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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)

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Malaysia Tells Women Not to Nag Spouses During COVID-19 Lockdown

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  • The Malaysian government released a series of infographics advising women on how to maintain a happy home during the country’s coronavirus lockdown.
  • The posts told women to take on the playful tone of a cartoon character, wear makeup and dress up at home, and avoid nagging their partners, among other advice.
  • Many were outraged by the infographics, slamming them as “sexist.” Others called it a poor response to concerns of spiking domestic violence cases as more people are forced indoors with their abusers. 
  • The government issued an apology following the backlash.

Controversial Advice

Malaysia’s government has apologized after receiving backlash for advising women to dress nicely and avoid nagging their spouses in order to maintain a happy home as the coronavirus prompted a nation-wide lockdown. 

The advice came from online posters that were released across social media by the country’s Ministry for Women, Family, and Community Development and accompanied by the hashtag #WomenPreventCOVID19.

“If you see your partner doing something wrong, avoid nagging – use ‘humorous’ words like saying: ‘This is how you hang clothes my dear,’” the ministry wrote in a now-removed infographic. 

This piece of advice was paired with another seemingly-bizarre nugget: use a high-pitched, squeaky voice instead, specifically imitating the popular Japanese cartoon character Doraemon, and follow your statement with a giggle.

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Doraemon.

The Ministry also encouraged women to avoid the use of sarcasm, and to continue to wear makeup and dress up even if working from home.

Backlash

After the posters’ release earlier this week, the Ministry and its advice faced a slew of backlash, ranging from mockery to anger. 

“[It] is extremely condescending both to women and men,” Nisha Sabanayagam, a manager at the Malaysian advocacy group All Women’s Action Society, told Reuters.  

“These posters promote the concept of gender inequality and perpetuate the concept of patriarchy,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation over the phone.

Sabanayagam’s frustration was matched by many online. 

“This is violently sexist,” one person tweeted. “Makes me angry even thinking about this.”

Some mocked the more ridiculous elements of the advice, like the hashtag’s message that somehow women can prevent the virus itself. 

“How will dressing up and putting on makeup at home [prevent] Covid-19? Pray, tell?” one person wrote online. 

Another piece of advice that was largely ridiculed was the suggestion to imitate the cartoon character Doraemon. 

“I think my husband should speak to me in a Doraemon like voice. That will amuse me to bits and put me in a good mood,” a Twitter user said.

Others were outraged that these were the solutions to a happy home in the Ministry’s eyes, especially as more serious problems stem from stay-at-home orders, like a rise in domestic violence.

“How did we go from preventing baby dumping, fighting domestic violence to some sad variant of the Obedient Wives Club?” one person asked online.

Ministry Apologizes

After being scraped over the coals, the Ministry addressed the controversial advice and issued an apology Tuesday night. 

It said its intentions were aimed at “maintaining positive relationships among family members during the period they are working from home.”  

“We apologize if some of the tips we shared were inappropriate and touched on the sensitivities of some parties,” the Ministry said in a statement, adding that they will take caution in the future. 

See what others are saying: (NPR) (Reuters) (Guardian)

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Is April Fools’ Day Canceled? K-Pop Star’s Stunt Backfires While Countries Warn Against Misinformation About Coronavirus as Pranks

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  • Many are warning against April Fools’ Day pranks as the world deals with coronavirus outbreaks, but others say laughs are needed now more than ever.
  • Companies like Google have pulled their annual pranks while countries like India, Thailand, and others announced punishments for those spreading coronavirus misinformation on this day. 
  • K-pop star Kim Jaejoong has already come under fire for lying about being hospitalized with the virus as an April Fools’ stunt, then later passing it off as an attempt to raise awareness about social distancing. 

April Fools’ Day Debate 

Internet users are weighing in on whether or not April Fools’ Day is officially canceled this year as the world battles against the growing coronavirus pandemic. 

For some, the annual day devoted to pulling practical jokes and hoaxes feels completely inappropriate given the current state of society. 

But others argue that we need some fun and laughter during this dark time. 

One of the biggest companies to take a side in the debate was Google, a company that has pulled major April Fools’ Day pranks for two decades. Earlier this week, the company said it would “take the year off from that tradition out of respect for all those fighting the Covid-19 pandemic.” 

“Our highest goal right now is to be helpful to people, so let’s save the jokes for next April, which will undoubtedly be a whole lot brighter than this one,” it added.

Other brands are likely to follow Google’s lead, especially since many people are waiting to call out anyone who they feel has crossed a line. The Verge, for instance, even promised to keep an eye out and make a list of brands pulling pranks this year. 

K-Pop Star Lies About Coronavirus 

But of course, despite desperate calls for people to think twice about insensitive pranks, reports have already surfaced of coronavirus-related stunts. On Wednesday, K-Pop Star Kim Jaejoong, of the group JYJ, told his nearly 2 million Instagram followers that he had tested positive for COVID-19.

