LONDON: Russia on Thursday declared Meduza, its most prominent independent news website, an “undesirable organization,” banning the outlet’s operation on Russian territory under the threat of felony prosecution.
Russia’s prosecutor-general said in an official statement that Meduza, which was founded by Russian journalists in Latvia, “threatens the foundations of constitutional order and the security of the Russian Federation.”
The ruling prohibits the outlet’s activities in Russia as well as any reference to it, even by posting a hyperlink on social media. Anyone who fails to cooperate may face a prison sentence of up to six years, according to The Guardian.
Russian officials previously labeled Meduza a “foreign agent,” hindering the news website’s ability to raise funds through advertising and forcing it to shift to a crowdfunding model.
“We believe in what we do. We believe in freedom of speech. We believe in a democratic Russia. The bigger the pressure, the harder we will stand up to it,” Meduza said in a statement.
With the onset of the Ukraine war in February 2022, the Russian government banned several outlets, including Echo of Moscow and TV Rain, the country’s only independent news channel.
Russian lawmakers introduced a bill in May 2022 outlawing “discrediting the armed forces,” with a prison sentence of up to 15 years for criticizing the Russian military.
Russia has been cracking down on “undesirable organizations” since 2015, according to Meduza, granting the prosecutor-general the power to label as such any organization that purportedly imperils the country’s “constitutional-order foundations” or national security.
Microsoft threatens to restrict data from rival AI search tools — Bloomberg News
The company has told at least two customers that using its Bing search index to feed their AI chat tools violates the terms of their contract
Updated 27 March 2023
Microsoft Corp. has threatened to cut off access to its Internet-search data, which it licenses to rival search engines, if they do not stop using it as the basis for their own artificial intelligence chat products, Bloomberg News reported on Friday.
The company has told at least two customers that using its Bing search index — a map of the Internet that can be scanned in real time — to feed their AI chat tools violates the terms of their contract, the news agency said, citing people familiar with the dispute.
Redmond, Washington-based Microsoft may also terminate licenses providing access to its search index, Bloomberg added.
“We’ve been in touch with partners who are out of compliance as we continue to consistently enforce our terms across the board,” a Microsoft spokesperson told Reuters, adding that the company will continue to work with them directly and give information needed to find a path forward.
The maker of the Windows operating system had said in February it was revamping its Bing search engine and Edge Web browser with artificial intelligence, signaling its ambition to retake the lead in consumer technology markets where it has fallen behind.
The upgraded Bing search engine was rolled out to users late last month.
Company promises ‘a lineup of engaging content on Discover and Spotlight’
Saudi Broadcasting Authority, MBC Group among media partners
Updated 25 March 2023
DUBAI: The holy month of Ramadan is a time for enjoying local shows for many people in the Middle East.
Traditionally, these would be viewed on the TV through satellite channels, but the proliferation of the internet and social media has seen people turn to other devices for their daily dose of entertainment.
Last year, for example, there was a 167 percent increase in Google searches for “series” in Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, according to the tech company’s regional arm.
Now, Snapchat has announced it is launching more than 100 new shows during the holy month in partnership with media companies and content creators.
“This Ramadan, we are partnering with some of the region’s most trusted media partners and fan favorite creators to showcase a lineup of engaging content on Discover and Spotlight,” said Hussein Freijeh, general manager of Snap Inc. for the Middle East and North Africa region.
Those partners include Saudi Broadcasting Authority, MBC Group, Augustus Media, 7awi and Rotana Media Group.
The show lineup includes “Netflorex,” “THAT,” “Marahel,” “Tash Returns,” “Studio 23,” “Ramez Never End” and “Madraset Banat Alyoum.”
The offering also includes content from regional and global creators such as Saudi-based comedian Bader Saleh, food creator and entrepreneur Ahmad Alzahabi and Amani Al-Khatahtbeh, founder of online community and show “Muslim Girl.”
Last year, Snapchat users spent 31 percent more time watching Ramadan content than they did in 2021, Freijeh said.
The new content will be available on Snapchat through its Discover and Spotlight sections.
As the Arab world watches on, is the clock ticking for TikTok?
