During a recent event titled “Professional meeting on the application of Wikipedia tactics in communications”, held at Iran’s Ministry of Culture, a female audience member asked:
“So as Wikipedia, or as its managers, can you intervene based on the relationships you assume exist between different accounts? For example can you claim that certain users are collaborating with each other?”
Instead of replying to the question, one of the presenters of the all male panel laughs and says:
“Let’s put it this way, these guys here play the role of Vezarat-e-Ershad in Wikipedia. Meaning they can close one account, open another, give warnings etc. But they are even stronger than Vezarat-e-Ershad. They have the keys in their hands. It’s just like when Vezarat-e-Ershad prevents the publishing of a particular newspaper, so that it’s not automatically published.”
Vezarat-e-Ershad is Iran’s Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance, a ministerial body in charge of issuing permits for any cultural, political, artistic activities, events, production, or publication in the country. In short, Vezarat-e-Ershad is the leading institution in charge of prior restraints and censorship.
I couldn’t believe my ears. Questions immediately began popping up in my mind: “How can a Wikipedia manager or editor compare himself to a governmental institution in charge of mass censorship? Who are these people? Are Wikipedia’s founders aware of this?”. But before going any further, I have to take the story few days back and explain how I ended up listening to the audio file of this event in the first place.
One topic, two different narratives
The story began while I was reading the English Wikipedia page on ‘Iranian involvement in Syrian Civil War’. Out of curiosity, I decided to compare the English version with the Persian one to see how much the two pages correlate or differ. I found out that not only are there major differences in the amount of information each page conveys to the reader, but the very narrative that each page represents about the same issue vary extensively.
The English version has 150 references from relatively diverse sources, the Persian one only 45 references, of which more than half lead to no longer existing pages from Iranian state media. The English version is composed of 14 sections, including a detailed timeline of Iran’s invasion and expansion in Syria since 2011, the Persian version is mostly composed of long and unchallenged denialist and conspiracy based statements by the Iranian officials. Most notably, in the Persian version there is a whole section which frames the alleged war crimes committed by Iran backed sectarian forces as merely a “theory”.
Next, I decided to check the Wikipedia page of Bashar al-Assad. The English version comprehensively outlines the economic and social policies of the Assad dynasty which eventually led to the 2011 revolution. There is even a specific section about the current international court cases being filed against him as a war criminal. Another important section describes the widespread support that Assad has received from European and American far right and neo-nazi figures and organizations. All this makes the English page a relatively reliable source of information. The Persian version however provides plenty of irrelevant information about Assad’s personal and family backgrounds and portrays him as an educated and competent leader resisting what he considers to be an “Israeli orchestrated uprising”. In the Persian version, we are confronted with the usual pro-Assad propaganda that frames him as a weak and lonely victim of western aggression. This narrative of course fits well within the pro-war narrative that the Iranian state has been presenting to the people in the last 8 years.
Even though the duality of narratives presented in two different pages about to the same critical contemporary event seemed odd to me, it was only after coming across the image below that I began seriously questioning the Persian Wikipedia’s independence and neutrality.
The image shows a person standing in front of a large image of Iran’s Prime Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif while giving a presentation. Above the image there is a calligraphy text which says “rational arguments, neutral perspectives and tolerance towards opponent’s opinion.” The logo next to the image says “Collaborative Thinking: Persian Wikipedia’s 14th anniversary”. Javad Zarif is a politician known among human rights activists as Iran’s Pinocchio, he has been accused of being a deceptive liar and skilled manipulator in debates. From the execution of homosexuals in Iran based on “moral principles” to killing of civilians in Syria in the name of “ regional stability”, Zarif has consistently either denied or defended Iran’s worse crimes. So why would a promotional image of him end up in a Wikipedia event?
This image was the starting point of my in-depth investigation into Persian Wikipedia’s editorial team and their growing organisational relationship with the Iranian state.
Institutionalization and NGO-ization of Wikipedia In Iran
Persian Wikipedia was officially established in 2003. However, it was only since 2016 that it began holding official public events in Iran as an organization type of entity. The first event was held on August 6th 2016 under the title “Celebrating Persian Wikipedia’s 500th Article” held at the University of Ahwaz. Visiting the Wikipedia page created for this event, we can see a list of speakers which includes Wikipedia’s founder Jimmy Wales who delivered his speech via a recorded video message. The second annual event was held on December 22nd, 2017 in Esfahan and was titled “Collaborative thinking and celebration of Persian Wikipedia’s 14th anniversary””. The third and most recent event was held on September 11th, 2018 titled “A professional meeting on the application of Wikipedia tactics in communications”. This event was officially held in collaboration with Iran’s Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance and sheds extensive light on the organizational links between Persian Wikipedia and the Iranian state.
Present at this event is Mohsen Salek (known online by the Wikipedia pseudonym Mardetanha, the lonely man), introduced as Persian Wikipedia’s “Senior Manager and Bureaucrat”. The next presenter is Ahmad Ameri, introduced as Persian Wikipedia’s Coordinator of Educational Programmes. Arash Soleimani (the person who appears next to the Javad Zarif image) and Mohammad Heydarzadeh were also presented as Persian Wikipedia’s Senior Managers. Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, is the presence of Hamid Ziaei Parvar, head of Iran’s Bureau of Media Studies and Planning, a sub institution of Iran’s Ministry of Culture.
