Two years after its historic deep freeze, Texas is increasingly vulnerable to cold snaps – and there are more solutions than just building power plants

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HRW Urges Sanctions on Chinese Official

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Human Rights Watch is urging the British government and the European Union to “investigate and appropriately sanction” a visiting top Chinese official from Xinjiang.   Erkin Tuniyaz, the Chinese Communist Party deputy secretary in Xinjiang and chairman of the Xinjiang government, is scheduled to attend meetings next week in London and on February 21 in Brussels.  HRW said in a statement Friday that crimes against Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims are rampant in Xinjiang. “The UK and EU should not be drawn into meetings with senior Xinjiang officials so that China can whitewash its atrocities in the Uyghur region,” Yasmine Ahmed, HRW’s UK director, said.  HRW said it has documented widespread and systematic attacks targeting Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims, including “mass arbitrary detention, torture, enforced disappearances, mass surveillance, cultural and religious persecution, separation of families, forced returns to China, forced labor, and sexual violence and violations of reproductive rights, which can constitute crimes against humanity.” “The UK and EU’s response to Tuniyaz’s visit is an important test of their resolve to promote human rights in face of China’s charm offensive,” according to Ahmed. “Their recent experience with Russia should have shown that failing to stand up to powerful dictatorships carries steep costs, a mistake that shouldn’t be repeated with China.” The United States sanctioned Tuniyaz in December 2021 for his role in Xinjiang abuses.

International Media Grapples With Characterizing Myanmar Opposition Government

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Myanmar’s opposition National Unity Government recently raised the argument that it has been mischaracterized by the international news media.  Kyaw Zaw, a spokesperson for the NUG president’s office told VOA Wednesday in a statement the NUG is not an exiled government because most senior leaders, including the acting president, as well as the prime minister and many cabinet members, still live and work in Myanmar.    International news organizations, including The Washington Post, The New York Times, BBC and Al Jazeera have referred to the NUG as “the exiled government,” “the shadow government,” and a “parallel government in exile.”      An advocacy group, the Special Advisory Council for Myanmar, has also amplified the NUG’s position that it is not in exile. The group’s cofounder, Chris Sidoti, said in a video posted on Twitter in early February, “I want to emphasize that NUG is not in exile. Most of the NUG is in Myanmar. It's not underground and it's not in the shadows.”   Referring to the National League for Democracy party, which led the government overthrown two years ago in a coup, he added, “We deal frequently at length online with the NLD leadership collectively, and individually all the time.  “This is an active government who is prepared to welcome our advice and make their own decisions; and we see the NUG already acting like a government in the areas that it controls and the areas working collaboratively with ethnic organizations in the areas that they control.”   However, David Mathieson, a Southeast Asia analyst, said in an email to VOA Tuesday that “it is ridiculous to claim that the NUG is not in exile. Obviously, because of security reasons, [NUG ministers] can’t all be in some assembly of parallel governance somewhere inside the country.”  “But,“ Mathieson continued,“to dispute that the minister of federal affairs is in Sweden ... and others are in Italy, the U.S. and regional states is just being disingenuous.”   “Many people inside Myanmar, and outside, resent the NUG’s claims of being a supreme political body in opposition to the Myanmar military ... especially when the NUG makes mistakes or claims successes that are not its own,” he added.     Mathieson said the term “shadow government” is often used to portray an opposition government that is currently not holding power and awaiting general elections. He suggested that instead of being “precious about the terminology,” the international media and human rights groups should be careful to “correctly characterize political entities.”   Myanmar Now Editor-in-Chief Swe Win also shared his views on characterizing the NUG.  “There is no doubt that the National Unity Government is the legitimate government of Myanmar, but we have found it sometimes tricky to fully describe its current status given its ongoing struggle to topple the military regime from power, with many of its leaders making decisions either from jungle hideouts or from overseas locations,” he said. “In this context, it is sometimes tempting for us to label NUG either as shadow or exiled government,” Swe Win said.       Myanmar Now had to move operations out of Myanmar because of a crackdown on media outlets by the military junta shortly after the February 2021 coup. The news agency currently publishes bilingual Burmese and English articles on its online portal.    Some Myanmar news agencies, such as the VOA Burmese-affiliated Mizzima, refer to the NUG as the “Myanmar parallel government in exile,” but the online publication, Irrawaddy, describes the NUG as the “civilian government.”      After a 1988 military coup, parliamentarians who won the 1990 election came out of safe areas at the border controlled by ethnic armed groups and formed the exiled coalition government, known as the NCGUB, or National Coalition Government of the Union of Burma. That entity, like the NUG, was formed by elected members of parliament and ethnic minority leaders. The international news media at that time often called the NCGUB a “coalition government in exile” or “the exiled government.”      “However,” Kyaw Zaw said, “the NCGUB was established inside Myanmar, and it later moved to operate outside of the country.”  The NUG, he said, “was formed inside Myanmar by the parliament, and it continues operating from inside Myanmar, including the Head of State, Acting President Duwa Lashi La; and the Head of Government, Union Prime Minister Mahn Win Khaing Than. In addition, NCGUB was only a De Facto government, while the NUG has is a De Jure Government.”      Myanmar Now’s editor-in-chief Swe Win told VOA that he and his colleagues have avoided labeling the NUG as a shadow or exiled government since “this may call into question its legitimacy.” “Therefore,” he said, “we are describing it as a publicly mandated government instead.”   

Journalist's Death in Western India Raises Intimidation Concerns

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The alleged killing in India’s western Maharashtra state of a journalist who had highlighted local opposition to a huge oil refinery proposed in a rural district has raised concerns about intimidation of journalists and demands for an investigation into his death. Shashikant Warishe died on Tuesday, a day after he was hit by a vehicle allegedly being driven by a land dealer about whom he had written an article in a Marathi language newspaper, Mahanagari Times. The incident took place in Ratnagiri district. The journalist had accused land dealer, Pandharinath Amberkar, involvement in illegal land grabs in villages in Ratnagiri where the refinery is slated for development, and of threatening local residents opposed to its construction. In the article, Warishe questioned why Amberkar, who was known to support the refinery’s construction, was publicizing photos of himself with Prime Minister Narendra Modi and top Maharashtra leaders on posters. Amberkar has been arrested and is being charged with murder, according to a police official. “Prima facie evidence too pointed to Amberkar’s intention to kill,” Ratnagiri Police Superintendent Dhananjay Kulkarni told reporters Wednesday. “The murder in broad daylight on the same day that he published an article about the person who was allegedly driving the vehicle that rammed into him is very disturbing,” Narendra Wable, the president of the Mumbai Marathi Patrakar Sangh, the Mumbai Marathi Journalists Association, told VOA Thursday. In recent months, 48-year-old Warishe had written a series of articles on why villagers were resisting development of the refinery in the coastal, predominantly rural district. The project was stalled for years, but the state government has said it will be revived. Some villagers worried that waste discharged from the refinery would hurt fishing and the lush mango cultivation, for which the region is famous, resulting in loss of livelihoods. They were also concerned about land surveys in the area, fearful that their land might be acquired. Land acquisition poses a major hurdle to large projects in India as people are reluctant to part with their land. “Warishe used to be the voice of the people, articulating their concerns” Sadshiv Kerkar, Mahanagari Times editor in chief told VOA this week. “He was very well-respected for the work he did and I never imagined that it would make him a target. This is obviously meant to intimidate all those who oppose the project,” he said. Warishe had worked for the newspaper for about a decade. India has a vibrant regional language media. Journalists have expressed concerns that the incident would have a chilling impact on reporters. In a statement Wednesday, the Mumbai Press Club said the "brutal, public murder" brought to light the "plummeting standards of civil liberties and free speech and brazen attempt by both state and non-state players to crush any media reporting that proves to be inconvenient." Maharashtra media are demanding a probe into incident and have urged the government to “ensure speedy justice.” Journalists in the state wore black armbands Friday in a symbolic protest. “We want the case to be tried in a fast-track court,” Wable said. In India’s slow-moving justice system, cases usually take years to be decided. The Committee To Protect Journalists has also called on Indian authorities to “thoroughly investigate” all those involved in the killing and ensure they are brought to justice. “The Maharashtra government must take steps to protect all journalists working in the state and seek accountability for those attacked or killed,” said Beh Lih Yi, CPJ’s Asia program coordinator.

Historians Tackle Biggest Lies About America's Past

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Some American myths go all the way back to the nation’s founding. Like the one where, as a young boy, America’s first president, George Washington, felt compelled to tell the truth about taking a hatchet to his father’s cherry tree because he could not tell a lie. "There are plenty of lies that are kind of white lies that have a positive spin,” says Kevin M. Kruse, a professor of history at Princeton University. “And what's the harm there? It teaches children the value of honesty.” The real harm comes, Kruse says, when lies or myths impact U.S. government policy. Kruse and fellow Princeton historian Julian E. Zelizer put together a collection of essays for their book, “Myth America: Historians Take on the Biggest Legends and Lies About Our Past.” In the anthology, 20 mainly liberal historians take on what they see as conservative distortions of the history behind hot-button issues like border security, voter fraud, police brutality and the backlash against civil rights protests in the aftermath of the 2020 police killing of George Floyd, a Black man. Glenda Gilmore of Yale University writes that a sanitized, somewhat one-dimensional image of civil rights activist Martin Luther King, leader of “good protests,” obscures his relevance to the Black Lives Matter protesters who took to the streets in the aftermath of Floyd’s death. “[Martin Luther King, Jr.] was much more searing in his denunciations of capitalism [and] militarism,” Kruse says. “King has been shorn of all that controversy and complications, reduced to this non-offensive figure who simply stood up and said, ‘Well, racism is bad and everyone agrees.’ “As a result, that seals him off from any connection to the present. That example of the good civil rights protest is constantly held up in contrast to bad civil rights protests to shame people involved in Black Lives Matter for not being like King when, in fact, they're actually a lot like King.” Northwestern University historian Geraldo Cadava writes that Americans who are worried about policing the southern border with Mexico have “displaced anxieties about imperial and national decline, economic fragility, and demographic change.” Natalia Mehlman Petrzela, a professor of history at The New School, challenges the notion that feminism embraces anti-family values by exploring how feminists have historically defended the traditional family. Eric Rauchway, a history professor at the University of California, Davis, has studied the New Deal, a series of programs, financial reforms and regulations signed into law by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in the 1930s to help America recover from the Great Depression. In the book, Rauchway challenges the assertion of some conservative politicians that the New Deal was ineffective. “If we believe, wrongly, that the New Deal was a failure, that discourages us from any kind of economic action along that line. You constantly see historical tropes trotted out in ways that close off options. Our sense of what happened in the past deepens our understanding of what is possible in the future,” Kruse says. “If we firmly believe that this kind of approach failed, or this got us nowhere, we're much less likely to try it again. So we need to understand where we've been if we want to understand where we're going to go.” The book and its assertions have been dismissed by some conservatives who say the “highly partisan” analyses are hobbled by “leftist myths.” An essay in the National Review suggests, “The book does not debunk any myths; it merely promulgates different, radically progressive ones.” Writing for the American Institute for Economic Research, Michael J. Douma maintains that history is an ongoing discussion that historians often don’t agree on. “When you see your opponents’ views as all lies, myths, and legends, it might say more about the way you engage your opposition than the content of their arguments,” writes Douma, who is an associate research professor at Georgetown University. Kruse counters such criticism by asserting that he and his co-contributors are responding to the moment. “I understand we live in an era in which there's going to be a kind of a reflexive desire to create an equivalence on both sides right now.” Kruse says. “No. The real challenges to American history are coming from the right and so that's where we directed our attention.”

