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Wiki Disputes Saudi Infiltration Charge

FILE - A blackout landing page is displayed on a laptop computer screen inside the "Anti-Sopa War Room" at the offices of the Wikipedia Foundation in San Francisco. Taken Wednesday, Jan. 18, 2012

The Wikimedia Foundation, which hosts online encyclopedia Wikipedia, has disputed a report by activists claiming it found evidence the Saudi Arabian government "infiltrated" its team in the region.

The claim was made by Beirut-based digital rights group SMEX and Washington-based Democracy for the Arab World Now (DAWN) founded by Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, who was murdered in 2018 inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.

In a joint statement on January 5, the two groups alleged a Wikimedia investigation "revealed that the Saudi government had infiltrated the highest ranks in Wikipedia's team in the region".

They cited "trusted sources and whistleblowers" for their information.

"There are material inaccuracies in the statement included from SMEX/DAWN," the US-based Foundation said in a statement later Thursday.

"There was no finding in our investigation that the Saudi government 'infiltrated'" Wikipedia and influenced users, the parent body said.

However, it said some users "who may have been Saudi" were among those it has banned.

Saudi authorities did not immediately reply to a request for comment on the claims.

A Wikimedia investigation last year ended with life bans for 16 users who were "engaging in significant conflict of interest editing and posing a threat to the safety of other users" in the Middle East, Wikimedia said.

"A number of users with close connections with external parties were editing the platform in a coordinated fashion to advance the aim of those parties," it announced last month.

DAWN and SMEX had said the Foundation's reference to "close connections" points to Saudi citizens acting as agents for the Saudi Government.

"While we do not know where these volunteers actually reside, the bans of any volunteers who may have been Saudi were part of a much broader action globally banning 16 editors across the MENA (Middle East and North Africa) region," the Wikimedia Foundation said in its new statement.

Wikimedia's latest statement also did not make any reference to jail terms reported by DAWN and SMEX, which could not be independently confirmed by AFP.

According to the activists, Saudi Arabia imprisoned one administrator for 32 years and another was sentenced to eight years because they refused to comply with Saudi's alleged infiltration efforts.

"Admins" are volunteer administrators with privileged access to Wikipedia, including the ability to edit fully protected pages.

The arrest of Osama Khalid and Ziyad al-Sofiani on the same day in September 2020 "appears to be a part of a crackdown on Wikipedia admins in (Saudi Arabia)" in a bid to control content, the activists said.

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US Consumer Confidence Down

FILE: People shop at a UNIQLO store during the grand opening of the The Hudson Yards development, a residential, commercial, and retail space on Manhattan's West side in New York City. Taken March 15, 2019.

Consumer confidence in the United States edged down in January on concerns over the economy in the coming months and less optimism on the jobs outlook, according to survey data released Tuesday.

The closely watched consumer confidence index ticked down more than expected to 107.1 in January, down from a revised 109.0 reading in December, said think tank The Conference Board.

"Consumer confidence declined in January, but it remains above the level seen last July," said Ataman Ozyildirim senior director of economics at The Conference Board, which compiles and releases this index.

It fell the most for households earning less than $15,000 and for households aged under 35, he added.

While the start of the year saw an improvement in consumers' assessment of current economic and labor market conditions, the expectations index went lower in January.

This reflects "concerns about the economy over the next six months," Ozyildirim said.

The retreat comes as efforts to cool the world's biggest economy start to bite, with inflation and wage gains showing signs of ebbing.

Consumers were less upbeat about the short-term outlook for jobs, and also expect business conditions to worsen in the near term, he added.

The expectations index fell below a reading of 80, which typically signals a recession within the next year, said The Conference Board's report.

But the expectation is that incomes will remain relatively stable in the months ahead, with fewer people planning to buy a home.

"Consumer attitudes are not yet showing significant improvement, even as inflation is easing, and job growth remains strong," said economist Rubeela Farooqi of High Frequency Economics.

"Slower job growth and diminishing savings going forward could be a constraint for households," she said.

