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Protests in Iran Continue As Government Shuts off the Internet

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  • Massive protests have been going on in Iran since Friday after the government said they would hike up fuel prices by as much as 300%.
  • The government responded to the protests by launching a widespread internet blackout all over the country, making information about the protests and violence difficult to obtain.
  • Iranian officials have said that only 12 people have died, but international organizations and Iranian journalists said the numbers are much higher.
  • The Trump administration said it supports the protests, but many have called its claims hypocritical, noting that the sanctions on Iran have played a huge role in the country’s economic downturn.

Protests Break Out

Nationwide protests have erupted in Iran over the last few days, prompting the government to shut down the internet in almost all of the country.

The demonstrations first started on Friday after the Iranian government announced that it would hike up fuel prices from between 50% to as much as 300%.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said that the increase would raise up to $2.55 billion that would be handed out to about 60 million of Iran’s poorest people.

But because the country only has around 80 million people total, many have argued that the government was basically making everyone pay more for gas to just give that money back to most of the population.

The move was also significant because gas is incredibly cheap in Iran, which has the world’s fourth-largest crude oil reserves. Before the price hikes, people were only paying about 25 cents a gallon for gas.

Even though the new prices are still lower compared to global gas prices, it is a big deal for Iran where many people are struggling due to economic downturn and high inflation.

Similar to other recent protests in countries like Chile and Lebanon, a single decision by the government to raise prices on a population that was already hurting was the straw that broke the camel’s back.

Like those other protests, that decision prompted much broader demonstrations against economic issues and corruption.

Following the government’s announcement, drivers abandoned vehicles on highways and protesters took to the streets, blocking roads. While protests in some areas have been largely peaceful, others have become violent.

In some places, protestors set fires and ransacked gas stations, banks, stores, and government buildings. Demonstrators also clashed violently with security forces who responded by using teargas.

Those clashes reportedly escalated Saturday, with some reports that the security forces were opening fire on protesters.

Internet Blackout

The full extent of both the protests and the violence is not currently clear because of the government’s internet blackout.

Iranian officials first imposed the sweeping internet restrictions on Saturday, and they have remained in place since then.

Internet monitoring service NetBlocks described the shutdown as “near-total.”

Oracle’s Internet Intelligence described it as the “largest internet shutdown ever observed in Iran.”

Government officials in Iran said Tuesday that they would gradually lift the block once they were sure the internet would not be “abused” during the protests.

A judiciary spokesman also said Tuesday said that the protests had died down, but there are some conflicting reports as to the validity of that claim, as well as other statements made by the government.

Iranian officials have said that 12 people have been killed, including both civilians and security forces, but others say those numbers are much higher.

The United Nations reported that “dozens” have died, while Amnesty International said the number was more than 100, based on credible sources.

Iranian journalists have also reported that there have been well over 100 shootings by the security forces.

But internet blackout makes it uniquely difficult to know what the correct numbers are. 

The blackout is also unique compared to other recent protests— specifically similar ones in Iraq and Lebanon— where social media has been essential in organizing demonstrations and sharing what is going on with the rest of the world.

United States’ Unique Role

In addition to the internet blackout, there is another aspect that sets apart the protests in Iran from other global protests over the last few weeks and months: the role that the U.S. has played.

Many of Iran’s economic problems have stemmed from the heavy sanctions the U.S. has placed on Iran. 

The U.S., under the Barack Obama administration, had previously lifted sanctions on Iran as part of the 2015 nuclear deal aimed at curbing Iran’s civilian nuclear program.

But in May 2018, President Donald Trump withdrew from that deal and re-imposed sanctions on Iran, including sanctions on their oil exports, which is a huge sector of their economy.

Since then, the Trump administration has continued to ramp up those sanctions, arguing that a “maximum pressure” campaign is more effective to crackdown on Iran’s government.

Many economists and human rights activists have said that the sanctions actually end up hurting Iran’s civilian populations more than they hurt the government.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo addressed the protests in a tweet on Friday where he told the people of Iran that “the United States is with you.”

Iran’s Foreign Ministry condemned Pompeo’s tweet. In a statement, a ministry spokesperson said that Pompeo’s remarks were “hypocritical” because of the role the U.S. sanctions have played in the country’s economic problems.

“It seems weird to [be] sympathizing with a nation suffering from the US’ economic terrorism and the same person who has already said that the Iranian people should be starved to surrender,” the spokesperson said.

But the Trump administration seemed to double down on its position in a statement released by the White House Sunday.

“The United States supports the Iranian people in their peaceful protests against the regime that is supposed to lead them,” the statement said. “We condemn the lethal force and severe communications restrictions used against demonstrators.”

Many people criticized the White House response, also arguing that the U.S. is partially to blame for Iran’s economic problems, and accusing the administration of painting the protests just as demonstrations against the government when that is only part of the equation.