Russia Launches Missile Strikes Across Ukraine

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Russia bombarded Ukraine with a series of missile strikes across the country Friday.  Critical infrastructure facilities were hit, resulting in power outages. Zaporizhzhia, which houses Europe’s largest nuclear plant, was hit with 17 missiles in one hour, according to the town’s acting mayor.  Air raid sirens blasted across the country.  Officials warned people to pay attention to the sirens and seek shelter when hearing them.  The strikes Friday come just ahead of the February 24 anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.  The strikes also follow Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy's recent trips to London, Paris and Brussels, where he met with European leaders to ask for fighter jets to help Ukraine beat back the Russian invasion.  Ukraine has been promised tanks from the United States, Germany, and other NATO allies, but does not yet have enough tanks to launch a counteroffensive against Russia. Britain’s Defense Ministry said Friday Russian forces “have likely made tactical gains” in two key locations in Ukraine – on the northern outskirts of the Donbas town of Bakhmut and around the western edge of the town of Vuhledar. In Vuhledar, meanwhile, an intelligence report posted on Twitter said Russian forces have advanced around the western edge of the town.   The ministry said that on the northern outskirts of Bakhmut, Wagner Group forces have pushed two to three kilometers further west, controlling the area near the main route to town.   However, the report said that Russia has likely suffered heavy casualties because of “inexperienced units” deployed there.  “Russian troops likely fled and abandoned at least 30 mostly intact armored vehicles in a single incident after a failed assault,” the ministry said.  Zelenskyy is scheduled to address a summit of sports ministers Friday to gain their support in his effort to block athletes from Russia and Belarus from participating in the 2024 Olympic Games in Paris.  The International Olympic Committee wants the athletes to participate without using their national flags.   Some information in this report came from The Associated Press and Reuters. 

SpaceX Ignites Giant Starship Rocket in Crucial Pad Test

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SpaceX is a big step closer to sending its giant Starship spacecraft into orbit, completing an engine-firing test at the launch pad on Thursday. Thirty-one of the 33 first-stage booster engines ignited simultaneously for about 10 seconds in south Texas. The team turned off one engine before sending the firing command and another engine shut down _ "but still enough engines to reach orbit!" tweeted SpaceX's Elon Musk. Musk estimates Starship's first orbital test flight could occur as soon as March, if the test analyses and remaining preparations go well. The booster remained anchored to the pad as planned during the test. There were no signs of major damage to the launch tower. NASA is counting on Starship to ferry astronauts to the surface of the moon in a few years, linking up with its Orion capsule in lunar orbit. Further down the road, Musk wants to use the mammoth Starships to send crowds to Mars. Only the first-stage Super Heavy booster, standing 230 feet (69 meters) tall, was used for Thursday's test. The futuristic second stage _ the part that will actually land on the moon and Mars _ was in the hangar being prepped for flight. Altogether, Starship towers 394 feet (120 meters), making it the biggest and most powerful rocket ever built. It's capable of generating 17 million pounds of liftoff thrust, almost double that of NASA's moon rocket that sent an empty capsule to the moon and back late last year. SpaceX fired up to 14 Starship engines last fall and completed a fueling test at the pad last month. Flocks of birds scattered as Starship's engines came alive and sent thick dark plumes of smoke across the Starship launch complex, dubbed Starbase. It's located at the southernmost tip of Texas near the village of Boca Chica, close to the Mexican border.

Turkey's Lax Policing of Building Codes Flagged Before Quake

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Turkey has for years tempted fate by not enforcing modern construction codes while allowing -- and in some cases, encouraging -- a real estate boom in earthquake-prone areas, experts say. The lax enforcement, which experts in geology and engineering have long warned about, is gaining renewed scrutiny in the aftermath of this week's devastating earthquakes, which flattened thousands of buildings and killed more than 21,000 people across Turkey and Syria. "This is a disaster caused by shoddy construction, not by an earthquake," said David Alexander, a professor of emergency planning at University College London. It is common knowledge that many buildings in the areas pummeled by this week's two massive earthquakes were built with inferior materials and methods, and often did not comply with government standards, said Eyup Muhcu, president of the Chamber of Architects of Turkey. He said that includes many old buildings, but also apartments erected in recent years -- nearly two decades after the country brought its building codes up to modern standards. "The building stock in the area was weak and not sturdy, despite the reality of earthquakes," Muhcu said. The problem was largely ignored, experts said, because addressing it would be expensive, unpopular and restrain a key engine of the country's economic growth. To be sure, the back-to-back earthquakes that demolished or damaged at least 12,000 buildings were extremely powerful -- their force magnified by the fact that they occurred at shallow depths. The first 7.8 magnitude quake occurred at 4:17 a.m., making it even more difficult for people to escape their buildings as the earth shook violently. And President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has acknowledged "shortcomings" in the country's response. But experts said there is a mountain of evidence -- and rubble -- pointing to a harsh reality about what made the quakes so deadly: Even though Turkey has, on paper, construction codes that meet current earthquake-engineering standards, they are too rarely enforced, explaining why thousands of buildings crumbled. In a country crisscrossed by geological fault lines, people are on edge about when and where the next earthquake might hit -- particularly in Istanbul, a city of more than 15 million that is vulnerable to quakes. Since the disaster, Erdogan's minister of justice said it will investigate the destroyed buildings. "Those who have been negligent, at fault and responsible for the destruction following the earthquake will answer to justice," Bekir Bozdag said Thursday. But several experts said any serious investigation into the root of weak enforcement of building codes must include a hard look at the policies of Erdogan, as well as regional and local officials, who oversaw and promoted a construction boom that helped drive economic growth. Shortly before Turkey's last presidential and parliamentary election in 2018, the government unveiled a sweeping program to grant amnesty to companies and individuals responsible for certain violations of the country's building codes. By paying a fine, violators could avoid having to bring their buildings up to code. Such amnesties have been used by previous governments ahead of elections as well. As part of that amnesty program, the government agency responsible for enforcing building codes acknowledged that more than half of all buildings in Turkey -- accounting for some 13 million apartments -- were not in compliance with current standards. The types of violations cited in that report by the Ministry of Environment and Urbanization were wide-ranging, including homes built without permits, buildings that added extra floors or expanded balconies without authorization, and the existence of so-called squatter homes inhabited by low-income families. The report did not specify how many buildings were in violation of codes related to earthquake-proofing or basic structural integrity, but the reality was clear. "Construction amnesty doesn't mean the building is sturdy," the current head of the Ministry of Environment and Urbanization, Murat Kurum, said in 2019. In 2021, the Chamber of Geological Engineers of Turkey published a series of reports raising red flags about existing buildings and new construction taking place in areas leveled by this week's quakes, including Kahramanmaras, Hatay and Osmaniye. The Chamber urged the government to conduct studies to ensure that buildings were up to code and built on safe locations. A year earlier, the Chamber issued a report that directly called out policies of "slum amnesty, construction amnesty" as dangerous and warned that "indifference to disaster safety culture" would lead to preventable deaths. Since 1999, when two powerful earthquakes hit northwest Turkey, near Istanbul -- the stronger one killing some 18,000 people -- building codes have been tightened and a process of urban renewal has been under way. But the upgrades aren't happening fast enough, especially in poorer cities. Builders commonly use lower quality materials, hire fewer professionals to oversee projects and don't adhere to various regulations as a way of keeping costs down, according to Muhcu, president of the country's Chamber of Architects. He said the Turkish government's so-called "construction peace" introduced before the 2018 general elections as a way to secure votes has, in effect, legalized unsafe buildings. "We are paying for it with thousands of deaths, the destruction of thousands of buildings, economic losses," Muhcu said. Even new apartment buildings advertised as safe were ravaged by the quake. In Hatay province, where casualties were highest and an airport runway and two public hospitals were destroyed, survivor Bestami Coskuner said he saw many new buildings, even "flashy" new ones had collapsed. In Antakya, a historic city in Hatay, a 12-story building with 250 units that was completed in 2013 collapsed, leaving an untold number dead, or still trapped alive. The Ronesans Residence was considered one of the "luxury" buildings in the area, according to Turkish media reports, and it was advertised as "a piece of heaven" on social media. Another destroyed building in Antakya is the Guclu Bahce, which began construction in 2017 and opened with much fanfare in 2019 in a ceremony attended by Hatay's mayor and other local officials, according to fact-checking website Dogrulukpayi. In Malatya, the brand-new Asur apartments -- billed as earthquake-proof in advertisements -- sustained damage in the first quake, but residents escaped unharmed. Some residents who returned to the building to collect belongings managed a second lucky escape when the second strong temblor hit, causing the building to slide toward one side, according to video shown on TikTok and verified by fact-checking website Teyit. The devastation across Turkey comes at a sensitive time for President Erdogan, who faces tough parliamentary and presidential elections in May amid an economic downturn and high inflation. Erdogan regularly touts the country's construction boom over the past two decades, including new airports, roads, bridges and hospitals, as proof of his success during more than two decades in power. On his tour of the devastation Wednesday and Thursday, Erdogan pledged to rebuild destroyed homes within the year. "We know how to do this business," he said. "We are a government that has proved itself on these issues. We will."

