- A Russian company linked to an oligarch close to Vladimir Putin launched an extensive campaign to spread misinformation and encourage violence against anti-government protestors in Sudan.
- Russia has economic and military interests in Sudan, which is a key foothold for them in Africa.
- The Kremlin also had close ties to former Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, who was overthrown by a military coup on April 11.
Sudan Protest Timeline
A Russian company connected to an oligarch with ties to the Kremlin developed a strategy to stop anti-government protests in Sudan through disseminating disinformation and advocating for violence, according to documents reviewed by CNN.
In December, anti-government protests broke out all across Sudan over steep price hikes and shortages. The demonstrators initially called for economic reforms, but quickly shifted to calls for the Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, who had been in power for 30 years, to step down.
The protests continued over the next few months. In response, security forces launched a violent crackdown that killed dozens of people and led to thousands of arrests.
Then, towards the end of February, al-Bashir escalated these efforts. He declared a state of emergency and banned all unauthorized gathering. He also dissolved the federal and provincial governments to install security forces, essentially giving them a blank check to end the protests at all costs. After the state of emergency was declared, the protests slowed, but they did not stop.
However, the protests gained momentum again in April after the Algerian president Abdelaziz Bouteflika, who had held power for 20 years, resigned following similar demonstrations in his country. The Sudanese protests reached a tipping point on April 6, when demonstrators staged a huge multi-day protest outside the military’s headquarters, which is near the presidential residence in the capital city Khartoum.
Again, these protestors were met with violence and arrests from security forces, but the sit-in at military headquarters worked.
On April 11, al-Bashir was removed from power by a military coup and arrested. A military council was installed to oversee a transition of power that the military says will last at most two years. Demonstrators have demanded that the military ruler hand over power to a civilian-led government immediately.
The Russian Campaign
The documents reviewed by CNN shed light on the extent of Russian involvement in al-Bashir’s violent crackdown.
CNN reported that they received the documents from a London-based firm called the Dossier Center and that they included several thousand letters and internal company communications. The documents originate from a Russian-based company called M-Invest that has an office in Khartoum.
According to those documents, M-Invest drew up plans to “discredit and suppress” the protests in Sudan as part of an effort to keep al-Bashir in power. This effort included: “spreading misinformation on social media, blaming Israel for fomenting the unrest, and even carrying out public executions to make an example of ‘looters,’” according to CNN.
CNN stated that the documents were credible and consistent with witnesses who have said they saw Russian “observers” at recent protests. They also said that multiple government and military sources in Khartoum have confirmed to CNN that al-Bashir’s government had received the plans and began to act on them before he was ousted.
One document from January suggested creating fake evidence “of arson by protesters against mosques, hospitals and nurseries, [and] stealing grain from the public store.” It also proposed portraying the demonstrators as “enemies of Islam and traditional values”— which is the majority religion in Sundan– by planting LGBT flags around them.
Other recommendations from M-Invest found in the documents included arresting protest leaders the day before demonstrations were set to occur, creating social media teams and accounts to attack the protests, and spreading disinformation saying that demonstrators were being paid to protest.
M-Invest even went as far as advocating for “public executions of looters and other spectacular events to distract the protest-minded audience.”
Ties to Putin & The Russian Government
The documents did not find that Russian security agencies were directly involved in the campaign, but the implicit connections between M-Invest and the Russian government are significant.
The Russian oligarch tied to M-Invest, Yevgeny Prigozhin, is known as “Putin’s Chef” because he held catering contracts with the Krelim. It is unclear exactly how Prigozhin is tied to M-Invest, with some reports saying he is the founder, while others have said the company represents his interests.
What is clear is his involvement in the campaign against the protests. CNN specifically referenced two letters from Prigozhin regarding the protests. The first letter, from March 17, stated that the Sudanese government’s “inaction” to stop the protests had “provoked the intensification of the crisis.”
In the second letter, from April 6, praised Prigozhin praised al-Bashir as a “wise and far-sighted leader.”
Additionally, M-Invest’s relationship with Sudan goes back farther than just the protests. According to CNN, a letter from June 2018 written by M-Invest on behalf of Sudan’s Military Industrial Corporation to push closer military links with Russia was sent to the chief of the Russian armed forces.
CNN also saw a contract between M-Invest and the Russian Defense Ministry for the use of transport aircraft. One of those planes was known to have been used by al-Bashir.
In addition to his ties to Sudan, Prigozhin was one of 13 Russians charged in Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian election interference. Prigozhin has been accused of financing and directing efforts by the Russian firm Internet Research Agency, which was one of the main Russian firms that used fake social media accounts to spread disinformation in an attempt to influence the 2016 election. He has denied any involvement in the election or any connection to the Internet Research Agency.