Some pointed out that the Iranian government implemented the fuel price hike in the first place as part of a broader plan to mitigate the huge economic hit from U.S. sanctions, as well as to help the millions of Iranian civilians who have been hurt by those sanctions.

Iranian government officials for their part have continued to downplay the protests. 

During a televised statement Sunday, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said: “The counter-revolution and Iran’s enemies have always supported sabotage and breaches of security and continue to do so.”

The Ayatollah also said that he still supports the price hike, saying that it “must be implemented” — which is meaningful because he has the final say.

Meanwhile, Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps warned protesters Monday that they will take “decisive” action if the unrest continues.

See what others are saying: (CNN) (Al Jazeera) (BBC)

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Brazil’s Secretary of Culture Fired Over Speech Reminiscent of Nazi Rhetoric

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  • Brazil’s Secretary of Culture Roberto Alvim was fired on Friday after he appeared to paraphrase Nazi propaganda in his announcement of a national arts initiative.  
  • Several of Alvim’s sentences were strikingly similar to those of Joseph Goebbels, who served as the Reich Minister of Propaganda of Nazi Germany.
  • Additionally, the music playing in the background of Alvim’s address was from an opera that Adolf Hitler found imperative in his life. 
  • After much backlash and call for the culture secretary’s termination, President Jair Bolsonaro announced that he dismissed Alvim from his position.

Controversial Address

Brazil’s Secretary of Culture was terminated from his role on Friday after an official video was released of him seeming to paraphrase Nazi propaganda remarks. 

Roberto Alvim, who was appointed to his position by Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, announced a new initiative for increased funds dedicated to national art awards. In the 6-minute video, which has now been deleted from all Brazilian government official pages, Alvim was seen sitting at a desk beneath a portrait of Bolsonaro, a wooden cross to his side.

“The Brazilian art of the next decade will be heroic and national,” he said to the camera in Portuguese. “It will be endowed with great capacity for emotional involvement, and it will also be imperative since it will be profoundly connected to the urgent aspirations of our people — or it will be nothing.”  

Parts of Alvim’s phrasing was almost identical to those of Joseph Goebbels, who served as the Reich Minister of Propaganda of Nazi Germany. The similarities can be seen in a speech of Goebbels’, quoted in a biography by historian Peter Longerich.

“German art of the next decade will be heroic, steely but romantic, factual without sentimentality,” Goebbels said in 1933. “It will be nationalistic, with great depth of feeling; it will be binding and it will unite, or it will cease to exist.”  

The music playing in the background of Alvim’s address was also noteworthy. It came from Richard Wagner’s opera “Lohengrin,” which Adolf Hitler described in his autobiography, Mein Kampf, as being decisive in his life.

Reactions to Alvim’s Speech  

It wasn’t long before people began to notice the likeness of Alvim’s rhetoric with the Nazi propaganda, and individuals across the political spectrum expressed outrage. Some — including prominent Brazillian politicians — publicly called for Alvim’s immediate professional termination. 

Alvim first defended his speech in a Facebook post, saying, “what the left is doing is a remote association fallacy.” He called his controversial sentences a “rhetorical coincidence.” 

But a few hours later, Alvim softened his defensive stance with an apology to the Jewish community. In another post, he claimed that the speech was brought to him by advisors who pulled various ideas tied to national art and that he had no idea of the fascist origin of those few lines. Alvim called the criticized phrases an “involuntary mistake” and said he was sorry from the bottom of his heart.

President Jair Bolsonaro announced on his official Twitter page that he had dismissed Alvim from his position on Friday. Bolsonaro wrote that despite Alvim’s apology, his remarks made his tenure “unsustainable.” 

The Brazilian leader emphasized his “rejection of totalitarian and genocidal ideologies” and expressed full support for the Jewish community. 

See what others are saying: (New York Times) (BBC) (Washington Post)

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Pope Francis Names First Woman to Senior Vatican Diplomatic Role

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  • Pope Francis appointed a woman to a management role in the Vatican’s most powerful department for the first time on Wednesday.
  • Dr. Francesca Di Giovanni, a Vatican official of 27 years, will now serve as the undersecretary for multilateral affairs in the Secretariat of State. 
  • Among other duties, Di Giovanni will oversee the coordination of the Vatican’s relationships with multilateral organizations, including the United Nations. 
  • While several other women hold high-ranking positions in the city-state, Di Giovanni’s leadership role in the Vatican’s most powerful branch is unparalleled. 

Appointment of Di Giovanni

Pope Francis made an unprecedented move on Wednesday by appointing a woman for the first time to a managerial position in the Secretariat of State, the most powerful department of the Vatican.

Dr. Francesca Di Giovanni, an Italian lawyer and Vatican official of 27 years, was named the undersecretary for multilateral affairs in the Secretariat of State. Among other responsibilities, Di Giovanni will oversee a division that coordinates the Vatican’s relations with multilateral organizations, including the United Nations.  

