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Seoul to Improve Semi-Basement Apartments After ‘Parasite’ Shines Light on Issues

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  • The Seoul city government said it will financially support 1,500 households living in semi-basement apartments like the one depicted in the Oscar-winning film “Parasite.”
  • With the help of the Korea Energy Foundation, the local government will offer up to 3.2 million won (about 2,630 USD) per household for enhancements like new floors, air conditioners, fire alarms, ventilators, and more. 
  • While many have noted that this new initiative won’t lift semi-basement dwellers completely out of trouble, they still feel that’s a step in the right direction that could help prevent thousands from sinking into worse conditions. 

Film Draws Attention to Poor Living Conditions 

After making history at the 92nd Academy Awards, the South Korean film “Parasite” has now inspired the Seoul Metropolitan Government to address poor living conditions in the city. 

The dark comedy thriller, directed by Bong Joon-ho, took home four Oscars at this year’s ceremony and became the first non-English language film to earn the Best Picture trophy. 

But aside from the historic win, the film also shined a light on the realities of living in semi-basement apartments also known as “Banjiha,” the Korean word for cramped basement flat. 

In the film, the scheming Kim family lives in a semi-basement apartment that is prominently portrayed as a dark, smell, and small space. But while the movie is a work of fiction, its portrayal of these apartments is apparently not.

According to the Los Angeles Times, there were over 360,000 semi-basement apartments in South Korea as of 2015, with the majority located in the greater Seoul metropolitan area. Many of the units were originally built as emergency bunkers in the 1970s—an era of intense military tension between North and South Korea. 

Some of these spaces were later converted into cheap rental units and though it was initially illegal to rent them out, the government walked back on their restrictions during the housing crisis in the 1980s, when living spaces began running short in the capital. 

Government Plans to Take Action 

As depicted in the film, Banjiha spaces actually are dark, poorly ventilated, damp, and often far too compact to support the number of residents living inside. But for many low-income people, these are some of their best options for affordable housing. 

The Korea Herald cited city statistics that said 78% of Seoul’s semi-basement dwellers are in the bottom 30% income bracket. So to address the housing issues that became highly discussed since the movie’s release and subsequent success, the Seoul Metropolitan Government vowed to support 1,500 families living in these homes.

According to The Korea Herald, the local government is partnering with the Korea Energy Foundation to offer “up to 3.2 million won [about 2,630 USD] per household to enhance heating systems, replace floors, and install air conditioners, dehumidifiers, ventilators, windows, and fire alarms.”

Residents who live in semi-basement apartments and earn less than 60% of the country’s median income will be able to submit applications to the government to be selected for renovation. The government also said it plans to expand the range of recipients each year. 

While many have noted that this new initiative won’t lift semi-basement dwellers completely out of trouble, they still feel that it’s a step in the right direction that could help prevent thousands from sinking into worse conditions. 

See what others are saying: (IndieWire) (BBC) (The Korean Herald) 

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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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Domestic Violence Reports Increase During Coronavirus Lockdowns

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  • Domestic violence experts and advocates across the globe have projected the issue has and will worsen during the coronavirus crisis as people are forced to stay home with abusers.
  • Many have seen an increase in calls for help and reports being made from victims. Agencies that have seen a drop in calls fear this indicates more abuse is occurring with less freedom to request help. 
  • On top of economic hardships, some victims have been hesitant to seek medical care and feel forced to choose between leaving an abusive home or risking exposure to the virus.
  • Some government officials have tried to curb the rising problem, with Greenland banning alcohol and Spain making exceptions to stay-at-home orders for those seeking help.

Domestic Violence Numbers Rising

As the coronavirus prompts stay-at-home orders around the world and forces more and more people indoors, an increase of another deadly force is being seen: domestic violence. 

Reports from all over the world indicate these incidents are on the rise, a phenomenon that has been seen before in the wake of other emergency crises. 

“The very technique we are using to protect people from the virus can perversely impact victims of domestic violence,” Anita Bhatia, the Deputy Executive Director of the United Nations Women told TIME.

In Hubei, where the coronavirus originated, reports of domestic violence to law enforcement tripled in one county alone during a February lockdown, from 47 last year to 162 this year, according to what activists told local media outlets. 

“According to our statistics, 90% of the causes of violence [in this period] are related to the Covid-19 epidemic,” Wan Fei, a retired police officer who founded a charity to combat abuse, told Sixth Tone website.

A sinister pattern appears to be forming as the coronavirus continues its global spread. 

