The National·The National Today

Saudi Arabia sidesteps scorn, signs billions in new global business deals

A closer look at the day's most notable stories with The National's Jonathon Gatehouse: it's back to business for Saudi Arabia; journalist Maria Ressa has been tracking hate networks in the Philippines, and she has concerns for Canada; India's fight against fake news.

Newsletter: A closer look at the day's most notable stories

Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman attends the opening of the G20 leaders summit in Buenos Aires, Argentina, in November. He has unveiled the latest plank in his Vision 2030 economic reform plan — an industrial development program that aims to create 1.6 million jobs and bring in half-a-trillion US in new investments over the next 11 years. (Sergio Moraes/Reuters)

Welcome to The National Today newsletter, which takes a closer look at what's happening around some of the day's most notable stories. Sign up here and it will be delivered directly to your inbox Monday to Friday.


  • It's been just four months since journalist Jamal Khashoggi was murdered inside Saudi Arabia's consulate in Istanbul, but it seems that the storm has already passed for Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
  • Investigative journalist Maria Ressa has been tracking hate networks in the Philippines, and she also has concerns for Canada.
  • India's fight against fake news includes a government push for laws that will demand more action from tech companies, but an election is approaching and there are fears that a crackdown on content could have consequences on the "free and fair" democratic process.
  • Missed The National last night? Watch it here.

Saudi Arabia back to business

It's only been four months since dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi was murdered inside Saudi Arabia's consulate in Istanbul, Turkey. But it seems that the storm has already passed for Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the man who is widely believed to have ordered the execution.

Officially, the United Nations is still probing the killing. A human rights investigator and her forensics team are visiting Turkey this week to talk to local officials — and politely wait to see if they will be given access to the crime scene by the Saudi government.

Jamal Khashoggi, a Washington Post contributor, was killed in October 2018 after a visit to the Saudi consulate in Istanbul to obtain paperwork before marrying his Turkish fiancee. (Yasin Akgul/AFP/Getty Images)

Yet just yesterday, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres had a friendly phone call with MBS (as he is known) to discuss a far more pressing problem, the war in Yemen.

And today, Martin Griffiths, the UN special envoy to the conflict-ridden country, praised the Saudi leadership in an interview with the BBC, saying they have been "incredibly helpful" in keeping the fragile ceasefire with the Houthi rebels intact.

For his part, the Crown Prince has returned to his usual routine, and more palatable obsessions.

On Monday, he showed up at Riyadh's Ritz-Carlton hotel for the unveiling of the latest plank in his Vision 2030 economic reform plan — an industrial development program that aims to create 1.6 million jobs and bring in half-a-trillion US in new investments over the next 11 years.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman meets with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo at the Royal Court, in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, on Monday. They spoke about a range of Mideast crises, topped by the conflicts in Syria and Yemen, threats from Iran, and the Saudi response to the murder of Jamal Khashoggi. (Andrew Cabellero-Reynolds/Associated Press)

Three dozen agreements worth a total $54 billion were signed during the launch, including deals with Eastman Chemical, CMI of Belgium, and French defence giant Thales. And while MBS didn't make a speech, he did take time to pose for selfies with some of those in attendance.

Shortly thereafter came news that 10 prominent businessmen, who had been held in luxury detention upstairs at the same hotel since the fall of 2017, have been released after settling charges of corruption brought by the Prince. The Saudi government has netted more than $107 billion US in the crackdown, which targeted rival members of the royal family and powerful billionaires.

Now the government has moved farther down the food chain, suspending 126 local officials this week over allegations of graft and abuse of power.

MBS's plans for a new $500 billion mega-city called NEOM, with an airport, harbour, tourist resorts, luxury homes and industrial complexes, are forging ahead. As are his efforts to bring Western-style entertainment to Saudi Arabia's young population, with another new multiplex cinema opening in Jeddah.

Pictures of Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Saudi Arabia's King Salman bin Abdulaziz are seen during the launch of the National Industrial Development and Logistics Program in Riyadh on Monday. (Faisal al-Nasse/Reuters)

The Crown Prince will visit India next month, and will likely tack on stops in China and South Korea as he seeks more partners for his economic schemes.

And the kingdom's first professional golf tournament — the Saudi International — tees off tomorrow at the Royal Greens Golf and Country Club in King Abdullah Economic City. Several top names, including Justin Rose, will play -- drawn by the $3.5 million US purse and appearance fees that reportedly run as high as $1 million each.

But there has been a fair amount of criticism levelled at the organizing European Tour and its chief executive, Keith Pelley, the former head of Rogers Sportsnet.

Paul Casey, the world-ranked No. 22 player and a UNICEF ambassador, has declined to play, citing his concerns over Saudi Arabia's "human rights violations."

Amateur golfer Nouh Alireza in action during the pro-am event prior to the Saudi International at the Royal Greens Golf & Country Club on Wednesday in King Abdullah Economic City, Saudi Arabia. (Ross Kinnaird/Getty Images)

Although it seems a welcome concert featuring Mariah Carey, Sean Paul and DJ Tiesto will go ahead as planned, despite a social media campaign to get the American pop diva to cancel.

