Mauritania president: 'No problem shutting down social media'

Mauritania president: 'No problem shutting down social media'
President Ould Abdel Aziz says social media represents a 'threat to the country's security'.

3 min read
23 January, 2019
The controversial statement was made in a rally among his supporters [Getty]
Mauritania's President Ould Abdel Aziz has announced he would not mind shutting down social media networks, claiming they represent a "threat to the country's security".

The controversial statement was made during a rally for supporters praising the government's achievements.

The rising popularity of social media to be used for spreading calls for change provoked the Draconian reaction, while the country's opposition made the crucial decision in early December to unite to support one single candidate in the upcoming presidential elections.

The move has provoked the ruling Union for the Republic to take further steps to ensure its continued grip on power.

Aziz first appointed Mohamed Salem Ould Béchir as prime minister. Bechir, the former chief of SNIM - Mauritania's largest ore mining company and the country's most renowned economic institution - is widely tipped to succeed Aziz, who became president after leading a 2008 military coup.

But speculation remains rampant that 62-year-old Aziz may yet back away from his promise to stand down and run again for another term as president.

President Aziz, while threatening to block social media after the declaration of a unified opposition, insisted Mauritania would remain "democratic", but could not risk recently established "gains".

Mauritania remains the Arab world's leader in terms of press freedom, and it is quite clear that the government is not planning a total blockade of the media. Mauritanian society is a largely conservative community that depends on day-to-day narratives. Discussions over tea rival WhatsApp group chats as the most popular way of sharing news stories here.

The fear that social media networks could shake up the national debate, raising awareness among the country's youth and providing an outlet for shared hopes of change has frightened authorities.

Dozens of local independent TV channels are on air, and over the past three years, they have built a larger audience than the state-sponsored network.

Though these channels tend to focus on arts and culture, the need to address popular concerns has created a passionate social media userbase, with thousands of citizens eager to have their say on political and economic aspects of everyday life.

The Mauritanian Facebook page La Verite has become one of the most popular sources in the country to find national news. Its reach extends beyond most other major press institutions - including the national radio station.

The power of uncensored, unregulated websites, Facebook pages and WhatsApp groups has given many thousands of people, young and old, a place where they feel they belong.

Most presidential elections in Mauritania have been carried out either under the monopoly of military power, or are a foregone conclusion because of the usual divisions of the opposition.

The reach of social media in beginning to spread the message of social change, and the fact the opposition has finally agreed to unite around a single candidate, both combine to represent a huge threat to the ruling powers in Mauritania.

Nevertheless, the governing party is sparing no efforts to keep the country under its military-sponsored rule.

Habibulah Mohamed Lamin is a journalist formerly based in the Western Sahara refugee camps in Tindouf, Algeria. He has worked as a translator and is director of Equipe Media Branch, a group of media activists covering Western Sahara. His work focuses on the politics and culture of the Maghreb.

Follow him on Twitter: @habibullahWS