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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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Skepticism Emerges After Russia Approves First Covid-19 Vaccine

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  • Russian President Vladimir Putin announced that Russia has developed a coronavirus vaccine, and officials in the country anticipate that tens of thousands of people will receive it in the next few months.
  • Russia is planning a mass rollout of the vaccine in October, with teachers and healthcare workers having the ability to volunteer to get it even sooner.
  • However, health officials are concerned that Russia rushed through the vaccine process, as the vaccine has not been through Phase 3 trials. That months-long process involves testing thousands of individuals and is considered essential in developing a vaccine.
  • Others have also expressed skepticism over the vaccine as Russia has yet to release data from its initial clinical trials.

Russia Announces Vaccine

President Vladimir Putin announced Tuesday that Russia has developed a coronavirus vaccine, prompting concerns from health officials who believe the country’s process in doing so was rushed and lacked crucial tests. 

“A vaccine against coronavirus has been registered for the first time in the world this morning,” Putin said while delivering the Tuesday announcement. “I know that it works quite effectively, it forms a stable immunity.”

The vaccine, which has been dubbed “Sputnik V,” was developed by The Gamaleya Institute and was funded by the Russian Direct Investment Fund. Officials say there could be a mass rollout for it in October, but prioritized individuals like teachers and healthcare workers could volunteer to get it sooner. Tens of thousands are expected to receive the vaccine in the next few months. One of his daughters has already received it.

“Of course, what counts most is for us to be able to ensure the unconditional safety of the use of this vaccine and its efficiency in the future. I hope that this will be accomplished,” Putin added in his address. 

As the Associated Press explained, this vaccine uses a different virus, the common cold-causing adenovirus, and modifies it to carry genes for the “spike” protein that coats the coronavirus. Scientists in China and the U.K. are working on a similar vaccine.

However, Russia approved the vaccine before it ever went through Phase 3 trials, which is a crucial step that involves administering the vaccine to thousands of people. Phase 3 trials could last for months, and while Russia said they will be conducting them and doing trials in countries like the UAE, Saudi Arabia, the Philippines, and maybe Brazil, the vaccine will still be offered to volunteers who want it in the meantime. 

Health Officials Express Concern

Health experts fear that distributing the vaccine before Phase 3 results are in could be dangerous. They fear Russia was racing to be the first country to offer up a vaccine, as Putin has previously said he wanted one by September. 

According to the AP, human trials started back in June with 76 volunteers, half of which were injected with a liquid vaccine and the other half given on in the form as a soluble powder. Some of those volunteers were recruited from the military, prompting concerns that they may not have been volunteers at all, and were actually pressured into participating. 

“Normally you need a large number of people to be tested before you approve a vaccine. I think it’s reckless to do that if lots of people haven’t already been tested,” Peter Kremsner, an expert at Germany’s University Hospital in Tuebingen told Reuters.

Kremsner was not alone, other health officials told Reuters that releasing a vaccine at this stage is “unethical” and could lead to the pandemic only being worsened. On top of this lack of testing, Russia has also not released any data from its initial clinical trials. 

“It is not possible to know if the Russian vaccine has been shown to be effective without submission of scientific papers for analysis,” Keith Neal, a specialist in the epidemiology of infectious diseases at Britain’s Nottingham University said in a statement. 

Vaccine Response from U.S. Leaders

Even before Russia touted its new vaccine, there were concerns about how the country was developing it. While testifying to Congress in July, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said he was worried about a lack of testing. 

“I do hope that the Chinese and the Russians are actually testing the vaccine before they are administering the vaccine to anyone,” he said. “Because claims of having a vaccine ready to distribute before you do testing is, I think, problematic at best.” 

Since Russia’s announcement, other U.S. officials have also expressed their fears. Secretary of Health and Human Services, Alex Azar criticized the pace at which it was produced while speaking with Good Morning America on Tuesday. 

“The point is not to be first with a vaccine, the point is to have a vaccine that is safe and effective for the American people and the people of the world,” he said. “We need transparent data, and it’s gotta be Phase 3 data.” 

Azar’s remarks line up with statements recently made by Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Stephen Hahn.

“Let me assure you that we will not cut corners,” Hahn said while speaking to the American Medical Association on Monday. “All of our decisions will continue to be based on good science and the same careful deliberative processes we have always used when reviewing medical products.”

Vaccine Hesitancy in the United States

Releasing a vaccine too early could lead to a number of consequences. Say the process was rushed and the vaccine is ineffective or dangerous, it could lead to people being too nervous to get one when it is actually safe to do so. Reservations about a coronavirus vaccine are widespread, and go further than just the usual anti-vaxx crowd. 

Polling on the subject shows scattered numbers, but most indicate that many are uninterested or paranoid when it comes to a COVID-19 vaccine. An August Gallup poll found that if a free FDA approved vaccine were ready today, one in three Americans would still refuse it. Polling from Yahoo and YouGov shows that back in May, 55% of U.S. adults planned on getting vaccinated, but by the end of July, that fell to 42%.