Turkish Earthquake Survivors Rescued from Rubble

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The prospect of rescuing more people in Turkey and Syria trapped under the rubble of the 7.8 magnitude earthquake are dwindling, but Friday, four days after the tremblor, several survivors were pulled from the ruins in Hatay province in Turkey's south. Officials say the death toll from the powerful earthquake that struck the border region between Turkey and Syria on Monday is now more than 21,000, making it the world’s deadliest seismic event since a 2011 earthquake and tsunami that killed nearly 20,000 people in Japan. Rescue crews have been hampered in efforts to find survivors by a lack of equipment. A six-truck United Nations aid convoy could not reach Syria until Thursday through the Bab al-Hawa crossing, the only crossing the U.N. is authorized to use, to move humanitarian supplies from Turkey into areas outside of Syrian government control in the country’s north. The road leading to the crossing on the Turkish side was damaged in the quake and had only just reopened. Hundreds of thousands of people across the region have been left homeless in the below-freezing temperatures. Turkey’s disaster management agency said Thursday that about 110,000 personnel are involved in rescue efforts and 5,500 vehicles, such as tractors, cranes, bulldozers and excavators, have been shipped to assist the country, reeling from the earthquake. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan visited the area near the quake’s epicenter close to the city of Gaziantep and the Turkey-Syria border. He faced the mounting frustration of survivors looking for their loved ones or for aid from the government by acknowledging problems with the emergency response to Monday's quake. “It is not possible to be prepared for such a disaster," Erdogan said. “We will not leave any of our citizens uncared for.” He pointed to the winter weather and how the earthquake had destroyed the runway at Hatay's airport as things that disrupted the response. In Hatay, Erdal Kahilogullari, whose wife and two children were under the rubble of a collapsed building, shared his frustration with VOA’s Turkish Service. More than 3,300 people died in Hatay province. “OK, everyone is a human being. But aren’t 80 provinces enough? How can 80 provinces not help 10 provinces? Being 10 hours late is OK, but being late for two days to help? We don’t even have water,” he said, referring to the provinces of Turkey. Rescuers were still finding people alive but were unable to reach them without the needed equipment and expertise, even as they could hear cries for help. “I hear voices saying, ‘Daddy, save me,’” Kahilogullari said. “How could I not struggle here? I am desperate. I cannot do anything. I'm just waiting here. Walk there, come back here.” Search sites also have been the scene of some celebrations as people are found alive and taken away for medical care. But uncovering the rubble has also meant frequent increases in the number of casualties. Erdogan declared seven days of national mourning and a three-month state of emergency in the 10 provinces directly affected by the quake. Search teams and emergency aid from throughout the world poured into Turkey and Syria as rescue workers dug through the rubble in a desperate search for survivors. Some voices that had been crying out for help fell silent. "We could hear their voices, they were calling for help," said Ali Silo, whose two relatives could not be saved in the Turkish town of Nurdagi. More than 8,000 people have been pulled from the debris in Turkey, Vice President Fuat Oktay said, and about 380,000 have taken refuge in government shelters or hotels. They huddled in shopping malls, stadiums, mosques and community centers, while others spent the night outside wrapped in blankets gathering around fires. The earthquake struck a region enveloped on both sides of the border by more than a decade of civil war in Syria. On the Syrian side, the swath affected is divided between government-held territory and the country’s last opposition-held enclave, which is surrounded by Russian-backed government forces. Turkey, meanwhile, is home to millions of refugees from the conflict. ‘A crisis on top of a crisis’ The U.N. resident coordinator for Syria said Wednesday that 10.9 million people have been affected across the country by the earthquake. Before the quake, there were already 15.3 million in need of humanitarian assistance in the country, due to more than a decade of civil war. “So, it’s a crisis on top of a crisis,” El-Mostafa Benlamlih told reporters at the U.N. in New York during a video briefing from Damascus. He said in Aleppo alone, a third of homes are estimated to have been damaged or destroyed, displacing around 100,000 people. Humanitarians are coping with a shortage of fuel for their operations, as well as freezing temperatures and damaged roads and infrastructure. The World Food Program has prepositioned food stocks in the area, which Benlamlih said are enough to feed 100,000 people for one week. The World Health Organization has two planes with medical supplies coming from its hub in Dubai to Damascus. More supplies, however, are urgently needed. The WFP appealed Wednesday for $46 million to provide food assistance to half a million people in Turkey and Syria for the next three to four months. Additionally, the main road the U.N. uses to get aid from Gaziantep in Turkey to the transshipment point into northwest Syria was damaged in the quake and closed. “So, we couldn’t send any relief items; we were looking for alternative routes,” Muhannad Hadi, U.N. regional humanitarian coordinator for Syria, told reporters from Amman, Jordan. He said they had word Wednesday that the road is opening, and they could start delivering some supplies as early as Thursday. Margaret Besheer contributed to this report. Some material for this article came from The Associated Press, Agence France-Presse and Reuters.

Florida Governor's Bid to Punish Walt Disney World Gains Steam

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Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ effort to strip the Walt Disney Co. of its long-held right to self-govern the land where it has built a large complex of theme parks and hotels came closer to completion this week, as state legislators began the process of approving a bill that would finalize the changes. The move is widely seen as an effort by DeSantis to punish the entertainment conglomerate for its public opposition, last year, to a state law limiting the degree to which schools can instruct students about issues related to sexual orientation or gender identity. The measure is commonly referred to as the “Don’t Say Gay” law. “This is obviously now going to be controlled by the state of Florida, which is no longer self-governing for them,” DeSantis said in a press conference Wednesday. “So, there's a new sheriff in town and that's just the way it's going to be.” Disney is widely expected to sue the state of Florida if the bill is passed and DeSantis signs it, meaning that the controversy could continue for some time. New name, new government The land that is the subject of the bill is called the Reedy Creek Improvement District (RCID), a 101-square-kilometer region in Orange and Osceola counties that was created in 1967 at the request of Disney, which was laying plans for a new theme park there. Since then, the company has built a complex of four theme parks, two water parks and dozens of hotels, restaurants and other entertainment venues that attract tens of millions of visitors every year and employ more than 75,000 people. Since 1967, the RCID has been managed by a board, the members of which are appointed by Disney. The board has all the authorities that a county-level government would possess, including the ability to levy taxes and incur debt. It also manages police, fire and emergency services, roadways, the electrical and sewer systems, and handles an array of other responsibilities that a local government typically undertakes. Crucially, the RCID was created to be exempt from numerous state regulations, including building codes and land use rules. Under the bill moving through the legislature, the RCID would be renamed the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District. The board currently governing the RCID would be replaced by a five-person board, all members of which would be appointed by the governor. Disney, however, would remain responsible for the debt taken on by the district, in the form of more than $1 billion in bonds. When legislators first proposed abolishing the RCID, some experts warned that the district’s debts would devolve onto the taxpayers of Orange and Osceola counties. The bill making its way through the House makes it clear that Disney, through taxes collected by the new governmental entity, will service the debt. Future unclear Whether the change in governance of the land on which the Disney theme parks operate will translate into actual changes at the company’s attractions remains unclear. Richard Foglesong, an emeritus professor at Rollins College in Florida and author of the 2003 book Married to the Mouse: Walt Disney World and Orlando, told VOA that DeSantis and his fellow Republicans in the legislature have not articulated a plan to change the way Disney operates in the state, primarily because the impetus behind the change had little to do with the theme parks themselves. “This started because the governor wanted to punish Disney for coming out against his ‘Don't Say Gay’ legislation,” Foglesong said. “It didn't start with complaints about how Disney was using its special powers.” Foglesong said that whether the board will attempt to reach into the day-to-day operations of the park will have much to do with the composition of the board that DeSantis appoints. One factor raising some concern, he said, is a provision in the proposed bill that would bar anyone who has worked in the theme park industry or the entertainment industry more broadly within the past three years from serving on the new board. “That raises the question whether the board is going to have the expertise to run the park,” he said. “But it also raises the question of whether they're going to continue the culture war against Disney.” War on ‘woke’ DeSantis is widely expected to run for president, perhaps challenging former President Donald Trump for the Republican nomination, in 2024. His fight against Disney is just one example of his battle against what he describes as “woke ideology,” which he has been using to raise his profile on the national stage. There is no clear definition of “woke ideology,” but DeSantis has used the term to attack academic programs that advocate broad acceptance of LGBTQ people and those who teach that there is a problem of systemic racism in the U.S. He has accused the latter of teaching young people to “hate America” and of wrongly forcing white children to feel guilt for historic wrongs, such as slavery. While many progressives see the furor surrounding “woke ideology” as engineered by social conservatives for political gain, DeSantis supporters are backing the governor’s stance against Disney wholeheartedly. “Disney executives thought they could go into political overdrive with no repercussions. But they were wrong and Disney has been losing to Ron DeSantis ever since,” Gabriel Llanes, executive director of Ready for Ron, a political action committee backing DeSantis for president, said in a statement emailed to VOA. “As long as Disney tries to play the ‘woke’ game, DeSantis should strip the company of any special privileges it once had and stand up for the tens of millions of Floridians who are sick and tired of woke politics,” Llanes wrote. “While corporate elites pander to the radical Left, DeSantis continues to be a conservative champion of the people.” In a statement issued to the media, Disney World President Jeff Vahle said, "We are monitoring the progression of the draft legislation, which is complex given the long history of the Reedy Creek Improvement District. “Disney works under a number of different models and jurisdictions around the world, and regardless of the outcome, we remain committed to providing the highest-quality experience for the millions of guests who visit each year,” Vahle said. Opposing voice in Legislature State Representative Anna Eskamani, a Democrat whose legislative district includes the area around Walt Disney World, has been a vocal critic of DeSantis’ battle with the entertainment conglomerate, accusing the governor of launching a “power grab.” Eskamani offered several amendments to the bill moving through the Florida House, all of which are likely to fail. One would expand the board overseeing the district to make three local mayors and one local county official ex officio members. She also offered an amendment to change the new name of the district from the proposed Central Florida Tourism Oversight District to “Florida's Attempt to Silence Critical and Independent Speech and Thought,” which would carry the acronym “FASCIST.”

Latest Developments in Ukraine: Feb. 10

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For full coverage of the crisis in Ukraine, visit Flashpoint Ukraine. The latest developments in Russia's war on Ukraine. All times EST. 12:02 a.m.: The number of foreign tourists visiting Russia collapsed last year because of the impact of Western sanctions imposed on the country following its military operation in Ukraine and strict COVID-19 restrictions in China, Agence France-Presse reported Thursday, citing industry professionals. Only 200,100 foreigners visited Russia in 2022, the Association of Tour Operators of Russia (ATOR) said, citing figures from border services, a drop of 96.1% from pre-pandemic years. "The reasons are clear: the closed skies between Russia and the vast majority of European countries, as well as the impossibility to use foreign-issued Visa and Mastercard cards in Russia," ATOR said. Most of Europe closed its airspace to Russian planes a few days after the Kremlin launched the Ukraine offensive in February 2022. Also, draconian COVID-related restrictions in China that Beijing only recently abandoned kept Chinese tourists from taking advantage of the situation. Before the pandemic Chinese tourists were the top visitors to Russia, accounting for around 30% of the 5.1 million total. In 2022 only 842 Chinese tourists visited Russia. Some information in this report came from Agence France-Presse.