In the end, that will surely please MBS.

Another part of his vision strategy, unveiled last week, hinges on transforming the ultra-conservative state into a world entertainment capital. The country's General Entertainment Authority (GEA) wants to host a Jay Z concert and stage its own version of the running of the bulls. There's also talk of an NBA game, a wax museum, and magicians — a tough booking, given that practicants of witchcraft and sorcery are still liable to be sentenced to death under Saudi law.

The GEA has already settled on a new slogan, the brief and to-the-point "Enjoy Saudi."

Although it's not clear if that's an exhortation, or an order.

Maria Ressa

Investigative journalist Maria Ressa has been tracking hate networks in the Philippines, and she also has concerns for Canada, writes  The National's co-host Adrienne Arsenault.

The timing of Time Magazine's decision seems to have pinched her heart a bit.

Filipina journalist Maria Ressa was being besieged. The arrest warrants were piling up. The government of Rodrigo Duterte had been oh-so-clear how it felt about her and her news organization Rappler.

Investigative journalist Maria Ressa, seen here into Toronto on Monday, was named one of Time Magazine's persons of the year in December. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

Duterte was using the slur "fake news" long before it started tripping off the tongues of others. His government had made a move to revoke Rappler's licence.

The reporters were, and still are, dedicated to exposing the thousands of murders committed in the name of Duterte's war on drugs. They hold power to account like few others, and for that they have been threatened so forcefully that Ressa spent a month getting 90 threats an hour.

Feel free to doubt the number, but be prepared to be bombarded by facts. Ressa is a skilled data analyst. She has all the evidence, and began tracking the networks of hate the way she used to track terror cells.

Then she exposed them — again, the way she exposed terror cells.

All of this just made Duterte even angrier. The hashtag #jailmariaressa became a thing.

And then it really became a thing. Ressa is now facing several tax evasion charges that she maintains are ridiculous. What's not ridiculous is that she could be jailed for 15 years.

This isn't a hypothetical. One of Duterte's most prominent critics, Senator Leila De Lima, has been in jail since early 2017 on charges she is certain are politically motivated.

Philippine Senator Leila De Lima, arrested on drug charges, waves to supporters as she arrives to appear before a local court for her arraignment in Muntinlupa on Oct. 13, 2017. (Romeo Ranoco/Reuters)

So, back to the timing and Ressa's anxiety. While she was contemplating the meaning of the charges back in December, a tweet came through that surprised her.

"I was with my friend, and I showed it to her and said, 'I think this is fake news.'"

It was a moment to laugh and then take a big breath. It wasn't fake. Ressa had just been named one of Time Magazine's persons of the year.

"Oh my God, I think it was that sinking feeling in your stomach. And I had to quickly go through is it going to be positive, or negative, will it bring more attacks?"

Don't forget, she offers, everyone else chosen by Time was either dead or in jail; Jamal Khashoggi, the journalists from the Capital Gazette, the Reuters reporters jailed in Myanmar.

But Ressa has decided maybe this is a shield. Neither she nor her team have stopped reporting. A key focus is warning the world about the spread of disinformation and taking Facebook to task; sharing the data to help expose how these networks function.

Ressa and Adrienne Arsenault go over some of Ressa's investigative research. Ressa says she has concern about the activity of hate networks and their potential impact on Canada's upcoming election. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

That's at the core of what we talked about when Ressa visited Toronto this week. We've had these conversations before, and I've interviewed her in the Philippines in 2011 and 2017. Always the conversation was about what her country is going through.

This time we also started to talk about Canada.

She has concerns about the upcoming election and the inevitable attempts to drive wedges into Canadian society … or as she calls it, "pound the fracture lines." She has some advice, some concerns and some inspiration to share.

As a reporter, watching someone this dedicated is an excellent motivator to keep rolling up the sleeves.

- Adrienne Arsenault

  • WATCH: Adrienne Arsenault's interview with Maria Ressa tonight on The National on CBC Television and streamed online

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Fighting fake news in India

India's battle against fake news includes a government push for laws that will demand more action from tech companies, but an election is approaching and there are fears that a crackdown on content could have consequences on the "free and fair" democratic process, writes producer Simi Bassi.

India has a fake news problem, and its government is demanding tech companies do more to solve it.

A draft law proposes banning content that "deceives or misleads" or is "grossly offensive or menacing in nature," and platforms must take down content that violates those rules.

Last year, fake news circulating over WhatsApp led to mob killings of innocent people across the country. It was difficult to track the origins of the messages, usually in the form of doctored videos, that had gone viral within specific WhatsApp groups in mostly rural villages.

Proposed legislation in India would ban social media content that 'deceives or misleads' or is 'grossly offensive or menacing in nature.' (Arun Sankar/Getty Images)

The National  first spoke to fake news-hound Govindraj Ethiraj at the time of the killings. He and his small team of journalists at Boom Live — a Mumbai-based organization that works to debunk fake posts — had begun tracking the problem in an effort to stop the spread of the rumours.

For Ethiraj, determining the origin of messages while at his desk in Mumbai was "next to impossible," with WhatsApp's strict privacy rules and built-in encryption posing a unique challenge.

