Iranian Protester, Focus of Torture Reports, Released After 4 Months

4 months ago

Iranian protester Armita Abbasi, who media reports said was tortured and raped while in detention after being identified as a "leader" of protests sparked by the death of a young woman while in police custody for an alleged head scarf violation, has been released from prison. "We experienced a very difficult time, but now I am extremely happy," Abbasi’s father wrote in a social media post along with a video of his 20-year-old daughter next to him. Armita Abbasi’s lawyer, Shahla Orouji, said last week that a court accused her client of “propaganda against the Islamic republic” and “gathering and conspiring to commit a crime against national security.” Abbasi was arrested Oct. 10 in her hometown of Karaj, west of the Iranian capital, nearly a month into the nationwide protests triggered by the death of Mahsa Amini while in police custody in September. The Iranian government claimed she was “the leader of the riots” and that police discovered “10 Molotov cocktails” in her apartment. In November, the U.S.-based cable news network CNN published an investigative report about the sexual assault and rape of some of the detainees from recent protests, including Abbasi, while they were being held in prisons across Iran. A source told CNN that Abbasi was rushed to the Imam Ali hospital in Karaj on Oct. 17, accompanied by plainclothes officers while “her head had been shaved and she was shaking violently.” “In the accounts, the medical staff attending to her spoke of the horror they felt when they saw evidence of brutal rape,” CNN added. Neither Abassi, her family, nor her lawyer have publicly commented on the report. Earlier in January, Abbasi and 14 other Iranian women incarcerated in the Kachoui prison near Tehran reportedly went on a hunger strike to protest the conditions of their imprisonment and the lack of medical attention at the facility. At that time, her mother wrote on her Instagram account that, because of her daughter’s hunger strike, prison authorities were no longer allowing her to call her family. She also said the court did not accept the lawyer representing her daughter. Since Amini's death, Iranians have flooded into the streets across the country to protest against a lack of rights, with women and schoolgirls making unprecedented shows of support in the biggest threat to the Islamic government since the 1979 revolution. The U.S.-based Human Rights Activists News Agency said that, as of Jan. 29, at least 527 people had been killed during the unrest, including 71 minors, as security forces muzzle dissent. Written by Ardeshir Tayebi based on an original story in Persian by RFE/RL's Radio Farda.

Australian Defense Department to Remove Chinese-Made Cameras

4 months ago

Australia’s Defense Department will remove surveillance cameras made by Chinese Communist Party-linked companies from its buildings, the government said Thursday after the U.S. and Britain made similar moves. The Australian newspaper reported Thursday that at least 913 cameras, intercoms, electronic entry systems and video recorders developed and manufactured by Chinese companies Hikvision and Dahua are in Australian government and agency offices, including the Defense Department and the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. Hikvision and Dahua are partly owned by China's Communist Party-ruled government. Australian Defense Minister Richard Marles said his department is assessing all its surveillance technology. “Where those particular cameras are found, they’re going to be removed,” Marles told Australian Broadcasting Corp. “There is an issue here and we’re going to deal with it.” Asked about Australia's decision, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Mao Ning criticized what she called “wrongful practices that overstretch the concept of national security and abuse state power to suppress and discriminate against Chinese enterprises.” Without mentioning Australia by name, Mao said the Chinese government has “always encouraged Chinese enterprises to carry out foreign investment and cooperation in accordance with market principles and international rules, and on the basis of compliance with local laws." “We hope Australia will provide a fair and non-discriminatory environment for the normal operation of Chinese enterprises and do more things that are conducive to mutual trust and cooperation between the two sides,” she told reporters at a daily briefing. The U.S. government said in November it was banning telecommunications and video surveillance equipment from several prominent Chinese brands including Hikvision and Dahua in an effort to protect the nation’s communications network. Security cameras made by Hikvision were also banned from British government buildings in November. An audit in Australia found that Hikvision and Dahua cameras and security equipment were found in almost every department except the Agriculture Department and the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet. The Australian War Memorial and National Disability Insurance Agency have said they will remove the Chinese cameras found at their sites, the ABC reported. Opposition cybersecurity spokesperson James Paterson said he had prompted the audit by asking questions over six months of each federal agency, after the Home Affairs Department was unable to say how many of the cameras, access control systems and intercoms were installed in government buildings. “We urgently need a plan from the ... government to rip every one of these devices out of Australian government departments and agencies,” Paterson said. Both companies are subject to China's National Intelligence Law which requires them to cooperate with Chinese intelligence agencies, he said. “We would have no way of knowing if the sensitive information, images and audio collected by these devices are secretly being sent back to China against the interests of Australian citizens,” Paterson said.

Australia Reaffirms Support for Security Accord with US, UK

4 months ago

Australian Defense Minister Richard Marles on Thursday told Parliament that the controversial AUKUS submarine deal with the U.S. and the U.K. enhances Australian sovereignty and does not increase dependence on the United States as claimed by critics. The pact was signed by Australia, the United States and Britain in September 2021 but has been condemned by China. Marles said that receiving at least eight nuclear-powered submarines under the AUKUS pact will “dramatically enhance” Australia’s sovereignty, rather than erode it. Marles argued that Australia needed British and American expertise to enhance its military capabilities. China accused Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States of fueling military confrontation when the AUKUS accord was signed in 2021. The alliance has been criticized by former Australian Prime Ministers Malcolm Turnbull and Paul Keating, who have said the deal would erode the country’s sovereignty. Turnbull told local media last week that the government had to determine whether the submarines could be “operated, sustained and maintained by Australia without the support or supervision of the U.S. Navy.” Jordon Steele-John, a Greens party senator, has also criticized the accord. He told the Australian Broadcasting Corp. On Thursday that it makes Australia increasingly dependent on the U.S. and Britain. “Either of those two nations could decide they no longer wish to participate in such a project or pact, leaving our capacity literarily dead in the water,” he said. “The Australian community is very rightly concerned about the greater integration and inter-reliance that this will create.” Specific details of the trilateral accord will be released soon. British politicians have reportedly suggested that the AUKUS project should be expanded to include India and Japan. In response, China’s foreign ministry said it was “seriously concerned and opposed” to the military pact. Beijing has previously accused Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States of fueling military confrontation when the AUKUS accord was signed in 2021. Australia has been trying to rebuild its fractured relationship with China in recent months. Analysts say it is a delicate enterprise, given the tensions over trade and other geopolitical issues. On Thursday, Australia said it would be removing hundreds of Chinese-made security cameras at official buildings across Australia. Marles conceded there was a potential security problem that needed to be addressed. There is no evidence so far of any breaches of national security, but Marles said the devices would be taken down. Britain and America have done the same thing because of concerns the equipment could contain spyware.

Zelenskyy to Push for More Weapons, Begin EU Membership Talks

4 months ago

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy is headed to Brussels to make a case for more weapons in the fight against Russia’s invasion and begin talks on European Union membership for his war-torn country. Zelenskyy will be accompanied by his French counterpart President Emmanuel Macron later Thursday to attend a summit and address the EU parliament, Macron’s office announced. If security concerns permit, Zelenskyy will address a summit of the 27-nation bloc in his push to secure tanks, jets and missiles. If security concerns permit, Zelenskyy will address a summit of the 27-nation bloc in his push to secure tanks, jets and missiles. The Ukrainian leader is on a three-nation tour seeking support from allies in Europe as the one-year anniversary of Russia's invasion nears. Ukrainian officials have said they expect Russia to time a new offensive in the east around the Feb. 24 anniversary. Zelenskyy flew to London on Wednesday to thank the British people for their support in fending off Russia’s nearly yearlong invasion of his country and predicted that Ukraine would win the war. "We know freedom will win, we know Russia will lose," Zelenskyy told the British Parliament. "We know the victory will change the world, and this will be the change that the world has long needed. The United Kingdom is marching with us towards the most important victory of our lifetime." Zelenskyy also met with King Charles at Buckingham Palace in what was Zelenskyy’s second trip abroad since the Russian invasion began. In December, the Ukrainian leader went to Washington to meet with President Joe Biden and address Congress. Later Wednesday, Zelenskyy met with French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz in Paris. "I have come here and stand before you on behalf of the brave, on behalf of our warriors, who are now in the trenches under enemy artillery fire," Zelenskyy told Parliament, paying tribute to Ukraine's military. "I thank you for your bravery. ... London has stood with Kyiv since Day One." Britain has been one of Ukraine’s biggest military supporters, sending more than $2.5 billion in weapons and equipment. The visit came as British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak announced that Britain would train Ukrainian pilots on "NATO-standard fighter jets." More than 10,000 Ukrainian troops have also been trained at bases in the United Kingdom, some on the Challenger 2 tanks that Britain is sending. Zelenskyy called on British lawmakers to offer even more advanced fighter jets, a plea he has also made to the United States and its Western allies. "We ... will do everything possible and impossible to make the world provide us with modern planes to empower and protect pilots who will be protecting us," Zelenskyy said. Later, at a joint news conference in front of a tank at the Lulworth Camp training base, Sunak said fighter jets were "part of the conversation" about support for Ukraine. "Nothing is off the table," he said. "We must arm Ukraine in the short term, but we must bolster Ukraine for the long term." On the battlefront, Ukraine said Russia was continuing its artillery bombardment in the eastern region of the country, in what Kyiv officials have said they think is part of a new thrust to mark the anniversary of the invasion. Russian forces over the past day also launched major shelling on areas near the front line in Ukraine's northeastern Kharkiv region, killing a 74-year-old woman and wounding a 16-year-old girl in the border town of Vovchansk, local Governor Oleh Syniehubov said. Germany, Denmark and the Netherlands said Tuesday that they were planning to send at least 100 older, refurbished Leopard 1 tanks to Ukraine. The Leopard 1 tanks were manufactured from the mid-1960s to the mid-1980s and, once made battle-ready again, will not reach Kyiv’s fighters until the summer months. The defense ministers of Germany, Denmark and the Netherlands said in a statement that the additional weaponry would "significantly enhance Ukraine’s military potential for the restoration of their violated territorial integrity." The German defense ministry said that authorities in Berlin had approved the export of up to 178 Leopard 1 A5 tanks to Ukraine, but that the number sent would depend on the refurbishments required. Germany has not used the tanks since 2003. The new weapons deployment will come in addition to Germany’s recent announcement that it would dispatch 14 newer Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine’s fighters. The U.S. said it would supply 30 of its front-line Abrams tanks. Some information for this report came from The Associated Press, Reuters and Agence France-Presse.