A Brazilian judge specializing in domestic violence speculated that it has increased by up to 50% due to coronavirus-related restrictions. Hotlines in Spain have reported a spike in the number of calls.

Similar reports have been seen in the United States as well. Officials at an abuse shelter in Charlottesville, North Carolina said their calls for domestic incidents have shot up by 40%. Charlotte-Mecklenburg police Sgt. Scott Evett reinforced this notion, saying the department is “looking at a 17 percent increase” in their domestic violence calls.  

Many more helplines have reported spikes like these. 

“We know that when there’s added stress in the home it can increase the frequency and severity of abuse. We’re trying to prepare survivors for that,” Katie Ray-Jones, chief executive of the National Domestic Violence Hotline, told the Washington Post. “There is a lot of uncertainty about what is even possible right now — if you need to call the police, what does that look like?”

Some police forces have actually seen a drop in domestic violence calls recently, but fear this is an indication that victims are being abused in silence, with less freedom and space from their abuser to report crimes. 

Law enforcement agencies are sending out messages reminding people how to trigger silent alerts.

Activists in Italy said they have seen a sharp drop in calls but an influx of requests for help through texts and emails, which can sometimes be sent with more discretion. 

“One message was from a woman who had locked herself in the bathroom and wrote to ask for help,” Lella Palladino, who is with an activists’ group for the prevention of violence against women, told the Guardian. “For sure there is an overwhelming emergency right now. There is more desperation as women can’t go out.”

In addition to contributing to an increase in domestic violence, the pandemic is hindering victims’ access to services meant to help them. Some might not leave their abusers because they fear violating stay-at-home orders or risking exposure to COVID-19 in public spaces.  

“Maybe their child has special needs or medical needs and they don’t want to be in a group setting, so they’re choosing not to go to a shelter because the risk of their child being infected by the virus is higher than their risk of physical violence, so they’ll manage the risk of staying home through this,” Maureen Curtis, vice president of a victims’ assistance association in New York, told the Washington Post.

Other victims have expressed similar fears, reporting that they haven’t sought medical care for fear of being exposed to the virus in facilities, even after suffering injuries from domestic violence. 

Job layoffs and economic hardships also present challenges, as domestic violence victims have a harder time leaving if they are financially dependent on their abuser. 

Responses to Spikes

Advocates across the globe are trying to address the added challenges that have risen for those vulnerable to and suffering from domestic violence. 

Spain is one of the countries that has been hit hardest by the coronavirus and authorities have been taking their stay-at-home orders extremely seriously, issuing fines to those that violate them by going out. But the government has told women that they will not be penalized for leaving their homes to report abuse. 

Katrin Göring-Eckardt, the German Green party’s parliamentary leader, is pushing for the same exceptions in her country. She is also urging the government to allocate money for safe houses where victims can retreat to, suggesting empty hotels be used for this measure. 

An Italian prosecutor has ruled that if domestic violence is found in a home, the abuser must leave, not the victim. 

Twenty-four U.S. senators — including presidential candidate Bernie Sanders — wrote a letter to officials at the Department of Health and Human Services and Department of Justice in a push to protect domestic violence victims and survivors. The senators requested that organizations set up to help domestic violence victims “have the flexibility, resources, and information needed to continue to provide these critical services during the pandemic.”

Greenland has taken a unique approach in its effort to help those affected by domestic abuse. After the country closed down its schools, forcing children indoors for longer periods of time, it saw a worrisome spike in these numbers, according to the government.

“Unfortunately, in Nuuk, domestic violence has been on the rise in recent weeks,” Health Minister Martha Abelsen said.

Greenland’s government announced a ban on the sale of alcohol in the capital city of Nuuk in an effort to curb violence against children as families are required to shelter in. The World Health Organization has found evidence that alcohol consumption ups the frequency and severity of domestic violence. 

“In such a situation, we have to take numerous measures to avoid infection,” government leader Kim Kielsen said in a statement on Saturday. “But at the heart of my decision is the protection of children, they have to have a safe home.”

See what others are saying: (Guardian) (BBC) (Washington Post)

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U.S. Charges Venezuelan Leader With Drug Trafficking, Narco-Terrorism

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  • The Department of Justice announced criminal charges against Venezuelan leader Maduro and about a dozen others.
  • The charges include narco-terrorism, corruption, drug trafficking, and others.
  • The move marks the second time a foreign head of state has been indicted on drug charges in the U.S. and shows a significant escalation in the U.S. pressure campaign on the Maduro regime.