Now, as election campaigning ramps up in India, "the volume and velocity of misinformation has gone up substantially and is literally going up every day," says Ethiraj.

He has since expanded his operation to work in three languages — English, Hindi, and Bengali — to keep pace with the increase.

Mohinidevi Nath displays a photo of her cousin Shantadevi Nath, who was killed in June 2018 by a mob that believed rumours spread on WhatsApp that she was planning to abduct children. (Sam Panthaky/AFP/Getty Images)

It's difficult to track down who is saying what and along what party lines, but the encryption that shields WhatsApp users from government oversight is what privacy advocates are precious about preserving, especially with an important election fast approaching.

"It's a very big problem, and the kind of knee-jerk reaction has been to look at WhatsApp for the solution — kind of shoot-the-messenger," says Amba Kak, public policy advisor for Mozilla.

Her first thought when learning about the new draft legislation: "Dread."

"If we see fake news as a problem that we're looking to WhatsApp to solve, we forget about the deeper structural reasons that you even have the spread of fake news propaganda," Kak says.

Recent reports of Prime Minister Narendra Modi's ruling party pumping money into WhatsApp groups to spread political messaging is exactly what Kak fears more of. Modi's party has gone so far as to declare 2019 as the year of India's "WhatsApp elections."

An Indian newspaper vendor in New Delhi reads a newspaper on July 10, 2018, with a full back-page advertisement from WhatsApp intended to counter fake information. The advertisements in Indian dailies were a bid to counter fake information that had sparked mob lynching attacks across the country. (Prakash Singh/AFP/Getty Images)

And there are further fears that if the platform begins to police its own content and breaks its privacy encryption, the government will be more equipped to censor critical content.

"It puts enormous responsibility [on the companies]," says Kak, and beyond that, she believes it's already having a "chilling effect" on free speech.

Pressure from the Indian government has already scared some companies — such as Netflix and Hotstar, India's largest streaming service — into self-censoring their content.

Even WhatsApp has now limited its users to forwarding their messages to others no more than five times, although it still allows more than 200 users to be in a single WhatsApp group at a time. The company has also launched an ad campaign on TV and in newspapers in India with the slogan "share joy, not rumours."

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi greets people during the 70th Republic Day celebrations in New Delhi on Saturday. Reports say Modi’s ruling party has been funding WhatsApp groups to spread political messages. (Harish Tyagi/EPA-EFE)

Ethiraj doesn't expect the government's proposed law about deceptive content to pass in its current form, but he remains wary. "It's only fair to expect governments to overreach, [but] it's equally our duty as media, citizens, to push back. And where feasible, [for the] platforms to also push back."

Meanwhile, the mob killings linked to WhatsApp rumours appear to have stopped, in part thanks to law enforcement officials who have taken it upon themselves to debunk rumours by connecting directly with the community.

"We've actually seen them inserting themselves into WhatsApp groups, warning people," says Kak.

In this way, the government could be helpful, Ethiraj says. "They should focus on education and awareness at the level of law enforcement, citizen engagement, children in schools."

"Our problems with technology cannot be solved, I think, by going back to technology to solve them," adds Kak. India's problem with fake news is everyone's problem, she says, and it becomes even more dangerous when it puts the foundation of democracy at risk.

- Simi Bassi

  • WATCH: The National will have more on India's fake news dilemma tonight on CBC Television and streamed online

A few words on ... 

Finding spring in your garage.

Quote of the moment

"There's no glamour to the job. I hated every second I was there. The West Wing has bad karma to it. They say, 'Because you were doing bad stuff!' But I was doing the Lord's work."

- Steve Bannon, Donald Trump's former chief strategist, suggests he had a divine purpose at the White House.

Steve Bannon, right, is shown at the White House with Donald Trump on Jan. 31, 2017. (Evan Vucci/Associated Press)

What The National is reading

  • More protests called as Venezuela's Maduro clings to power (CBC)
  • 130 migrants feared dead after two boats overturn (Guardian)
  • Trump blasts U.S. spy chiefs over Iran, other threats (Washington Post)
  • Oldest known Earth rock found — on the moon (CBC)
  • Engineers translate brain signals directly into speech (Science Daily)
  • Americans received 26 billion robocalls last year (CNET)
  • Patriotic war film draws record 8 million Russians (Moscow Times)
  • Archaeologists discover ancient wine cellars in Nile Delta (Haaretz)

Today in history

Jan. 30, 1986: Bob Newhart's TV success

TV's ultimate straight man talks to CBC's Midday about his return to network television after a four-year-break, his admiration for Bill Cosby, and why he never wanted to have sitcom kids.

The comedian and star of two eponymous TV sitcoms talks to CBC-TV's Midday about comedy, TV and his approach to work. 7:42

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About the Author

Jonathon Gatehouse

CBC Investigative Journalist

Jonathon Gatehouse has covered news and politics at home and abroad, reporting from dozens of countries. He has also written extensively about sports, covering seven Olympic Games and authoring a best-selling book on the business of pro-hockey. He works for the national investigative unit in Toronto.