“It is a result of my negligence, ignoring the cautionary words shared by the government and those around me,” he wrote according to a translation by K-pop news site Soompi.

“A person’s individual actions can have such a big impact on society as a whole. I am so sorry to those who may have been infected because of me. My foolish judgment to live as though it couldn’t happen to me is why I am like this today. I am currently hospitalized. I am reflecting on my past a lot and feeling both grateful and sorry. There are many things I want to say. There are many people I want to see so much,” he added. 

Soon after, he was of course flooded with support in the comments and fan sites began reporting his shocking announcement. 

His agency, CJeS Entertainment, even released a statement saying they were trying to confirm the news after seeing the post themselves. Less than an hour later, Jaejoong edited his caption, replacing it with a message clarifying that he doesn’t actually have the virus. Instead, he tried to suggest that his prank was intended to raise awareness for the importance of social distancing.

“What if the people we love, someone precious to us, contracted the virus? It’s such a heart-wrenching thing to think about. Despite this, so many people walk the streets and live their lives without their guards up, ignoring it… and thinking it won’t happen to them, and it makes me so worried that my family and friends might get sick,” he wrote in the updated post.

He went on to say that a number of his acquaintances are testing positive and encouraged people to “stay alert.”

“Although this did go quite far for April Fool’s Day, so many people worried about me in a short span of time. Oh… and I don’t think of this as an April Fool’s joke. My family and my friends are getting sick.. and dying.. It’s never!! just someone else’s problem. I wanted to tell you that protecting myself is protecting the precious people around us,” he continued.

“I will accept all punishment I receive from this post. I hope all of you are healthy.”

Jaejoong Apologizes 

Jaejoong eventually deleted the entire post and was hit with a ton of backlash from people who were upset by his lie. Many called it disrespectful while others noted that there are better ways to raise awareness if that was truly his intent.  

Following the outrage, he posted longer statement to his Instagram account apologizing. “I am also personally aware that it was something that shouldn’t be done…I want to express my sincere apologies to the people who have suffered because of COVID-19 and to the people who were disrupted in their administrative work,” he wrote.

He called his post “bad judgment” and again expressed that he was trying to raise awareness about the virus. 

“My post today… it went very far, but I thought that if people paid a large amount of interest to it, then they might listen. This method has hurt a lot of people and I am receiving criticism for it.

“For causing distress, I sincerely apologize to the government agencies and medical professionals who are working hard because of COVID-19 and to the many people who are following instructions to give up on their lifestyles and are doing all they can to overcome this,” he concluded. 

Countries Warn Against Spreading Misinformation About COVID-19 as Pranks 

Jaejoong’s initial post is essentially what many people are afraid of seeing on this day. But even aside from lying about having the virus, more people are worried that misinformation will be spread under the guise of April Fools’ jokes. 

Governments worldwide have been taking steps to combat this issue. Police in Thailand, for instance, warned that anyone disseminating false information about the coronavirus on April Fools’ Day could face up to five years in jail and a fine of up to about $3,000.

Taiwan’s president warned people not to pull virus-related pranks, adding that anyone spreading false rumors or information could face up to three years in jail and/ or a fine of up to $99,200.

In India, Maharashtra’s cybersecurity unit promised to pursue legal action against anyone spreading misinformation or rumors today as well, with Home Minister Anil Deshmukh tweeting “the state govt won’t allow anyone to spread rumors/panic on #Corona.”

https://platform.twitter.com/widgets.js

Germany’s health ministry issued a similar warning under the heading “Corona is no joke,” according to Reuters. Meanwhile, authorities in South Korea have said misinformation related to the virus would fall under laws on obstruction of official duties and defamation.

For those who choose to take their coronavirus pranks a step further by pulling them against others in person, keep in mind that anyone who threatens or attempts to spread COVID-19 in the U.S. can be hit with terrorism charges.

See what others are saying: (The New York Times) (Forbes) (The Hill

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Hungary, Iran, and Other Countries Use Coronavirus Pandemic to Suppress Journalists

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  • On Monday, Hungary passed a law allowing Prime Minister Viktor Orban to indefinitely rule by decree, giving him the power to rule the country how he sees fit.
  • Hungary also passed a law banning the spreading of “false” information, a move critics call a censor to free press.
  • Other countries such as the Philippines, Egypt, Iran, and Brazil have also made moves to block journalists, either by censoring, harassing, detaining, or attempting to discredit them.
  • Facebook and Twitter, in turn, have removed posts by Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro for misinformation relating to the use and promotion of hydroxychloroquine, a drug being investigated as an antiviral COVID-19 treatment.

Hungary Gives PM Power to “Rule By Decree”

As governments around the world struggle with how to contain the coronavirus pandemic, Hungary has given its prime minister the power to indefinitely rule by decree.

