New union puts Mauritanian bloggers on the map



 
The newly formed Mauritanian Bloggers Union wants to unite the country's bloggers in order to defend their rights. But it also seeks to impose self-censorship on the diverse Mauritanian blogosphere.
 
By MOHAMMAD SALEM
 
Internet Cafe Mauritania © NICOLIEN ZUIJDGEEST
Mauritania has a small but very diverse blogosphere of about four-hundred bloggers. © NICOLIEN ZUIJDGEEST

[Editor's Note: Mohammad Salem sent this article one day before being arrested by Mauritanian security forces. Click here for more information.]


NOUAKCHOTT, March 24, 2008 (MENASSAT) ‐ They are only a blip on the worldwide blogosphere but at least Mauritania's bloggers, all four-hundred of them, now have their very own syndicate, the Mauritanian Bloggers Union.

The union's media liaison, Mohammad Mawloud Ould al-Maaloum, said, "The new union is a congregation of a intellectuals, journalists and writers that decided that with more than 400 bloggers, it was time to meet."   

He added that the Union "is trying to bring the bloggers together in the name of (blogger) unity," and as a means "to protect blogger rights."

Uniting Mauritania's bloggers is quite a challenge because of the diversity of the Mauritanian blogosphere. Some people blog in Arabic, others in French. More importantly, some bloggers are devout Muslims whereas others are critical of religion or show sexual content on their blogs.

The Mauritanian Bloggers Union is an attempt to unite all of them under the same banner, irrespective of political opinion of blogging methods.

"The reason behind the meeting of the bloggers is mainly to discussing the current status of the bloggers, and to choose the most efficient methods to enhance their presence and performance," the union's president, Ahmad Ould Islam, told MENASSAT.

Self-censorship

The Mauritanian blogosphere has so far escaped the kind of governmental scrutiny that bloggers in some other countries in the Middle East & North Africa have experience.  

But the question is how long will this tolerance last? And is the Mauritanian Bloggers Union a vehicle to defend bloggers' rights or an attempt to impose rules on them?

Ahmad Ould Islam, who is the only Mauritanian member of the Arab Bloggers Union, admitted that the union plans to elaborate a set of rules and standards which the union's members should unanimously agree upon. These will include respect for Islamic principles – although Islam added that this should not compromise the bloggers' right to freedom of expression.

He also said the union will seek consensus on issues such as professionalism and source verification.

"The bloggers will be their own censors," Islam said.

In return, the union will work to safeguard the bloggers' fundamental rights, which should include the right to publish without censorship or government interference.

As in most countries, Mauritania's politicians have also discovered the blogosphere.

One of the more famous political bloggers is the head of Mauritania's parliament, Massoud Ould Bilkheir.

Ould Bilkheir blogs about his political views and his electoral program, and given the fiercely competitive political environment in Mauritania, he has also criticized the actions of the former ruling party, the Military Council for Justice and Democracy.

The head of one of Mauritania's political parties, Sheikh Othman Ould al-Sheikh abu al-Maali also joined the virtual world with a blog named after his party, "The Virtue Party."

Former Prime Minister, Mohamad al-Amine Ould Akik also created his own blog, a more innocuous offering with many personal pictures that go back to different periods of his professional life.

Behind the pseudonyms

Many bloggers however hide behind pseudonyms and theirs are often the most virulent ones. In a reflection of the divisions in Mauritanian society, there are jihadist bloggers calling for holy war against the "infidels," and others criticizing Islam.

One example is the blog "Jesus of Mauritania," maintained by someone calling himself Habib, which publishes Christian articles explaining various ways to convert to Christianity, in addition to publishing commentary that is critical towards Muslim women who wear the veil.
It also features a public comment section where many visitors vent their criticism of Islam openly.

Some bloggers have begun to move information from the virtual to the real world. The blogs al-Asrar and Sayyed X ould Y, for instance, specialize in "outing" the names of people they consider to be "thieves or spies." These include ministers, traders, politicians, imams and scholars.

Others like Mohammad Ould Nouakchott and Nadina Mauritania follow a more traditional path of political activism; the first is a harsh critic of Mauritania's political leaders, while the latter attacks the country's social traditions, especially the Islamic attitude towards the treatment of women.

According to the union's spokesman, the goal of the organization is to preserve this diversity. Indeed, al-Aloum said, "We encourage all bloggers to express their opinions without fear."