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Reuters Journalists Free After Over 500 Days in Prison

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  • Two Reuters journalists who had been imprisoned in Myanmar were released on Tuesday after being detained for more than 500 days.
  • Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo were arrested in December of 2017 for allegedly possessing state secrets, though many believe their arrest was a set-up and that the two were targeted for their reporting on the Rohingya crisis.
  • The journalists were originally sentenced to seven years in prison but were pardoned by President Win Myint along with 6,520 other prisoners.

Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo Freed

The two Reuters journalists, who many believe were arrested in Myanmar for their reporting on the Rohingya crisis, were released from prison Tuesday after being detained for over 500 days.

Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo were released as part of a pardon of 6,520 prisoners by President Win Myint, effectively commuting what had originally been a seven-year sentence. The two journalists were seen smiling and waving in videos and photos of them walking out of the gates of the prison before they were mobbed by journalists and photographers.

“Around the world, people wishing to release us, so I would like to say thank you very much,” Lone told reporters following his release. “I’m really happy and excited to see my family and my colleagues. I can’t wait to go to my newsroom.”

The two were then taken to see their families where they were both reunited with their wives and daughters. Lone, whose daughter was born while he was in prison, was able to hold his baby for the first time as a free man. Soe Oo was also reunited with his three-year-old daughter, who has been separated from her father for much of her life.

Background

Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo were arrested in December 2017 for allegedly possessing secret documents.

Their arrest is widely believed to have been a set-up. Many argue that the journalists were actually being targeted for their reporting on crimes against the Rohingya people, a Muslim minority in Myanmar.

For the last few years, the Rohingya have been forced to flee persecution from state security forces in what has amounted to a huge refugee crisis. Many experts have labeled the persecution of Rohingya as a genocide or ethnic cleansing, but military and civilian officials have denied this.

The police asked to meet with Lone and Soe Oo, who agreed. During their meeting, the police and handed the journalists rolled up documents as they were leaving. The officers then promptly arrested the two men for having those same documents.

Police officials and the Burmese government have maintained that they were not arrested because of their coverage of the crisis, but the conditions of their arrest and sentencing have been questionable at best.

Then in September 2018, Lone and Soe Oo were sentenced to seven years in prison. Much like the conditions of their arrest, the testimonies against them were questionable. One police officer admitting burning his notes, and another witness read parts of testimony off notes on his hand.

The journalists’ imprisonment immediately sparked international outrage, with many world leaders arguing that the government was censoring them for their reporting. Lone and Soe Oo appealed the case to a regional high court, but lost the appeal in January.

They then appealed to the Myanmar Supreme Court, which denied their appeal on April 22. After the Supreme Court decision, it seemed like all hope was lost, until their release was reported Tuesday, in a move that surprised the international community.

International Response

Numerous leaders all around the world have celebrated the journalists’ newfound freedom, expressing hope that their release represents a trend in more democratic press practices in Myanmar.

“We are enormously pleased that Myanmar has released our courageous reporters, Wa Lone and Soe Oo,” Stephen Adler, the editor-in-chief of Reuters said in a statement. “Since their arrests 511 days ago, they have become symbols of the importance of press freedom around the world. We welcome their return.”

Vice President Mike Pence commended their release in a tweet, writing, “Freedom of religion & freedom of the press are essential to a strong democracy!”

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau also praised the move, saying “Freedom of the press is a fundamental right & must be defended everywhere in the world.”

“It is inspiring to see a news organisation so committed to the protection of innocent men and the profession of journalism,” said Amal Clooney, who was part of the journalists’ legal team said. “I hope that their release signals a renewed commitment to press freedom in Myanmar.”

The move was also applauded by human rights organizations and leaders, but many also expressed concern for the future.

“Today marks an important victory for press freedom in Myanmar.” Nicholas Bequelin Amnesty International’s East and Southeast Asia Director wrote in a statement.