Hungary’s parliament overwhelmingly passed that bill Monday, and as of Tuesday, it is now in effect. In essence, it gives Prime Minister Viktor Orban the legal ability to govern the country unchallenged for as long as he sees fit. Notably, that means he doesn’t need to consult with other lawmakers when it comes to making decisions. 

In theory, the bill stills allow for the country’s constitutional court to act as a check; however, Orban had already stacked that court with loyalists. That means a check against him is extremely unlikely to happen.

Hungary’s government has justified this new law by saying emergency powers are necessary to fight the outbreak, but rights groups are fighting back by saying such a move suspends democracy. Many political analysts have also questioned whether or not Orban will give back his newfound power once the coronavirus crisis is over. 

In fact, some say there’s precedent to suggest he might not. In 2016, Orban was granted emergency power to deal with Hungary’s migrant crisis, but he’s yet to relinquish those powers and still holds them today.

“He is using this crisis to further increase his power,” the director of a Budapest-based think tank told The Washington Post. “The Hungarian prime minister enjoys the situation where he can act as a captain in a crisis. I don’t see him giving up these powers again easily.”

Because of that, there are concerns that Orban and his administration might also use “rule by decree” to suppress independent voices and free press. It’s possible that the country might already be taking such steps, as the law that gave Orban rule by decree also criminalizes any attempts to stop the Hungarian government from fighting the outbreak. Notably, that includes the spreading of false information, which is punishable by up to five years in prison.

Of course, the kicker is that whenever a government allows a single person to call the shots, they can decide what is considered “false” information. 

The European Union, of which Hungary is a member, has already launched punitive measures against the country, saying Orban’s attacks on the media, the courts, and minority rights pose a “systematic threat” to its core values.

Hungary has defended itself against that criticism, with a spokesperson saying, “False claims of a power grab in Hungary are just that. Such insinuations are not only incorrect but defamatory and impede the government’s efforts in slowing down the spread of the coronavirus.”

Other Countries Make Moves to Block Journalists

It’s not just Hungary making big moves to potentially change freedoms and block journalists. 

Last week in Egypt, authorities forced a reporter for The Guardian to leave the country after she reported on a scientific study that said Egypt likely had many more COVID-19 cases than officially reported.

In the Philippines, journalists can now face sentences up to two months and a fine up to $20,000 for “spreading false information” related to the coronavirus.

In Iran, authorities have been aggressively working to contain independent reporting by harassing, detaining, and censoring journalists. Officials there have also ordered the media to only use the government’s statistics when covering COVID-19.

In Brazil, President Jair Bolsonaro has called the coronavirus a media trick, saying: “The people will soon see that they were tricked by these governors and by the large part of the media when it comes to coronavirus.”

“It is a shameless campaign, a colossal and absurd campaign against the head of state…” he also said. “They want to force me out however possible.”

Facebook and Twitter Remove Bolsonaro Posts

By contrast, multiple social media sites have removed posts from Bolsonaro that they say feature him making false, harmful, or misleading statements.

The posts all contain video of Bolsonaro walking through Brazil’s capital. He then talks to a street vendor and insinuates an end to social distancing.

“This medicine here, hydroxychloroquine, is working in every place,” he adds in the video that was posted Saturday. 

Notably, that is incorrect. Both hydroxychloroquine and chloroquine are being investigated as possible antiviral treatments for COVID-19; however, while those drugs are approved for use in patients with malaria, lupus, and rheumatoid arthritis, they have not been approved for use in people with COVID-19.

Twitter banned two tweets featuring the video on Sunday. According to NBC News, Twitter ordered Bolsonaro to take down that video himself if he wanted to keep using the platform.

“Twitter recently announced the expansion of its rules to cover content that could be against public health information provided by official sources and could put people at greater risk of transmitting Covid-19,” a spokesperson for the site said in a statement.

Monday night, both Facebook followed suit by removing the video on its platform. It also removed the video from Instagram, which it owns. 

“We removed content on Facebook and Instagram that violates our Community Standards, which do not allow misinformation that could cause real harm to people,” read a statement to media outlets. 

Bolsonaro is not the only world leader to be hit by social media platforms hoping to cut down on misinformation surrounding COVID-19. Last week, Twitter also deleted a tweet from Venezuelan President Nicholas Maduro for promoting a “natural brew” to cure COVID-19.

Though not governmental leaders, it has also deleted tweets from President Donald Trump’s lawyer Rudy Giuliani and Fox host Laura Ingraham for promoting the effectiveness of hydroxychloroquine before its widespread approval. 

On Saturday, the Food and Drug Administration gave the Trump Administration emergency approval to distribute millions of doses of those drugs to hospitals. Even with that, that does not mean that the FDA is approving the long-term use of these drugs against COVID-19.

See what others are saying: (NBC News) (Politico) (Axios)

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