Wales Denies Censoring Wikipedia over Journalist Rohde's Kidnapping

Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales defends the removal of information from Wikipedia to protect The New York Times journalist David Rohde, who was captured by the Taliban last November. One Internet and media expert says the act of censorship may undermine the crowd-sourcing site's credibility. What side of the fence are you on?

Jimmy Wales has spent a lot of time defending his brainchild Wikipedia, the world's leading Website where citizen Web users can anonymously contribute entries on anything from the history of the hot dog to celebrity biographies.

Wikipedia founder Wales' crusade continued this week in the wake of a June 28 The New York Times report that he, Wikipedia's administrators and The Times worked regularly to flush information about kidnapped Times journalist David Rohde from the site. Some Internet experts describe the joint effort, carried out to save Rhode's life, as censorship, a charge Wales flatly denies.

David Ardia, a fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society and the director of the Citizen Media Law Project, wondered whether or not Wikipedia has taken similar measures in other instances.

"If the assumption going into this was that Wikipedia doesn't censor what topics it covers, then that turns out not to have been true, it raises the question: are there other pieces of information that have been kept off of Wikipedia for this or other similar reasons?" Ardia told eWEEK.

Wales told eWEEK there "are no other cases of me having knowledge of a media blackout, no," adding that there are many cases of unsourced and unreliable information being kept out of Wikipedia. Sometimes that information turns out to have been true all along, which Wales attributed to the nature of the spread of knowledge over time.

Ardia also said the actions of Wales and his admins diminish the credibility that people place on Wikipedia as a thorough and unbiased source for news and information. Wales disagreed and denied the actions of he and his Wikipedia admins constitute censorship:

"This was a strict application of our rules about quality. When we say we insist on reliable sources, and when we say we care about the humanitarian impact of our work, we mean it. I find it strange in this day and age that people still cannot keep clear the concepts of "censorship" - which involves the use of force - and "editorial judgment" - which involves reasonable judgments about what to print. The misuse of these terms leads people to fail to understand the facts of important situations."

The events that set this Wikipedia issue in motion started shortly after Nov. 10, 2008, when Rohde was captured by the Taliban in Afghanistan. Times officials feared publicity on Wikipedia and other sites would make Rhode too important for the Taliban to let go, increasing the threat level to his life, according to the Times report.

Wikipedia user-editors posted information about the captured journalist on Rhode's Wikipedia page at least a dozen times, the Times said. But Wales, Wikipedia's admins and the Times' staffers watched the site like hawks and removed information about Rohde's plight from the site, even freezing the page to prevent more editing.

Fearing Rohde's life was at stake, Times reporter Michael Moss Nov. 12 changed the Wikipedia entry on Rohde to emphasize his work that could be seen as sympathetic to Muslims. One day later, an editor without a user name edited the Rohde entry to include the kidnapping; Moss deleted the addition only to see it added again with a protest note and citation of an Afghan news report.