Sudan’s Tropical Disease Spike Reflects Poor Health System

4 months ago

The two Sudanese women thought they had malaria and were taking their medication, but things took a dire turn. Both complained of a splitting headache and fever that didn’t respond to the antimalaria treatment. By the time she was diagnosed with dengue fever, Raqiya Abdsalam was unconscious. “Soon after they examined me, I fell into a coma,” she said, recounting her ordeal some three months ago. Both women have since recovered and are at home in the city of El Obeid in the central province of North Kordofan. For decades, Sudan’s underfunded public health sector has struggled to effectively diagnose or treat patients as significant government spending went to its vast security services. A recent spike in mosquito-borne diseases — such as dengue fever and malaria — has underscored the fragility of the African country's health system, boding ill for future challenges driven by climate change. Sudan’s best-equipped hospitals are concentrated in the capital, Khartoum, leaving those from far-flung provinces reliant on aid projects. But many of those have disappeared. In October 2021, Sudan’s leading military figure, Gen. Abdel-Fattah Burhan, led a coup that derailed the country’s short-lived democratic transition. The move spurred a sharp reduction in aid, with the U.N Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs reporting that funding levels fell to less than 50% of required needs for both 2021 and 2022. Burhan with his ruling generals and several other political forces pledged in December to install a new civilian government. But political wrangling is impeding a final deal, and it remains unclear when — and if — donor funding will return to previous levels. In late fall, a young doctor at a North Kordofan hospital thought that what she was seeing was a new malaria outbreak. Patients arriving at her hospital had malaria-like symptoms — high fever, body fatigue and a migraine-like headache. But after blood samples were sent to a laboratory in Khartoum for testing, a worrisome picture emerged. Some of the patients did have malaria, which is caused by a parasite, but others had dengue fever — similar in symptoms but caused by a virus. If severe and untreated, dengue fever can lead to organ failure and death. The young physician said the hospital lacked the facilities to deal with the outbreak. “Patients had to either lie on the floor or bring their own beds to the hospital,’’ she said. While malaria is common across central and southern Sudan, large dengue outbreaks are rare. But last fall and winter, dengue fever spread to 12 of the country’s 18 provinces, killing at least 36 people and infecting more than 5,200, according to Sudan’s Ministry of Health. However, the actual numbers are likely higher, given the limitations on testing. ‘‘Most hospitals outside of Khartoum are not connected to the Ministry of Health database,’’ said Alaaeldin Awad Mohamed Nogoud, a liver and transplant surgeon who is also a prominent pro-democracy activist. The World Health Organization says several factors enabled the dengue outbreak, including the absence of disease surveillance infrastructure and heavy flooding in autumn. The stagnant water allowed mosquitoes to breed and fueled the spread of the disease. Health experts also fear that growing mosquito migration, induced by climate change, could spur new surges in dengue fever, among other tropical diseases typically found beyond Sudan’s southern borders. The Aedes aegypti, a long-legged mosquito growing in number across Sudan that can carry the dengue virus, is causing particular concern. According to Anne Wilson, an epidemiologist at the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine, containing illnesses spread by the Aedes aegypti is difficult because it mostly bites during the day, rendering insecticide-treated nets, similar to mosquito nets for beds, less effective. Sudan’s public hospitals are state-run, but patients often still pay for drugs and tests. Hospitals in rural areas are the most depleted, stocked with little more than metal-frame beds and doctors. In North Kordofan — the site of the recent dengue outbreak — some believe the virus went unchecked for months due to a widespread lack of blood testing equipment. Abdsalam and Amany Adris, the two women from El Obeid, said several doctors had told them they had malaria before they were correctly diagnosed. After the Ministry of Health officially recognized the outbreak in November, officials say free testing and treatment were made available to dengue fever patients. And by January, North Kordofan was declared free of dengue fever. But even after that announcement, the young doctor from the province said she was treating suspected cases. Few patients can afford to pay for the blood tests themselves, however, she added. Both Nogoud and the young physician said widespread shortages are forcing physicians to go to black market for basic medicines, such as paracetamol IV drips to treat fever. For years, Sudan has been in an economic crisis with annual inflation topping 100% on most months. Since 2018, the Sudanese pound has lost over 95% of its value against the dollar, making it difficult to buy pharmaceuticals or medical equipment from abroad. By the end of last year, Sudan’s National Medical Supplies Fund — the body tasked with procuring pharmaceuticals — said the availability of cancer drugs stood at 48% of needed levels, and other emergency medication was at 68%. Doctors, working with little pay and in difficult conditions, have regularly gone on strike. Critics accuse the country's leaders of not putting more funds towards the health sector. The federal budget for 2021, listed on the government’s website, said the country’s health ministry would receive less than half of what would be allocated to the Sudanese Armed Forces and the Rapid Support Forces, the country’s largest paramilitary group. The military spokesperson did not respond to AP’s request for comment. With few resources, the Health Ministry has turned to short videos on social media, encouraging people in a catchy song to cover standing water sources and install netting on windows. Few see this as a long-term solution. "The whole country is in a state of chaos," said Nada Fadul, an infectious diseases physician and associate of the Sudanese non-governmental organization NexGen. "Health care might not become the priority for survival," Fadul added.

US Forces Returning to Philippines to Counter China Threats

4 months ago

Once-secret ammunition bunkers and barracks lay abandoned, empty and overrun by weeds — vestiges of American firepower in what used to be the United States' largest overseas naval base at Subic Bay in the northern Philippines. But that may change in the near future. The U.S. has been taking steps to rebuild its military might in the Philippines more than 30 years after the closure of its large bases in the country and reinforcing an arc of military alliances in Asia in a starkly different post-Cold War era when the perceived new regional threat is an increasingly belligerent China. On Feb. 2, the longtime allies announced that rotating batches of American forces would be granted access to four more Philippine military camps aside from five other local bases, where U.S.-funded constructions have picked up pace to build barracks, warehouses and other buildings to accommodate a yet-unspecified but expectedly considerable number of visiting troops under a 2014 defense pact. Manila-based political scientist Andrea Chloe Wong said the location of the Philippine camps would give the U.S. military the presence it would need to be a “strong deterrent against Chinese aggression” in the South China Sea, where China, the Philippines and four other governments have had increasingly tense territorial rifts — as well as a potential Chinese invasion of Taiwan, which Beijing views as its own territory to be brought under Chinese control, by force if necessary. Around the former U.S. Navy base in Subic, now a bustling commercial freeport and tourism destination northwest of Manila, news of the Philippine government’s decision to allow an expanded American military presence rekindled memories of an era when thousands of U.S. sailors pumped money, life and hope into the neighboring city of Olongapo. “Olongapo was like Las Vegas then," Filipino businessman AJ Saliba told The Associated Press in an interview in his foreign currency exchange and music shop along what used to be Olongapo’s garish red-light strip. “Noisy as early as noon with neon lights turned on and the Americans roaming around. Women were everywhere. Jeepney drivers, tricycles, restaurants, bars, hotels — everybody was making money — so if they will return, my God, you know, that’ll be the best news,” he said. U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said during his visit in Manila last week that Washington was not trying to reestablish permanent bases, but that the agreement to broaden its military presence under the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement was “a big deal.” Visiting American military personnel could engage the Philippine military in larger joint combat-readiness trainings, provide help in responding rapidly to disasters and press efforts to help modernize Manila’s armed forces, Austin and his Philippine counterpart Carlito Galvez Jr. said. “This is part of our effort to modernize our alliance, and these efforts are especially important as the People’s Republic of China continues to advance its illegitimate claims in the West Philippine Sea," Austin said at a news conference in Manila. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Mao Ning said the U.S. military’s strengthening in the region was escalating tensions and risking peace and stability. “Regional countries need to remain vigilant and avoid being coerced or used by the U.S.,” Mao told reporters Feb. 2 at a briefing in Beijing. Austin and Galvez did not reveal the four new locations where the Americans would be granted access and allowed to preposition weapons and other equipment. The Philippine defense chief said local officials, where the Americans would stay, had to be consulted. In November, then-Armed Forces of the Philippines Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Bartolome Bacarro disclosed that the sites included the strategic Subic Bay, where the Navy base was once a boon to the local economy. But two senior Philippine officials told the AP that Subic, where a Philippine navy camp is located, was not among the current list of sites where Washington has sought access for its forces, although they suggested that could change as talks were continuing. The two officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the issue publicly. Subic freeport administrator Rolen Paulino said he has not been notified by the government that the former American naval base has been designated as a potential site for visiting U.S. forces. A renewed U.S. military presence at Subic, however, would generate more jobs and raise additional freeport revenues at a crucial time when many Filipinos and businesses are still struggling to recover from two years of COVID-19 lockdowns and an economic recession wrought by coronavirus outbreaks, Paulino said. “I see them as tourists,” he said of the U.S. forces whose presence could boost economic recovery. About the size of Singapore, the former American Navy base at Subic with its deep harbors, a ship repair yard and huge warehouses had been used to support the U.S. war effort in Vietnam in the 1960s and ′70s. It was shut down and transformed into a commercial freeport and recreational complex in 1992 after the Philippine Senate rejected an extension of U.S. lease. A year earlier, the U.S. Air Force withdrew from Clark Air Base near Subic after nearby Mount Pinatubo roared back to life in the second-largest volcanic eruption of the 20th century and belched ash on the air base and outlying regions. The American flag was lowered for the final time and the last batch of American sailors left Subic in November 1992, ending nearly a century of American military presence in the Philippines that began in 1898 when the U.S. seized the archipelago in a new colonial era after Spain held the Southeast Asian nation as a colony for more than three centuries. Washington granted independence on July 4, 1946, but maintained military bases and facilities, including Subic. China’s seizure in the mid-1990s of Mischief Reef, a coral outcrop within the exclusive economic zone of the Philippines that extends into the South China Sea, “provided the first hint that the allies may have been too quick to downgrade their relationship," said Greg Poling, director of the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative at the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Strategic and International Studies. The Philippine Constitution prohibits permanent basing of foreign troops in the country and their involvement in local combat but allows temporary visits by foreign troops under security pacts such as the 2014 Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement and a 1998 Visiting Forces Agreement. The 1998 agreement allowed a large number of American forces to be deployed in the southern Philippines to help provide combat training and intelligence to Filipino forces battling the then-al-Qaida-linked Abu Sayyaf group, which was blamed for deadly bombings and mass kidnappings for ransom, including three Americans — one of whom was beheaded and another shot and killed in a Philippine army rescue. The third survived. There is still, however, domestic opposition to a U.S. presence in the Philippines, which left-wing groups have criticized as neo-colonialism, reinforced by the 2014 killing of a Filipina transgender woman by a U.S. Marine, Wong said. Governor Manuel Mamba of northern Cagayan province, where Bacarro said the U.S. has reportedly sought access for its forces in two local military encampments, vowed to oppose such an American military presence. Cagayan, located on the northern tip of the main Luzon island, lies across a narrow sea border from Taiwan, the Taiwan Strait and southern China. “It’ll be very dangerous for us. If they stay here, whoever is their enemy will become our enemy,” Mamba told the AP by telephone, adding the Philippines could be targeted by nuclear weapons if the conflict over Taiwan boils over. “You cannot really remove any presumption by anyone that the Philippines has a nuclear capability through the Americans, who will be here,” Mamba said.