UN Says Threat From Islamic State Group Remains High 

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The threat posed by the Islamic State group remains high and has increased in and around conflict zones, and the group's expansion is "particularly worrying" in Africa's center, south and Sahel regions, the U.N. counterterrorism chief said Thursday.  Undersecretary-General Vladimir Voronkov told the Security Council that the group, also known by its Arabic acronym Daesh, continues to use the internet, social media, video games and gaming platforms "to extend the reach of its propaganda to radicalize and recruit new supporters."  "Daesh's use of new and emerging technologies also remains a key concern," he said, pointing to its continuing use of drones for surveillance and reconnaissance, as well as "virtual assets" to raise money.  Voronkov said the high level of threat posed by the Islamic State group and its affiliates, including their sustained expansion in parts of Africa, underscores the need for multifaceted approaches to respond – not just focused on security but on preventive measures, including preventing conflicts.  Defeated in 2017 The Islamic State declared a self-styled caliphate in a large swath of territory in Syria and Iraq that it seized in 2014. The extremist group was formally declared defeated in Iraq in 2017 following a three-year bloody battle that left tens of thousands dead and cities in ruins, but its sleeper cells remain in both countries.  Some 65,600 suspected Islamic State members and their families — both Syrians and foreign citizens — are still held in camps and prisons in northeastern Syria run by U.S.-allied Kurdish groups, according to a Human Rights Watch report released in December.  Voronkov said the pace of repatriations remains too slow "and children continue to bear the brunt of this catastrophe." At the same time, he said, "foreign terrorist fighters" who joined the extremist group are not restricted to Iraq and Syria and "move between different theaters of conflict."  Voronkov said "foreign terrorist fighters with battlefield experience relocating to their homes or to third countries further compounds the threat" from Daesh.  Weixiong Chen, acting head of the Security Council Counterterrorism Committee's executive directorate, told members that the failure to repatriate foreign nationals from the camps provides Daesh "with ongoing opportunities to recruit from camps and prisons and facilitate radicalization to violence and the spread of terrorism."  He said the threat from Daesh "presents a complex, evolving and enduring threat in both conflict and non-conflict zones."  Chen pointed to Daesh's continued exploitation of "local fragilities and intercommunal tensions," particularly in Iraq, Syria and parts of Africa, and the expansion of its affiliates in parts of Africa.  He also cited Daesh's revenue generation and fundraising through a wide range of ways, "including extortion, looting, smuggling, taxation, soliciting donations and kidnapping for ransom," as well as its use of social media and gaming platforms. The Islamic State's dominant means of moving money continues to be unregistered informal cash transfer networks and mobile money services, he said.  Daesh's access to conventional and improvised weapons, "including components of unmanned aircraft systems, and information and communications technologies continue to contribute to the terrorist menace," Chen said, pointing to its use of improvised, stolen or illegally trafficked weapons to launch lethal attacks against a range of targets.

Patrick Mahomes injury: An ankle surgeon explains what a high ankle sprain is and how it might affect Mahomes in the Super Bowl

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Deadly Start to Year in Africa With Threats, Killings of Critics

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A rash of killings across Africa has renewed focus on the risks facing those working to expose wrongdoing. The killings of two journalists in Cameroon and a respected human rights defender in Eswatini, along with the suspicious death of a well-known editor in Rwanda have raised questions about whether justice will be done. The cases also underscored the dangers of impunity ­­­— with such incidents sending an unsettling message to government critics and the free press. “There can be no doubt that when journalists are killed with impunity there is a chilling effect. It’s trite, but murder is the ultimate form of censorship,” Angela Quintal, head of the Africa program at the Committee to Protect Journalists, told VOA. “The lack of consequences for those who kill or harm journalists obviously also emboldens others who believe they too can get away with it or allows those who threaten journalists to continue to do so,” she said. In the case of Martinez Zogo, the Cameroonian journalist was forced into a car, having in vain sought help from a police station during the kidnapping. He was heard shouting “Help me, they want to kill me,” according to reports. His body was found a few days later, naked and badly mutilated. The media watchdog Reporters Without Borders said that Zogo’s “fingers were cut off, his arms and legs were broken in several places, and a steel rod was rammed into his anus.” Two weeks later, Ola Bebe, a radio host and priest, was found dead close to his home in the capital. The killings prompted a U.N. Human Rights spokesperson to call on authorities to “take all necessary measures to create an enabling environment for journalists to work without fear of reprisal.” The Cameroon cases were not isolated. On Jan. 21, an outspoken critic of Africa’s last absolute monarchy, Eswatini lawyer and columnist Thulani Maseko, was shot dead through the window of his home. He had been a constant thorn in the side of the government of Eswatini, formerly known as Swaziland, and had been jailed for more than a year in 2014. Amnesty International’s Southern Africa spokesperson Robert Shivambu told VOA at the time that Maseko's death had sent a chilling message to pro-democracy activists and could signify an escalation in attacks against those who are openly seeking political reforms. On Jan. 18, John Williams Ntwali, editor of Rwanda’s Chronicles newspaper, died when a speeding car hit the motorcycle he was traveling on. The death of a journalist who had frequently faced threats in relation to his work raised questions among media watchdogs about whether it was really an accident. Human Rights Watch noted that prior to his death, Ntwali had told a friend that he’d survived a number of “staged incidents” in Kigali, and a fellow Rwandan journalist told VOA that the night before he died, Ntwali had seemed anxious. All three countries have poor records on RSF’s Press Freedom Index, with Rwanda placing 136, Cameroon 118 and Eswatini 131 out of 180 countries where 1 denotes the best conditions. Still, authorities in each case have vowed to investigate. This week, a Rwandan court identified the driver of the vehicle that hit Ntwali as Moise Emmanuel Bagirishya. A court convicted Bagirishya of involuntary manslaughter and fined him $920. However, the trial was not open to the public and Bagirishya was not present for the sentencing. CPJ’s Quintal says that the lack of transparency “merely feeds into the suspicions that all is not what it seems.” “We cannot say for sure that it was indeed an accident until there are more facts and questions answered,” she said. Michela Wrong, a British journalist and author of a book on Rwanda, Do Not Disturb. The story of a political murder and a regime gone bad, told VOA the country had a track record of political assassination. "People die in road accidents in Africa every day, but Rwanda isn't like any other African state,” she said. “This is a country with a track record of extrajudicial killings, mysterious disappearances and arbitrary arrests involving journalists, opposition party members and human rights activists.” “Crucially, John Williams Ntwali told friends that he was receiving death threats, lived in constant fear, and had been repeatedly ordered to report to police headquarters. In that context, his death is highly suspicious,” Wrong said. In the case of Maseko, many rights groups have intimated the government could have been connected to the killing. His death came just hours after the king, Mswati III, spoke against activists challenging his rule. Government officials have angrily denied such claims. Despite promising a swift investigation, no arrests have yet been made. Eswatini government spokesperson Alpheous Nxumalo told VOA that authorities were investigating numerous crimes, and that “no one case is above the other.” He added that Maseko’s murder “is indeed taken seriously but not in isolation from other cases.” In Cameroon however, multiple arrests have been made in the killing of Zogo, including Justin Danwe, deputy head of Cameroon’s General Directorate for External Investigations. Danwe, who confessed to participating in the kidnapping and murder, implicated other senior officials. VOA sent an email to the Justice Ministry requesting comment but as of publication had not heard back. More arrests came Monday, as police detained businessman Jean-Pierre Amougou Belinga and two of his associates. In his reporting for Amplitude FM, Zogo had alleged that Belinga was involved in a public embezzlement scheme. CPJ’s Quintal acknowledged the high-profile arrests as a “welcoming sign,” but she said “as yet, no one has been charged and very little has been made public.” “There are ‘leaks’ from certain quarters, but there is a lot of smoke and mirrors and misinformation and even disinformation,” she said. “Given the reality of Cameroon today where there is a power struggle between elites with an ailing President [Paul] Biya who has been in power for 40 years, we are watching to see how things play out and whether there will indeed be justice for Martinez Zogo,” she said. 

Biden Says Chinese Spy Balloon Not Major Security Breach

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President Joe Biden, under fire from some lawmakers, said  Thursday that he did not view the Chinese spy balloon that transited the United States before it was shot down in the Atlantic Ocean as a major security breach.  Biden, who has sought to maintain communications with China and not allow tensions with Beijing to get out of control, said in a Noticias Telemundo interview that he did not regret waiting until the balloon was over water to shoot it down.  "It's not a major breach," Biden said. "I mean, look, it's totally … it's a violation of international law. It's our airspace. And once it comes into our space, we can do what we want with it."  He said U.S. military officials were worried that by shooting it down over land, the balloon and its parts could drop into a populated area.  "This thing was gigantic. What happened if it came down and hit a school in a rural area? What happened if it came down? So I told them as soon as they could shoot it down, shoot it down. They made a wise decision. They shot it down over water, they're recovering most of the parts, and they're good," he said.  Biden on February 2 ordered the balloon shot down once it crossed into the northwestern United States but acquiesced to the U.S. military's request to not act until it was over water.  The 61-meter-tall balloon, along with its undercarriage of electronic gadgetry, was shot down by a U.S. fighter jet off the coast of South Carolina on February 4. The U.S. military has been recovering as many parts as possible.  Some Republicans and Democrats have complained that Biden should have had the balloon downed sooner. The high-altitude surveillance balloon was first detected over Alaska on January 28. 

The Inside Story-State of the Union Episode 78

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Midway through his first term, President Joe Biden addresses a divided and contentious Congress, calling for bipartisanship while making a case for a likely re-election bid on The Inside Story-State of the Union.

US Eyes Joining Amazon Fund During Biden-Lula Visit

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The United States is considering its first contribution to a multilateral fund aimed at fighting Amazon deforestation, with a possible announcement during President Joe Biden's meeting with Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva at the White House on Friday, two U.S. officials with direct knowledge of the matter said.  A U.S. contribution to the Brazilian-administered Amazon Fund would underline warmer ties between the two largest democracies in the Western Hemisphere, after frostier relations between Biden and former far-right President Jair Bolsonaro.   The Amazon Fund was set up in 2009 with an initial donation from Norway to help fight deforestation and spur sustainable development in Brazil. Bolsonaro froze the fund when he took office in 2019, but Lula has rebooted it with support from Norway and Germany. Britain is also looking at joining the fund, which has received $1.3 billion so far.  The White House said it had no announcement to make "at this time."   A spokesperson for the White House National Security Council said Biden and Lula would discuss what actions could be taken to combat the climate crisis.   It was not clear how much the United States was looking to invest in the fund, the officials said. One of the sources added that Washington hoped by joining the fund it could "solidify" the fight to protect the rainforest and "turn back the clock on all this deforestation and wildfires."  Last week, Germany announced a new $38 million donation to the Amazon Fund, as part of a $217 million environmental pledge to Brazil.  The U.S. interest in the Amazon Fund reflects a greater desire to help Brazil protect the world's largest rainforest, a crucial bulwark against climate change where destruction surged during Bolsonaro's four years in office.  In November, Reuters reported that Washington is looking to crack down on environmental criminals behind deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon, using penalties such as Magnitsky sanctions to tackle climate change more aggressively.  The official said the Biden-Lula talks would include a commitment to "strengthening cooperation against environmental crime."

