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Outspoken Saudi bloggers wary of "official" group

By Staff
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RIYADH, May 4 (Reuters) Outspoken bloggers in ultraconservative Saudi Arabia said this week they fear that a new ''official community'' of Saudi bloggers was an attempt to threaten their freedom and anonymity.

The Internet has become a vibrant forum in Saudi Arabia for sounding off on political, social and economic issues with opinions impossible to express in the state-dominated media.

But the ''Official Community of Saudi bloggers'', or ''Ocsab'', wants to sideline Web writers known for their attacks on the Saudi royal family, government policies and religious zealotry.

It has been heavily feted in the Saudi media.

''We want to let people know about blogging and develop the blogs that exist, if the blogs deserve it,'' said Raed al-Saeed, one of the Ocsab bloggers. ''We want to encourage people to blog and to blog better, so that there is some ethics of blogging.'' The community will offer to direct advertisers to the sites of new bloggers hosted on their site, but has a set of rules against attacks on the government or individuals.

And though it is seeking financial backing from the government, it will ensure the anonymity of members, Saeed said.

He denied the authorities were behind the group.

Others are not convinced.

''You cannot regulate the Saudi blogosphere. You cannot 'refine' it nor 'filter' it or whatever else I read that you wish to do to it. Now get your filthy hands off blogging,'' wrote Farooha, a female student who has one of the most popular sites in Arabic and English.

''I do feel that by joining them I'd be slightly drawing unwanted attention to me... As for being traced, well, it is something that I know is very likely,'' she told Reuters.

Known for her colourful rants against austere social rules that prevent women from driving and segregate them from men, Farooha said she feared her identity was already out. Women give her nasty looks on university campus, she said.

The authorities strictly police the Internet, often blocking Saudi liberal forums seen as provoking religious sensitivities.

Some writers have been detained over Internet articles.

There are thought to be some 300 bloggers, while millions place anonymous posts in Web chatrooms. The more controversial among them use servers based abroad.

Ahmed of the popular ''Saudi Jeans'' Web site said Ocsab tried to entice him to join by linking access to his blog to their Web community but toning down his style.

''It seems like Ocsab believe liberalism equals secularism, and therefore it is against Islam. Well, I don't think that being a liberal contradicts being a Muslim,'' he said.

''The Religious Policeman'' -- the most outspoken of all the Saudi bloggers -- has so far not commented on the group. Based in London, he faces little pressure to moderate his tone.

REUTERS DKS RK0436

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