Thai Journalists Wary of Proposed Media Ethics Act

4 months ago

Lawmakers in Thailand debated a media ethics bill on Tuesday that some say will address the spread of “fake news” and others warn could be used to obstruct the work of journalists. Dubbed the Media Ethics and Professional Standards Promotion Act, the legislation seeks to form a regulatory council that would set standards on ethics and oversee a registry of journalists, news outlets and online content creators. If passed, an ethics board made up of lawyers, journalists with at least 10 years’ media experience, and others would oversee public complaints and make recommendations on penalties such as warnings or fines. Supporters of the bill say it will improve journalism standards and protect against false news and disinformation. But critics say that the regulation could allow the government greater control over the media, noting that while registration with the council is not mandatory, the bill does not say how authorities will respond to journalists who choose not to register. Critics also warn the council risks stifling coverage of sensitive issues and could result in curbing Thailand’s vibrant social media scene. Lawmakers Tuesday had mixed responses to the proposal. Somchai Sawaengkarn, an appointed senator in parliament, said at the debate that the law could help reform an “ethically problematic” industry that currently includes real journalists and fake media. But Thanyawat Kamolwongwat, an MP from the progressive-leaning Move Forward Party, said a broadly worded provision that press freedom not disrupt “good morality” could be used to obstruct the role media plays in democracy. Ultimately, not enough lawmakers were present to put the draft to a vote. The reprieve offered some relief for media advocates who are watching the passage of the bill closely. “I’m relieved that, for once, our demand was heard in the halls of power,” said Teeranai Charuvastra, vice president for press freedom and media reform at the Thai Journalists Association and a journalist at Prachatai English. The journalist association has opposed the draft bill as have other Thai media organizations. Teeranai said that some wording in the draft bill may inadvertently open a door to interference. Additionally, media ethics could be defined so narrowly that it could stifle investigative reporting and discourage discussion of topics deemed sensitive by the authorities, he said. However, Teeranai believes that an effective and practical mechanism is needed to encourage the press to be more responsible. Wasinee Pabuprapap, co-founder of the nonprofit Thai Media for Democracy Alliance, says she is concerned that the bill could leave journalists confused over what they can safely report. “We can expect more self-censorship from the press,” said Wasinee, who is also a reporter for the news outlet Workpoint Today. She noted that the timing of the law is putting some journalists on edge. A general election is expected to be called in 2023 and political parties are already campaigning. Journalists in Thailand already work in a legally challenging environment, according to media watchdog Reporters Without Borders. As a result, mainstream media typically follow the government line and outlets that try to offer an opposing view risk harassment. Reporters “need to be aware that any criticism of the government could cause a draconian response,” RSF has said. In its summary of the Thai media environment, RSF notes that Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha has said journalists should “play a major role in supporting the government’s affairs.” In the restrictive environment, Russia and China have attempted to expand their influence in Thailand through state-controlled operations. In August, members of the state-run China Media Group and the Confederation of Thai Journalists held discussions on cooperation, including working together on “correcting fake news and disinformation” on legacy media and social media platforms. A press release from the Confederation of Thai Journalists said the talks focused on “disinformation” that impacted the public image of China. It added that the China Media Group recommended reporting only “positive, non-divisive subjects” on Thailand to create a “good perception” of the country for Chinese audiences. Some Thai media outlets, including the conservative TOP News, have regularly broadcast pro-Russian stories during the war in Ukraine. On Feb. 1, Prayut and some Cabinet members attended an event marking the second anniversary of the media outlet. The prime minister also featured on one of its live morning news shows, telling audiences to follow the station, which, he said, "presents news from facts, according to my assessment." Countries globally are seeing a rise in disinformation. But journalist associations in Thailand have previously said that while the media sometimes make errors in their reporting, they do not publish false news. When an order was issued under an emergency decree in 2021 to tackle what the government labeled “disinformation” over its handling of the coronavirus, six media outlets protested the move. In a joint statement, the media groups said, “Although there are some reporting errors, they are not disinformation as labeled by the government.” Thai House Speaker Chuan Leekpai has said the proposed media bill will be put back in line behind other bills waiting on a vote. MPs and observers, however, doubt that a vote will happen before the current House session ends in a few weeks.

Brazil Pushes Illegal Miners Out of Yanomami Territory

4 months ago

Armed government officials with Brazil's justice, Indigenous and environment ministries pressed illegal gold miners out of Yanomami Indigenous territory Wednesday, citing widespread river contamination, famine and disease they have brought to one of the most isolated groups in the world. People involved in illegal gold dredging streamed away from the territory on foot. The operation could take months. There are believed to be some 20,000 people engaged in the activity, often using toxic mercury to separate the gold. An estimated 30,000 Yanomami people live in Brazil’s largest Indigenous territory, which covers an area roughly the size of Portugal and stretches across Roraima and Amazonas states in the northwest corner of Brazil’s Amazon. The authorities — the Brazilian environmental agency Ibama, with support from the National Foundation of Indigenous Peoples and the National Guard — found an airplane, a bulldozer, and makeshift lodges and hangars, and destroyed them — as permitted by law. Two guns and three boats with 5,000 liters of fuel were seized. They also discovered a helicopter hidden in the forest and set it ablaze. Ibama established a checkpoint next to a Yanomami village on the Uraricoera River to interrupt the miners' supply chain there. Agents seized the 12-meter boats, loaded with a ton of food, freezers, generators, and internet antennas. The cargo will now supply the federal agents. No more boats carrying fuel and equipment will be allowed to proceed past the blockade. The large amount of supplies bound upriver could indicate some of the gold miners were ignoring President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s promise to expel them after years of neglect under his predecessor, Bolsonaro, who tried to legalize the activity. Other miners, however, sensed it was better to return to the city. On Tuesday, The Associated Press visited a makeshift port alongside the Uraricoera River, accessible only by three-hour drive on a dirt road. Dozens of gold miners arrived over the course of the day, some of them after walking for days through the forest, en route to state capital Boa Vista. One of them, João Batista Costa, 61, told reporters the Yanomami are dying of hunger and that recent emergency food shipments have not been enough. The federal government has declared a public health emergency for the Yanomami people, who are suffering from malnutrition and diseases such as malaria as a consequence of illegal mining. A report published yesterday by the Health Ministry found that gold miners have invaded four clinics inside Yanomami territory, leaving them inoperational. In the city of Boa Vista, where starving and sick Indigenous people have been medevaced to a temporary medical facility, there are 700 Yanomami, more than three times its capacity. The gold miners, who come from poor regions, such as Maranhao state in Brazil's Northeast, usually cross the forest wearing flip-flops, carrying only food and personal belongings in their backpacks. They sleep in hammocks in campsites. But their mining depends on sophisticated logistics to outfox authorities and is backed by investors outside the forest. Such tactics include: illicit fuel distribution on the outskirts of Indigenous land; airstrips carved from the jungle for transport of miners and supplies; light planes with modified tail numbers, registered to front companies; helicopters operating between mining sites on the reserves, and clandestine communication networks. “This operation hasn’t come a moment too soon,” Sarah Shenker, the head of the nonprofit Survival International in Brazil, said in a statement. "It’s absolutely vital that the authorities get the miners out, and keep them out. They’ve blighted the Yanomami’s lives for far too long, and have caused untold misery and destruction. Even if all of them are removed, and they can be kept out, it will take years for the Yanomami and their rainforest to recover.”

