x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Prince feels heat over lewd TV talk

A member of the ruling family at the forefront of promoting more liberal attitudes through his television network finds his channel accused of going too far.

JEDDAH// While the Saudi mainstream is calling for strict punishment of a 32-year-old man who was arrested for bragging about his sexual conquests on a television show, others are demanding that the Lebanese channel that aired the programme be banned. In a country where public protest is illegal, thousands of Saudis are involved in an internet campaign to ban the Lebanese channel LBC, which is part of Saudi Prince Alwaleed bin Talal's media empire (he owns 49 per cent of it), after Mazin Abdul Jawad accused the channel of sensationalising his interview that caused a public outrage.

Conservatives are blaming the relatively open social environment in Jeddah for the appearance of Mr Abdul Jawad, who is now known as Jeddah Casanova, in July on LBC's Red Line programme in which he told viewers that he engaged in premarital sex, which is illegal according to the kingdom's sharia-based Islamic legal system. He also gave guidance on picking up women using his Bluetooth wireless in the segregated society where unmarried men and women are forbidden from mixing.

Saudi authorities blocked the interview on YouTube's website on Thursday after it attracted a huge number of viewers, according to Saudi Shams daily. Media reports said that the hits totalled more than 300,000 in the first week after the interview was first aired on YouTube in mid July. The outrage that followed LBC's programme is the second this summer involving companies owned by Prince Alwaleed.

Earlier his Rotana Studios were involved in a controversy about screening a Saudi movie in the capital Riyadh and sponsoring a Saudi film festival in Jeddah. Among the conservatives who are against Prince Alwaleed's operations is his brother, Prince Khaled bin Talal. Prince Khaled, in an interview with the hardline Islamist website Lojainiat, accused his brother of disseminating vice through his media empire.

Prince Alwaleed has always said that he wants to promote change among youth through his media group. "There is nothing in Islam - and I've researched this thoroughly - not one iota that says you can't have movies. So what I am doing right now is causing change," he said in an interview in 2006 before the launch of his first-produced movie Kaif al Hal. "Calling for the ban of LBC is unacceptable although I disapprove the approach of its Red Line programme," said Saud Kateb, a media technology professor at King Abdul Aziz University in Jeddah.

"The channel's programmes focused heavily on the open-minded viewers, a small segment of the population, and neglected the conservatives, the larger segment," Prof Kateb said. He explained that in its search for exciting topics in order to attract more viewers, the channel, which is favoured by many Saudi advertisers, has lost its self-censorship ability in an ultra-sensitive environment. The Saudi journalist Nawaf al Githami said that despite all the negativity surrounding LBC, it remains one of the few channels that discusses the problems of the common people.

"When you don't have a local channel that discusses our daily struggle in life, then you have to expect to see a migration towards foreign channels that fill the gap," he said. "After so many years of watching government-owned channels, Saudis are attracted to watching independent channels, however, the society and the country were not ready for that change," said Abdullah Banakhar, media professor at King Abdul Aziz University in Jeddah.

"LBC is facing a credibility crisis and its Red Line programme had exhausted some of the strategic reserves of its viewers' trust," he added. A spokesman for the LBC network told the Saudi daily Al Watan that the last episode of the current series of Red Line had aired and that it has not yet been decided whether to renew the programme for another season. New episodes will not be broadcast until after Ramadan, the spokesman said.

Mr Abdul Jawad told Al Watan that he planned to sue LBC claiming the show's producers took his comments out of context. Mr Abdul Jawad, who was arrested on Friday by Saudi police and now awaits trial, said in an interview with Okaz daily that he is sorry for what happened and he understood the hundreds of people who have filed complaints against him in Jeddah's court. "They only know what they have seen. They do not know the truth behind how the channel conducted the interview with me," he said. "I apologise and I am ready to face the consequences [but] I am confident that the truth will come out."

Two other men who had appeared with him on the show were also detained for questioning in connection to the controversial segment. If convicted of speaking openly about vice and of having premarital sex, Mr Abdul Jawad could be jailed and flogged under Saudi's strict sharia law. wmahdi@thenational.ae