Editor’s Note: Jimmy Wales is the founder of Wikipedia.org as well as other wiki-related organizations, including the charitable organization Wikimedia Foundation and the for-profit company Wikia Inc. The views expressed are his own.
Jimmy Wales: Syria is one of the world's most oppressed -- and beleaguered -- nations
Wales: Syrian volunteer Bassel Khartabil had the courage to dream of a different reality
Where knowledge suffers, people suffer, Wales says
Wikipedia turned 15 last week. What started as a small, volunteer-led project has since grown to become one of the world’s most popular websites. And today, the volunteers who build and maintain Wikipedia have advocated for its values in ways I could never have imagined – under extraordinary, and often deeply difficult, circumstances.
Syria is one of the world’s most oppressed – and beleaguered – nations. Its citizens have suffered greatly, driven out of their homes and villages, terrorized and killed without cause. The human toll is so great, it is almost easy to forget that Syria has one of the lowest scores for Internet freedom in the world, ranking above only China and Iran.
It was under these circumstances that Bassel Khartabil, a free culture advocate, open software developer and Wikipedian, had the courage to dream of a different reality.
Born and raised in Damascus, Khartabil began tinkering with open technologies early. The lead for Creative Commons Syria, he has also made great contributions to Arabic Wikipedia and Firefox, Mozilla’s open Web browser. He distinguished himself on the global stage as a passionate advocate for free knowledge in the Arab world, pushing for greater inclusion, translation and exchange of ideas.
In May, ISIS took control of the ancient city of Palmyra in Syria. The terrorist group is known for slaughtering and displacing innocent civilians in the cities it controls. Beyond the massive human toll it exacts, ISIS also makes it standard practice to destroy the sites and monuments that represent cultural history and identity.
Palmyra, for example, has been described as “one of the most renowned archaeological sites in the world.” It was recognized as a World Heritage Site in 1980, and artifacts found at this desert oasis date as far back as the Neolithic period, about 9,500 years ago. Sadly, today, much of this has been destroyed – including the Arch of Triumph, constructed by the Romans in the second century.
But thanks to Khartabil, this shared heritage is not completely lost.
In 2008, he began a project, New Palmyra, to document the magnificent city digitally. The project joined existing satellite photos and other resources into a single “world” file, rendering the spectacular monuments and ruins in 3-D. His goal at the time was simply to share a cultural treasure with the millions of people who might never visit Syria. He could not have known that today his efforts would digitally revive a city in ruins.
He also could not have known how this work would make him a target of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces.
In March 2012, Syrian military security forces detained Khartabil in Damascus only days before he planned to marry his fiancée, human rights lawyer Noura Ghazi. Human Rights Watch reported that Khartabil underwent interrogation and torture in underground prisons the group described as a “torture archipelago.” Nine months later, he was brought before a military prosecutor without legal representation, accused of “harming state security,” and, following a cursory trial, sent to the infamous Adra prison in Damascus. A man who fought for free knowledge for his fellow citizens was stripped of his own freedom.
Khartabil and Ghazi went ahead with their wedding in 2013 despite the bars between them.
“Bassel, I am very afraid,” Ghazi wrote in a public letter. “I am afraid about the country that is being slaughtered, divided, bleeding, being destroyed. Ouch Bassel, I am very afraid that our dream is changing from seeing ourselves being the generation freeing their country to the one witnessing its destruction. Ouch Bassel, I am very afraid.”
On October 3, Khartabil disappeared. Military police allegedly removed him without notice from his cell in Adra prison. Ghazi said she was told he had only enough time to remove his wedding ring and give it to a fellow prisoner for safekeeping. His friends and family have no reliable information regarding his current location, and Amnesty International reported there are persistent rumors that a military field court has sentenced him to death. “May God help him, we hope it’s not too late. We are worried sick about his life,” Ghazi wrote on Facebook.
U.S. Secretary of State, John Kerry raised Khartabil’s case in a December 10 statement for International Human Rights Day, and more than 30 organizations around the world have called for his release. In October, MIT offered Khartabil a position as a research scientist at its renowned Media Lab research facility.
There is no reason why Khartabil should have been arrested. Like many Wikipedians, he is a kind and generous volunteer, who dedicates his time to educating and empowering his community. He harmed no one. He committed no crimes. Instead it appears that he was arrested for daring to work toward a world in which people could seek information, think freely and share without fear.
Where knowledge suffers, people suffer. It is the greatest tool we have for shared understanding. We use it to lift the veil of ignorance and oppression, find similarities amid our differences, raise our communities out of poverty and into opportunity. Without knowledge, our expression, creativity and identity are impossibly constrained. We become unable to understand ourselves, let alone find reconciliation with our neighbors.
Millions of people from around the world visited Wikipedia in hundreds of languages on its 15th anniversary. No citation can reveal the passion and commitment of Wikipedia’s tens of thousands of volunteers, who consider themselves part of a global movement for human good.
And although they may be willing to sacrifice for their beliefs, they should not have to do so. Help us raise awareness of Khartabils plight and bring him home. Join us in celebrating free knowledge and ensuring his efforts were not in vain. We can overturn oppression with information. We must.