Kim Jong Un Shows Off Daughter, Missiles at North Korean Parade

4 months ago

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and his young daughter took center stage at a huge military parade, fueling speculation that she’s being primed as a future leader of the isolated country as her father showed off his latest, largest nuclear missiles. Wednesday night's parade in the capital, Pyongyang, featured the newest hardware in Kim’s growing nuclear arsenal, including what experts said was possibly a new solid-fuel intercontinental ballistic missile he may test in coming months. That missile was part of around a dozen ICBMs Kim’s troops rolled out at the event in the capital, Pyongyang, an unprecedented number that underscored how he continues to expand his military capabilities despite limited resources in face of deepening tensions with his neighbors and the United States. The parade was the fifth known public appearance by Kim’s daughter, Kim Ju Ae, his second-born child who is believed to be around 10 years old. On Tuesday, Kim Jong Un brought his daughter to visit troops as he lauded the “irresistible might” of his nuclear-armed military. State media have signaled a lofty role for Kim Ju Ae. She's been called “respected” and “beloved,” and a photo released Tuesday showed her sitting in the seat of honor at a banquet, flanked by generals and her parents. North Korean photos released Wednesday showed Kim, wearing a black coat and fedora, attending the parade with his wife and daughter. Kim smiled and raised his hand from a balcony as thousands of troops lined up in a brightly illuminated Kim Il Sung Square, which is named after his grandfather, the nation’s founder. The parade marked the 75th founding anniversary of North Korea’s army and came after weeks of preparations involving huge numbers of troops and civilians mobilized to glorify Kim’s rule and his relentless push to cement the North’s status as a nuclear power. Photos released by state media showed transport and launcher trucks carrying about 10 of the country’s Hwasong-17 ICBMs, which demonstrated a flight range that would allow them to reach deep into the U.S. mainland during a flight test last year. Those missiles were followed by another large missile encased in a canister and transported on a nine-axle vehicle. It wasn’t immediately clear whether the missile was a mockup or an actual rocket, but Kim Dong-yub, a professor at Seoul’s University of North Korean Studies, said the missile was likely a version of a solid-fuel ICBM the North has been trying to develop for years. He added that the unprecedented number of Hwasong-17s paraded in Wednesday’s event suggests progress in efforts to mass produce those weapons. State media reports didn’t immediately mention whether Kim Jong Un delivered a speech during the event. The parade came after Kim met with his top military brass Monday and ordered an expansion of combat exercises, as he continues to escalate an already provocative run in weapons demonstrations in face of deepening tensions with his neighbors and Washington. “This time, Kim Jong Un let North Korea’s expanding tactical and long-range missile forces speak for themselves,” said Leif-Eric Easley, a professor of international studies at Ewha Womans University in Seoul. “The message Pyongyang wants to send internationally, demonstrating its capabilities to deter and coerce, will likely come in the form of solid-fuel missile tests and detonation of a miniaturized nuclear device,” he said. He was referring to U.S. and South Korean assessments that the North could be preparing to conduct its first nuclear test since September 2017. North Korea’s official Korean Central News Agency confirmed that the parade featured a variety of nuclear-capable weapons, including tactical nuclear weapons targeting South Korea. The agency described the ICBMs as crucial weapons supporting the North’s ongoing “power-to-power, all-out confrontation” against its enemies. Lee Sung-jun, spokesperson of South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff, said during a briefing that the South Korean and U.S. militaries were closely analyzing the North Korean photos and reports to evaluate the weaponry. North Korea is coming off a record-breaking year in weapons testing, and the dozens of missiles it fired in 2022 included potentially nuclear-capable systems designed to strike targets in South Korea and the U.S. mainland. The intensified testing activity was punctuated by fiery statements and a new law threatening preemptive nuclear attacks against its neighbors and the United States in a broad range of scenarios. Kim doubled down on his nuclear push entering 2023. During a major political conference in December, Kim called for an “exponential increase” of the country’s nuclear warheads, mass production of battlefield tactical nukes targeting “enemy” South Korea and the development of more powerful intercontinental ballistic missiles that could reach the continental United States. North Korean state TV may broadcast the parade on tape delay later Thursday. Analysts will then pour over the footage for clues about the country’s progress in nuclear weapons and missile technologies. Some experts anticipated that North Korea would use the parade to showcase a new solid-fuel intercontinental ballistic missile, which would potentially be a crucial addition to the country’s long-range arsenal targeting the U.S. mainland. In December, Kim supervised a test of a “high-thrust solid-fuel motor” for a new strategic weapon he said would be developed in the “shortest span of time,” which experts said likely referred to a solid-fuel ICBM. The use of solid fuel could reduce the amount of launch preparation time and allow missiles to be more mobile on the ground. All of the ICBMs the North has flight-tested since 2017 used liquid propellants. Solid-fuel ICBMs highlighted an extensive wish list Kim announced under a five-year arms development plan in 2021, which also included tactical nuclear weapons, hypersonic missiles, nuclear-powered submarines and spy satellites. Analysts say Kim’s decision to bring his daughter to public events tied to his military is to send a statement to the world he has no intention to voluntarily surrender his nuclear weapons, which he apparently sees as the strongest guarantee of his survival and the extension of his family’s dynastic rule. An official from South Korea’s Unification Ministry, who spoke on condition of anonymity during a background briefing, said it’s too early to determine whether Kim Ju Ae is being groomed as the fourth heredity ruler of North Korea but added that “all possibilities are open.” The official said her repeated appearance in major events and her prominent exposure in state media is aimed at urging “ultimate loyalty” to the Kim family.

What do Americans give their valentines?

by Lauren Monsen, 4 months ago

Love is in the air! Learn which Valentine's Day tokens are most popular in the U.S., and why they're given to those held dear.

African community leaders take home U.S. lessons

by Leigh Hartman, 4 months ago

The Community Engagement Exchange program provides emerging civil society leaders with the tools and resources they need to succeed.

Latest Developments in Ukraine: Feb. 9

4 months ago

For full coverage of the crisis in Ukraine, visit Flashpoint Ukraine. The latest developments in Russia’s war on Ukraine. All times EST.   12:01 a.m.: Russian consumer demand contracted at its fastest pace in seven years in 2022 and real disposable incomes fell, data released on Wednesday showed according to Reuters, as the country's population felt the effects of its dimming economic prospects.  Russia's export-dependent economy has withstood the impact of sanctions better than first expected, but still suffered a GDP contraction of around 2.5%, as the West imposed restrictions in an effort to punish Moscow over its actions in Ukraine.  Although its economic outlook this year is not so gloomy, Russia faces a labor market shortage, lower oil and gas revenues as price caps and embargoes kick in, as well as a sharply widening budget deficit, 2023 looks set to present new challenges for the government.  Real disposable incomes fell 1% in 2022, preliminary data from the Rosstat federal statistics service showed. Real wages, which are adjusted for inflation, rose 0.3% year-on-year in November, just the second positive reading since March.  Some information in this report came from Reuters.

US Students’ ‘Big Idea’ Could Help NASA Explore the Moon

4 months ago

Last November, Northeastern University student Andre Neto Caetano watched the live, late-night launch of NASA’s Artemis 1 from Kennedy Space Center in Florida on a cellphone placed on top of a piano in the lobby of the hotel where he was staying in California. “I had, not a flashback, but a flash-forward of seeing maybe Artemis 4 or something, and COBRA, as part of the payload, and it is on the moon doing what it was meant to do,” Caetano told VOA during a recent Skype interview. Artemis 1 launched the night before Caetano and his team of scholars presented their Crater Observing Bio-inspired Rolling Articulator (COBRA) rover project at NASA’s Breakthrough, Innovative, and Game Changing (BIG) Idea Challenge. The team hoped to impress judges assembled in the remote California desert. “They were skeptical that the mobility solutions that we were proposing would actually work,” he said. That skepticism, said Caetano, came from the simplicity of their design. “It’s a robot that moves like a snake, and then the head and the tail connect, and then it rolls,” he said. NASA’s BIG Idea Challenge prompted teams of college students to compete to develop solutions for the agency’s ambitious goals in the upcoming Artemis missions to the moon, which Caetano explains are “extreme lunar terrain mobility.” Northeastern’s COBRA is designed to move through the fine dust, or regolith, of the lunar surface to probe the landscape for interesting features, including ice and water, hidden in the shadows of deep craters. “They never could … deploy a robot or a ground vehicle that can sort of negotiate the environment and get to the bottom of these craters and look for ice water content,” said professor Alireza Ramezani, who advises the COBRA team and has worked with robotic designs that mimic the movements of real organisms, something Caetano said formed a baseline for their research. “With him building a robot dog and robot bat, we knew we wanted to have some ‘bioinspiration’ in our project,” Caetano said. Using biology as the driving force behind COBRA’s design was also something Ramezani hoped would win over judges in NASA’s competition. “Our robot sort of tumbled 80 to 90 feet (24-27 meters) down this hill and that … impressed the judges,” he told VOA. “We did this with minimum energy consumption and within, like, 10 or 15 seconds.” Caetano said COBRA weighs about 7 kilograms, “so the fact that COBRA is super light brings a benefit to it, as well.” Ramezani added that COBRA is also cost-effective. “If you want to have a space-worthy platform, it’s going to be in the order of $100,000 to $200,000. You can have many of these systems tumbling down these craters,” he said. The Northeastern team’s successful COBRA test put to rest any lingering skepticism, sending them to the top of NASA’s 2022 BIG Idea competition and hopefully — in the not-too-distant future — to the top of NASA’s Space Launch System on its way to the moon. “I’m not saying this, our judges said this. It’s potentially going to transform the way future space exploration systems look like,” said Ramezani. “They are even talking to some of our partners to see if we can increase technology readiness of the system, make it space worthy, and deploy it to the moon.” Which is why, despite his impending graduation later this year, Caetano plans to continue developing COBRA alongside his teammates. “Because we brought it to life together, the idea of just fully abandoning it at graduation probably doesn’t appeal to most of us,” Caetano said. “In some way or another, we still want to be involved in the project, in making sure that … we are still the ones who put it on the moon at some point.” That could happen as soon as 2025, the year NASA hopes to return astronauts to the lunar surface in the Artemis program.