ANC Calls Power Cuts "Disaster"

FILE: Maria Modiba cooks by a candlelight during one of the frequent power outages from South African utility Eskom, caused by its aging coal-fired plants, in Soweto, South Africa November 11, 2022

South Africa's governing ANC party has asked top officials to declare a national state of disaster to end severe electricity blackouts that have wreaked havoc on Africa's most industrialised nation, its secretary general said Tuesday.

Declaring a national disaster would unlock additional funds and resources to "better manage the crisis," Fikile Mbalula told a news conference after the party's new executive committee met over the weekend.

The years-long crisis of intermittent power cuts has worsened in recent months, with the electricity network operated by the debt-laden state energy firm Eskom failing to keep pace with demand as it struggles to maintain its ageing coal-powered infrastructure.

"We shouldn't be arrogant and deny the fact that we have... a crisis," Mbalula told a news conference.

"We are responding to this crisis, and the president and the team in government have been given a clear instruction by the ANC," he said.

He said the move would speed up the response of President Cyril Ramaphosa's administration, with a target of ending the blackouts by year-end.

The scheduled blackouts, which can last from two hours to over 12 hours a day, have sparked widespread anger and taken a heavy toll on industrial production and businesses.

Opposition parties have vowed to stage more protests against the government's response to the blackouts, after the most recent mass demonstrations last week drew several thousands of people into the streets.

South Africa's economic growth is expected to slow to just 0.3 percent this year because of the power shortages, after growth of 2.5 percent last year.

Nigeria Bonds Dive After Ratings Downgrade

FILE - A general view of a Central bank of Nigeria headquarters in Abuja, Nigeria. Taken Nov. 11, 2011.

Nigeria's government bonds fell heavily on Monday after ratings agency Moody's downgraded the West African oil producer late on Friday to Caa1 from B3, saying the government's fiscal and debt position was expected to keep deteriorating.

Longer-dated bonds were down the most, with the dollar-denominated 2051 Eurobond falling more than 2.8 cents in the dollar to 68.758 cents according to Tradeweb data . Only the Eurobond maturing this year fell less than 1 cent.

"The review for downgrade focused on Nigeria's fiscal and external position and the capacity of the government to address the ongoing deterioration – other than by alleviating the burden of its debt through any form of default, including debt exchanges or buy-backs," Moody's said.

"Immediate default risk is low, assuming no sudden, unexpected events such as another shock or shift in policy direction," Moody's added.

As the bond prices tumbled, the premium or 'spread' investors demanded to hold Nigerian debt rather than ultra-safe U.S. Treasuries jumped 46 basis points to 777 basis points. Nigeria's bonds had outperformed other African and emerging market issuers over the last six months, according to JPMorgan.

"That is a significant move because there will be a lot of forced selling," Viktor Szabo, emerging market portfolio manager at Abrdn, told Reuters. "Pension funds don't like have names that are defaulting or even close to defaulting."

Moody's said it expects just the interest payments on Nigeria's debt to take up about half of the government's revenue in the medium term, up from 35% in 2022. It also sees the debt-to-GDP ratio rising to 45%, up from 34% last year and 19% in 2019.

The International Monetary Fund estimates the country spent 80% of revenues on servicing debt last year, a ratio that it reckons could rise to 100%.

Despite the numbers, Nigeria's finance minister Zainab Ahmed said the country's debt trajectory was sustainable in an interview with Bloomberg TV earlier in January and that the plan was to bring the debt-to-GDP ratio down to 60% in 2023.

Climate Abatement Shouldn't Stunt Economic Growth - COP28 Chief

FILE: A view shows a local oil refinery in Omsk, Russia. Many economies are dependent upon oil production and sales, and a "green economy" diminishes that revenue stream. Taken June 6, 2022

The fight against global warming should not be at the expense of economic growth, Sultan Al Jaber, the UAE oil chief who will lead this year's COP28 UN climate talks, said on Monday.

Sultan Al Jaber, the United Arab Emirates' special envoy for climate change and CEO of oil giant ADNOC, said the energy transition needed to make the planet "wealthier and healthier".

"We need to hold back the global rise in temperatures to 1.5 degrees (Celsius), without slowing economic growth," he told a graduation ceremony at the Mohamed Bin Zayed University of Artificial Intelligence.