South Africa Declares 'State of Disaster' Over Energy Crisis

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South African President Cyril Ramaphosa on Thursday declared a national "state of disaster" over his country's crippling power shortages, saying they posed an existential threat to the economy and social fabric. "We are in the grip of a profound energy crisis," Ramaphosa said in his annual State of the Nation address to parliament. "The crisis has progressively evolved to affect every part of society. We must act to lessen the impact of the crisis on farmers, on small businesses, on our water infrastructure and our transport network." State electricity utility Eskom is implementing the worst rolling blackouts on record, leaving households in the dark, disrupting manufacturing and hurting businesses of all sizes. The power cuts are expected to reduce economic growth in Africa's most industrialized nation to just 0.3% this year. Declaring a national state of disaster gives the government additional powers to respond to a crisis, including by permitting emergency procurement procedures with fewer bureaucratic delays and less oversight. The legislation was used to enable health authorities to respond more swiftly to the COVID-19 pandemic, but some analysts doubt it will help the government expand power supply much more quickly. "The state of disaster will enable us to ... support businesses in the food production, storage and retail supply chain, including for the rollout of generators [and] solar panels," Ramaphosa said. The electricity crunch has been years in the making, a product of delays in building new coal-fired power stations, corruption in coal supply contracts, criminal sabotage and failures to ease regulation to enable private providers to swiftly bring renewable energy on tap. Ramaphosa said on Thursday that he would appoint a minister of electricity within the presidency to focus solely on the crisis. He also pledged to continue with South Africa's partly donor-funded transition to cleaner energy, with planned investments of $84.52 billion in the next half-decade. He said the government was working on a mechanism for targeted basic income support for the most vulnerable, within fiscal constraints. Ramaphosa started his speech about 45 minutes late after opposition lawmakers, mainly from the far-left Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) Party, disrupted proceedings. After the speaker of parliament told them to leave, a group of EFF MPs tried to barge onto the stage before security intervened.

US Second Gentleman Calls for ‘Bold Collective Action’ to Curb Antisemitism  

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Second gentleman Doug Emhoff urged the international community Thursday to speak out against antisemitism and called out those who do not, saying silence is not an option. “This moment requires bold collective action and urgency, not just concepts,” Emhoff, the husband of U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris, told a gathering at the United Nations. “We must build coalitions to tackle this epidemic of hate,” he said. “We must bring together people from all backgrounds, faiths and ethnicities, because hate is interconnected. It affects everyone.” Emhoff, who is the first Jewish spouse of a U.S. president or vice president, has been leading White House efforts to fight growing anti-Jewish sentiment. He recently visited Krakow, Poland, and the German capital, Berlin, and hosted a roundtable on antisemitism at the White House in early December. He told the gathering of diplomats and activists that all people must be able to live and worship freely without fear or violence. Argentina, Britain, Canada, Israel and Morocco co-hosted the event with the United States. Morocco signed the Abraham Accords in December 2020, normalizing its relations with Israel. 'It's about all of us' Emhoff, a lawyer and professor, emphasized that antisemitism is not just about Jews. “It’s about all of us,” he said. “Antisemitism is often accompanied by other forms of hatred and intolerance.” He said it is important to push back on Holocaust denial, distortion and disinformation, noting that anti-Jewish sentiment has been around for centuries. “It changes. It’s like a virus — it adapts, but it remains,” added Deborah Lipstadt, U.S. special envoy for monitoring and combating antisemitism, who was part of a panel discussion. Antisemitism has been on the rise in the United States. The Anti-Defamation League said 2021 was the highest year on record for documented reports of harassment, vandalism and violence directed against Jewish communities. In December, President Joe Biden announced the United States plans to launch a national strategy to counter antisemitism, which will focus on education. “We see this as an immediate security imperative and also as a long-term investment in promoting love, compassion, tolerance and the primacy of human rights,” U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Linda Thomas-Greenfield said. Words matter U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has also been outspoken on the issue of rising antisemitic, racist and xenophobic language, particularly on social media platforms. He has called for guardrails for parts of the internet, which he said recently have become a “toxic waste dump for hate and vicious lies.” Guterres has also launched a U.N. strategy and plan of action on hate speech. “The painful truth is, even today, antisemitism is everywhere. If anything, it is increasing in intensity,” he told an audience at a New York City synagogue last month during a Holocaust remembrance event. “And the same is true for other forms of racism and hate: Anti-Muslim bigotry. Xenophobia. Homophobia. Misogyny.”

Bailout Talks Between IMF, Pakistan End Without Deal 

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Talks between the International Monetary Fund and cash-strapped Pakistan for the release of much-needed funds from a bailout package have ended without any official announcement. Pakistan’s finance secretary told reporters there were outstanding issues between the two sides that needed to be resolved. He added that the IMF gave Pakistan a list of necessary steps and asked for more time to reach an agreement.    The IMF did not issue a statement on the status of the deal at the end of the negotiations, which ran from January 31 to Thursday. Pakistan is facing default as its debt is mounting, revenues are shrinking and foreign reserves are critically low.     IMF staff and officials from Pakistan’s finance, petroleum and power ministries and other departments sought a way for the country to receive more than $1 billion from a $6 billion bailout program agreed to in 2019. The size of the package was increased by almost $500 million last year after Pakistan suffered devastating floods.     The talks came after months of delays as the government, like its predecessor, reneged on reform commitments, such as increasing petroleum prices, ending subsidies to reduce the energy sector’s exorbitant debt, and increasing taxes.  Petroleum prices, exchange rate    To bring the IMF back to the negotiating table, Pakistan last month increased petroleum prices to an all-time high and stopped controlling the exchange rate, a measure that sent the rupee tumbling to its lowest value ever against the dollar and drove inflation to 27.6%. That was the highest reading since May 1975. As negotiations went on, reports emerged of disagreements between the two sides on a variety of issues, including budget deficit data and plans to reduce energy sector debt, limit government expenses and increase revenue, according to media reports.     Pakistan's Prime Minister Shahbaz Sharif warned last week that the government faced IMF bailout conditions that were "beyond imagination."     Pakistan desperately needs the bailout payment as foreign reserves held by the country’s central bank dipped below $3 billion last week, according to its latest report.       While much of Pakistan’s $23 billion in loan repayments due in this fiscal year have been rolled over, the chief of the State Bank of Pakistan told local media in late January that $3 billion must be paid by the end of the fiscal year to avoid default.   The country is also facing a budget shortfall of $10 billion.   Support from the IMF would usher in financial assistance from other multilateral lenders as well as friendly countries that have signaled the need for Pakistan to implement reforms.     From staples like cooking oil and tea to fuel and machinery, Pakistan’s $350 billion economy relies heavily on imports. To save fast-depleting foreign reserves, Pakistani banks did not issue letters of credit to import goods, raw materials or machinery, slowing down economic activity and risking shortages.    Pakistan has participated in 23 loan programs with the IMF since the country became a member in 1950. It has sought a bailout at least 13 times since the 1980s but failed to implement necessary economic reforms.  

