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Russian Firm Ran Extensive Disinformation Campaign in Sudan

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  • 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.

Source: CNN

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.”

Source: CNN

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.

Source: CNN

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)

International

South Korean President Makes BTS Official Presidential Envoys

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The position is largely ceremonial but will be used by the government to help give a friendly and popular face to national and international initiatives spearheaded by Seoul.


Government Recognition

The K-pop band BTS will be adding to its list of global impacts this year after South Korean President Moon Jae-in appointed its members as Presidential Envoys on Wednesday.

The role will include attending international conferences such as the United Nations General Assembly in September.

At these events, BTS will perform “various activities to promote international cooperation in solving global challenges, such as improving the environment, eliminating poverty and inequality, and respecting diversity,” according to Park Kyung-mee, a Blue House spokesperson.

The band has already appeared at U.N. conferences multiple times over the last few years.

Just last year, the group gave a message of hope and reassurance through the U.N. during the COVID-19 pandemic. Prior appearances at the U.N. have been either as part of U.N. organizations or as private citizens.

Wednesday’s appointment will make them official representatives of South Korea, although they won’t actually engage in any direct diplomacy and instead will be used to promote the country’s ongoing efforts in youth-related projects.

Longstanding Policy

BTS’ success, alongside prior and current K-pop groups, has remained a masterclass of soft diplomacy by the Korean government. For decades, the Korean government has cultivated promoting cultural aspects abroad in the hopes of generating more interest in the country. There are hopes that such efforts will encourage more tourism as well as an elevated image when consumers consider Korean-made products.

Such efforts, beyond cultivating K-pop and raising its stars as semi-official government symbols, also include helping fund Korean restaurants abroad as well as free Korean-language classes taught by Professors of some of Korea’s most prestigious schools.

The news comes as BTS’ newest single, “Permission to Dance,” quickly took the #1 spot on the Billboard top 100. BTS is also partnering with YouTube to promote a Permission to Dance challenge on YouTube Shorts that will begin tomorrow and end on August 4.

Fans will be encouraged to replicate dance moves from the music video, and the group’s favorite clips will be put into a compilation made by them.

See what others are saying: (Yonhap News) (The Korea Times) (All Kpop)

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Over 1 Million Chinese Displaced After Record Rainfall

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The rain has created waist-high waters throughout the capital of China’s Henan province, drastically affecting the lives of its over 10 million inhabitants.


Trapped in a Flood

The Henan province of central China experienced severe rainfall over the last week that has left at least 25 dead and displaced more than 1.2 million people due to severe flooding, according to figures released by Chinese authorities Wednesday.

Meteorologists claim that the sudden, severe rainfall is caused by Typhoon In-Fa colliding with a high-pressure system over Henan province.

The floods have forced people to wade through waist-high water throughout Zhengzhou, the region’s capital. In one tragic incident Monday, 12 people died after they were trapped in the subway amid rising waters. A similar situation occurred Tuesday, causing multiple lines to be trapped in chest-high water for up to three hours before rescue workers managed to save them. Since then, metro authorities have shut down many of Zhengzhou’s rail lines.

Between Monday and Tuesday alone, Zhengzhou was hit with an estimated 25 inches of rain, equating to about 87% of its average annual rainfall. At one point, seven inches of rain occurred in less than an hour.

In an effort to alleviate rising waters, authorities breached a nearby dam to release floodwaters on Tuesday, although it’s unclear how much that helped as many dams and rivers in the region have overflowed for days.

Elsewhere in Henan, villages have been cut off by landslides and flooding, killing at least four others and leaving some areas without power for more than 24 hours.

Long Recovery Ahead

The region was finally able to begin recovery efforts Wednesday as conditions have begun to die down.

Despite reduced rainfall, the situation has still proven to be dire, leading President Xi Jinping to issue a statement through state media ordering authorities to give top priority to people’s safety and property.

In total, more than 17,000 firefighters have been mobilized for rescue efforts, as well as local volunteers and other rescue crews from other provinces.

Chinese companies have rushed to donate money to help the affected communities, and so far over $300 million has been donated.