The impact and implications of TikTok’s growing influence in the MENA region are a global concern with more questions than answers after a congressional hearing with app CEO
TikTok CEO’s mounting woes as security concerns place him in the hotseat at a US congressional hearing with the world looking on for answers
Updated 25 March 2023
Zaira Lakhpatwala TAREK ALI AHMAD
DUBAI/LONDON: In yet another congressional hearing-turned-nail-biting drama, TikTok’s CEO was the latest global tech chief to take center stage before the US Committee on Energy and Commerce.
Shou Zi Chew, chief executive of perhaps the world’s most popular app, was in the same hot seat that previously hosted the likes of Meta’s Mark Zuckerberg and Twitter’s Jack Dorsey.
People from around the globe tuned in to see how Chew would justify and ensure US user data was safe and protected.
TikTok’s Chinese roots are not just an issue for US citizens; “it impacts the world,” Giles Crouch, a digital anthropologist, told Arab News.
“While the Chinese government doesn’t own a majority share in TikTok, they do own what’s called a ‘golden share,’ so they have a seat at the board,” he added.
India has already banned the app entirely, while Canada, Belgium, Denmark, New Zealand, Taiwan, the UK and the US have banned TikTok on government devices. However, the app still operates fully across the Middle East.
In Saudi Arabia alone, a country with a majority youth population, the app has 26.39 million users — the most in the region. Iraq and Egypt both have more than 23 million users, while the UAE has almost 6 million.
For five hours, bipartisan lawmakers grilled Chew over a range of topics, namely the claim that the Chinese Communist Party has access to TikTok user data, as well as fears over the platform’s algorithms and content that could have a potentially harmful impact on young people.
The questioning ended with a frustrated committee unsatisfied with Chew’s responses. The CEO, when given the chance to answer questions, often came across as evasive, resorting to “I’ll get back to you with specifics.”
Such hesitation and evasiveness has become a cause for concern among users and governments around the globe, with France taking the decision to ban the app on administrative phones just one day after the hearing.
“Our CEO, Shou Chew, came prepared to answer questions from Congress, but, unfortunately, the day was dominated by political grandstanding that failed to acknowledge the real solutions already underway through Project Texas or productively address industry-wide issues of youth safety,” a TikTok MENA spokesperson told Arab News, relaying the same response issued by the global company.
Last year, TikTok announced the $1.5 billion Project Texas initiative to protect the data of its US users. The plan, which is estimated to cost the company $700 million to $1 billion per year, hopes to address government concerns about user data privacy risks and content recommendations.
During the hearing, the committee questioned Chew about Project Texas, with some members asking how the $1.5 billion would be allocated. Other members remained skeptical of the project, as well as TikTok’s ability to truly safeguard US data.
Many, if not all, committee members seemed to believe that TikTok is essentially an arm of the Chinese government. Although Chew said that he has not seen any “evidence that the Chinese government has access to that data; they have never asked us, we have not provided it,” several members openly voiced their disbelief.
“I find that actually preposterous,” said Congresswoman Anna Eshoo.
In a recent column, however, Al Arabiya News Channel’s Mamdouh Al-Muhaini claimed that “both arguments (of spying and propaganda spreading) are absurd and lack conclusive evidence. Rather, they are being used merely for political blackmail — to force China to make concessions amid international conflict between Beijing and Washington.
“The war on TikTok comes in the context of the race between America — and the West — and China. In a war for influence, brains and hearts, all weapons, accusations and pretexts can be used,” he said, adding that the app was “being used as a device in the (US-China) cold war.”
An FBI and Department of Justice investigation into TikTok’s ability to spy on US citizens also undermined Chew’s case. Last year, parent company ByteDance confirmed that its employees used TikTok to track and obtain the IP addresses of multiple US journalists covering the app.
Yet, when Congressman Neal Dunn asked Chew if ByteDance is spying on US citizens, the CEO shakily replied: “I don’t think that spying is the right way to describe it.”
The Chinese minister of foreign affairs held a press briefing the following day, with a spokesperson saying: “The Chinese government has never asked and will never ask any company or individual to collect or provide data, information or intelligence located abroad against local laws.
“The US government has provided no evidence or proof that TikTok threatens US national security, yet it has repeatedly suppressed and attacked the company based on the presumption of guilt.
Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Mao Ning added that the US should “respect the principles of a market economy and fair competition, stop suppressing foreign companies and provide an open, fair, just and non-discriminatory environment for foreign companies operating in the US.”