The Inside Story-State of the Union TRANSCRIPT

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TRANSCRIPT: The Inside Story: State of the Union Episode 78 – February 9, 2023   Show Open:   Unidentified Narrator:   Joe Biden presses bipartisanship by touting its successes:      President Joe Biden:   But now we’re coming back, because we came together and passed the bipartisan infrastructure law.     Unidentified Narrator:   Halfway through his first term, the U.S. president makes his case to the American people and a rowdy opposition.    And he wants more time to finish the job.      President Joe Biden:   The State of the Union is strong.     Unidentified Narrator:   Now, on The Inside Story --- State of the Union.      The Inside Story:   PATSY WIDAKUSWARA, VOA White House Bureau Chief:   I’m Patsy Widakuswara, VOA White House Bureau Chief.    This week, an American political tradition, enshrined in the US Constitution that the President of the United States “shall from time to time give to the Congress Information of the State of the Union.”    President Joe Biden delivered his second State of the Union address on Tuesday, the third time speaking before a joint session of Congress since coming into office.   Now halfway through his four-year term, Biden faced a divided Congress of a polarized nation, as a likely candidate for re-election.    House Sergeant-at-Arms:   Mister Speaker, the president of the United States.       PATSY WIDAKUSWARA:   During his second State of the Union speech on Tuesday, his third address to a joint session of Congress since taking office, President Joe Biden stayed with his “unity” agenda.     President Joe Biden:   Speaker, I don’t want to ruin your reputation, but I look forward to working with you.       PATSY WIDAKUSWARA:   Biden touted increased American manufacturing, and legislation that invests in renewable energy production, domestic semiconductor industry and infrastructure to compete against China.   President Joe Biden:   We used to be number one in the world of infrastructure. We’ve sunk to 13th in the world, the United States of America, 13th in the world on infrastructure, modern infrastructure. But now we’re coming back because we came together and passed the bipartisan infrastructure law.     PATSY WIDAKUSWARA:   Addressing high inflation, Biden argued the problem is global, caused by the pandemic and the war on Ukraine and focused instead on low unemployment.     President Joe Biden:   We have created a record 12 million new jobs — more jobs created in two years than any president has ever created in four years.       PATSY WIDAKUSWARA:   He highlighted steps his administration took to erase federal student loan debt, increase the number of insured Americans, implement COVID relief programs, and lower prescription drug prices.   But can he convince Americans things are looking up? Republicans are determined to stop him, with Sarah Huckabee Sanders, Arkansas governor and former White House press secretary under President Donald Trump, delivering the GOP response.     Sarah Huckabee Sanders, Arkansas Governor:   In the radical left’s America, Washington taxes you and lights your hard-earned money on fire, but you get crushed with high gas prices, empty grocery shelves, and our children are taught to hate one another on account of their race, but not to love one another or our great country.       PATSY WIDAKUSWARA:   With Republicans controlling the House of Representatives following the November election, new House Speaker Kevin McCarthy has promised renewed scrutiny on the administration, including on the classified documents found in Biden’s home, the billions of dollars of aid to Ukraine, and what they say is his weak response to a Chinese surveillance balloon, which the U.S. recently shot down.   Despite low unemployment and gas prices down sharply from a record high in mid-2022, Biden’s approval rating remains at 40 percent. Eighty percent of Democrats, 37 percent of independents and only 3 percent of Republicans approve of the job he’s doing, according to Ipsos.   While his speech is unlikely to change that, it does signal that he is likely to run again in 2024.       Jennifer Mercieca, Texas A&M University:   He didn't say he is, or he isn’t, but he made the case for why he should, which is that he can see what needs to be done, he's had all of these successes so far, he’s had all of these achievement[s], but there’s still a lot more that he wants to get done       PATSY WIDAKUSWARA:   As a gesture of solidarity to Ukraine, first lady Jill Biden again invited the country’s ambassador, Oksana Markarova. And parents of Tyre Nichols, the Black man who was beaten by Tennessee law enforcement officers and died days later.     President Joe Biden:   When police officers or departments violate the public’s trust, we must hold them accountable.     PATSY WIDAKUSWARA:   Following recent shootings in California, Biden again called on Congress to ban assault-style rifles. He urged Republicans to come up with immigration reform, debt reduction proposals, and vowed to protect reproductive rights.     President Joe Biden:   Make no mistake; if Congress passes a national abortion ban, I will veto it.     PATSY WIDAKUSWARA:   But bipartisan legislation is unlikely under a divided government.   In a few months, he’s set to clash with Republicans who are demanding spending cuts before agreeing to pass a debt ceiling hike to prevent the country from defaulting.   State of the Union addresses are traditionally focused on domestic issues. But, for the second straight year, foreign policy troubles cast a shadow over Biden’s speech.  Last year, Russia attacked Ukraine days before the address.   This year, it’s China’s balloon that popped the president’s good news bubble.    VOA Senior Diplomatic Correspondent Cindy Saine drills down on foreign policy issues.      CINDY SAINE, VOA Senior Diplomatic Correspondent:   As President Joe Biden spoke to a joint session of Congress Tuesday evening on the state of the nation, tensions with China loomed large after a suspected Chinese surveillance balloon captured the attention of both lawmakers and ordinary Americans. Without mention the balloon specifically, Biden sought to reassure Americans, while sending this message to China.   President Joe Biden:   I am committed to work with China where it can advance American interests and benefit the world. But make no mistake: As we made clear last week, if China’s threatens our sovereignty, we will act to protect our country. And we did.     CINDY SAINE: On Saturday, a U.S. fighter jet shot down the balloon in midair over the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of South Carolina.  China has called the U.S. shooting down of the balloon “unacceptable” and an “over-reaction.”   Some Republicans criticized Biden for not ordering the balloon shot down earlier as it traversed the country. They may be looking for a tougher stance on China, Michael Kugelman of the Wilson Center told VOA.   Michael Kugelman, The Wilson Center: So, he was not taking a forceful, hawkish position. He was leaving open some space for conciliation, and I really don't think those members of Congress that wanted a more hard-line stance would have been would have been satisfied with what he said tonight.   CINDY SAINE: Russia’s war against Ukraine also was featured in Biden’s address. The U.S. has committed more than 27 billion dollars in security assistance to Ukraine. Biden said Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion one year ago was a test that America passed.   President Joe Biden:   We united NATO and built a global coalition. We stood against Putin’s aggression. We stood with the Ukrainian people. Tonight, we are once again joined by Ukraine’s ambassador to the United States. She represents not just her nation, but the courage of her people.   CINDY SAINE: Some Republicans have been skeptical of military aid to Ukraine, but that was not the case when Republicans in the chamber, including House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, appeared to strongly support Biden’s remarks.   Elizabeth Shackelford, The Chicago Council on Global Affairs: I have to say, I saw a lot more support coming from the Republican side of the aisle when he was speaking about Ukraine, particularly at the moment when he said, ‘we are in it as long as it takes.’ This is something that we have heard the Republican Party push back on specifically, saying that there wasn't a blank check for Ukraine.     CINDY SAINE: Apart from the war in Ukraine and a long-planned “pivot to Asia,” President Biden is planning for the first visit to sub-Saharan African by an American president since 2015. Cindy Saine, VOA News, Washington.   PATSY WIDAKUSWARA:   President Biden took full advantage of the State of the Union address to lay out an array of policy measures for Congress to consider ---- And issues you will likely hear more about during the 2024 presidential campaign.      President Joe Biden:   The story of America is a story of progress and resilience. Of always moving forward. Of never giving up.   A story that is unique among all nations.   We are the only country that has emerged from every crisis stronger than when we entered it   That is what we are doing again.   Two years ago, our economy was reeling.   As I stand here tonight, we have created a record 12 million new jobs, more jobs created in two years than any president has ever created in four years.   Two years ago, COVID had shut down our businesses, closed our schools, and robbed us of so much.   Today, COVID no longer controls our lives. And two years ago, our democracy faced its greatest threat since the Civil War.   Today, though bruised, our democracy remains unbowed and unbroken.    As we gather here tonight, we are writing the next chapter in the great American story, a story of progress and resilience. When world leaders ask me to define America, I define our country in one word: Possibilities.   You know, we’re often told that Democrats and Republicans can’t work together.   But over these past two years, we proved the cynics and the naysayers wrong.   Yes, we disagreed plenty. And yes, there were times when Democrats had to go it alone.   But time and again, Democrats and Republicans came together.   Came together to defend a stronger and safer Europe.   Came together to pass a once-in-a-generation infrastructure law, building bridges to connect our nation and people.   Came together to pass one of the most significant laws ever, helping veterans exposed to toxic burn pits.   In fact, I signed over 300 bipartisan laws since becoming President. From reauthorizing the Violence Against Women Act, to the Electoral Count Reform Act, to the Respect for Marriage Act that protects the right to marry the person you love. The people sent us a clear message. Fighting for the sake of fighting, power for the sake of power, conflict for the sake of conflict, gets us nowhere.   I ran for President to fundamentally change things, to make sure the economy works for everyone so we can all feel pride in what we do.   To build an economy from the bottom up and the middle out, not from the top down. Because when the middle class does well, the poor have a ladder up and the wealthy still do very well. We all do well. And that’s always been my vision for our country.   To restore the soul of the nation.   To rebuild the backbone of America, the middle class.   To unite the country.   We’ve been sent here to finish the job. It’s never a good bet to bet against America. Our strength is not just the example of our power, but the power of our example.     PATSY WIDAKUSWARA:   For the first time in his presidency, Joe Biden spoke to a politically divided Congress.   Republicans control the House of Representatives while Democrats have the US Senate. And despite calls for civility from House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, several Republicans heckled and booed the president.   One Congresswoman shouted “liar” as Biden asserted that Republicans want social spending programs Medicare and Social Security to sunset, drawing a raucous uproar. Biden, swiped back with his own quips and jabs.   The evening underscored the tense relationship between the White House and Congressional Republicans and perhaps signaled that the American tradition of lawmakers listening with decorum as the president speaks, is now broken.   VOA Congressional Correspondent Katherine Gypson brings the lawmakers’ reactions after the speech.   KATHERINE GYPSON, VOA Congressional Correspondent:   President Joe Biden with a message of bipartisanship for the U.S. Congress Tuesday night….       President Joe Biden:   If we could work together in the last Congress, there is no reason we can’t work together and find consensus on important things in this Congress as well.   KATHERINE GYPSON:   But on Capitol Hill, now divided between a Democratic-majority U.S. Senate and a Republican-majority U.S. House of Representatives, lawmakers disagreed on the big issues Biden said the country needs to address.      Rep. Mark Takano, Democrat: The Republicans chant ‘Close the border, close the border’ without really conceding that that is not the solution to the problem. I think, I think we can get more serious about the border, other ports of entry like airports. But we also have to really get down to our DREAMers, those, you know, several million young people, some of them adults by now in their 30s, who came to this country through no fault of their own.     KATHERINE GYPSON: But Republicans are skeptical of Biden’s request for more funding for border security, fearing it would be used in ways that encourage rather than discourage migration.     Rep. Brian Babin, Republican: If we give them more money, they're going to use it to count more, and facilitate the process and give more immigrants coming in. Instead of stopping the immigration and disincentivizing it, that's where that money would be used.     KATHERINE GYPSON: Biden said backing Ukraine is a key U.S. national security interest.     President Joe Biden:   Putin’s invasion has been a test for the ages.     Rep. Vincente Gonzalez, Democrat: This is our reputation at stake in front of the world, in front of the global community. We stand for democracy, we're the beacon of hope to democracies around the world. We must stand with Ukraine.     KATHERINE GYPSON: But House Republicans want more oversight of U.S. aid to help combat the Russian invasion.     Rep. Ryan Zinke, Republican: What's the plan? To suggest that it's just open-ended, a blank check in Ukraine. And remember, when we ship armament to Ukraine, we don't control where their armaments going.     KATHERINE GYPSON: Republicans also say that Biden did not react quickly enough to the suspected Chinese surveillance balloon that was shot down last week.     Rep. Don Bacon, Republican: He's very tentative. He doesn't want to provoke but by doing so he's actually tempting the Chinese to do more. I think they see, they sense weakness.     KATHERINE GYPSON: But Biden argued the United States is in competition – not conflict with China.   Rep. Vincente Gonzalez, Democrat: The president did the right thing and waited till it left our coast and it was in a safe place to shoot it out of the sky. And we did, and I think we showed China, Russia, and the world that if you come and try these type of maneuvers in our country, that we're going to take repercussions.     KATHERINE GYPSON: The divided Congress will face a major test in late May when the debt ceiling must be raised to avoid a U.S. government default. Katherine Gypson, VOA News, Capitol Hill.     PATSY WIDAKUSWARA:   Despite repeated calls for bipartisanship, President Biden knows that the Republican-controlled House of Representatives is intent on investigating him and his administration.    VOA Congressional Correspondent Katherine Gypson explains their concerns about immigration, political favoritism and Biden’s handling of classified documents.      KATHERINE GYPSON, VOA Congressional Correspondent:   A Republican-majority U.S. House of Representatives was sworn in last month ushering in a new era of divided government in Washington, DC. And with it, Republicans pledging to fulfill Congress’ role of oversight of the White House.     Rep. Kevin McCarthy, Speaker of the House:   I do not think any American believes that justice should not be equal to all and we found from this administration, what happened before every single election, whatever comes out that they utilize... to try to falsify, they try to have different standards for their own beliefs. That doesn't work in America.       KATHERINE GYPSON: Republicans argue the Biden administration has abused its powers; from the way it has handled mass-migration at America’s southern border…. Rep. Jim Jordan, House Judiciary Committee:   Month after month after month, we have set records for migrants coming into the country. And frankly, I think it's intentional. I don't know how anyone with common sense or logic can reach any other conclusion. It seems deliberate. It seems premeditated.       KATHERINE GYPSON: the alleged weaponization of the federal government for political purposes…     Rep. James Comer, House Oversight Committee:   We're going to be returning this committee to its core mission. And that is to ensure that taxpayer dollars are not being mismanaged, abused or wasted, to shine a light in the darkness of the federal bureaucracy to prevent corruption and self-dealing to make sure our federal government is working efficiently for the American people.     KATHERINE GYPSON: Republicans also plan investigations into the president’s own family, including accusations his son, Hunter Biden, improperly benefited from his father’s positions. Oversight of the executive branch is a key part of Congress’ role and analysts say these investigations are common when the U.S. government has divided party rule.     Ken Hughes, Miller Center, University of Virginia:   Even in a polarized era, Congressional investigations can do some good, but in order for it to have a truly beneficial impact, both parties have to cooperate.     KATHERINE GYPSON: But Democrats say the probes will unfairly target the president.     Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, House Democratic Leader:   It’s very unfortunate that we’ve seen this extreme MAGA Republican agenda which is apparently anchored in impeachment and investigations focused on witch hunts, not on working families.       KATHERINE GYPSON: Any legislative fixes that come out of the House hearings won’t be passed in the Democratic-controlled U.S. Senate.   Sarah Binder, Brookings Institution: There's a broad realm here for lawmakers to use the subpoena power to force people to come to speak to them, even though no one expects a real lesson of change to occur because of those investigations.     KATHERINE GYPSON: The discovery of classified documents at Biden’s residence will also prompt a House investigation, one Republicans hope will keep the focus on the president ahead of the 2024 elections.   Sarah Binder, Brookings Institution: Congressional investigations we can show historically, do dampen presidential approval, right? They really tarnish what the public thinks about the president.     KATHERINE GYPSON: The first subpoenas stemming from House investigations of the Biden Justice Department were issued last week. Katherine Gypson, VOA News, Washington. PATSY WIDAKUSWARA:   President Ronald Reagan started the tradition in 1982 --- inviting to the State of the Union a man who dove into an icy river to save the life of a woman after an airplane crash. Since then, heroes and many others have been invited to be recognized by the president in his address.   This years’ guests included the man who disarmed a mass shooter in California and the family of murdered Memphis motorist, Tyre Nichols.      President Joe Biden: Joining us tonight is Brandon Tsay, a 26-year-old hero.   Brandon put off his college dreams to stay by his mom’s side as she was dying from cancer. He now works at a dance studio started by his grandparents.   Two weeks ago, during Lunar New Year celebrations, he heard the studio’s front door close and saw a man pointing a gun at him. He thought he was going to die, but then he thought about the people inside.   In that instant, he found the courage to act and wrestled the semi-automatic pistol away from a gunman who had already killed 11 people at another dance studio.   He saved lives. It’s time we do the same as well.   Ban assault weapons once and for all.   We did it before. I led the fight to ban them in 1994.   In the 10 years the ban was law, mass shootings went down. After Republicans let it expire, mass shootings tripled.   Let’s finish the job and ban assault weapons now. Once and for all. Joining us tonight are the parents of Tyre Nichols, who had to bury him just last week. There are no words to describe the heartbreak and grief of losing a child.   But imagine what it’s like to lose a child at the hands of the law.   Imagine having to worry whether your son or daughter will come home from walking down the street or playing in the park or just driving their car.   I’ve never had to have the talk with my children – Beau, Hunter, and Ashley – that so many Black and Brown families have had with their children.   If a police officer pulls you over, turn on your interior lights. Don’t reach for your license. Keep your hands on the steering wheel.   Imagine having to worry like that every day in America.   Here’s what Tyre’s mom shared with me when I asked her how she finds the courage to carry on and speak out.   With faith in God, she said her son “was a beautiful soul and something good will come from this.”   Imagine how much courage and character that takes.   It’s up to us. It’s up to all of us.   We all want the same thing.   Neighborhoods free of violence.   Law enforcement who earn the community’s trust.   Our children to come home safely.   Equal protection under the law; that’s the covenant we have with each other in America.   And we know police officers put their lives on the line every day, and we ask them to do too much.   To be counselors, social workers, psychologists; responding to drug overdoses, mental health crises, and more.   We ask too much of them. I know most cops are good. decent people. They risk their lives every time they put on that shield.  But what happened to Tyre in Memphis happens too often.   We have to do better. Let’s commit ourselves to make the words of Tyre’s mother come true, something good must come from this.   All of us in this chamber, we need to rise to this moment.   We can’t turn away.   Let’s do what we know in our hearts we need to do.   Let’s come together and finish the job on police reform.   Do something.     PATSY WIDAKUSWARA:   Follow us on social media and stay up to date with the latest US and world news at     Catch up on past episodes on our free streaming service, VOA Plus.     And for all things White House related, my Twitter is P-Widakuswara.   Thanking you on behalf of my colleagues who brought you today’s show, I’m White House bureau chief Patsy Widakuswara.  See you next week for The Inside Story.     ###    

