New Saudi TV station feeds into modernization drive

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Fahad Shlayel, Director General of the Production and Programs (R) talking to a staff employee at the studio of the new channel Saudi Broadcasting Corporation “SBC” in Riyadh, on April 24, 2018. (AFP)
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An employee works with trainees at the studio of the new channel Saudi Broadcasting Corporation “SBC” in Riyadh, on April 24, 2018. (AFP)
Updated 13 May 2018
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New Saudi TV station feeds into modernization drive

RIYADH: Saudi Arabia’s ambitious reform drive takes another step forward this week, with the launch of a new public TV channel that seeks to lure young viewers and project a modern image beyond the kingdom’s borders.
Branded “SBC,” the channel will broadcast exclusive content including films, talk shows and cooking programs.
The move follows the launch earlier this month of a $35-billion drive to turn Saudi Arabia into a culture and entertainment hub by 2020.
“This is a general channel that’s seeking to attract the new generation of Saudis,” said the station’s director Dawood Shirian, a frank-talking TV personality who previously hosted a talk show tapping into the public’s gripes.
“Most of the content, about 75 percent, is geared toward the youth between 15 and 35 years old,” Shirian told AFP, adding that SBC would “complement the changes seen in the kingdom in the artistic, cultural and entertainment spheres.”
Shirian was poached late last year from private rival MBC to head up the state-run Saudi Broadcasting Corporation, and to mastermind the launch of SBC.
The move was seen as a deliberate shock for the state broadcaster — one in a series of radical changes guided by Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman.
The 32-year-old heir to the Saudi throne, who declared to foreign investors in Riyadh last October that his generation of Saudis “want to live a normal life,” is seen as the guiding hand behind the lifting of longstanding social restrictions.
The kingdom last year announced a decades-long ban on women driving would be lifted — a decision slated to take effect on June 24.
Like Saudi Arabia’s nascent entertainment industry, which aims to convince citizens to spend their riyals at home instead of in Dubai or Bahrain, SBC is positioning itself as a magnet for hundreds of millions of dollars in advertising money.
“As it stands, 90 percent of these budgets are going outside Saudi Arabia, and this channel’s mission is to repatriate that money, along with (skilled) young Saudis,” said Shirian.
SBC will become the entertainment flagship for the Saudi Broadcasting Corporation, whose portfolio also includes two channels dedicated to Qur'an readings and education and news-dedicated channel Al-Ekhbariya.
Channel 1, which broadcasts public programming, will remain, “but is geared more for the older generation,” said Shirian.
Last week, SBC said in a statement that its programming aimed to “keep pace with the spirit of development and renewal launched by the kingdom’s Vision 2030... to promote the spirit of openness... and reject extremist thought.”
“Our goal is to have a very strong launch,” said production and programming director Fahad Shalil, adding that the venture “will compete with the top channels.”
SBC’s launch is timed to coincide with Ramadan, a holy month for Muslims, but a period when families tend to gather in the evenings to watch television, after breaking the fast.
The channel’s schedule will include mainly Saudi and other Arab series, with one featuring Egyptian star Adel Imam.
Women — whose wardrobes on the sister news station Al-Ekhbariya have evolved from all black abayas to colored palettes and bold makeup — will feature prominently on screen and off, working in production alongside their male colleagues.
Buoyed by his colorful past and strong ratings, Shirian enters the playing field with a clean slate and the blessing of the authorities.
“We aim to be at the front of the pack from the first day,” said Shirian. “We are not afraid of the weight of competitors and we will overtake them quickly.”
The channel will be competing with leading Saudi private networks in the Middle East, including MBC and Rotana.
But the competition doesn’t seem too fazed, for the time being.
“We have always been in favor of competition,” said Mazen Hayek, a spokesman for MBC. “The tougher the race, the sweeter the victory.”
In Dubai, SBC has launched a campaign with the slogan, “You are forced to love it,” a play on words, because Saudis in the past would joke they were forced to watch limited state programs.
The Rotana group replied in a Tweet “You can’t force love.”
MBC chief Walid Al-Ibrahim and Rotana’s Prince Al-Waleed bin Talal were among the hundreds of high-profile Saudis detained over alleged corruption last year, their clout and businesses put on the line.
Rumours have swirled that the media titans were pressured to hand over major stakes in those channels in order to secure their release.
Those reports have never been confirmed, but Saudi Attorney General Sheikh Saud Al-Mojeb in January said $107 billion was recovered in the wide-ranging crackdown in assets including property, securities and cash.