While a plethora of countries in the West chimed in on the debate, governments across the Middle East have largely stayed silent.
In a previous interview with Arab News, Saudi cybersecurity expert Abdullah Al-Jaber said that concerns over TikTok’s data security stemmed from the app’s country of origin as well as Chinese rules and regulations.
“If you use Facebook or Twitter, it’s not much different than using TikTok,” he said.
Apart from the focus on spying and data collection, members of congress also grilled the TikTok CEO over the platform’s algorithms for content suggestions and discovery, particularly among vulnerable audiences. Members asked why certain content is allowed to be published on the platform — unlike on China’s sister app Douyin, which is heavily censored.
“TikTok can be very good for kids but the way it’s used in China is very different from the way it’s used in the rest of the world — what kids are seeing in Riyadh or Dubai is very different from what they’re going to be seeing in Beijing,” said Crouch, the digital anthropologist.
Douyin features “very positive and uplifting content” that encourages “doing good for the community, helping one another and being very sociable,” he added.
But in other countries, “they (TikTok) literally use algorithms which manipulate young kids’ minds so they get served with content that is mindless, often negative, and can be disturbing to those minds,” Crouch said.
Chew attributed the contrast in content on TikTok and Douyin to the different laws in each country. That argument is true to some extent, because the Chinese government does have more control over content posted on domestic platforms.
“They put the controls in place in China to stop kids from being overly stimulated,” said Crouch. But “they just don’t care for the rest of the world because they’re out to make money.”
In some aspects, including dangerous content, TikTok is very much like any other social media company, many of which originated in Silicon Valley — a fact acknowledged by some members of the committee.
Senior executives from Meta, Twitter and Google have all appeared before US Congress in an attempt to allay concerns over data, privacy and moderation.
However, as Congressman Dan Crenshaw said in the hearing, all social media companies collect personal data and could use it to “influence narratives and trends, create misinformation campaigns, encourage self-destructive behavior, purposefully allow drug cartels to communicate freely and organize human and drug trafficking.”
But the difference is that “it’s only TikTok that is controlled by the Chinese Communist Party.”
Saudi show ‘Tash Ma Tash’ returns, giving viewers a blast from the past
The show starred Saudi duo Nasser Al-Qasabi and Abdullah Al-Sadhan as well as 109 other actors and actresses
After the show’s terrific run, Al-Qasabi and Al-Sadhan went their separate ways and pursued their artistic careers, appearing in many series, plays, and TV shows over the years
Updated 24 March 2023
JEDDAH: The holy month of Ramadan always sees many new television shows highlighting the work of talented local and Arab actors, but none has proven more iconic and beloved in Saudi Arabia than the hit comedy series “Tash Ma Tash,” which returns this year after a 12-year hiatus.
The show starred Saudi duo Nasser Al-Qasabi and Abdullah Al-Sadhan as well as 109 other actors and actresses from the Kingdom, Jordan, Syria, Iraq, Egypt, and Lebanon, and ran over 18 seasons from 1993 until 2011.
It was a staple in every Saudi household during Ramadan, and gained popularity worldwide with its insight into issues facing society.
After the show’s terrific run, Al-Qasabi and Al-Sadhan went their separate ways and pursued their artistic careers, appearing in many series, plays, and TV shows over the years.
In November 2022, Turki Al Al-Sheikh, chairman of the General Entertainment Authority, announced via his official Twitter account that “‘Tash Ma Tash’ will return with its duet” and that “preparations are underway for the series, which will be displayed in the next Ramadan season.”
The surprising announcement was warmly welcomed by fans, with the tweet being shared over 4,000 times.
As March 23 marked the first day of Ramadan 2023, the awaited first episode of “Tash Ma Tash Season 19, Tash: The Return” was premiered on the MBC channel, bringing all the memories back for Saudi and international viewers.
Produced by the GEA and MBC Studios, the new season is directed by the Bahraini actor Mohamed Al-Qaffas. The new season was presented in memory of Abdul Khaleq Al-Ghanim, who directed 13 previous seasons and who died aged 63 in 2021.