Maduro Charged

The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) charged Venezuelan leader Nicolás Maduro and 14 others, including senior regime officials, with narco-terrorism, corruption, drug trafficking, and other charges in a sweeping indictment unveiled Thursday.

The indictment, which was announced by Attorney General William Barr, accuses Maduro of conspiring with the Columbian rebel group the Revolutionary Armed Forces, known by their Spanish acronym as FARC.

FARC is a U.S.-designated terrorist group that has long secured its funding by smuggling cocaine.

“For more than 20 years, Maduro and a number of high-ranking colleagues allegedly conspired with the FARC, causing tons of cocaine to enter and devastate American communities,” Barr said in a press conference Thursday morning 

“The scope and magnitude of the drug trafficking alleged was made possible only because Maduro and others corrupted the institutions of Venezuela and provided political and military protection for the rampant narco-terrorism crimes described in our charges,” said U.S. Attorney Geoffrey Berman of the Southern District of New York, who joined Barr via teleconference to make the announcement.

“As alleged, Maduro and the other defendants expressly intended to flood the United States with cocaine in order to undermine the health and wellbeing of our nation,” Berman continued. “Maduro very deliberately deployed cocaine as a weapon.” 

The charges also pertain to Maduro’s alleged leadership of a drug-smuggling cartel called the Cártel de Los Soles, or the Cartel of the Suns, according to a press release from the DOJ.

According to the release, Maduro has served as one of the leaders of the cartel since 1999. In that time, Maduro “negotiated multi-ton shipments of FARC-produced cocaine” and directed the cartel to “provide military-grade weapons to the FARC.”

He also facilitated “large-scale drug trafficking” with Honduras and other countries, and “solicited assistance from FARC leadership in training an unsanctioned militia group” that essentially functioned as an “armed forces unit” for the cartel. 

U.S. Ramps Up Efforts

Very notably, the release also said that the State Department was offering rewards of up to $15 million for information that could lead to the capture and arrest of Maduro.

While it remains unlikely that he will be arrested and actually see the inside of a courtroom in the U.S., the charges are still quite significant for several different reasons.

First of all, it is incredibly rare for the U.S. to indict a foreign leader on drug charges. According to the Miami Herald, it is only the second time the U.S. government has filed criminal charges against a foreign head of state.

Second, it marks a very serious escalation on the part of President Donald Trump and his administration in their pressure campaign on Maduro and his regime.

The U.S. and about 60 other countries have refused to recognize Maduro as the rightful leader of Venezuela after he was re-elected as president last year in an election widely considered illegitimate.

That prompted both a large protest movement and opposition leader Juan Guaidó to declare himself the true leader of the country. But Maduro has held onto power while the people of Venezuela continue to suffer.

The U.S. has slowly ramped up the efforts it’s taken against Venezuela, first imposing sanctions on individuals, then expanding those to a full-blown embargo on oil— Venezuela’s biggest resource.

The U.S. has also broadly moved to lock Venezuela out of the American financial system altogether. 

Venezuela & the Coronavirus

While the U.S. has taken these steps gradually over the course of the last year, the new charges represent a big jump and raised some questions about timing.

Venezuela’s protests movement, which once seemed to be making headlines everyday, has died down in recent months. Efforts to organize and demonstrate against the Maduro regime have also been hampered by the coronavirus pandemic.

The country has reported 106 confirmed cases, and like other countries, the pandemic has also significantly weakened Venezuela.

But Venezuela is particularly vulnerable. With its economy in shambles and its hospital system collapsed, the country was already facing severe medical supply shortages, dilapidated equipment, and unsanitary conditions in hospitals even before the coronavirus outbreak.

Now, the pandemic threatens an already dangerous situation.

Many reporters questioned Barr’s timing with the new charges amid the pandemic. Barr said the case had been in the works for a long time and the announcement was merely a coincidence. 

“We moved on these cases when we were ready to do it,” he said, adding that he felt the move was “good timing” for the people of Venezuela.

“They need an effective government that cares about the people,” he said. “We think that the best way to support the Venezuelan people during this period is to do all we can to rid the country of this corrupt cabal.”

Maduro, for his part, rejected the charges before they were even announced. 

“There’s a conspiracy from the United States and Colombia and they’ve given the order of filling Venezuela with violence” he wrote on Twitter. “As head of state I’m obliged to defend peace and stability for all the motherland, under any circumstances.”

See what others are saying: (NPR) (The Washington Post) (The Miami Herald)

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