China Seen Risking Escalation With Spy Balloon Silence 

about 1 month ago

Anger and disgust over China’s decision to violate the sovereign airspace of dozens of countries and scour the globe with a fleet of surveillance balloons is giving way in Washington to larger concerns about Beijing’s behavior — behavior that could bode ill for future incidents. At the Pentagon, in particular, senior U.S. defense officials warn the Chinese military’s refusal to talk following the U.S. shoot-down of the latest spy balloon to cross U.S. territory is, in some ways, more alarming than the surveillance itself. "That's really dangerous," Ely Ratner, assistant secretary of defense for Indo-Pacific security affairs, told lawmakers Thursday. "We continue to have an outstretched hand,” he added. "Unfortunately, to date, the PLA [People’s Liberation Army] is not answering that call." Concern at the Pentagon has been growing for months, from the secretary of defense on down, with officials increasingly ready to go on the record to discuss the repeated reluctance of their Chinese counterparts to make sure there are lines of communication that can be used in case of a crisis.   US-China communication needs Just last month, U.S. diplomatic sources said China rejected deconfliction talks following an unsafe air encounter involving Chinese and U.S. aircraft over the South China Sea one month earlier. And a meeting this past November between U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin and Chinese Defense Minister Wei Fenghe, on the sidelines of a meeting of Southeast Asian defense officials in Cambodia, likewise failed to persuade the Chinese military to establish channels in which to communicate in an emergency. “Over the past several months the PLA has continued to view the mil-mil [military to military] relationship as something that they turn on and off to express displeasure with other things that are happening,” Ratner told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. "We need to communicate our priorities. ... Our militaries need to be having serious conversations about strategic issues," he said. “It remains a problem.” U.S. defense officials have said America’s partners and allies are also growing frustrated with Beijing’s refusal to find ways to communicate during potential crises. They said other countries in the region have voiced concern as well. “The key point here is that responsible nations act responsibly,” Pentagon press secretary Brigadier General Patrick Ryder told reporters Wednesday when asked about the communication issues. “We have always been and will remain open to communication to try to prevent miscalculation,” he said, adding, “We’re going to continue to keep the lines of communication open on our end.” Cooperation from others Current and former U.S. officials note China’s refusal to communicate runs counter to the behavior of other major powers, which, despite conflict and tensions, have agreed to establish deconfliction lines to at least convey messages back and forth. “In the previous administration and in this administration, the secretary of state can pick up the phone and speak to his Russian counterpart anytime,” the former U.S. special envoy for Syria, Joel Rayburn, told VOA. “There always was that ability for the military, the senior military representatives, the uniformed military representatives, to speak to one another,” said Rayburn, who is now a fellow with the New America think tank in Washington. “That was extremely useful in times when there were tensions or there were apparent possible red lines crossed and there could be warnings issued or defusing of tensions or clarification of intentions.” US-Russia and deconfliction The United States and Russia have used at least two separate deconfliction lines over the past decade. The first, created in October 2015, aimed initially to prevent conflict or collisions between Russian and U.S. aircraft operating over the skies of Syria. And despite some hiccups, U.S. defense officials said the deconfliction line with Russia for Syria was still in operation as recently as last June.   The U.S. and Russia set up a second deconfliction line in March 2022 following Russian’s invasion of Ukraine, though the Pentagon said it had received little use. And while there are no deconfliction lines between the U.S. and Iran, Rayburn said even Tehran agreed to a method of ship-to-ship hailing after a series of run-ins and provocations by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps navy and U.S vessels in the Persian Gulf and the Strait of Hormuz. “You would hope that the Chinese, as a great power, would behave at least as responsibly in that way as the Iranian regime has done,” he said. That Beijing and the PLA have rejected such overtures, dating to the administration of former U.S. President Donald Trump, “it's, I think, reckless,” Rayburn said. “[It] maybe indicates red flags that the Chinese wouldn't want a channel in place to try to prevent tactical situations from escalating. That's not good.” PLA's operation questioned Other former U.S. officials see the Chinese military’s refusal to set up deconfliction lines with the Pentagon more as a function of how the PLA operates as opposed to any malign intent. “It is because they don't have a good mechanism, I think, within their government for different parts of the government to exchange information with one another,” said John Schaus, a former country director for China in the office of the secretary of defense. “They need some time to compare notes, figure out what the story is, and align their messaging before they're willing to even answer the phone to schedule a time to talk,” said Schaus, now a fellow at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies. But as the number of incidents grows in frequency and severity, the Chinese military may find itself having to adapt its communication style or face the consequences of unintentional escalation. “Hopefully, I would say the current situation is a wake-up call for leadership in China,” Schaus said of the fallout from the downed Chinese spy balloon. “If we were in a much more intense crisis, it could be very dangerous.” VOA's Nike Ching contributed to this report.

222 Nicaraguan Prisoners Released, Brought to US

about 1 month ago

More than 220 inmates considered by many to be political prisoners of Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega’s government were released Thursday and flown to the United States, the State Department announced. “Today, the United States welcomes 222 individuals who had been imprisoned by the Government of Nicaragua for exercising their fundamental freedoms and have endured lengthy unjust detentions,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Thursday in a press statement. “The release of these individuals, one of whom is a U.S. citizen, by the Government of Nicaragua marks a constructive step towards addressing human rights abuses in the country and opens the door to further dialogue between the United States and Nicaragua regarding issues of concern,” Blinken said, without naming the individuals. A senior Biden administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity, had said earlier that the government of Nicaragua decided unilaterally to release the prisoners. Among those released were Nicaraguan business leaders, journalists, civil society representatives and students, according to the State Department. The Nicaraguan opposition’s latest count on “political prisoners” held there had been 245. Ortega has maintained that his imprisoned opponents and others were behind street protests in 2018 that he claims were a plot to overthrow him. Tens of thousands have fled into exile since Nicaraguan security forces violently put down those anti-government protests. Some information from this report came from The Associated Press.