“The Holy Father has made an unprecedented decision, certainly, which, beyond myself personally, represents an indication of an attention towards women,” Di Giovanni told the Vatican’s in-house media

“But the responsibility is connected to the job, rather than to the fact of being a woman,” she added.

Milestone for Women in Catholic Church

Several women hold leadership positions in other Vatican offices, but the Secretariat of State is the most powerful branch, making Di Giovanni’s career shift extra significant. 

Pope Francis’ appointment of Di Giovanni is the latest development in his ongoing open support of women having more say in the Roman Catholic Church. Currently, women cannot be ordained as priests and the Church’s leadership is almost entirely male-dominated.

On New Year’s Day, the pope expressed praise for womankind. 

“Women are givers and mediators of peace and should be fully included in decision-making processes,” Pope Francis said. “Because when women can share their gifts, the world finds itself more united, more peaceful. Hence, every step forward for women is a step forward for humanity as a whole.”

Di Giovanni referenced these words in her interview with the Vatican News calling them the pope’s “tribute” to the role of women.

“A woman may have certain aptitudes for finding commonalities, healing relationships with unity at heart,” Di Giovanni said. “I hope that my being a woman might reflect itself positively in this task, even if they are gifts that I certainly find in my male colleagues as well.”  

See what others are saying: (Vatican News) (NPR) (BBC)

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Protests Erupt in Iran After Military Admits to Shooting Down Plane

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  • Protests broke out across Iran over the weekend after the military admitted that it shot down a Ukrainian airline’s passenger jet, killing 176 people when mistaking it for a hostile aircraft.
  • Officials originally said there was no evidence of the plane being struck down by one of their missiles but ultimately admitted fault three days later.
  • Protesters are demanding leaders be held accountable. 
  • There are reports of tear gas and gunfire being used against demonstrators, but Tehran’s head of police has denied claims of shots being fired.

Backlash from the Plane Strike

Monday marked the third straight day of Iranian protests since Iran’s military admitted it shot down a passenger jet last week, mistaking it for a threat and killing all 176 people on board. 

Videos emerged on Sunday of protesters running from tear gas and in others, which could not be immediately verified, gunfire could be heard.

It has been a tumultuous couple of weeks for Iranians—last week, hundreds of thousands were rallying in the streets to publicly mourn Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani, Iran’s Quds Force commander who was killed by a U.S. drone strike on Jan. 3.

During those rallies, cries of hate against the United States and Donald Trump—who ordered the strike— were heard. This week there is a sharp contrast, as protesters seem to be targeting the Iranian government and military.

According to The Washington Post, demonstrators were filmed late on Sunday in at least two locations ripping down posters of Soleimani. In Iran’s capital, Tehran, a billboard mourning the victims of the plane crash replaced one of the deceased military leader.

In retaliation for Soleimani’s death, Iran fired missiles at an Iraqi military base that houses American troops on Wednesday. The plane was shot down by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps just hours later after taking off from Tehran. 

After maintaining for days that there was no evidence the aircraft was struck down by one of their missiles, Iran admitted that its military had shot down the jet by mistake.

The military initially claimed in a statement that the plane took an unexpected turn that brought it close to a sensitive military base, but an Iranian official later backtracked on that notion. 

“The plane was flying in its normal direction without any error and everybody was doing their job correctly,” Gen. Amir Ali Hajizadeh, commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps’ airspace unit, said on Saturday. “If there was a mistake, it was made by one of our members.”

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani called the incident an “unforgivable mistake” and said that investigations are continuing to “identify and prosecute this great tragedy.”  

A mix of individuals from multiple countries was onboard the aircraft, including dozens of Canadians. Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau called the incident “a national tragedy” and publicly called for further investigation.

“I want to assure all families and all Canadians: We will not rest until there are answers,” he said at a memorial event on Sunday.

Escalating Protests

Protesters are demanding that leaders be held responsible for the fatal mistake. Iran’s semi-official Fars News Agency reported that up to 1,000 people were protesting at various points in the capital city. Some videos posted to social media show crowds demanding the resignation of Ayatollah Khamenei, the country’s supreme leader.

One of the scenes of protest was the Sharif University of Technology in Tehran, which said that 13 of its students and alumni were killed in the plane crash. Iranian security forces stepped in and escalated the demonstration.

They “started dragging people away. They took a number of people and put them in cages in police vans,” said 35-year-old Soudabeh told The Washington Post, keeping her full name anonymous.

“At one point, the protesters freed one of the men who was detained. I saw his face and it was covered in blood — his family carried him away,” she told the news outlet.

Iran’s security forces have a history of taking extreme action to contain protesters. In November, after protests broke out in response to the spike in Iran’s gas prices, about 1,500 demonstrators were killed by security forces, according to the Trump administration. 

Iranian media quoted Brig. Gen. Hossein Rahimi as saying “Police treated people who had gathered with patience and tolerance,” according to reports by the Associated Press. 

Rahimi denied claims that police were shooting at protesters and said that tear gas was only being used in certain areas.

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

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