As Political Decorum Declines, Biden’s Verbal Jujitsu Strategy Emerges

4 months ago

Taking his message of unity Wednesday to Wisconsin, a state key to his likely 2024 reelection bid, U.S. President Joe Biden doubled down on his criticisms of Republicans, calling out by name those who had called him a “liar” during his State of the Union address Tuesday evening. “Many of you have seen, we've had a spirited debate last night with my Republican friends,” he said, referring to the boos and jeers befalling upon him as he asserted that Republicans aim to sunset Social Security and Medicare, social programs cherished by supporters of both major parties. “Marjorie Taylor-Greene and others stood up and said, ‘Liar, liar,’” Biden said, referring to the Republican representative from Georgia who heckled him repeatedly. He then laid out names of Republican lawmakers, including Florida Senator Rick Scott, Wisconsin Senator Ron Johnson and Utah Senator Mike Lee, and the instances in which they suggested cutting government spending on the programs that tens of millions of Americans depend on. “Sounds pretty clear to me. How about you?” Biden, a Democrat, quipped before repeating what he concluded in his remarks following the outbursts — that Republicans now agree to protect Social Security and Medicare “It looks like we negotiated a deal last night,” he joked. The verbal jujitsu skills displayed amid Republican attacks and the decline in congressional decorum is a preview of the way Biden will conduct his expected reelection campaign in 2024, observers say. “I do think President Biden was challenging or even ‘baiting’ Republicans to respond to him,” said John Fortier, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute who focuses on Congress and elections. “House leadership had warned members to not take the bait, but the dynamic spiraled. The members who shouted out that the president was lying probably did not help their cause.”  Decades in 'the business' With 50 years of political experience under his belt, Biden, now 80 years old, appeared to relish the exchange, grinning as he swiped back at Republicans. “We'll, I'm glad to see — I tell you, I enjoy conversion,” he said. “It’s hard to say if the president was expecting that reaction, but he was certainly prepared for it. He’s been in this business for a long time,” said Jeff Bennett, professor and chair of communication studies at Vanderbilt University. “The president was arguing that he’s a reasonable person who is willing to reach across the aisle to get things done. And then the hecklers ended up providing the visual evidence he needed to support that claim.” The heckling opponents appeared unruly and disrespectful of what is supposed to be an orderly American tradition that began with President Woodrow Wilson in 1913, observers noted. “Ceremonial occasions aren't debate occasions, which is why congressional outbursts seem so out of place and indecorous,” Jennifer Mercieca, who teaches presidential rhetoric at Texas A&M University, told VOA. “Those outbursts aren't what the Greeks called ‘kairotic’ — the right time and place. it's not the right time nor the right place for debate.” White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre contrasted lawmakers who behaved in a way that “Americans don’t want” with a president who “was very clear in how he sees the next two years.” “He called out members on live television, in front of millions of Americans, and effectively put them on the defense,” she said in a briefing to reporters Wednesday. Republicans are certainly defensive. “We've made it clear from the beginning, we are going to honor our debt, we are going to protect our seniors. And furthermore, we're going to take care of our military personnel," Representative Andy Ogles of Tennessee told VOA. "And so for him to stand in the dais at the podium, and to make those accusations and really scare the American people was untruthful.” Biden’s tone was “accusatory,” Ben Carson, secretary of Housing and Urban Development under the Trump administration, told VOA. “It really wasn't bipartisan at all.” Decorum in decline As Republicans heckled throughout the speech, including shouting calls to “secure the border,” many are noticing that these disruptions are now considered acceptable in American politics. It’s a far cry from the condemnation lobbed by members of both parties when Representative Joe Wilson of South Carolina yelled “You lie!” during President Barack Obama’s 2009 speech to a joint session of Congress. Booed by his colleagues, Wilson, a Republican, later issued an apology to the president, a Democrat. “Then, it was a single voice, and it was shocking,” Fortier noted. “Last night, it became almost a team back and forth, somewhat reminiscent of Prime Minister’s Question Time, with many voices calling back at the president,” he said, referring to the animated British parliamentary tradition when members of the House of Commons grill the prime minister, often in an unruly manner. Biden will likely aim to disarm combative congressional Republicans with the same strategy of boxing them in a corner as he is set to again clash with lawmakers demanding spending cuts before agreeing to pass a debt ceiling hike to avoid the country from defaulting in a few months. “I can’t imagine that’s how negotiations to the debt ceiling will play out, but this moment will be an important one in the coming months,” Bennett said. “This is all part of his strategy to show that he is a uniter who is willing to reach across the aisle to do the business of the American people.” Bringing the parties together will not be easy. New polling from Ipsos shows that 70% of Americans believe the country is “far apart” on issues of government budget and debt. Eighty-one percent believe the country is far apart on the abortion issue, and 78% believe the country is far apart on immigration stances.

Rescuers Search for Earthquake Survivors in Turkey, Syria as Death Toll Nears 12,000

4 months ago

Rescue crews in Turkey and Syria raced against time Wednesday and a lack of equipment to find survivors buried in the rubble of buildings toppled by powerful earthquakes that struck the region Monday and left about 12,000 people dead. The rescue effort in Turkey involved 96,000 personnel, the country’s emergency management agency said Wednesday. 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 7.8 magnitude 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. Officials in Turkey said at least 8,574 people were killed and more than 38,000 others were injured. In Syria, where there have been similar complaints of slow response, at least 2,530 have died, according to figures from the Damascus government and rescue groups. The earthquake is now the world’s deadliest seismic event since a 2011 earthquake and tsunami that killed nearly 20,000 people in Japan. Erdogan declared seven days of national mourning and a three-month state of emergency in 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 United Nations in New York during a video briefing from Damascus. He said in Aleppo alone, they estimate a third of homes 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. But more supplies need to come in urgently. The World Food Program appealed Wednesday for $46 million to provide food assistance to a half-million people in Turkey and Syria for the next three to four months. Additionally, the main road the United Nations 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.

US Two-Way Trade Rose in 2022, New Data Show

4 months ago

The United States' two-way trade with other nations spiked in 2022, new federal data show, including trade with China despite increasing friction between the world’s two largest economies. Even while posting record-high exports to 73 countries in 2022, the U.S. still ran a trade deficit of $1.19 trillion, up $101 billion from 2021, the U.S. Commerce Department said this week. The deficit reflected the fact that the U.S. also recorded record-high imports from 90 countries. U.S. imports from China reached $537 billion in 2022 compared with $505 billion the previous year. The U.S. sold a record-high $154 billion in exports to the Chinese market, up slightly from $151 billion the previous year. The net trade deficit with China for 2022 was $383 billion. The data, released Tuesday, came out just hours before U.S. President Joe Biden delivered the State of the Union address in which he promised to boost domestic manufacturing, to use only U.S.-made materials for a spate of infrastructure projects, and to remain focused on “winning the competition” against China. However, what “winning” looks like may be difficult to determine. Politics versus reality Relations between the U.S. and China worsened during the past week, after Biden ordered the U.S. military to shoot down what intelligence officials said was a Chinese espionage balloon that had floated across the U.S. Prior to the shoot-down, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken canceled a scheduled trip to Beijing. The balloon incident followed months of rising tensions and calls from many U.S. officials for a “decoupling” of the Chinese and U.S. economies and “reshoring” of key manufacturing to the U.S. But while the Biden administration may be able to use preferential purchasing treatment to shut Chinese construction materials and other goods out of U.S. infrastructure projects, experts said there is little evidence of broader separation between the U.S. and Chinese economies. “Regardless of the political rhetoric, which is tending towards a kind of rigid and suspicious environment between China and the United States, the practical moves on the ground from a business and commerce perspective show that there is a deep and sustained connection between the Chinese and U.S. economies,” Claire Reade, a senior counsel with the law firm Arnold & Porter and former assistant U.S. trade representative for China affairs, told VOA. Mark Kennedy, director of the Wilson Center’s Wahba Institute for Strategic Competition, agreed, saying, “There has not been a broad-based decoupling … and many economists are seeing that there really hasn't been a significant onshoring or reshoring. There are still strong ties, and to break those ties with China would be both difficult and costly.” Trade as ‘ballast’ Craig Allen, president of the U.S.-China Business Council, told VOA it's a good sign that trade between the U.S. and China has been persistently strong despite the imposition of tariffs by both sides and the Biden administration’s recent move to block the sale of cutting-edge microprocessors to China. “Trade has acted as an important ballast in the relationship between Washington and Beijing in the past, and I think it’s still the case,” he said via email. “Competition is surely defining the contours of the relationship at the moment, and we hope that the relationship doesn’t sour any further as a result.” “I think, to that point, this new data can be a silver lining," said Allen. "Even though the United States and China are competing with one another, this last year of data and the growth in U.S. exports to China really shows that we can simultaneously maintain a trading relationship that benefits Americans.” A delicate balance Reade said the Biden administration, in its effort to privilege American manufacturers over Chinese firms, will face a difficult challenge. Insulating American companies from non-U.S. rivals could make them less able to compete internationally or could lead to tit-for-tat protectionism against U.S. firms. At the same time, she said, there is strong evidence that many large Chinese firms, including those that manufacture the kinds of goods used in major infrastructure projects, receive favorable treatment from the Chinese government that insulates them from market pressures, unfairly advantaging them over competitors. “To the extent the competition is not fair competition, it is also legitimate to not allow destructive price undercutting that decimates legitimate industries,” she said. US economic strength Looking beyond the U.S.-China relationship, experts said that much of the explanation for the rising trade deficit has to do with the relative strength of the U.S. economy compared with those of many of its trading partners. A strong dollar makes foreign goods and services more affordable for Americans, while making U.S.-made goods and services more expensive overseas. “The big takeaway is that when you're running a high-pressure economy, which the U.S. is, you're going to import a lot of stuff,” Gary Hufbauer, a senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics, told VOA. “And that's exactly what has happened. You've got the unemployment rate down to 3.4% and two job vacancies for every worker unemployed … that really speaks to just high-pressure demand.” Although China was the largest source of imports to the U.S. in 2022, Canada and Mexico were the United States’ largest two-way trading partners. The countries share lengthy land borders with the U.S. and participate in a three-way free trade agreement. Total U.S.-Canada trade was $794 billion in 2022, and U.S.-Mexico trade was $779 billion. After Canada, Mexico and China, Japan was the next largest of the United States’ trading partners, with $229 billion in goods trading hands last year. The U.S. did $903 billion in two-way trade with the nations of the European Union in 2022, with the largest share, $220 billion, between the U.S. and Germany. Other large two-way trading partners in 2022 were South Korea at $187 billion; the United Kingdom at $141 billion; Vietnam at $139 billion; Taiwan at $136 billion; and India at $133 billion.

150 minutes of brisk walking a week reduce liver fat

by Zachary Sweger-Penn State, 4 months ago

Briskly walking for 150 minutes a week can significantly reduce liver fat in people with nonalcoholic fatty liver disease.