See what others are saying: (Washington Post) (Wall Street Journal) (Business Insider)

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Lebanon’s Government Resigns Following Beirut Explosion Protests

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  • On Monday, the Prime Minister of Lebanon announced that he and his cabinet were resigning following a weekend of huge protests in Beirut.
  • Thousands of people took to the streets, calling for the government to resign after an explosion last week killed 200 and injured over 6,000 others. The explosion was believed to have been caused by a chemical stockpile that the government knew existed.
  • Protesters threw rocks and other projectiles, clashing violently with police who responded by firing tear gas and rubber bullets.
  • The protesters view the explosion as symbolic of years of government corruption, but many experts say the resignations will do little to change the country’s political system without widespread reforms.

Lebanese Government Steps Down

Lebanese Prime Minister Hassan Diab announced Monday that his government was resigning following the massive explosion that shook the capital city of Beirut last week.

Speaking in a televised statement, Diab said that the explosion was the result of “endemic corruption” and that he was “heeding people’s demand for real change. Today we will take a step back in order to stand with the people.” 

The explosion, which killed 200 people and injured 6,000 others, is believed to have been caused by a fire that set off 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate stored in a warehouse at the port. It has since been confirmed that many government officials knew about the dangerous stockpile for years and did nothing to address it.

The move follows a weekend of protests, where thousands of demonstrators took to the streets to call for the government to resign. 

For many, the explosion was seen as yet another result of years of government corruption and mismanagement by the country’s ruling elite, who have been lining their own pockets while other people suffer. 

Even before the blast, Lebanon was experiencing its worst economic crisis in decades as well as surging coronavirus cases. Both factors contributed to an already heighten distrust in the government that has only been augmented by the explosion.

Protests Break Out

Those sentiments appeared to boil over as protests over the weekend rocked the capital.

Droves of protesters gathered in downtown Beirut on Saturday, where some set up mock gallows and they hung cardboard cutouts of top politicians. Others chanted “The people want the fall of the regime,” and “Revolution! Revolution!” as they marched in the streets.

Confrontations broke out between protesters and police after demonstrators threw rocks at security forces who responded by firing tear gas and rubber bullets. There were also some reports of security forces firing live rounds and protesters throwing fireworks, Molotov cocktails, and other projectiles at police.

Fires burned in the streets and protesters stormed three government ministries, even taking over the Foreign Ministry for a few hours before the army reclaimed the building.

The anti-government protests continued Sunday, and again police fired tear gas at rock-throwing demonstrators who were blocking a road near Parliament. Lebanese TV footage also showed a fire breaking out at an entrance to Parliament Square as protesters tried to break into a sectioned-off area.

Also on Sunday, international leaders met at a virtual summit where they pledged $298 million to help Lebanon in the aftermath of the blast. According to reports, French President Emmanuel Macron’s office said that while the aid was unconditional and would be given out regardless of political or institutional reforms, other pledges for longer-term support would depend on government reforms.

Lebanese officials have said the explosion caused upwards of $15 billion in economic losses.

Next Steps

Despite the fact that the resignation of the cabinet appears to heed the protesters’ calls, experts have warned that the move will result in more short-term political instability, but it is unlikely to create any long-term change.

“Not only do we have an absence of government and a political vacuum, but we’re going to have a severe problem with the function of the state of Lebanon,” Imad Salamey, a political scientist at Lebanese American University in Beirut told the Wall Street Journal. “We are heading toward the unknown.”

While the ministers have resigned, they are not gone. Instead, they will create a caretaker government that will exist until a new one is established, allowing them to “form the backbone of a new administration,” as The Guardian explains.

According to reports, the protesters, who continued their demonstrations on Monday, did not widely cheer Diab’s announcement.

For them, this is more of the same. Diab and his cabinet had been the political figures ushered in after a similar wave of anti-government protests prompted the former prime minister to step down in October.

After months of haggling, Diab and his government assumed power in January. Eight months later, he now leaves his people even worse off than before.

See what others are saying: (The Wall Street Journal) (The Guardian) (Al Jazeera)

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Hong Kong Crackdown: Police Arrest High-Profile Media Tycoon, Then Raid His Newspaper’s Office

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  • On Monday, Police in Hong Kong arrested billionaire media tycoon Jimmy Lai, a long-time outspoken critic of the Chinese Communist Party. They also arrested his two sons and at least seven others the same day. 
  • All ten are accused of colluding with foreign forces, and under Hong Kong’s new national security law, they could face up to life in prison. 
  • Following those arrests, hundreds of Hong Kong police raided Lai’s newspaper, the pro-democracy Apple Daily, and rifled through documents before seizing 25 boxes of materials.
  • Also on Monday, China issued retaliatory sanctions against 11 U.S. citizens—including Sens. Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, Tom Cotton, Josh Hawley, and Pat Toomey—though it is unclear what those sanctions entail.