“While all those who campaigned for their release welcome the government’s decision, the reality is the country retains a range of repressive laws used to detain journalists, activists and any perceived critic of the authorities,” Bequelin added.

“Until these laws are repealed, journalists and activists remain under a permanent threat of detention and arrest.”

What Next?

Bequelin’s statement, which was also echoed by Amal Clooney, hits on an important note. This case has been widely covered in international media for nearly a year and a half, and now it seems to have a happy ending no one expected.

While that is certainly true for Lone and Soe Oo, their release also begs the question: does this show a new commitment to press freedom in Myanmar?

Following their sentencing, many looked to Myanmar’s new civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who won the Nobel Peace Prize for her efforts to fight for democracy in Myanmar. The international community hoped that Suu Kyi, whose role is comparable to that of a prime minister, would help usher in a new transition to more democratic practices following a long history of military rule.

Suu Kyi’s government was largely expected to end the imprisonment of government critics, pardon political prisoners, and continue to work towards free media. Instead, her government has cracked down on free expression and continued to use outdated laws to imprison people like Lone and Soe Oo.

In fact, Amnesty International has reported that in recent weeks they have “recorded a surge in politically motivated arrests – most for criticism of the military.”

Suu Kyi has also come under a lot of fire for her handling of the Reuters journalists. While she had the power to pardon them, she defended the court’s decision.

“They were not jailed because they were journalists,” Suu Kyi said following the sentencing. “The court has decided that they had broken the Official Secrets Act”

Meanwhile, the violent persecution of the Rohingya continues with no accountability from the military or Suu Kyi, who until the last few years has largely been considered a beacon of the fight for human rights and democracy globally.

See what others are saying: (The Washington Post) (The Guardian) (CNN)

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Coronavirus-Stricken Cruise Ships Will Dock in Florida

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  • The Zaandam, a cruise liner holding passengers sick with the coronavirus, has been stranded at sea for weeks waiting to dock. 
  • Of the 2,000 on the ship, over 200 have reported flu-like symptoms and nine have tested positive for COVID-19. At least four died onboard.
  • Officials say the Zaandam and the Rotterdam, its sister ship that was sent for support, will finally be able to disembark in Fort Lauderdale, Florida after initial resistance from local authorities.
  • Disembarkation is expected to be completed by Friday evening.

Cruise Turned Nightmare

Two cruise ships that have been stricken by the coronavirus and stuck at sea for weeks will finally disembark at Port Everglades in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

The decision was reached by multiple local and federal officials including Fort Lauderdale Mayor Dean Trantalis, Homeland Security, the Broward County Commission, and the cruise line, Holland America. Healthy passengers will be allowed to go home while the sick will remain on board. 

“It was the right thing to do,” Broward County Commissioner Beam Furr told the Guardian. “We’ve been letting people in and out of this port for 100 years in good times and bad times. I’m proud we could do this.”

The deal comes after a suspenseful back-and-forth that has involved multiple parties and left over 2,000 passengers and crew members waiting onboard for weeks. More than 200 of these people have reported experiencing flu-like symptoms, and nine tested positive for the coronavirus, according to Holland America officials. Many guests are from countries other than the U.S. 

The Zaandam cruise liner embarked for a trip along the coast of South America on March 7. The journey was supposed to end in Chile on March 21, but the coronavirus quickly escalated and things went awry. 

After the WHO declared the coronavirus a pandemic, Holland America suspended its operations. The Zaandam continued to travel north after Chile closed its borders, but more countries denied the ship entry.

Then passengers on the boat started getting sick, exhibiting flu-like symptoms. Last week, Holland America deployed a second ship, the Rotterdam, to meet the Zaandam off of Panama. The Rotterdam was sent with medical supplies, more staff, and coronavirus tests. 

Asymptomatic guests were transferred to the Rotterdam as well. 

On Friday, Holland American announced that four elderly people on board had died. Carnival Corporation, Holland America’s parent company who owns the ship, said two of the dead had tested positive for COVID-19. 

