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Sex show flap sparks Saudi attacks on satellite TV

By AFP

The scandal over a man boasting about his sex life on a popular satellite television show has sparked outbursts against the huge popularity of often-racy offshore broadcasts in ultra-conservative Saudi Arabia.

Influential clerics have lashed out at the most popular satellite broadcasters for corrupting Saudi society with a broad fare running from Arab sitcoms, movies and talk shows to titillating US and Indian films and dramas.

Meanwhile, viewers fear that some of their favourite shows, broadcast from more liberal bases in the region, could be endangered just before Ramadan, the peak yearly viewing period.

"There is no doubt that we are targeted by channels that are looking to create problems and scandals," columnist Amel Zahad wrote in Al-Watan newspaper on Tuesday.

"Saudi society is the biggest market for satellite TV... due to the absence of alternative sources of entertainment. This is something that we have to examine and deal with."

Prominent Islamic scholar Sheikh Yousaf al-Ahmad, referring to some of the largest regional satellite broadcast groups, said on the Al-Dalil religious channel: "MBC, Al-Arabiya, ART and the Rotana channels are all axes that destroy Islam and Muslims."

Zahad applauded the government's closure on Sunday and Monday of the local offices of Lebanon-based LBC, which aired the mid-July "Bold Red Line" talk show episode in which Mazen Abdul Jawad sat on his bed in his Jeddah apartment talking about his freewheeling sex life and displaying sex toys and aids.

Abdul Jawad was formally arrested on July 31 and faces possible charges related to immoral behaviour.

A five-minute clip from the LBC episode posted on Youtube, meanwhile, has been viewed half a million times, despite it being blocked by the Saudi government censor.

While not denying his client's behaviour, Abdul Jawad's lawyer Sulaiman al-Jimaie blames LBC for aiming its salacious programmes at young people.

"The case is about channels that target youth... As a result of the shutdown of the LBC offices people now know that this channel has been broadcasting something bad," he told AFP on Tuesday.

Turki al-Dakheel, another Saudi columnist, labelled the closure overkill and suggested that it threatened other media.

"People have clearly expressed their attitude toward the programme. Why then do we have to close the office of a TV channel, prevent the publishing of a newspaper or withhold distribution of a book?" he wrote in Al-Watan.

With cinemas banned in Saudi Arabia and stage drama and music concerts severely restricted, satellite television is by far the most popular form of entertainment in the kingdom, broadcasters say.

The broadcasts come from more liberal hubs such as Beirut, Cairo and Dubai, and often from companies controlled by Saudi businessmen willingly exploiting Saudi hunger for entertainment.

"Saudi Arabia is one of our primary markets," Mazen Hayek, marketing manager for Dubai-based and Saudi-controlled MBC told AFP earlier.

Hayek estimated that 98 percent of Saudi households have satellite dishes and that average daily viewing is 4.5 hours.

That average jumps by as much as two hours during the fasting month of Ramadan which begins around August 20, giving rise to concerns that the latest criticism is meant to press broadcasters to tone down their offerings for the period.

"It's up to the people to decide who should stay on air, what programmes they want," Hayek said.

For some Saudi conservatives the LBC scandal is another opportunity to hit out at Saudi billionaire Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, who owns LBC and who openly challenges the kingdom's strict controls on entertainment.

Senior clerics were behind the cancellation in July on the eve of its opening of the first Jeddah Film Festival which was being sponsored by another Alwaleed vehicle, the giant Rotana regional music, film and television group.

"The owner of LBC is known. We tell Alwaleed bin Talal, fear God!" said Sheikh Ahmad.

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