WhatsApp dirty tricks alleged in Brazil presidential race

Updated 19 October 2018
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WhatsApp dirty tricks alleged in Brazil presidential race

  • Leftist candidate Fernando Haddad accused frontrunner Jair Bolsonaro of using WhatsApp to unleash fake news messages
  • here are 120 million WhatsApp user accounts in Brazil, whose population is 210 million
SAO PAULO, Brazil: Allegations of a dirty tricks campaign on WhatsApp dominated Brazil’s presidential election race on Thursday, turning attention to social media manipulation following abuses uncovered in the last US election and Britain’s Brexit referendum.
Trailing leftist candidate Fernando Haddad accused the far-right frontrunner, Jair Bolsonaro, of “illegal” electoral tactics after a report that companies were poised to unleash a flood of WhatsApp messages attacking him and his Workers Party.
Bolsonaro denied the allegation, tweeting that the Haddad’s Workers Party “isn’t being hurt by fake news, but by the TRUTH.”
The exchange happened 10 days before a run-off election that polls predict Bolsonaro — a bluff, Internet-savvy, pro-gun polemicist often compared to US President Donald Trump — will likely win comfortably.
Ordinary Brazilians told AFP they got much of their election information through WhatsApp. They said some in their families or entourage swallowed some misinformation, but denied they themselves were being influenced.
“We get a lot of news, even false news, but some true, about politics but I don’t think it changes very much in terms of making decisions,” said Ana Clara Valle, a 27-year-old engineer in Rio.
She said she was voting for Bolsonaro because of his Catholic, pro-family stance, not because of any “extreme right” sensibility.
Andre de Souza, a 35-year-old lawyer leaning toward voting for Bolsonaro, said he receives around 500 WhatsApp messages a day for and against both candidates.
The rumors and false information “don’t make a difference to me,” he said, but added: “My mother received a WhatsApp message saying Bolsonaro was doing away with (mandatory) end-of-year salary payments, and she believed it!“

Support by companies
Haddad made his accusation after Brazil’s widest circulation newspaper, Folha de Sao Paulo, reported it had discovered contracts worth up to $3.2 million each for companies to send out bulk WhatsApp messages attacking the Workers Party.
“We have identified a campaign of slander and defamation via WhatsApp and, given the mass of messages, we know that there was dirty money behind it, because it wasn’t registered with the Supreme Electoral Tribunal,” Haddad told a media conference in Sao Paulo.
Bolsonaro’s lawyer, Tiago Ayres, told the financial daily Valor there was no evidence of any connection between the companies mentioned by Folha de Sao Paulo and Bolsonaro’s campaign.
The row shone a light on an issue that has become a pressing one in democracies: the organized abuse of social media to sway public opinion in countries.
Facebook — which owns WhatsApp, as well as popular image-based network Instagram — is the most prominent company that has come under scrutiny, though Twitter has also come in for criticism.
The platforms have made an effort to clean up who uses their services after evidence of Russian interference in the 2016 US election that saw Trump triumph, and accusations Facebook allowed user data to be harvested to bolster the campaign the same year for Britain to leave the European Union.
Facebook has also shut down disinformation pages traced to campaigns believed to have ties to Iran’s state-owned media and to Russian military intelligence services.

No foreign interference
There is no evidence of foreign interference online in Brazil’s election.
The director of major polling firm Datafolha, Mauro Paulinho, said on Twitter that his company had detected “some shifts” in public opinion just before the first round of the election on October 7, which Bolsonaro won handily.
“Technical and factual observations” were made, he said, without drawing any conclusions.
There are 120 million WhatsApp user accounts in Brazil, whose population is 210 million. The app works as a popular social network for friends, families and work colleagues.
Both Haddad and Bolsonaro are the subject of memes, cartoons and slogans circulating online in Brazil.
Haddad, a former education minister and ex-mayor of Sao Paulo, has repeatedly tried to draw Bolsonaro into televised debates on policies.
The leftist candidate has an academic background he believes would give him an advantage if the exchanges moved away from the one-line quips and insults that characterize most social media communications.
But Bolsonaro, who skipped early debates because he was recovering from a knife stab wound after being attacked by a lone assailant while campaigning last month, has thus far shown little inclination to go head-to-head with Haddad.