US, States Weigh Farmland Restrictions After Chinese Balloon Incident

4 months ago

Near the banks of Montana's Musselshell River, cattle rancher Michael Miller saw a large, white orb above the town of Harlowton last week, a day before U.S. officials revealed they were tracking a suspected Chinese spy balloon over the state. The balloon caused a stir in the 900-person town surrounded by cattle ranches, wind farms and scattered nuclear missile silos behind chain link fences.  Miller worries about China as a rising threat to the U.S. but questioned how much intelligence could be gained from a balloon. China's bigger threat, he said, is to the U.S. economy. Like many throughout the country, Miller wonders if stricter laws are needed to bar farmland sales to foreign nationals so power over agriculture and the food supply doesn't end up in the wrong hands.  "It's best not to have a foreign entity buying up land, especially one that's not really friendly to us," Miller said. "They are just going to take us over economically, instead of military-wise."  Miller's concerns have been increasingly shared by U.S. lawmakers since the Chinese balloon's voyage over American skies inflamed tensions between Washington and Beijing.  In Congress and statehouses, the balloon's journey added traction to decades-old concerns about foreign land ownership. U.S. Senator Jon Tester, a Democrat, is sponsoring legislation to include agriculture as a factor in national security decisions allowing foreign real estate investments.  "The bottom line is we don't want folks from China owning our farmland. It goes against food security, and it goes against national security," Tester told The Associated Press.  At least 11 state legislatures also are considering measures to address the concern. That includes Montana and North Dakota, where the U.S. Air Force recently warned that a $700 million corn mill proposed near a military base by the American subsidiary of a Chinese company would risk national security.  City council members in Grand Forks, North Dakota, endured a barrage of criticism from town residents Monday night before voting 5-0 to abandon the plan. The move came a year after a joint press release from local officials and North Dakota's governor called the project "extraordinary," saying it would bring jobs and bolster the farm industry.  Enraged residents of the 59,000-person city near the Minnesota border demanded resignations from council members they claimed had tried to push through the plan, brushing off Chinese threats to national security.  "You decided, for whatever reason, this was such a fantastic thing for our city that you got blinders on," said Dexter Perkins, a University of North Dakota geology professor. "You guys went all in when there were a gazillion unanswered questions."  Before the Air Force's warning, officials said they weren't in a position to opine on national security matters.  Tiny percentage Foreign entities and individuals control less than 3% of U.S. farmland, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Of that, those with ties to China control less than 1%, or roughly 340 square kilometers.  Yet in recent years, transactions of agricultural and nonagricultural land have attracted scrutiny, particularly in states with large U.S. military presences.  Limitations on foreign individuals or entities owning farmland vary widely throughout the U.S. Most states allow it, while 14 have restrictions. No states have a total prohibition. Of the five states where the federal agriculture department says entities with ties to China own the most farmland, four don't limit foreign ownership: North Carolina, Virginia, Texas and Utah.  The fifth, Missouri, has a cap on foreign land ownership that state lawmakers want to make more stringent.  Ownership restriction supporters often speculate about foreign buyers' motives and whether people with ties to adversaries such as China intend to use land for spying or exerting control over the U.S. food supply.  Texas in 2021 banned infrastructure deals with individuals tied to hostile governments, including China. The policy came after a Chinese army veteran and real estate tycoon purchased a wind farm in a border town near a U.S. Air Force base. This year, Texas Republicans want to expand that with a ban against land purchases by individuals and entities from hostile countries, including China.  Critics see it as anti-foreigner hysteria, with Texas' Asian American community particularly concerned about the effect on immigrants who want to buy homes and build businesses.  In Utah, concern has centered on a Chinese company's purchase of a speedway near an army depot in 2015 and Chinese-owned farms exporting alfalfa and hay from drought-stricken parts of the state.  Lawmakers this year are considering two proposals that would, to varying degrees, ban entities with ties to foreign governments from owning land.  "Do we really want any foreign country coming in and buying our agricultural land, our forests or our mineral rights?" asked Republican state Representative Kay Christofferson, who is sponsoring one of the bills. "If it would interfere with our sovereignty — especially in an emergency situation or during a threat to national security — I think that we'd lose our ability as a state to be independent and self-sufficient."  Caitlin Welsh, director of the Global Food Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the scramble to limit foreign land ownership tracked rising U.S.-China tensions. Welsh shares concerns about U.S. adversaries purchasing land near military bases like the one in Grand Forks but said worries about China controlling the food supply were overblown.  "China is just a small slice of the bigger picture of foreign ownership," Welsh said. "When it comes to food security, the biggest threat is that foreign owners can potentially pay a higher price for agricultural land, which then drives up prices."  The restrictions have encountered resistance in states with strong property rights. In Wyoming, two proposals to restrict foreign land ownership failed this week, even though Republicans who control the statehouse were sympathetic to concerns about China expanding its reach.  "We've had a lot of problems with China lately in the air. Big balloons flying over us. We look at this as a national and state security bill, for Wyoming and the United States," said state Representative Bill Allemand, a Republican from Casper.  Lawmakers on Monday rejected Allemand's proposal to ban ownership of more than an acre of land by people from China, Russia and countries the U.S. government considers state sponsors of terrorism. Skeptics said it would be difficult to police because of the complex web of title companies and holding corporations in agricultural real estate.  "This is very easy to get around," Republican state Representative Martha Lawley said. "We may end the day feeling good about ourselves, but we've opened up to a lot of liability."  Questions about foreign investment are increasingly prompting debate about whether cities and states should be rolling out welcome mats or shutting doors to potential threats. The issue can pit local officials interested in economic development against state and federal agencies concerned with national security.  That was initially the case with the proposed corn mill in Grand Forks, where officials last year lauded the plans. But days after the U.S. Air Force shot down the Chinese balloon, which China insists was only a weather balloon, the sentiment had fizzled and the city changed course.  "There's something that I've learned through this process, and that is sometimes to slow down and make sure we fully understand before we move to the next level," Grand Forks council member Ken Vein said before voting to abandon the corn mill.

Australia to Review Chinese-Made Cameras in Defense Offices

4 months ago

The Australian government will examine surveillance technology used in offices of the defense department, Defense Minister Richard Marles said Thursday, amid reports the Chinese-made cameras installed there raised security risks. The move comes after Britain in November asked its departments to stop installing Chinese-linked surveillance cameras at sensitive buildings. Some U.S. states have banned vendors and products from several Chinese technology companies. "This is an issue and ... we're doing an assessment of all the technology for surveillance within the defense (department) and where those particular cameras are found, they are going to be removed," Marles told ABC Radio in an interview. Opposition lawmaker James Paterson said Thursday his own audit revealed almost 1,000 units of equipment by Hangzhou Hikvision Digital Technology and Dahua Technology, two partly state-owned Chinese firms, were installed across more than 250 Australian government offices. Paterson, the shadow minister for cybersecurity and countering foreign interference, urged the government to urgently come up with a plan to remove all such cameras. Marles said the issue was significant but "I don't think we should overstate it." Australian media reported on Wednesday that the national war memorial in Canberra would remove several Chinese-made security cameras installed on the premises over concerns of spying. Hikvision and Dahua Technology did not immediately respond to requests seeking comment. Australia and China have been looking to mend diplomatic ties, which soured after Canberra in 2018 banned Huawei from its 5G broadband network. That cooled further after Australia called for an independent investigation into the origins of COVID-19. China responded with tariffs on several Australian commodities. Prime Minister Anthony Albanese said he was not concerned about how Beijing might react to the removal of cameras. "We act in accordance with Australia's national interest. We do so transparently and that's what we will continue to do," Albanese told reporters.

COVID Treatment Shows Encouraging Results in Trial, Study Says 

4 months ago

A single-injection antiviral treatment for newly infected COVID-19 patients reduced the risk of hospitalization by half in a large-scale clinical trial, a study published Wednesday said. Stanford University professor Jeffrey Glenn, co-author of the study published in the New England Journal of Medicine, said the new drug "showed profound benefits for vaccinated and unvaccinated people alike." While the number of Americans dying daily of the disease caused by a coronavirus has fallen to about 500, treatments for COVID-19 remain limited. One of the most common — Paxlovid, made by Pfizer — involves taking 30 pills over five days. The new treatment involves a single dose of pegylated interferon lambda, a synthetic version of a naturally occurring protein that infected cells secrete to defend against viral infection. "What it does is it binds receptors on the surfaces of cells that activate our own antiviral defense mechanisms," said Glenn, a professor of medicine, microbiology and immunology who heads the Stanford Biosecurity and Pandemic Preparedness Initiative. "So if a virus has infected the cell, it will turn on processes that aim to destroy the virus's replication," he said. "It will also send signals to neighboring cells to warn them viruses are on their way and get ready to defend yourself." Receptors for interferon lambda are primarily in the linings of the lungs, airways and intestine — the main places COVID-19 strikes. "We're turning on these antiviral mechanisms in the cells, the lung, where the infection is happening," Glenn said. The phase three trial of the drug, conducted from June 2021 to February 2022, involved nearly 2,000 patients with COVID symptoms in Brazil and Canada, about 85 percent of whom had been vaccinated. A total of 931 newly infected COVID patients were given a single injection of interferon lambda, while 1,018 participants were given a placebo. The risk of COVID-19–related hospitalization or death from any cause was 47 percent lower in the interferon group than in the placebo group, according to the researchers. Twenty-five of the 931 people who received the injection within seven days of exhibiting COVID symptoms were hospitalized, compared with 57 of the 1,018 who received the placebo. Vaccinated patients treated with interferon lambda experienced a 51 percent reduction in hospitalization relative to the placebo group. There was an 89 percent reduction in hospitalization among unvaccinated patients treated within the first three days of the onset of COVID symptoms compared with the placebo group. Developed for hepatitis D Glenn said interferon lambda proved effective against all COVID variants tested, including omicron, and side effects in the group receiving the injections were no greater than among the placebo recipients. Glenn is the founder of a small biotechnology company called Eiger Biopharmaceuticals that acquired interferon lambda to develop drugs for the hepatitis delta virus. "When COVID came, I said this would be the perfect drug for COVID," said Glenn, who left the Palo Alto company but remains on the board of directors and is an equity holder. Eiger sought an emergency use authorization for interferon lambda from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for COVID treatment last year, but it was not granted. That was "very frustrating," Glenn said, though he was hopeful that publication of the study in the New England Journal of Medicine "will help encourage regulators here and around the world to find a way to get lambda into patients as soon as possible."

NATO Leader Visits Austin in Advance of Brussels Meeting > U.S. Department of Defense > Defense Department News

by Jim Garamone, 4 months ago

Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III and NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg discussed helping Ukraine defend itself from Russia's brutal invasion, expansion of the NATO alliance and the need for swift support for Turkey.

