From Saudi Arabia's social media crackdown to a major mafia boss bust – Here's your January 18 news briefing

Since Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) was named in 2017, the kingdom has cracked down on dissent.

From Saudi Arabia's social media crackdown to a major mafia boss bust – Here's your January 18 news briefing
A woman using an iPhone visits the 27th Janadriya festival on the outskirts of Riyadh in this February 13, 2012 file photo. REUTERS/Fahad Shadeed/Files

To start off, we're looking into:

Saudi Arabia's social media crackdown

The backstory: Since Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) was named in 2017, the kingdom has cracked down on dissent. It's known for imposing severe and lengthy sentences on people accused of using social media to criticize the government.

More recently: In 2017, pro-reform law professor Awad Al-Qarni, who has 2 million Twitter followers, was arrested and imprisoned for using Twitter and WhatsApp.

The development: Nasser, Al-Qarni's son shared his dad's court documents with The Guardian. The docs show that prosecutors are seeking the death penalty for Al-Qarni for sharing "hostile" messages and taking part in videos that praised the Muslim Brotherhood, which Saudi Arabia considers a terrorist organization.

Human rights group Reprieve said these actions contrast with the kingdom's attempts to present a modern image to the world. For example, Saudi Arabia has invested heavily in the technology and entertainment sectors. It's even increased its stock stakes in companies like Twitter, Meta and Disney. But on the other hand, citizens are being imprisoned for using the very things it's invested in, like Twitter and WhatsApp.

Endangered sperm whale killed by ship

Source: NOAA

The backstory: Sperm whales are large-toothed whales that can reach around 60 feet (18 meters) in length and weigh more than 90,000 pounds (40 metric tons). They were almost wiped out by the whaling industry back in the day (19th and 20th centuries.) Even though the global population is estimated somewhere around 800,000 (down from about 2 million), these majestic creatures are still considered depleted and endangered due to commercial whaling.

The development: Tragedy struck the Oregon coast over the weekend, as a 40-foot (12 meters) sperm whale washed up on the shore after being killed by a ship. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's (NOAA) Fisheries agency conducted a necropsy and found a large gash on the whale's side. The 20-year-old male sperm whale was an unusual sight on the northern Oregon coast, as most of them have migrated south for the winter. Biologists with the NOAA's West Coast Marine Mammals Stranding Network also removed the whale's lower jaw and teeth for further study and to protect the remains from looters.

China’s population drop

A woman and a child walk past workers sorting toys at a shopping mall in Beijing, China January 11, 2023. REUTERS/Tingshu Wang

The backstory: China is the world's most populous country, with more than 1.4 billion citizens. And its population has continuously grown throughout recent history.

More recently: But, experts have predicted a population decline was looming. Over the past couple of decades, China's birth rate has scaled down. At the same time, life expectancy has been increasing, so people are living longer and having fewer babies. So, in 2016, the country scrapped its one-child policy, and it's been offering incentives, like cash allowances and housing subsidies, to encourage people to have more children.

The development: Based on new government data, the country's population fell for the first time in over six decades last year. In total, the population fell by 850,000 from the previous year. The question now is whether or not China will have enough working-age people to sustain its industry and position as an economic powerhouse. Another concern is a growing burden on healthcare and social security as more people age, and the labor pool shrinks. The UN predicted in the long-term that China's numbers will drop by 109 million by 2050.

To end, we'll look into:

Who is Matteo Messina Denaro?

Source: Reuters

Yesterday, we reported that one of Europe's most wanted men, Matteo Messina Denaro, had been arrested in Palermo in Sicily, Italy. A notorious Italian mafia boss, Denaro has evaded arrest for 30 years somehow.

But wait, who even is this guy?

Well, Denaro has a reputation as an assassin for the Italian Cosa Nostra Mafia. He's also known as the head of this mafia in Sicily. His nickname, "Diabolik," comes from an Italian comic character, but this guy isn't that comical.

While it can't be confirmed entirely, he's allegedly bragged, "With the people I have killed myself, I could fill a cemetery."

Authorities linked him to dozens of murders in the 90s, including the kidnapping and strangling of a 12-year-old boy whose body was dissolved in acid. He also is accused of strangling a pregnant woman, linked with the murders of Italy's two leading anti-mafia prosecutors and bombings in Milan, Rome and Florence.

A noted protege of Totò Riina, leader of the Corleone clan, Denaro vanished after Riina's arrest in 1993. Since then, he's reportedly been seen all over the world, from Venezuela to the Netherlands. Some people even say he had plastic surgery on his face to avoid getting nabbed.

So, how was he finally caught?

Denaro was literally just walking over to a cafe outside of a private medical clinic in Palermo when cops approached him and asked him his name. According to the police, he replied, "You know who I am. I am Matteo Messina Denaro.”

The clinic is known for treating cancer patients, and Denaro was booked for a chemotherapy session under an alias when he was caught.

"It took so long to arrest him because, as it happened with other Mafia bosses, he was protected by a very dense network of complicities, deeply-rooted and extremely powerful in Sicily and beyond," Italian journalist Andrea Purgatori explained to the BBC.

After catching him, Palermo's chief Prosecutor, Maurizio De Lucia, said, "Until this morning, we didn't even know what face he had."

In other news ...

📈Stocks: MSCI’s global gauge of stocks went up by 0.02% at 2736.45 at the time of writing.