The nightmare has carried on for nearly four weeks now, but an end is finally in sight in Fort Lauderdale. 

Back and Forth

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis was initially resistant to the idea of allowing those on the ship to embark in his state. Cruise ships have shown to be a cesspool for the coronavirus and there are complications in the repatriation of people who are stranded at sea. 

DeSantis has expressed worries about further spread of the outbreak as well as excess strain on medical facilities in the state. 

“We view this as a big, big problem and we do not want to see people dumped in southern Florida right now,” DeSantis told Fox News.

But those aboard the ships have grown desperate. Family members of those onboard have pleaded for them to disembark. Holland America President Orlando Ashford wrote an open letter urging countries to show support in this “humanitarian crisis.”  

President Trump himself offered a compassionate stance on Wednesday night as the situation dragged on.

“They’re dying, so we have to do something, and the governor knows that, too,” Trump said of those stuck on the sister ships. “We have to help the people. They are in big trouble.”

In updates on their website, Holland America outlined a plan for the passengers on the pair of ships. They said that U.S. Customs and Border Protection will clear passengers for entry into the country.

The nearly 1,200 guests fit for travel under CDC guidelines will be unloaded onto sanitized coaches. Person-to-person contact will be limited and masks will be worn, and these people will be taken straight from the ship to flights home, the majority on charter flights. Florida residents will return home immediately via private cars.

Holland America said the guests who still have symptoms and are unfit to travel will continue to isolate onboard until they recover.  There are currently less than twenty people in need of immediate critical care, and they will be taken to local hospitals for treatment. 

It wasn’t until these detailed disembarkation plans started to form that Florida officials softened their resistance against allowing the ship to dock on the state’s ground.

Mayor Trantalis, who was originally against the idea of allowing the ships into Florida, expressed more openness to it after hearing Holland America’s proposals. 

“Their tone has completely changed to address the concerns we had,” Trantalis told the Guardian on Wednesday. “I was concerned that they were just going to let these people off to mingle with the people of my city. That would have been a nightmare.”

“But based on the conversation I had with the [Holland America] president, we are much further along in resolving this situation,” Trantalis said. 

On Wednesday, DeSantis said the 52 Floridians onboard the ships would “clearly” be accepted and said he hoped a solution for the others was near. 

DeSantis showed more of a change of heart on Thursday when he told Fox News that transferring critically ill patients to hospitals was “the humanitarian thing to do.”

“There is no easy solution to this,” the Governor said. 

Yet it appears some kind of solution has finally arrived, and many aboard will return home very shortly. 

“I look forward to a safe operation that protects the well-being of all involved,” Broward County Commissioner Michael Udine tweeted on Thursday.

See what others are saying: (New York Times) (NPR) (CNN)

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Japanese PM Offers to Send Two Masks Per Family, But Won’t Declare Coronavirus Emergency

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  • Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is refusing calls from citizens and other lawmakers to declare a state of emergency in response to the coronavirus pandemic.
  • But on Wednesday, he did announce that the government will send two reusable masks to every household.
  • Abe’s announcement was met with heavy criticism, with many people on social media pointing out that most families have more than two members.
  • Many even originally took it as an April Fool’s joke.
  • The criticism comes as medical experts warn that Japan’s healthcare system cannot handle a massive outbreak.

Abe Offers Masks But Refuses to Declare Emergency

In a move that has drawn an overwhelming amount of criticism, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe announced that the government would send each family in Japan two reusable masks, but he ignored repeated calls for him to declare a state of emergency in response to the spreading coronavirus.

While Japan has largely avoided the coronavirus pandemic (minus the disastrous Diamond Princess incident), that luck may soon run out. According to John Hopkins University on Thursday, Japan has only reported 2,384 cases and only 57 deaths; however, on Thursday, Tokyo alone reported 97 new cases, which is it’s highest single-day jump so far.