Could a Sprinkle of Moon Dust Keep Earth Cool?

4 months ago

Whether out-of-the-box thinking or a sign of desperation, scientists on Wednesday proposed the regular transport of moon dust to a point between Earth and Sun to temper the ravages of global warming.  Ideas for filtering solar radiation to keep Earth from overheating have been kicking around for decades, ranging from giant space-based screens to churning out reflective white clouds.  But the persistent failure to draw down planet-warming greenhouse gas emissions has pushed once-fanciful geoengineering schemes toward center stage in climate policy, investment and research.  Blocking 1%-2% of the Sun's rays is all it would take to lower Earth's surface by a degree or two Celsius, roughly the amount it has warmed over the last century.  The solar radiation technique with the most traction so far is the 24/7 injection of billions of shiny sulfur particles into the upper atmosphere.  So-called stratospheric aerosol injection would be cheap, and scientists know it works because major volcanic eruptions basically do the same thing. When Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines blew its top in 1991, it lowered temperatures in the northern hemisphere by about 0.5 Celsius for nearly a year.  But there are serious potential side-effects, including the disruption of rain patterns upon which millions depend for growing food.   However, a new study in the peer-reviewed journal PLOS Climate explores the possibility of using moon dust as a solar shield.  A team of astronomers applied methods used to track planet formation around distant stars — a messy process that kicks up vast quantities of space dust — to Earth's moon.  Computer simulations showed that putting lunar dust at a gravitational sweet spot between Earth and Sun "blocked out a lot of sunlight with a little amount of mass," said lead author Ben Bromley, a professor of physics at the University of Utah.  'Balancing marbles'  The scientists tested several scenarios involving different particle properties and quantities in different orbits, looking for the one that would throw the most shade.  Moon dust worked best. The quantities needed, they said, would require the equivalent of a major mining operation on Earth.  The authors stressed that their study was designed to calculate potential impact, not logistical feasibility.  "We aren't experts in climate change or rocket science," said co-author Benjamin Bromley, a professor at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.  "We were just exploring different kinds of dust on a variety of orbits to see how effective this approach might be," he added. "We don't want to miss a game changer for such a critical problem."  Experts not involved in the study praised its methodology but doubted whether it would actually work.  "Placing moon dust at the gravity midpoint between Earth and Sun, can indeed reflect heat," said University of Edinburgh professor Stuart Haszeldine.  "But this is like trying to balance marbles on a football — within a week most dust has spun out of stable orbit."  For Joanna Haigh, an emeritus professor of atmospherics at Imperial College London, the study is a distraction.  The main problem, she said, "is the suggestion that the implementation of such schemes will solve the climate crisis whereas it just gives polluters an excuse not to act." 

Spy balloon drama elevates public attention, pressure for the US to confront China

4 months ago

Adults judge children who tell blunt polite truths more harshly than they do liars

4 months ago

Exclusive: US Planning HIMARS Training Center in Europe, General Tells VOA

4 months ago

The U.S. military is planning to set up a training center in Europe to teach NATO allies how to field High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems, or HIMARS, a top U.S. general told VOA, amid increased demand for the systems in Eastern Europe following the weapon’s successes in Ukraine. “We're still in the preliminary stages here, but it would be an area that we would maybe pull in several countries to one location,” V Corps commander Lieutenant General John Kolasheski, who is responsible for U.S. Army operations along NATO’s eastern flank, told VOA in an exclusive interview late Tuesday. The news came as the State Department on Tuesday approved the potential sale of 18 HIMARS launchers to Poland, along with hundreds of Guided Multiple Launch Rocket Systems and dozens of Army Tactical Missile Systems. The Polish government requested the sale, worth an estimated $10 billion. The proposed HIMARS program would be available to NATO countries that are approved for foreign military sales of the long-range artillery systems, which include nations such as Estonia, Poland and Romania on NATO’s eastern side. “They [NATO] see the brutality of what has taken place in Ukraine, and there is a sense of urgency, there's a sense of purpose, and all 30 nations are united to come together to this effective defense of NATO terrain,” Kolasheski said. Estonian Defense Minister Hanno Pevkur told VOA earlier this week that “one of the biggest lessons learned” from the war in Ukraine is that “long fire is extremely important.” HIMARS have been credited with shifting the momentum of the war. Estonia has purchased six HIMARS units that are expected to be delivered in the 2024-25 time frame. An American HIMARS platoon is providing extra defensive capabilities in the Baltics, and Pevkur said the platoon also is allowing Estonian forces to begin training on the rocket systems “today” so they will be ready to use them “from day one.” Poland’s Abrams Academy Kolasheski said the proposed HIMARS academy would be “a similar construct” to the Abrams Tank Training Academy, which opened near Poznan, Poland, last year to familiarize Polish forces with the U.S.-made Abrams main battle tanks. Poland was the first European ally to acquire the Abrams, purchasing 250 M1A2 Abrams tanks last year and 116 M1A1 Abrams tanks in January. Part of the Abrams program includes a type of apprenticeship, where Polish forces are attached to Army tank units to study how to service and fire the tanks, according to Kolasheski. Since the Abrams academy opened last summer, a class of Polish tank operators and a class of maintainers have graduated from it. Poland has fast become a military hub for U.S. forces in Eastern Europe and has been an outspoken advocate for sending Western tanks to Ukraine. ‘Existential threat’ Polish Defense Minister Mariusz Blaszczak said Saturday that Poland had begun training Ukrainian military forces on the German-made Leopard 2 tanks. Asked whether the Abrams Tank Training Academy in Poland would be used to train Ukrainians, Kolasheski told VOA there was still “no decision on that right now.” After President Joe Biden announced last month that the U.S. would provide Ukrainian forces with Abrams tanks, the Pentagon has since said it will first need to procure the tanks because there isn’t an excess available in U.S. stocks. The move will delay the tanks’ delivery. Leopard 2 tanks and British-made Challenger 2 tanks, however, are expected to arrive on the Ukrainian battlefield as soon as Ukrainian training is complete. “Tanks are much awaited … and I really hope that we are not too late for that,” Estonia’s Pevkur told VOA. Asked whether it was realistic to expect Ukrainian forces to operate Leopard 2 or Challenger tanks within a few months, Kolasheski replied, “I think it is.” “They’re very, very motivated. They’re very eager. I mean, this to them is an existential threat,” he said. VOA asked the Pentagon for access to U.S. forces training Ukrainians in Germany and to the Abrams Tank Training Academy in Poland, but the request was denied. 

Ex-Twitter Execs Deny Pressure to Block Hunter Biden Story

4 months ago

Former Twitter executives conceded Wednesday they made a mistake by blocking a story about Hunter Biden, the son of U.S. President Joe Biden, from the social media platform in the run-up to the 2020 election, but adamantly denied Republican assertions they were pressured by Democrats and law enforcement to suppress the story. "The decisions here aren't straightforward, and hindsight is 20/20," Yoel Roth, Twitter's former head of trust and safety, testified to Congress. "It isn't obvious what the right response is to a suspected, but not confirmed, cyberattack by another government on a presidential election." He added, "Twitter erred in this case because we wanted to avoid repeating the mistakes of 2016." The three former executives appeared before the House Oversight and Accountability Committee to testify for the first time about the company's decision to initially block from Twitter a New York Post article in October 2020 about the contents of a laptop belonging to Hunter Biden. Emboldened by Twitter's new leadership in billionaire Elon Musk — whom they see as more sympathetic to conservatives than the company's previous leadership — Republicans used the hearing to push a long-standing and unproven theory that social media companies including Twitter are biased against them. Committee Chairman Representative James Comer said the hearing is the panel's "first step in examining the coordination between the federal government and Big Tech to restrict protected speech and interfere in the democratic process." Alleged political bias The hearing continues a yearslong trend of Republican leaders calling tech company leaders to testify about alleged political bias. Democrats, meanwhile, have pressed the companies on the spread of hate speech and misinformation on their platforms. The witnesses Republicans subpoenaed were Roth, Vijaya Gadde, Twitter's former chief legal officer, and James Baker, the company's former deputy general counsel. Democrats brought a witness of their own, Anika Collier Navaroli, a former employee with Twitter's content moderation team. She testified last year to the House committee that investigated the January 6 Capitol riot about Twitter's preferential treatment of Donald Trump until it banned the then-president from the site two years ago. 'A bizarre political stunt' The White House criticized congressional Republicans for staging "a bizarre political stunt," hours after Biden's State of the Union address where he detailed bipartisan progress in his first two years in office. "This appears to be the latest effort by the House Republican majority's most extreme MAGA members to question and relitigate the outcome of the 2020 election," White House spokesperson Ian Sams said in a statement Wednesday. "This is not what the American people want their leaders to work on." The New York Post reported weeks before the 2020 presidential election that it had received from Trump's personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, a copy of a hard drive from a laptop that Hunter Biden had dropped off 18 months earlier at a Delaware computer repair shop and never retrieved. Twitter blocked people from sharing links to the story for several days. "You exercised an amazing amount of clout and power over the entire American electorate by even holding (this story) hostage for 24 hours and then reversing your policy," Representative Andy Biggs said to the panel of witnesses. Months later, Twitter's then-CEO, Jack Dorsey, called the company's communications around the Post article "not great." He added that blocking the article's URL with "zero context" around why it was blocked was "unacceptable." The newspaper story was greeted at the time with skepticism because of questions about the laptop's origins, including Giuliani's involvement, and because top officials in the Trump administration had already warned that Russia was working to denigrate Joe Biden before the White House election. The Kremlin interfered in the 2016 race by hacking Democratic emails that were subsequently leaked, and fears that Russia would meddle again in the 2020 race were widespread across Washington. Musk releases 'Twitter files' Just last week, lawyers for the younger Biden asked the U.S. Justice Department to investigate people who say they accessed his personal data. But they did not acknowledge that the data came from a laptop Hunter Biden is purported to have dropped off at a computer repair shop. The issue was also reignited recently after Musk took over Twitter as CEO and began to release a slew of company information to independent journalists, what he has called the "Twitter Files." The documents and data largely show internal debates among employees over the decision to temporarily censor links to the Hunter Biden story. The tweet threads lacked substantial evidence of a targeted influence campaign from Democrats or the FBI, which has denied any involvement in Twitter's decision-making. Witness often targeted One of Wednesday's witnesses, Baker, has been a frequent target of Republican scrutiny. Baker was the FBI's general counsel during the opening of two of the bureau's most consequential investigations in history: the Hillary Clinton investigation and a separate inquiry into potential coordination between Russia and Trump's 2016 presidential campaign. Republicans have long criticized the FBI's handling of both investigations. Baker denied any wrongdoing during his two years at Twitter and said that despite disagreeing with the decision to block links to the Post story, "I believe that the public record reveals that my client acted in a manner that was fully consistent with the First Amendment." There has been no evidence that Twitter's platform is biased against conservatives; studies have found the opposite when it comes to conservative media in particular. But the issue continues to preoccupy Republican members of Congress. And some experts said questions around government influence on Big Tech's content moderation are legitimate.