"We need to drive an inclusive energy transition that leaves no one behind, especially in the Global South. We need to make our planet wealthier and healthier at the same time."

Al Jaber's appointment as president of COP28 in November and December has been criticized by activists who said it threatens the "legitimacy" of the global forum against climate change.

The minister of industry and advanced technology is a veteran of COP meetings and heads a leading renewable energy company. His appointment was welcomed by US climate envoy John Kerry.

The last UN climate talks, held in Egypt in November, ended with a landmark deal to create a "loss and damage" fund to cover the costs that developing countries face from climate-linked natural disasters and slower impacts like sea level rise.

But observers were left disappointed that little progress had been made on reducing planet-heating emissions from fossil fuels.

The UAE, one of the world's biggest oil producers, argues that crude remains indispensable to the global economy and is needed to finance the energy transition.

The Gulf monarchy is pushing the merits of carbon capture -- removing carbon dioxide as fuel is burned, or from the air.

It is also spending billions to develop enough renewable energy to cover half of its needs by 2050, and is targeting net-zero domestic carbon emissions by that year -- which does not include pollution from the oil it exports.

Earlier this month, the United Nations climate chief Simon Stiell told AFP that COP28 comes at a "pivotal moment" but that Al Jaber had expressed "an openness to make this a transformative COP".

The UAE'S hosting of COP is also an opportunity to ask "hard questions" about climate change and the hydrocarbons industry, he added.

S. Africa Power Cuts Hit the Dead

FILE: Friends and family members prepares to pray as they stand next to coffin carrying the body of Ahmed Kathrada, during the funeral service at West Park Cemetery in Johannesburg, South Africa. Taken Wed. March 29, 2017

The power crisis that has struck South Africa can leave citizens and businesses deprived of electricity for hours at a time -- but few victims are more vulnerable than undertakers.

Mortuary directors are urging the bereaved to carry out fast-track funerals to avoid decay and ease pressure on morgue refrigerators.

"The industry is seeing a large number of putrefied bodies," the South African Funeral Practitioners Association (SAFPA) declared bluntly this past week.

Burial within four days "is cost-effective and prevents families from seeing their departed ones in a poor state of decomposition," it said.

That could require uncomfortable change in a country where most funerals take place one or two weeks after the death -- and mourners file past an open coffin, with the deceased on view, on the day of the funeral.

Undertakers ease dependence on the state power monopoly Eskom by using diesel generators to keep their morgues cold. But they are being hit with soaring energy bills.

"Smaller parlors are battling to make ends meet because now the majority of their funds are going towards dealing with" the outages, said Dududu Magano, spokesman for the National Funeral Directors' Association.

Scheduled blackouts, known as load shedding, have burdened South Africa for over a decade, as Eskom's creaking coal-fired plants struggle to meet demand.

But the outages have reached new extremes over the past year, with power sometimes switched off up to four times a day, for periods of up to four and a half hours.

Grace Matila, a Johannesburg undertaker of 10 years, blamed the outages for recently causing her refrigerator's compressor to fail.

"The constant on-and-off caused it to stop working, but luckily I had a back-up compressor. Can you imagine what would have happened if I didn't?" she told AFP, saying she would have to pass on the higher electricity costs to clients.

- 'Ripple effect' -

Industry regulations require funeral parlors and mortuaries to have back-up generators, but not all comply.

"Generators don't come cheap," said Mike Nqakula, who owns a funeral home in the small town of Uitenhage, around 1,000 kilometers south of Johannesburg, adding that many others in his town operate without them.

"I know a guy whose parlor had to shut down because the municipality discovered a decomposed body," the 61-year-old told AFP.

And undertakers' woes don't end with trying to preserve bodies.

The blackouts are also hindering attempts to obtain the administrative documents needed to carry out burials or cremations, since Home Affairs Ministry offices go offline when the power is shut off, said Magano.

The blackouts have caused a "ripple effect" across the sector, he added.

Telephone calls are hit-or-miss when phone batteries are dead and cannot be charged, or network signals are weak because cellphone towers are down.

As a result, people sometimes struggle to contact paramedics so that they can certify a person is dead, or to request body removal when a death occurs at home.

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