Appointed to his current position in 2018, Ziaei Parvar is an important figure in Iran’s media management field. He has worked at several governmental and research institutions with a particular focus on the relationship between defense and media. A major exposure moment during his career was the publishing of a comprehensive book titled “Soft War: Media War Edition” which offers strategic analysis of methods of monitoring and controlling the domestic media sphere. The book argues that due to decades of ideologically driven isolationism, the Iranian state is currently ill equipped and incapable of using the internet towards its own national interests. Thus there is a gap, and a need, to develop more intelligent, modern and proactive media strategies. One of the solutions offered in the book is the development of more strategic collaboration between private and governmental sectors.
In his closing statement at the event, Ziaei Parvar expresses his support for the idea of officially establishing Persian Wikipedia in Iran as an “NGO” at the Ministry of Culture:
“Regarding the suggestion for establishing an official base for Persian Wikipedia, an idea which my colleagues here have discussed with the National Library. Right here I promise that I will mention this request at my meeting with the board of directors. My own opinion about this is positive. At least in the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance we can provide you with an office. Regarding your suggestions for the establishment of an NGO, that also we can help with by asking our friends at the Ministry of Interior, so that this request can also be realized. I will discuss both requests at my meetings in order to acquire the necessary permissions.”
This is a blatant contradiction in relation to Wikipedia’s famous slogans of “neutrality” and “Independence” from governmental influence.
Political impunity as “protection of private space”
Another topic which is raised several times by Ziaei Parvar and other speakers as an important issue is how to protect the personal pages of officials from coordinated “attacks and campaigns” by “the troublemakers”. In Iran, like in any other non-democratic country, social justice activists, journalists, artists, lawyers, feminists, minority rights activists, unionists, environmentalists or anyone else that challenges the status quo of propaganda, control and oppression is automatically considered a “troublemaker” by the state.
The solution offered by the Persian Wikipedia panel is simple: “We lock the pages and we do not allow such attacks” says Mohsen Salek. There are numerous human rights violators in Iran’s political system (ranging from judges to police commanders, prison officials, the clergy and beyond) who’ve been complicit in historic, and ongoing crimes in the country. Naturally, these men enjoy full impunity and protection from the system. Human rights activists are already struggling immensely to hold these powerful men accountable for their crimes. Wikipedia has been one of the few online spaces where a detailed profile of such figures could be created publicly. But it seems like even this small opportunity is now being taken away from activists in the name of “protecting people’s private space”:
"Entering people’s private space is banned on Wikipedia, in every section of the platform...for example in Iran we’ve seen that someone still hasn't been officially convicted in a court, based on evidence, meaning he’s only suspect of a crime, but by the time he can prove his innocence, he’s been humiliated and dishonored in a hundred different Iranian websites. But in Wikipedia it's not like that, we don’t let such news be published...only after hundreds of articles by state media have been published and verified it.” says Ahmad Ameri. This basically means that activists can only use confirmed information provided by the same system that is actively providing protection and impunity for corrupt criminal politicians running the country.
Orwellian ministry of truth?
The idea of registering Persian Wikipedia as a so called Non Governmental Organization in a state institution that is in charge of the country’s censorship apparatus can only be described as an Orwellian event. In George Orwell’s dystopian book 1984, the Ministry of Truth has developed a complex system of propaganda production which designs and manufactures the “truth” according to each specific moment of crisis that the Big Brother and his government is facing. On the outside walls of this ministry the Party’s three slogans are written: "WAR IS PEACE," "FREEDOM IS SLAVERY," "IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH."
The rise of third party media NGOs, think tanks and PR companies helping to clean up media narratives in favor of the region’s authoritarian states is not unique to Iran. Regimes in Saudi Arabia, Israel, Turkey, Syria and Sudan have all engaged in such projects. Facebook for example has been increasingly criticised for deleting posts and blocking accounts belonging to Syrian, Palestinian, Kurdish and Kashmiri journalists and writers in the name of “community standards”.
In the case of Sudan, a canadian lobbying firm was recently hired and paid $6m to provide “favorable media coverage” for the Sudanese military council.
Iran is simply catching up with this new trend of censorship outsourcing and may be using Persian Wikipedia towards this end. It is shocking to see how far Persian Wikipedia has come already in becoming Iranian state’s partner in crime. A state that has officially waged a war on dissidence while portraying itself as “democratic” and “progressive” to the outside world through “moderate” figures like Rouhani and Zarif. In Today’s Iran forced confessions, torture, execution and death in prison are ordinary forms of oppression deployed against journalists, lawyers, teachers, students, unionists, feminists, environmentalists, minority language activists and beyond.
It is unclear how much people in higher positions at Wikipedia are aware of this evolving relationship between Persian Wikipedia and the Iranian state. However the video message of Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales to the public event held in 2015 in Iran is a surprising, or rather alarming sign. Particularly since in another recorded video from a few years back, Wales himself speaks extensively about how writers in Iran have to “put their lives on the line” for their work. This shows that Wales is fully aware of the conditions of systematic censorship and oppression inside the country.
The particular danger of increasing collaboration between Persian Wikipedia and the Iranian state lays in the state’s appropriation and adaptation of terms like “independent media”, “neutrality” and “objectivity”. This empowers the government to gradually move away from traditional censorship and move towards more complex and flexible censorship mechanisms. A mechanism that does not simply diminish facts or dissident thought, but engages with it and even includes it within the state propaganda apparatus. This may be an outdated dirty trick in the tool box of western liberal governments, but the Iranian state is also now finding its way into this tool box.