📰Some specifics:

  • Dow Jones is down by 1.14% to 33,910.85.
  • Nasdaq Composite gained 0.14% to 11,095.11.
  • S&P 500 dropped 0.20% to 3,990.97.
  • Hang Seng Index lost 0.78% to 21,577.64.

🧠Some quick factors to bear in mind:

  • US stocks closed with losses, but the tech-heavy Nasdaq Composite stayed green on Tuesday, as there were some mixed earnings numbers for big banks.
  • Tesla jumped over 7%, boosting the Nasdaq, but Goldman Sachs sank more than 6% after posting weaker-than-expected fourth-quarter profits, dragging down the Dow.
  • On the other hand, Morgan Stanley rose almost 6% after reporting hotter-than-expected numbers.
  • China stocks closed slightly lower on Tuesday after numbers showed the country's growth in 2022 slumped.
  • China's fourth-quarter GDP grew 2.9%, slower than the previous quarter but still beating market expectations of a 1.8% gain.
  • China's 2022 GDP expanded by only 3%, the second-worst performance since 1976. This, combined with the country's first population decline since 1961, is making for a less-than-rosy economic outlook.

👄Some comments and chatter:

  • “Goldman and Morgan Stanley have almost mirror-image price action today following their earnings. Even within the financial sector, individual lines of business are faring very differently and Morgan Stanley’s wealth management segment provided a strong ballast,” said Yung-Yu Ma, BMO Wealth Management’s chief investment strategist, to CNBC.
  • “The ongoing ‘exit wave’ on the back of China’s faster-than-expected reopening has taken a heavy toll on economic activity in recent months, due to surging infections, a temporary labor shortage and supply chain disruptions,” said Goldman Sachs economists in a report, referring to China’s economic activity.

🛢Oil: OPEC has forecasted a rebound in Chinese oil demand after the largest oil importer relaxed its zero-COVID policy and re-opened its border. With this, oil prices rose on Tuesday. US crude gained 0.4% to US$80.18, and Brent boosted 1.7% to US$85.92 per barrel.

👛Bitcoin: At the time of writing, Bitcoin was up 0.7% at US$21,270.10.

🚫Zelenskiy adviser resigns: On Saturday, a Russian missile hit an apartment building in Ukraine's Dnipro, killing 44 and leaving many buried under rubble. Ukrainian presidential adviser Oleksiy Arestovych initially suggested it fell on the building after being shot down by Ukraine. Now he's apologized for this statement, which he called a "fundamental error," and he's resigning. His comment pissed off a lot of people who said he was helping Russian propaganda.

💼Vietnam president quits: Vietnam has been cracking down on corruption and graft for a few years. In its latest move, Vietnam's ruling Communist party accused President Nguyen Xuan Phuc of being responsible for "violations and wrongdoing" by officials under him. On Tuesday, he resigned from office.

📄UK to veto Scotland's gender law: Last month, the Scottish Parliament approved a bill to simplify the process of legally changing gender. Now, the UK government is trying to block that law because it conflicts with "Great Britain-wide equalities legislation," which does things like ensure women and girls have access to single-sex spaces like changing rooms. This move has drawn criticism from trans rights groups and the Scottish government.

💎Cracking the Dresden jewel heist: There are six criminal gang members on trial in Dresden for taking priceless 18th-century jewels from a German state museum in 2019. Three of them confessed to taking part in the heist as part of a plea deal.

👨Germany's new defense minister: Christine Lambrecht, Germany's former defense minister, resigned on Monday after facing lots of scrutiny over her leadership. In her place, Boris Pistorius, interior minister of Lower Saxony, has been named as the country's new defense minister.

☺China's upbeat Davos noise: This week, the World Economic Forum brings business leaders and politicians together in Davos, Switzerland. On Tuesday, China was the big topic of the day. Many attendees predicted that its reopening could majorly boost the global economy this year.

🤑Saudi Arabia is open to other currencies: Around the world, major trade is usually made with the US dollar, no matter which countries are making the deals. And Saudi Arabia, the world's largest oil exporter, has pegged its currency to the dollar for decades. Now, the country's finance minister has said it's open to trading in other currencies as it tries to strengthen ties with crucial trade partners like China.

🌿EU's new green proposal: On Tuesday, the president of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, said the EU is coming up with a new policy on green industry and working to make Europe friendly to green innovation. Right now, she's calling it the Net-Zero Industry Act, which will focus investment in clean tech projects along the entire supply chain.

👩‍⚖️Musk goes to trial: About four years ago, Elon Musk tweeted that he had secured the funding to make Tesla private. But investors say he hadn't really sourced that money and had been reckless in blabbing about it publicly. Now, they're suing Musk, and his trial began Tuesday.

😷Long COVID rehab:  Some people who catch COVID can have long-term effects even after beating the virus. This is known as "long COVID." Now, scientists said a rehab program does help with these symptoms. The approach is based on slowly increasing a patient's physical activity.

🎯Archery world record: An Australian contortionist named Shannen Jones broke the Guinness World Record for the farthest arrow shot using feet. She stood on her hands and used her feet to shoot an arrow 59 feet and 11 inches (about 18 meters) into a target. Jones had been practicing foot archery for six years before trying to set the record.

Written and put together by Joey Fung, Vanessa Wolosz, Shebby Farooq and Christine Dulion