Unsilenced spirit: Dr. Osama Khalid and the Fight for Information Freedom

This is a guest post written by Dr. Netha Hussain, a medical doctor and Wikimedian.

Dr. Osama Khalid, a medical doctor and Wikimedian recently turned 30 years old while in prison in Saudi Arabia. In 2020, his commitment to transparency and open access to information, principles that are vital for the Wikimedia movement, unfortunately drew unwanted attention of the Saudi regime. This led to his arrest and subsequent sentencing to an unimaginable 32 years in prison.

According to human rights portals, Osama and his fellow doctor and Wikipedian Ziyad Al-Sufyani were arrested in the summer of 2020 during the COVID-19 lockdown. The news of the arrest came out only after two years, due to the tireless work of human rights activists. He was initially sentenced to five years in prison, which was increased to 32 years in 2022. 

When I heard the news of Osama’s arrest from a Wikimedia mailing list, I felt sheer horror. I have known him for just over a decade. I remember him as as a person of kindness and gentleness, speaking in measured sentences – yet someone who could speak at length with great passion when asked about coding and Wikimedia. We met at hallways during conferences, had exchanges on mailing lists and occasionally came across each others’ edits on Wikipedia. He shared with me, over various conversations, that he had completed medical school and aspired to specialise in paediatrics. He was actively engaged in introducing Wikimedia to his medical students and colleagues, and authored numerous articles on Arabic Wikipedia focusing on medicine and healthcare. Each time he spoke of these endeavors, I listened, captivated and full of admiration.

Osama Khalid (left) with fellow Wikimedian and doctor Ziyad Al-Sufyani in 2016. Image courtesy: Fjmustak, CC-BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons.

I realised that, though our paths crossed several times, I had never really taken the pleasure to know him well. I had never made the time to ask about his family or loved ones and never planned to work on a project together. We never even discussed our day jobs as medical doctors, even though we had so much in common. Although it is far too late now, I decided to find out more about him anyway from whatever that he and his well-wishers have left behind on the internet.

I learnt that human rights organizations have demanded for his release, but the efforts are too weak, and there isn’t enough media attention. Using the very few sources I have got, I wrote a stub article about him on English Wikipedia, hoping that it would live on, and get expanded with more information as we get to know more about his detention. Among the rare photos of him on Wikimedia Commons, one of them is from the WikiProject Medicine meetup at Hong Kong in 2013. In the photo, he is seated second from left, and I am seen sitting beside him. Though I cannot recall the details of the meetup or our conversations from then, this photo invokes a deep sense of sadness every time I see it.

At WikiProject Medicine Meetup at Hong Kong, 2013. Image courtesy: Ganesh Paudel, CC-BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons.

I also discovered that his interests were vast and diverse, demonstrating curiosity and excellence across multiple domains. He contributed to a wide array of topics, including open-source technology, notable Saudi Arabian persons, medical procedures, films, and cities. Although his account has now been banned from editing because of security reasons, the articles he started on Arabic Wikipedia alone attract 8,000 pageviews daily. Ironically, it was he who created the Wikipedia article about Al-Ha’ir Prison, a maximum security prision in Riyadh, in the year 2012. This is the same prison where he is now being detained at. Did he foresee his fate? I don’t have the answers.

He enriched Wikipedia articles with his numerous image uploads, most of them of notable Saudi people, the most prominent being the photograph of Manal al-Sharif, the pioneer of the women’s driving movement in Saudi Arabia. He appears to have asked Manal directly for the image, which she consented to donate for Wikimedia Commons. This image and its derivatives have been used to illustrate Wikipedia pages in multiple languages and in several external sources on the internet.

Image of Manal al-Shraif uploaded by Osama Khalid. Image courtesy: Manal al-Shraif, CC-BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons.

I came to admire more of his competence when I looked at his work on Wikidata. He has extensively added social media data to profiles of notable individuals as well as added demographic and geographic data about provinces in Saudi Arabia, to name a few. He has even authored a script to semi-automatically add social media data to Wikidata.  

I am sure I have barely scratched the surface of the enormous work that he has left behind. I imagine him to be a kind doctor, a loving partner and a devoted son, even though I don’t know anything about these facets of his life. However, given his compassion and dedication, it is easy to envision him excelling in these personal roles just as he does in his intellectual pursuits.

On his Wikidata profile, he wrote: 

“The (Wikimedia) journey continued with on/off years; and even in my off years, I always felt I was a Wikimedian on a ”soon-ending vacation”.

It is deeply moving to reflect on how this so-called ’vacation’ has reached an unforeseen and profoundly distressing conclusion, albeit hopefully only for a temporary period. Osama’s unwavering identification as a Wikimedian, even during his breaks, speaks volumes about his dedication and passion for the pursuit of open knowledge. Now, as he faces decades in prison, it is a stark reminder of how swiftly and dramatically life can change, especially for those who stand up for their beliefs.

This turn of events also serves as a sobering reminder of the fragility of the freedoms we often take for granted. It underscores the importance of continuing to champion the values of open access to information and knowledge-sharing that Osama so fervently believed in and contributed to. As we reflect on his journey, may we find inspiration in his dedication and courage, and may we keep alive the principles he so passionately upheld.