It’s likely that for some time, hundreds of thousands in the region will be left without homes as authorities begin the work of ensuring that buildings are safe to return to.

See what others are saying: (South China Morning Post) (BBC) (The New York Times)

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Toyota Largely Pulls Olympic Sponsorship Ads Amid Calls for Games To Be Canceled

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Locals in Japan are particularly worried about the spread of COVID-19 among athletes at the densely packed Olympic village, something that has already happened despite assurances that it wouldn’t.


Tainted View on Olympics

The Olympic Games continued to face controversy Monday after Toyota, one of the event’s largest sponsors, announced that it would not air any commercials featuring the Olympics in Japan.

The news may come as a surprise since companies often view their ties to one of the world’s largest sporting events as a major selling point and public relations win. However, Toyota’s decision to distance itself instead highlights a growing trend among brands and locals who view the Games as a semi-toxic subject, especially in Japan where most of the population would like the Games canceled or postponed.

The controversy around the Olympic Games largely revolves around the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and the decision to host the Games despite rising cases in Japan, concerns about new variants of the virus, and low vaccination rates due to a slow rollout.

Despite Toyota’s recent decision, the company has provided invaluable support to organizers of the Games, including over 3,000 vehicles to transport athletes, crews, and staff. Additionally, the company continues to showcase individual Olympic athletes that it directly sponsors in competitions on its website.

Cardboard “Anti-Sex” Beds

Growing COVID concerns have many on edge, often causing jokes to be taken seriously and spread as misinformation. One such case involved the decision by organizers to use cardboard beds for athletes. Paul Chelimo, from the United States’ track and field team, joked on Twitter, “Beds to be installed in Tokyo Olympic Village will be made of cardboard, this is aimed at avoiding intimacy among athletes.”

“Beds will be able to withstand the weight of a single person to avoid situations beyond sports. I see no problem for distance runners, even 4 of us can do.”

While many understood the statement to be a joke, outlets quickly ran with the sentiment that the beds were actually designed to prevent sex between athletes. Headlines from publications like the New York Post, for instance, read, “Athletes to sleep on ‘anti-sex’ cardboard beds at Olympic Games amid COVID.”

The situation was largely put to rest after Irish gymnast Rhys McClenaghan posted a video jumping on the beds to prove they were perfectly suited for any activity. Officials at the Games went on to clarify that the decision to use cardboard was because it was a cheap, sustainable option that was easy to dispose of after the games without creating much waste.

The fact that the cardboard beds might prove awkward for athletes to use for sex could be a happy accident for the Olympic organizers, as they’ve made it clear that they don’t want attendees having sex to help prevent the spread of COVID-19. They’ve even gone so far as to threaten athletes who have sex during the games with penalties.

In an effort to further dissuade athletes from hanging outside of their dorms or with others, the use of alcohol has largely been banned. Athletes are allowed to have it in their rooms but are supposed to enjoy it while alone.

For many, proof that the Games can’t be protected against COVID-19 has already presented itself, despite assurances from organizers like IOC president Thomas Bach — who said there was “Zero” risk of transmission between athletes and Japanese staff. At least 61 people at the Olympic village have reported contracting COVID since arriving, including at least one U.S. athlete and Japanese workers at the village.

Non-political Games Rocked by Political Tit-for-Tats

The Games have also been rocked with other problems, especially involving Japan and its neighbors.

Korea was forced to take down flags that it had hung from its Olympic Village dorms that read “I still have the support of 50 million Korean people.” The phrase was borrowed from Korean Admiral Yi Sun-Shin, who said, “I still have 12 battleships left,” prior to a lopsided 16th-century naval victory against Japan in the Imjin War.” The phrasing drew outrage from right-wing Japanese groups who asked the International Olympic Committee to have Korea remove the quasi-political statement.

Korea agreed, but only if Japan agreed to use the Rising Sun flag, a standard used by Imperial-era Japan and the Japanese Navy. It’s also one that is often viewed by many East Asians as a symbol as controversial as the Nazi flag is for Westerners.

See what others are saying: (Reuters) (Associated Press) (ABC News)

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