China’s Alibaba Spends Big on DC Lobbying, Campaign Contributions 

about 1 month ago

Deteriorating relations between Washington and Beijing have done little to disrupt a multimillion-dollar lobbying and influence campaign in the United States by one of China’s biggest companies, Alibaba Group, according to figures provided by a U.S. monitoring organization. Publicly available information accumulated by OpenSecrets, a Washington nonprofit that tracks campaign finance and lobbying data, shows the Chinese e-commerce giant spent more than $2.5 million on U.S. lobbying last year, down from about $3 million in 2021 and a peak of more than $3.1 million in 2020 – a presidential election year. The available data show the company also spends millions of dollars on political donations to members of the U.S. Congress and various government departments with responsibilities in the areas of U.S.-China trade, finance and technology. Alibaba, whose diverse range of business interests includes e-commerce, technology, electronic payment services and cloud computing, is ranked as the world’s 29th-largest corporation with a market capitalization of $281.8 billion. Ten of the 39 issues Alibaba lobbied on in 2022 were related to trade, while another eight were related to copyrights, patents and trademarks, according to the OpenSecrets analysis. Mercury lobbyists Public information shows that Mercury, a lobbying firm, lobbied the White House repeatedly on behalf of Alibaba on technology policy issues, access to U.S. capital markets, issues related to e-commerce, and small- and medium-sized enterprise export promotion. Each campaign year, Alibaba donates to a large number of candidates through lobbyists, according to OpenSecrets. Since the 2014 midterm elections, Alibaba has generally skewed toward the Democratic Party. Most of the recipients of Alibaba’s political donations during the 2020 election, which totaled more than $1.2 million, were Democrats. A total of $14,000 went to then-Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden. During the 2022 midterm elections, Alibaba's lobbyists donated $130,000 to the Democratic National Committee Service Corp., described by Bloomberg as “a nonprofit organization ... coordinating party organizational activities including civil rights, health care and Social Security.” The individual candidate, however, who received the most in donations was former Republican Representative Liz Cheney. As of the end of 2022, 19 of the 30 professional lobbyists hired by Alibaba had worked for the U.S. federal government and Congress, including four former federal lawmakers, according to public information compiled by OpenSecrets. Among them were David Vitter, who was a senator from 2005 to 2017; Toby Moffett, who was a member of Congress from 1975 to 1983, and Bryan Lanza, who was communications director for former President Donald Trump's transition team from 2016 to 2017. Through them, Alibaba had access to the White House and several other federal agencies, as well as to both chambers of Congress. Lawmakers' former advisers, aides Many former advisers and aides to members of Congress are also lobbying for Alibaba, according to public information on LinkedIn, an employment-focused social media platform. Brian McGuire, former chief of staff of current Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, is one of them. Eric Pelletier, Alibaba's head of international government affairs, was deputy assistant for legislative affairs under former President George W. Bush. Brian Wild, deputy assistant to former Vice President Dick Cheney, was also hired by Alibaba. It is not uncommon for former government officials to work as lobbyists when their party is out of power and return to government when their party returns to office. The practice, sometimes referred to as a “revolving door,” is the subject of occasional ethics concerns, particularly regarding matters of foreign influence and national security. “When we're talking about the revolving doors like this, we're actually talking about a national security issue or at least the potential for a national security issue,” said Ben Freeman, a researcher at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, in an interview with VOA Mandarin. “And that alone should give pause to folks when they're hearing about a former member of Congress working on behalf of a foreign company, which we know does have partial ownership by a foreign government, specifically the Communist Party of China.” Although Alibaba is not a state-owned enterprise, in recent years the Chinese government’s tightening oversight of Alibaba has raised concerns about the company’s operational independence. Last December, a sub-entity under the Cyberspace Administration of China bought a stake in an Alibaba subsidiary and stationed an official there, according to the Reuters news agency. Reuters also reported that last September, a subsidiary of Zhejiang Radio and Television Group, a Chinese government-backed company, took a 1% stake in the Youku Film and Television unit owned by Alibaba and assigned a government official to Youku's board of directors. Separately, Alibaba has been accused of developing facial recognition tools to identify Uyghurs, an ethnic group in northwest China that has been subject to repressive government policies described by the U.S. government as genocide. News outlet involvement Alibaba is not only active in the political arena, but also in expanding its influence in U.S. news outlets. China expert Bill Bishop noticed that a newsletter from Semafor, an online news media outlet established last year, had the words "supported by Alibaba" written in the title. Not long ago, another online news outlet, Axios, published a newsletter that was sponsored by Alibaba, according to the conservative media outlet Daily Caller. Bishop tweeted on January 30, “Axios, semafor…Alibaba sponsoring key DC email newsletters, makes sense.”   According to Daily Caller and verified by VOA, Alibaba has also sponsored The Hill, Punchbowl News and Politico in the past few years. In response to VOA’s inquiries, both Semafor and Axios said sponsors do not affect their journalistic independence. Semafor’s spokesman said in an email, “Advertisers have no bearing on our editorial coverage and we maintain a strict separation between news and third-party advertisement.” Axios also replied, “Like any serious, trusted media source, advertisers have no input or involvement with editorial content at Axios.” On January 31, Alibaba sponsored another event held by Semafor in which two members of Congress were invited to discuss e-commerce and the future of the U.S. economy. Pelletier, Alibaba's head of international government affairs, took the stage before the discussion began and said, “Alibaba every day gets up to help U.S. companies, small and medium enterprises as well as multinational companies, to sell their products to other consumers around the world.”   Also participating in the Semafor event was U.S. Representative Darin LaHood who, public records show, received a $500 campaign donation from Pelletier during the 2022 midterm elections. Freeman, the Quincy Institute researcher, said he found it troubling that neither Semafor nor Pelletier disclosed that contribution prior to or during the event. “It’s very problematic when you have events like this, where there's a campaign funding tie behind it or any sort of other financial tie behind events like this that aren't disclosed,” Freeman said, “because then the viewers of these events think they're looking at just objective comments of the speakers, which may or may not be the case.” The same public record shows that Pelletier made another 40 campaign contributions ranging from $500 to $2,500 to mainly Republican candidates and organizations since March 2020. VOA reached out to Alibaba for comment but the company declined to comment for publication. Adrianna Zhang contributed to this report.

Iran Releases 7 Women Activists from Prison, Reports Say

about 1 month ago

Iran has released several prominent women activists and journalists from Tehran's Evin prison, campaigners said Thursday, with video showing them defiantly chanting pro-protest slogans outside the jail. Media based outside Iran said a total of seven women were released, while Iran continues to press a crackdown against protests that erupted in September. Those released included Saba Kord Afshari, held since 2019 after she campaigned against the obligatory hijab for women, and prominent photographer Alieh Motalebzadeh whose latest stint in jail began in April last year, the reports said. After being released, they chanted the slogan of the protest movement "Woman, Life, Freedom" and "down with oppressors worldwide," according to a video posted by Motalebzadeh on her Twitter account. The Dublin-based rights group Front Line Defenders said Kord Afshari and Motalebzadeh "have played a pivotal role in the women's rights movement and have been unjustly in prison in the past years." The others released were Fariba Asadi, Parastoo Moini, Zahra Safaei, Gelareh Abbasi and Sahereh Hossein, all campaigners who in some cases had been serving years-long sentences. Earlier this week, Iran released the young protester Armita Abbasi, whose case prompted international concern after she was arrested in October over protests in the city of Karaj outside Tehran. It was not clear if the releases were linked to an announcement by the office of supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei that he had agreed to pardon a large number of convicts, including those detained over the protests. Rights activists have urged skepticism over the announcements, noting many prominent figures remain in jail and activists continue to be arrested. "Khamenei's hypocritical pardon doesn't change anything," said Mahmood Amiry-Moghaddam, director of the Norway-based Iran Human Rights group, describing the move as propaganda. Iranian authorities have arrested thousands since nationwide protests broke out following the September 16, 2022, death in custody of Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old ethnic Kurd who had been arrested for allegedly breaching the country's strict dress rules for women. Women still detained include prize-winning rights defender Narges Mohammadi, the two journalists who helped expose the Amini case, Niloufar Hamedi and Elaheh Mohammadi, as well as foreigners including German national Nahid Taghavi and French academic Fariba Adelkhah.

Pakistan Skips Russia-hosted Multilateral Talks on Afghanistan

about 1 month ago

Pakistan confirmed Thursday that it skipped this week's Russia-hosted multilateral consultations on Afghanistan, suggesting there are other forums in which it can more effectively contribute to the Afghan peace process. Regional countries, including China, India, Iran, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan, and Uzbekistan were invited to Wednesday's security adviser-level meeting in Moscow. Russian President Vladimir Putin's office said he addressed the inaugural session of what was described as the fifth multilateral consultation on how to promote Afghan peace and stability. Pakistani foreign ministry spokeswoman Mumtaz Zahra Baloch, at a weekly news conference, explained the reasons for Islamabad skipping the meeting in Moscow. "Our decision not to participate in the instant meeting was made in light of our consideration that Pakistan can make a better contribution in formats and forums, which can contribute constructively to peace in Afghanistan," she said. "We will continue to participate in all these mechanisms to their full potential and will continue to engage with our partners to contribute to peace and stability in Afghanistan," Baloch said. Highly placed Pakistani official sources, however, cited arch-rival India's participation in Wednesday's meeting in the Russian capital. The sources went on to say the dialogue was among national security advisers and that currently Pakistan does not have one.  Islamabad's traditionally strained ties with Moscow have seen significant improvement in recent years, prompting Pakistan to attend dialogues with Russia in support of peace and stability in conflict-torn neighboring Afghanistan. "Pakistan's decision is striking, given its strong past record of participation in Afghanistan-focused dialogues with Russia," said Michael Kugelman, the director of the South Asia Institute at the Wilson Center in Washington.  "But circumstances have changed. India's new role in such dialogues will make Pakistan treat them with caution," he stated. Kugelman said Islamabad also does not want to upset the United States at a moment when it seeks Washington's assistance, especially through U.S. influence over the International Monetary Fund, to address a severe economic crisis facing Pakistan.  "Islamabad will also want to convey a position of neutrality on the Russia-Ukraine issue and going to a Moscow-hosted meeting so soon after Pakistan held talks with Moscow on Russian energy imports may not be a good look," he said. Putin's office quoted him as telling Wednesday's gathering that there are conflicts "not far from Russia, including on the Ukrainian track" but they "do not reduce the significance" of the Afghan situation because his country does not want "more points of tension" on its southern borders. "International terrorist organizations are stepping up their activities [in Afghanistan], including al-Qaida, which is building up its potential," Putin added. Russia has not stated why it did not invite Afghanistan's ruling Islamist Taliban to Wednesday's consultations. The former insurgent group seized power in August 2021 as the United States and its NATO allies withdrew troops from the country after battling the Taliban for almost two decades. But no foreign government has yet granted legitimacy to the de facto Afghan rulers over human rights and terrorism-related concerns. Russia's security concerns stem from growing attacks by Islamic State's regional affiliate in Afghanistan, the Islamic State-Khorasan. The terrorist group carried out a suicide bombing near the Russian Embassy in Kabul last September, killing two staff members at the diplomatic mission and several Afghan visa-seekers. Moscow is also worried the terror threat can destabilize its Central Asian-allied nations bordering Afghanistan. 

DOD Is Focused on China, Defense Official Says > U.S. Department of Defense > Defense Department News

by Jim Garamone, about 1 month ago

China remains the pacing challenge for the U.S. government, a Defense Department official stressed to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

After earthquake, U.S. assists Türkiye, Syria

by Dave Reynolds, about 1 month ago

U.S. search and rescue teams and international partners are responding to the devastating earthquake in Türkiye and Syria.

Georgia Scheduled for More U.S. Military Assistance > U.S. Department of Defense > Defense Department News

by David Vergun, about 1 month ago

Georgia has been approved for a risk-assessed payment schedule so it will be able to request and acquire vital military capabilities more easily, Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III said.

Defense Agency Ad Gets Super Bowl Slot on AFN > U.S. Department of Defense > Story

by Beth Reece, about 1 month ago

Four military supply specialists will share the spotlight with pregame and halftime entertainers during a Defense Logistics Agency commercial scheduled to air during Super Bowl LVII on Armed Forces Network.

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