Why Did Russia Do It?
Russia’s keen interest in Sudan stems from its geographic location. Sudan is a key place for Russia to spread its influence in Africa. Russia currently has a mix of private and state interests in Sudan that benefit both oligarchs and the Russian government. These interests give Russia a strategic foothold in the region.
Additionally, Russia has been considering developing a naval base at Port Sudan in order to counter recent efforts by both the United States and China to establish a military presence in the region– another fact that was confirmed in the Dossier documents.
Over the years, al-Bashir pursued a close relationship with the Kremlin. He first visited Moscow in 2017, and Russia also supplied fighter jets to Sudan right before that meeting.
Russia has placed a big bet on al-Bashir, which meant they had a vested interest in keeping him installed as the president. When anti-regime protests started gaining momentum, Russia’s foothold and interests in the country, and thus in the region as a whole, were threatened.
See what others are saying: (The Washington Post) (Al Jazeera) (BBC)
Russia Orders Social Media Sites To Block Calls for Navalny Protests
- Shortly after his arrest on Sunday, Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny called for protests to take place on Jan. 23 and was met with a wave of support online.
- In response, the government ordered tech giants like Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, TikTok, and Russian-centric VK to “block all publications with calls to demonstrate on the 23rd.”
- TikTok has already deleted 38% of posts with such calls while VK and YouTube have deleted 50%, and Instagram has removed 17%.
Navalny Calls for Protests
Russian opposition figure Alexei Navalny’s return to Russia and subsequent arrest earlier this week has set off a chain of events in the country.
Since his arrest, Navalny has called for protests to occur on Jan. 23. Now, Russian authorities are taking precautions and arresting his allies in an effort to slow down the momentum of the looming demonstrations. Among their many demands are that Navalny be released.
Throughout the week, thousands of posts shared by younger Russians have raged across social media asking that people partake in the protests. The reach of those posts, however, have been curtailed by the government.
Social media tech giants like Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, TikTok, and the Russian-centric VK were ordered by the Russian government to “block all publications with calls to demonstrate on the 23rd.”
Roskomnadzor, the Russian communications watchdog, later stated, “Internet sites will be brought to administrative responsibility in connection with the dissemination of information prohibited by law and aimed at attracting minors to participate in unauthorized mass public events.”
“Participation in such events is in violation of the established procedure, including in a pandemic, and carries risks of harm to life and health,” it added.
Censorship Payoff Unknown
For many of the sites, which are often seen as a way to promote free speech in regimes that are far more restrictive, the order puts them in an awkward position. Still, many have already complied, at least to some extend.
According to Roskomnadzor, Tiktok has deleted 38% of videos calling for minors to attend the protests. VK and YouTube have both deleted 50% of similar posts, while Instagram has removed 17% of posts that violate the regulations.
It’s unclear to what extent this censorship will have on stopping Russians from attending tomorrow’s protests; however, some of the nation’s largest protests in modern history have been organized by Navalny.
See what others are saying: (Moscow Times) (Associated Press) (Reuters)
Accusations Against Chinese Actress Shine Light on the Nation’s Surrogacy Laws
- Chinese actress Zheng Shuang is facing major backlash after her former partner, Zhang Heng, accused her of abandoning her two children born through U.S.-based surrogates.
- Beyond public outcry and losing brand deals, Zheng is likely facing legal consequences after a Chinese government agency said that using a legal loophole to obtain a surrogate from abroad was “definitely not innocent.”
- Zheng denies the claims and hasn’t confirmed if the children are actually hers, although she’s listed as their mother on their birth certificates.
- As for the children in question, Zhang has been taking care of them in the U.S.
American-Based Surrogacy Cause Controversy
Chinese social media users have launched into debates surrounding how the rich and elite circumvent domestic laws in order to obtain surrogate services.
The latest controversy is surrounding actress Zheng Shuang. Though she has never confirmed this publicly, Zheng allegedly went to the U.S. with her-now-ex Zhang Heng and had two children with the help of American surrogates. However, on Monday, Zhang accused Zheng of abandoning the children and leaving him to take care of them in the U.S. The couple reportedly broke up before the babies were born due to Zhang’s alleged infidelity.
According to the South China Morning Post, Zhang’s friend released a voice recording on the Chinese platform NetEase Entertainment. In it, Zhang and Zheng are allegedly having a discussion with their parents over what to do with the then-unborn children. Zheng’s father suggested that they abandon the children at the hospital, while Zheng reportedly expressed annoyance that they could not be aborted so late in pregnancy.
Legal Grey Zone Likely Won’t Help
Beyond public outcries, Zheng lost a recent brand deal with Prada that she signed just eight days before the accusations were made. Additionally, other brand partners, such as Aussie, have distanced themselves from the actress. She also faces multiple awards she has won being revoked as well as potential legal consequences.