One Activist's Climate Fast Stirs Demands for Change in Ladakh

4 months ago

Enthusiasm has turned to frustration and bitterness for a leading conservation activist in India's Himalayan region of Ladakh, which was separated from Jammu and Kashmir when the former state's limited autonomy was controversially revoked in 2019. The move by India's parliament prompted widespread anger and a monthslong security clampdown in the Kashmir Valley, where the Muslim-majority population bristled at the increased control over their lives by the Hindu-led federal government. But in the Himalayan highlands of Ladakh, the partition of the former state into two union territories with limited local control was seen by the 97% tribal population as an opportunity to set their own path and preserve the region's pristine natural wonders. More than three years later, that vision has turned to ashes for one of its strongest proponents, Sonam Wangchuk, who recently staged a five-day fast demanding that New Delhi follow through on promises made in 2019. "We were better off with Jammu and Kashmir than today's [union territory]," Wangchuk lamented in a video he made public before completing his fast at the Himalayan Institute of Alternative Ladakh, which he founded. A former engineer turned educational reformer, Wangchuk has been working on the development of Ladakh for the last 30 years. He is credited with designing solar-heated buildings and artificial glaciers, while more recently providing the people with better education facilities. Wangchuk was the 2018 winner of the Ramon Magsaysay Award, sometimes referred to as the Asian Nobel, for "harnessing nature, culture and education for community progress." His life story was the inspiration for one of the lead roles in the 2009 film "3 Idiots," one of the most successful in the history of Indian cinema. In a telephone interview with VOA, Wangchuk acknowledged his initial support for the partition of Jammu and Kashmir and the revocation of Article 370 in the Indian Constitution, which had granted the region a separate constitution, a state flag, and a high degree of autonomy over its internal affairs. "On the one hand, it was good for the people of Ladakh to have their own path of development," said the tireless advocate of a carbon-neutral lifestyle, who had hoped the change would help to safeguard the region's fragile ecology. "But on the other hand, we were concerned about how will the safeguards of Article 370 continue?" Reflecting a growing local consensus, Wangchuk now argues that Ladakh should become a state with its own legislature. And as a key demand of his fast, he appealed to Prime Minister Narendra Modi to grant the region special protections under the Sixth Schedule of the constitution. Such measures, granting wide powers to local councils, were established to protect primarily tribal populations against exploitation and now exist in special administrative regions in four states in India's remote northeast — Assam, Meghalaya, Tripura and Mizoram. Wangchuk said the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party government had promised to include Ladakh under the Sixth Schedule at the time it was separated from Jammu and Kashmir but that the issue has since been ignored. The activist's fast, which he began on a frigid hillside before he was placed under house arrest and forced to move to his institute, struck a nerve in the region and mobilized large numbers of like-minded supporters. "There is no state assembly. The bureaucrats are taking all the decisions. People feel that they have lost their voice, which has created a sense of alienation," political activist Sajjad Kargili told VOA. "Ladakhis are now unitedly raising their voice for statehood and Sixth Schedule." Tsering Namgyal, the leader of the opposition on the Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Council, agreed that Wangchuk's climate fast has galvanized public opinion in the region. "It proved to be a massive boost in getting the demand for the Sixth Schedule echoed nationally and internationally. It remains to be seen what step the government of India and the Home Ministry will take in the wake of such a huge public outcry."  As for his own future plans, Wangchuk said, "I am happy with the response I received nationally and internationally. I want the government to pay attention to people’s concerns and work for their betterment." But if the government still does not pay attention, he said, he will continue to protest until the people's needs are fulfilled. When asked whether he wanted the region's leaders to join the protest, Wangchuk said that he wouldn't compel anyone, and if they wanted to shake hands in protest, he won't stop them either. 

UN Appeals for $2.6 Billion to Ease Hunger Crisis in Somalia

4 months ago

The U.N. is appealing for $2.6 billion this year to assist 7.6 million of the most vulnerable Somalis who are facing acute hunger and possible famine from conflict, high food prices, and unprecedented drought. "Famine is a strong possibility from April to June this year, and of course beyond, if humanitarian assistance is not sustained, and if the April to June rains underperform as currently forecast," Adam Abdelmoula, the U.N. resident and humanitarian coordinator for Somalia, told reporters in a video briefing. The country, along with other parts of the Horn of Africa, is in the throes of historic drought after five consecutive failed rainy seasons. Abdelmoula said nearly 6.4 million people are currently facing high levels of food insecurity and that is expected to rise to 8.3 million between April and June, including 727,000 of them who are expected to experience catastrophic hunger levels. The U.N. says those at highest risk are in Baidoa and Burhakaba districts and among the displaced populations in the Baidoa town of Bay Region and in Mogadishu. In addition, several areas and population groups in central and southern Somalia are at risk of famine. Abdelmoula said the distinction between a declared famine and what millions of Somalis are already experiencing is "truly meaningless," as children are already starving. In 2011, after three failed rainy seasons, Somalia went through a famine that killed 250,000 people — half of them children. Now it is in its fifth failed rainy season and the forecast for the upcoming one is not promising. "Don't listen to those who tell you that this is the worst drought in 40 years," Abdelmoula said. "This is the worst drought in Somalia's recorded history, period." He urged donors to step up, noting that after the 2011 famine the international community said "never again." "If we truly want to honor that promise, there is no time to lose," he said. "Every delay in assistance is a matter of life or death for families in need." 

Nigerian Supreme Court Suspends Currency Swap Deadline

4 months ago

Nigeria's Supreme Court has suspended the government's deadline to stop the use of old currency notes. The Central Bank of Nigeria had ordered people to swap out old bank notes for currency with a new design by the February 10 deadline, but the directive led to cash shortages, protests and some attacks on banks. The court ruling halts the move by federal authorities and the Central Bank of Nigeria to completely phase out the old 200, 500 and 1,000 naira bills by this Friday. The Central Bank has yet to respond to the court ruling, which comes ahead of another hearing next week. The decision follows a lawsuit filed by three Nigerian state governors seeking to keep these bank notes in circulation a while longer. Abdulhakeem Mustapha, the attorney who filed the suit on behalf of the Kogi, Kaduna and Zamfara state governors, said Wednesday the bid to transition to the new notes was causing political instability. However, economist Emeka Okengwu said the central bank has been operating within legal parameters and that the high court should not be involved. "Clearly we can see that the CBN is making efforts. All they need to do is be able to redouble their efforts," Okengwu said. "I don't think they should extend it, and I think we should start respecting the sanctity of institutions. The CBN is operating based on the laws and powers that it has. This is not arbitrary, so I don't even think that the Supreme Court should have entertained that suit." In late October, the central bank redesigned the bank notes to curb crime, ransom payments to kidnappers, and counterfeiting and to regain control of the amount of money in circulation. Authorities say the measure has been successful. But millions of citizens across the country have been scrambling to get the new notes. The situation has been especially challenging for some 40 percent of Nigerians in rural areas who have little access to banking services. Daily struggles have resulted in protests and attacks on commercial banks. The CBN has blamed the scarcity of the old money on sabotage by commercial banks and has been cracking down on institutions that are not compliant. On Tuesday, President Muhammadu Buhari held a private meeting with the central bank governor and the head of anti-graft agency the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission. The closed-door meeting followed pleas for calm as citizens protested the cash shortages. The situation comes ahead of elections set to begin later this month. 

Zelenskyy Appearance Uncertain at EU Summit

4 months ago

European Union leaders are to meet Thursday for a summit dominated by migration, the economy and, not surprisingly, Ukraine. Reports suggest Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy — who arrived in London on Wednesday — may attend the Brussels summit in person.  The EU’s two-day summit comes ahead of the one-year anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine — and days after top EU officials held a summit with Zelenskyy in Kyiv. Besides Western Europe, Ukraine’s leader is known to have left his homeland only once since Russia's invasion of Ukraine; that trip was to Washington in December, where he met with United States President Joe Biden and addressed the U.S. Congress. Zelenskyy wants several things from the Europeans, including to speed up Ukraine’s bid to join the EU, more weapons ahead of an expected Russian offensive, and more sanctions against Moscow. Brussels is unlikely to fast-track Kyiv’s membership application. But in Kyiv last week, European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen praised Zelenskyy’s commitment to join the bloc. "I must say I am deeply impressed, and I want to commend you for the preciseness, the quality and the speed at which you deliver," she said. "This is phenomenal.” Europeans already have committed billions of dollars in defense and humanitarian aid to Ukraine. Brussels is also expected to unveil a 10th sanctions package against Moscow later this month. zeleMigration is also set to dominate the summit amid a sharp uptick in economic migrants and asylum seekers arriving in Europe this past year. That’s on top of the millions of Ukrainian war refugees. Today, some EU member states are calling for tougher policies — and fences — against what they call “irregular” migration. Using EU funds for border fences is especially divisive. “I think migration and asylum policy remains a very tricky issue within the EU — with the EU witnessing its biggest migration and asylum crisis since World War II,” said Pauline Veron, a policy advisor at the European Centre for Development Policy Management, a Netherlands-based think-tank. Veron said that, even as many Europeans continue welcoming Ukrainian refugees, they are feeling rising angst about migration from Africa and elsewhere.

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