonour on hundreds of Iranian websites. But in Wikipedia this is not the case. We do not publish such information… until state media have verified and published hundreds of articles about it.”

The above statement is an example of the systematic reinforcement of impunity practiced in a country where, according to Amnesty International, the Head of the Judiciary is responsible for crimes against humanity.

Due to involvement in serious human rights violations, 90 Iranian officials are now subject to international sanctions, including the current Minister of Justice. As the UN Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in Iran has confirmed, the ‘lack of Government investigation’ of the claims of rights violations has resulted in ‘the existence of widespread impunity.’

As a human rights organisation, Justice for Iran is raising public awareness in order to hold perpetrators of gross violations accountable. Subsequently, it is monitoring and documenting cases of biased interventions and censorship by administrators of Persian Wikipedia and other specific users. These instances include removal of information added to Wikipedia pages on Iranian officials, containing verified and public data regarding their human rights violations, and lack of action regarding information that normalises state violence and promotes state propaganda.

One of the countless examples of removing critical information about perpetrators is the Persian Wikipedia article on Mohsen Rezaei, the current Secretary of Iran’s Expediency Council and the former Commander in Chief of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. On 29 June 2015, a new section was added to his page, called ‘Human Rights Violations’. Among many violations such as arbitrary arrest, torture and summary execution of political prisoners, the section included Rezaei’s alleged role in the 1994 bombing of a Jewish community center in Buenos Aires, resulting in his 2007 addition to the Interpol’s list of wanted persons. Within hours of adding this information, the entire section was removed by a Persian Wikipedia editor, without providing any explanation. What makes this example highly revealing is a 2013 addition of blatant misinformation, claiming Rezaei’s removal from the Interpol’s list, which remains on his page to this date.

Figure 1: Screenshot of the article history showing the removal of the entire ‘Human Rights Violations’ section from Mohsen Rezaei’s page.

Justice for Iran regrets that Wikipedia, a vital platform for information, is protecting human rights violators and not the human rights laws that guarantee freedom of speech and access to information. Furthermore, over the last few years, it has been used to promote patterns of censorship and impunity by Persian Wikipedia. Restrictions, deletions, and edits of facts followed by addition of false information have played into the hands of the Iranian state and promoted their official narrative.

Furthermore, this is not a case unique to Iran. As recently reported by Russian journalists, tools and regulation policies of the online encyclopedia, have enabled national Wikipedia administrators to promote state propaganda, attack dissidents and provide protection and impunity for other perpetrators.

Justice for Iran reminds Wikipedia, and Wikimedia Foundation, of their responsibility to respect  human rights, in particular, freedom of speech and access to information, as two fundamental human rights recognised by international law. Consequently, the manner in which Persian Wikipedia is managed, contradicts the commitment of Wikipedia founder, Jimmy Wales:

“Wikipedia opposes censorship worldwide.  We have a very firm policy, never breached, to never cooperate with government censorship in any region of the world.  It is my view that access to knowledge – particularly factual encyclopedic knowledge of the kind put forth by Wikipedia – is a fundamental human right, a corollary to the right of freedom of speech.”

Justice for Iran calls on Wikipedia and Wikimedia Foundation to undertake serious measures to ensure authoritarian states, such as the Islamic Republic of Iran, do not use Wikipedia as a tool for censorship, suppression and impunity. We urge Wikimedia Foundation to release a public call for an investigation into Persian Wikipedia, to ensure any user is able to contribute factual and verifiable information. The scope of such an investigation must go beyond the 2018 meeting at the Ministry of Culture and address fundamental issues at stake, by considering all complaints and concerns in a transparent process.

In addition, it invites human rights groups to contribute to this process and provide Wikipedia with recommendations on how to guarantee freedom of speech and access to information, not only in Iran, but also in all countries where moderators are operating in a highly monitored, restricted and limited space. If Wikipedia fails to take serious and timely steps to address this problem, it will risk becoming complicit in censoring human  rights abuses and providing impunity for perpetrators.

Justice for Iran recommends that Wikipedia to review its regulations with a view to empower citizens to practice their freedom of speech and access to information, and to stop reinforcing state propaganda and a culture of impunity. To reach this goal, Justice for Iran urges Wikipedia to adopt more transparency in its regulations and policies, and to initiate an impartial procedure to put an end to the current practice that risks hijacking and manipulation of information by authoritarian governments. One such measure is the establishment of neutral monitoring teams who are conscious of the high-risk context of Iran and available to identify, intervene and prevent state censorship. Additionally, the monitoring team must reject authoritarian governments’ state channels as the only reliable sources of reference for articles. Last but not least, a more effective supervision and arbitration is integral to Wikipedia’s duty to safeguard due diligence and respect for human rights.