Currently, museums and schools in Tokyo are closed, but shops are still open. Restaurants are still allowing people to dine in. It’s also cherry blossom season, an event that typically attracts thousands of visitors each year. Despite concerns that people would ignore social distancing guidelines, this year is no different, and crowds have flocked to see the blooms. 

Cue urges from both citizens and lawmakers for Abe to declare an emergency across the country. Though not legally binding, it would allow governors in different prefects to send out stronger messages when it comes to telling people to stay at home.

Still, Abe has refused, saying that such a move isn’t imminent. Instead, he opted to send citizens gauze masks that he says  “will be helpful in responding to the rapidly increasing demand” for masks as major cities start to see runs on protective gear. 

#ScrewYourMasks

To put it lightly, Abe’s plan was not met with much praise as people worried how to strap two masks onto grandma, grandpa, and the kids all at the same time.

That conundrum was later part of a viral meme where a family of eight is forced to share two masks, with each family member lined up behind the next (just like any self-respecting family, the pet rightly took priority).

Alongside criticisms like that, both  #Abe’sMask and #ScrewYourMasks” began trending on Twitter in Japan.

“At last, PM Abe decided to provide something to Japanese people,” one user sarcastically said. “What he provides us is……2 medical masks made of gauze per one family! Thank you Abe-san we can live as long as [we have] a gauze mask! You are really stupid!!!”

“I wish this had been just an April fool[‘s] joke,” another user said. 

However, reportedly, many people considered the idea of the government sending only two masks to each family so outrageous that they actually did think it was an April Fool’s joke at first. 

Others criticized the move for how long it will take people to even receive their masks. Reportedly, the government won’t begin mailing those masks until the week after next. By then, many fear the situation in the country could be much more drastic. 

This is not Abe’s first instance with coronavirus-related criticism. Critics have accused Abe of consistently downplaying the threat of the coronavirus in order to not push back the now-postponed Tokyo Olympics. Abe has denied such accusations.

Medical Experts Warn that Japan’s Healthcare System Could Fail

The announcement comes a week after Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike told resident to work from home if possible and after she urged people to avoid bars, restaurants, and public gatherings until April 12.

It also comes as medical officials are warning that a surge in coronavirus cases could be disastrous for  Japan’s healthcare system. Reportedly, hospitals in several major cities, including Tokyo and Osaka, are already being stretched thin. According to a government panel, “drastic countermeasures need to be taken as quickly as possible.”

“Fundamental responses should be made as early as today or tomorrow,” Shigeru Omi, head of the Japan Community Healthcare Organization, said at a news conference Wednesday night. 

U.S. Governments Weigh Telling People to Wear Masks

In the United States where the situation has skyrocketed, there is also concern around masks and who should wear them.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention currently only recommends masks be worn by those who are sick. Notably, if you are not sick, the CDC says there is no need to  wear a mask unless you’re caring for someone who is sick. That recommendation is also part of an attempt to ensure masks are saved for healthcare providers and caregivers.

This past week, however, CDC Director Robert Redfield said the agency is looking at potentially changing those guidelines, saying the data around it is, “being aggressively reviewed as we speak.”

This week, Trump’s Coronavirus Task Force has also indicated that it’s discussing potentially updating that recommendation. 

“The idea of getting a much more broad community-wide use of masks outside of the health care setting is under very active discussion at the task force,” Dr. Anthony Fauci said. “The thing that has inhibited that a bit is to make sure we don’t take away the supply of masks from the health care workers who need them.”

“But when we get in a situation where we have enough masks,” he continued. “I believe there will be some very serious consideration about more broadening this recommendation of using masks. We’re not there yet, but I think we’re close to coming to some determination.” 

Both a city and a county in California have also started to recommend the use of non-medical face coverings even among healthy people while out in public. On Tuesday, officials in Riverside County announced that recommendation and by Wednesday, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti followed suit.

See what others are saying: (CNN) (Fox News) (Japan Times)

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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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