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UAE grants belie 'free-speech activism'; return them, now

In December, Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales – a self-styled "free speech activist" whose former business was pornographic advertising — accepted a $500,000 grant from the United Arab Emirates to set up a new human rights organisation. Now, for the first time, I can reveal the bizarre logic that Wales used to justify taking money from a regime that has nothing but disdain for free speech.

Last week, I criticised on Twitter the decision of the British Library, a revered national institution, to invite Jimmy Wales to a high-profile event celebrating the 800th Anniversary of the Magna Carta. I asked whether he would be inviting his "dictator friends" from both the UAE and Kazakhstan, two regimes that Wales has been linked to in the media.

Wales tweeted his reply, adopting a defensive tone in which he denied the claims. In fact, he claimed ignorance, asking, "Why don't we take this to email so you can explain exactly what the f*** you are talking about?" Though this was perhaps a ploy to prevent discussion of these embarrassing affairs in public (Wales admitted to me later that he had "mixed feelings" about his dealings in Kazakhstan), over emails it became pretty clear, pretty quickly, that Wales knew exactly what the "f***" I was talking about.

In 2012, Wales awarded the first ever "Wikipedian of the Year" award to a Kazakh man named Rauan Kenzhekhanuly. He described him in emails to me simply as a "Wikipedian… He was like many other Wikipedians I have met — and he spoke to me about his work in getting Kazakh language Wikipedia off the ground and his dream of someday founding a local chapter. We discussed issues of censorship in Kazakhstan and he was sharply critical of the government there."

Sounds dreamy, yet Kenzhekhanuly was no ordinary Wikipedian; he was a spin doctor for the Kazakhstan government. He had previously held eminent positions within the Kazakh foreign office, with a posting as Press Secretary in Moscow, and advisory roles to senior officials within the Kazakh government. He also served as Moscow Bureau Chief for the state-controlled National TV Agency, set up by the daughter of President Nursultan Nazarbayev, the country's brutal dictator. Kenzhekhanuly has since been appointed as Deputy Governor of Kyzylorda province. As one media report at the time put it, he is "a Kazakh government man through-and-through."

Though a simple Google search would have confirmed all of this, Wales claimed ignorance: "Knowing what I did then, [awarding Wikipedian of the Year] was the right thing to do." In what Wales claims is a coincidence, shortly afterwards, the Wikimedia Foundation awarded Kenzhekhanuly a $16,000 grant so that he could develop the Kazakh language Wikipedia — which now has over 10,000 articles — through offering training to Kazakh Wikipedia editors.

Unsurprisingly, given Kenzhekhanuly's background as a government spin doctor, the version of Wikipedia these editors have created censors the many human rights abuses of the regime heavily, including the killing of numerous unarmed protesters by government troops in 2012; it also features swathes of content borrowed directly from the official state encyclopaedia.

Wales shrugs this off: "Like many small language Wikipedia versions, it has bright spots, it has problems, and it has a fiercely independent community. I strongly support them." That "fiercely independent" community is supported by Kenzhekhanuly's training organisation "Wikibilim", which has since received a substantial grant from, you guessed it, the Kazakh government. Fiercely independent eh?

Hence, Wales explanation to me of why he accepted money from the UAE beggars belief. "I showed up there for a speech at an education conference," Wales narrated, "and they informed me that I would be given a prize the next day. I was caught completely off-guard and made a quick decision that I think was completely genius."

Consulting with Israeli human rights lawyer Orit Kopel, with whom Wales had collaborated in the past, he asked her "If she would help me use the money to f*** with them."

"Yes, I could have declined the money," Wales explained, "but why give money back to horrible people? So they can use it to pay for more jails?"

Wales is obviously an intelligent man, so either his explanation is a complete lie or he is bright but wonderfully naïve. Denying the UAE govt of $500,000 is not going to stop it "building jails" or "f*** with them." The country's GDP is over half a trillion dollars, and government spending is over $100bn. If Wales didn't realise that the only reason the UAE would give money to human rights organisations isn't out of compassion, but to whitewash their own international reputation for state brutality, he's not a "genius" he's… well, something else.

In Britain alone, take LSE Middle East Centre, now almost entirely funded by the UAE and suffering from censorship issues applied against its well-meaning academics. Or the dozen or so other major British universities where the Bin Zayeds have provided conspicuous grants. Or how the UAE invited Western cultural behemoths the Louvre, Guggenheim and British Museum to open up new branches in Abu Dhabi. Or take the phoney human rights organisations UAE security services have set up, laughably ranking the UAE 14th in the world for "human rights". Ordinarily "free speech activists" are aware of these publicity ploys and try not to take part in them, but not Jimmy Wales.

In fact, though, he isn't the only Western free speech activist linked to the UAE. Tim Berners-Lee, the founder of the internet, also received a cool half a million dollars grant for purposes unknown. Extraordinarily, he had given a speech just the day before in which he proposed that the internet remain free, open and accessible to all. In the UAE, tough new "cyber-crime" laws mean a single tweet or satirical YouTube video can land you up to five years in jail.

There's only one place for the $500,000 that Wales and Berners-Lee each received from the UAE, and that's back in the Bin Zayeds' bank account. It's not going to "f*** with them" but what will is boycotting relationships with the UAE which allow it to efface its poor human rights record. Wales claims to engage in "quiet diplomacy" with his free speech activism, yet it is loud propaganda that he is enabling. The money needs to be given back, now.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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