Currently, surrogacy is illegal in China; however, the laws have a legal grey zone. Technically, providing surrogacy is what is illegal, but obtaining one from abroad is not explicitly mentioned, even if it goes against the spirit of the law.
The Central Political and Legal Affairs Commission of the Communist Party commented on the situation in a Weibo video post, saying that using this legal loophole to get a surrogacy was “definitely not innocent.”
“Surrogacy is banned in China as it uses women’s uteruses as a tool and sells life as a commercial product.,” it continued. “As a Chinese citizen, the act of traveling to the US on a legal loophole is not abiding the law.”
Following the post, companies like Blued, a gay dating app in China, took down sections of their apps that helped users set up services with surrogacy firms overseas.
Surrogacy is a controversial subject in China, with many actors and actresses obtaining them overseas, but many social media users across the country are against the practice. Officially, the government claims that it “overlooks life” and “tramples the bottom line [of human morality].“
Zheng has denied claims that she abandoned any children, and has never confirmed whether or not she actually has any, although she is listed as the mother on the children’s birth certificates.
As for the children in question, even though Zheng’s father suggested abandoning them in the hospital, her ex has been taking care of them in the U.S.
See What Others Are Saying: (South China Morning Post) (Straits Times) (New York Times)
American Influencer Kristen Gray To Be Deported From Bali
- In a viral Twitter thread, influencer Kristen Gray encouraged people to move to Bali like she did while promoting her eBook and other resources on how to do so amid COVID-19 restrictions.
- Many criticized her for encouraging an influx of travelers during the pandemic. She also sparked conversations about gentrification and was slammed for falsely characterizing Indonesia as queer-friendly.
- The local government promised to deport her Tuesday, arguing that selling her book and offering paid consultations on traveling to Bali violated the purpose of her visitor stay permit. They also say she was “spreading information that could unsettle the public.”
- “I am not guilty. I have not overstayed my visa. I have not made money in Indonesian rupiah in Indonesia,” Gray told reporters. “I put out a statement about LGBT and I am being deported because of LGBT.”
Kristen Gray Goes Viral
Officials in Indonesia said Tuesday that they will deport Kristen Gray, an American influencer who has caused international outrage in the last week.
Gray moved to Bali with her girlfriend in 2019 with plans to stay for six months. In reality, the couple ended up staying much longer because of the coronavirus pandemic, and in a viral Twitter thread, Gray shared how positive their experience has been.
Gray pointed to several benefits of moving to Bali in her posts, like its safety, low cost of living, luxury lifestyle, as well as its queer-friendly and Black communities.
She also encouraged others to make the same move and promoted their $30 eBook “Our Bali Life Is Yours” for tips on how to do it. “We include direct links to our visa agents and how to go about getting to Indonesia during COVID,” she even wrote in one post.
The thread sparked outrage for encouraging an influx of travelers to a country that has closed its borders over the worsening pandemic. On top of that, it sparked conversations about the gentrification of neighborhoods there.
Bali is a major tourist destination for Americans, Europeans, and Australians in particular, and like areas all over the world, it has suffered from the loss in visitors this year.
However, many online noted that locals have been steadily priced out of certain areas of the island as foreigners open businesses to cater to tourists. Others argue that poorly regulated development is also destroying industries that Balinese people have historically relied on.
Aside from those criticisms, many people also took issue with Gray characterizing Bali as a queer-friendly when the reality for locals is far different.
“It well may be the case for you. However, please recognize that it is because a) you’re a foreigner and b) you have economic leverage since the Indonesian local community is financially dependent on keeping you happy so they don’t mess with you,” a user named Kai Mata said in a viral TikTok.
“Please realize for the rest of us Indonesians on the island, this is not a queer-friendly place. Our gay communities are often shut down and raided by authorities and Indonesia at large has tried to mandate conversion therapy for us the LGBTQ+ Community.“
The local government responded to the public outrage over Gray’s thread Tuesday. In a statement, it said selling her book and also offering paid consultations on traveling to Bali violated the purpose of her visitor stay permit, which was valid until January 24.
Gray was also accused of “spreading information that could unsettle the public” by saying Bali is queer-friendly and suggesting foreigners travel there during the pandemic.
According to Reuters, she was being held at an immigration detention facility Tuesday and was to be deported as soon as a flight was available.
In a brief statement to the Balinese press, Gray defended herself. “I am not guilty. I have not overstayed my visa. I have not made money in Indonesian rupiah in Indonesia. I put out a statement about LGBT and I am being deported because of LGBT,” she explained.
Many of her fans believe her and also argue that she is seeing this level of criticism because she is a Black woman.