Arrest of Jimmy Lai and Newsroom Police Raid

The Hong Kong police force used the city’s new national security law on Monday to make their most-high profile arrest yet under the legislation.

It began when police stormed the offices of Next Digital, a media company owned by billionaire activist Jimmy Lai. Lai is also known for being the publisher for the Apple Daily, a pro-democracy outlet that is one of the most-read newspapers in Hong Kong.

Photographs show officers escorting Lai outside of the offices and placing him in police vehicles. In addition to Lai, officers also arrested his two sons, as well as at least seven others. Four of those reportedly include senior executives with the Apple Daily. 

Following the arrests, more than 200 officers proceeded to search the Apple Daily’s newsroom. During that raid, which was streamed on Facebook Live by employees, officers reportedly rifled through reporters’ desks and papers, forced employees to show their ID badges, and told them to stop filming.

By the end of the search, police had confiscated more than 25 boxes of materials.

Hong Kong’s Basic Law—its mini-constitution—protects freedom of the press, but the raid immediately raised concerns that officers were seizing information critical of the Chinese Community Party. 

Later, police claimed they took care to protect those media freedoms and that reporters could “continue their work” after the raid; however, that claim has been disputed.

In fact, the Apple Daily outright refuted the claim that media freedoms were protected, saying on Twitter, “The Hong Kong Police Force have blatantly bypassed the law and abused their power, despite claims about acting according to the rules.”

“They have, for instance, ignored the limitation of the search warrant and rifled through news materials, as well as restricting press members from reporting and obstructing a news organization from operating.”

“The regime believes that we will be silenced by intimidation and harassment, and that they can take an international city down the path of autocracy,” the outlet added. “Hong Kong’s press freedom is now hanging by a thread, but our staff will remain fully committed to our duty to defend the freedom of the press.” 

Police later barred several major news outlets, including Reuters and the Associated Press, from attending a press conference regarding the raid.

This is not the first series of arrests that police have made under the national security law. After it went into effect on June 30, several people were arrested during street protests. On July 29, four students in Hong Kong were arrested for “secession” over social media posts they made.

Reportedly, those students range from age 21 to as young as 16.

Alongside those arrests, police also seized  their computers, phones, and other documents.

In a press conference, Senior Superintendent Steve Li Kwai-wah said that all four students are believed to be part of an online group that pledged to fight for Hong Kong independence.

“We have to enforce the laws even if the crimes are committed on the internet,” he said. “Don’t think you can escape from the responsibility in cyberspace and commit crimes.”

Hong Kong Elections Postponed

It’s also not just arrests that threaten basic human freedoms in the city. On July 31, Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam postponed this year’s upcoming elections for a full year.

Lam has justified the move by saying that this was in response to a resurgence in COVID-19 cases. She called the decision “the most difficult one I have had to make in the past seven months.”

Despite this, a number of pro-democracy lawmakers have accused China of trying to delay the election. That’s because many believed pro-democracy candidates had a strong chance to finally win a majority in the city’s legislature, the Legislative Council. 

Stoking similar criticism of trying to stamp out a democratic win, just two days prior to postponing the elections, the Hong Kong government announced that 12 pro-democracy candidates running for seats in the city’s legislature had been barred.

The government has argued that those candidates can’t stand because they would be unable to uphold the Basic Law of Hong Kong based on their positions on issues, such as advocating for democratic reforms and objecting to the national security law.

Those candidates include Joshua Wong and Gwyneth Ho, who were both front-runners in an unofficial democratic primary held earlier in July. Notably, that list also includes four incumbents—right, four already-sitting lawmakers who are up for re-election.

U.S. Sanctions and Chinese Retaliation

As China implements the new law, a number of countries have stepped in to sanction Beijing. 

For example, in the United States, President Donald Trump signed an executive order on Friday that imposes sanctions on 11 Hong Kong officials—including Lam, as well as the city’s current and former police chiefs. 

Trump’s order freezes any U.S. assets owned by those people and bars any Americans from doing business with them. 

That said, the U.S. and China have been playing a game of back-and-forth tag with sanctions for over a year. Thus, it came as little surprise that China retaliated on Monday by slapping sanctions on 11 U.S. citizens.

That list includes executives with human rights activist groups, as well as several lawmakers like Sens. Ted Cruz (R-Tx.), Marco Rubio (R-Fl.), Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), Tom Cotton (R-Ar.), and Pat Toomey (R-Pa.).

Unlike the U.S. sanctions, it’s unclear what those sanctions entail. Announcing the sanction, the deputy director of China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs criticized the U.S. for involving itself in what he called domestic affairs.

“The [sanctions] by the US side are an overt interference in Hong Kong affairs and gross interference in China’s domestic affairs…” Deputy Director Zhao Lijian said. “The Chinese side resolutely opposes and strongly condemns this.”

“Retaliate all you want,” Hawley responded on Twitter. “I’m not backing down.”

See what others are saying: (NPR) (CNBC) (South China Morning Post)

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