“Tash: The Return” offers 20 separate and connected episodes with new controversial, bold, positive, and exciting topics revolving around issues related to Saudi society, with the participation of Yousef Al-Jarrah, Bashir Al-Ghunaim, Habib Al-Habib, Elham Ali, Rimas Mansour, and Abdulelah Al-Sinani.
Featuring the same theme song with a few changes in sound effects, the first episode was entitled “The Thunderbolt,” where a typical Saudi family in Riyadh prepares for a desert picnic — known in Saudi Arabia as a kashtah — in their vintage blue GMC car.
The family consisted of the two main stars playing brothers Abu Hazar and Abu Nizar — well-known characters from the previous seasons — as the heads of two families living in one home.
After they settled in a good spot in the middle of the Riyadh desert, the weather turned into a thunderstorm, and the family ran to the blue GMC to hide, but they were all struck by a thunderbolt while inside the car, which put the characters into an eight year coma.
The family woke in present day Riyadh. They were surprised by the changes taking place in the Kingdom, including women driving and broader female empowerment.
The events of the first episode shed light on the transformation of all government services in the Kingdom from paper to digital, how Saudi women now assume senior leadership positions, and other recent decisions such as allowing Saudi women to travel alone and enjoy a new level of freedom.
They also compared the price of petrol, the ever-growing crowds in Riyadh, and the Riyadh Boulevard area, which they described as a “European country” when they toured it.
The family began to adapt to the developments, as they expressed their gratitude to everyone who reshaped the Kingdom into what it is now.
Al-Qasabi discussed the new season in an interview on MBC, and said that the thing that occupied his mind most during the preparation was “how to bring ‘Tash Ma Tash’ back with its personality and simple ideas that the audience used to see during the past years.”
The first episode garnered positive responses, interaction, and praise on social media.
MBC 1 tweeted a group of photos from the first episode, and it received over 13,000 views in the first two hours.
Muna Bugari, a 54-year-old housewife and huge fan of the show, said: “I could not believe my eyes, the theme song took me back to great memories, the episode was truly a blast from the past.”
Al-Sinani, who also appeared in 12 previous seasons of the show, previously told Arab News that “Tash Ma Tash” included many Saudi artists looking to build their profiles in the Arab world.
The unprecedented success of the series, and its longevity, certainly boosted the careers of many. “No other series has been as successful,” he said.
Al-Sinani added that the government’s introduction of Vision 2030 has changed the face of art in the country, with a greater focus on education and training at colleges, and not a total reliance on innate talent.
For those who missed the first episode, Shahid, an Arabic video on demand service, is offering fans the chance to enjoy watching the show for free as it is listed among the platform’s Series For Free selections during the month of Ramadan.
The controversy came after private channel El Hiwar Ettounsi on Thursday evening broadcast the first episode of the soap opera "Fallujah"
Education Minister Mohamed Ali Boughdiri told local radio he had alerted Prime Minister Nalja Bouden
Updated 24 March 2023
TUNIS: Tunisia’s education minister has lashed out at a Ramadan TV series accused of tarnishing the reputation of schools, while two lawyers launched a bid to take it off the air.
The controversy came after private channel El Hiwar Ettounsi on Thursday evening broadcast the first episode of the soap opera “Fallujah.”
Named after a city that became a symbol of Arab resistance for battling American occupation forces after the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the series is a drama about a group of high school students, their behavior toward their teachers and their often difficult home lives.
In one scene, a new teacher is hit on by students in the classroom then finds her car tagged with “Welcome to Fallujah.”
In another, a drug dealer in the schoolyard hands out ecstasy tablets to students who then sell them on to classmates.
Education Minister Mohamed Ali Boughdiri told local radio he had alerted Prime Minister Nalja Bouden.
“We will take all necessary measures to take this farce off the air. It has offended families, undermines the entire education system and considerably harms the image of Tunisian schools,” he said.
Two lawyers also filed a request to a Tunis court to stop the broadcasts immediately.
“This series deliberately undermines (public) morals and the educational system by disseminating obscenities,” lawyers Saber Ben Ammar and Hssan Ezzedine Diab wrote.
Teacher’s union the Federation of Secondary Education said the series “seriously harms teachers” and urged the ministry of education to investigate how a private TV channel was able to film in it a public school.
Union chief Lassaad Yaacoubi said the ministry had approved the filming in exchange for giving the school some of the furniture used during the production.