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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)

International

200 Children Seeking Asylum in the U.K. Are Missing 

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The missing include at least 13 children under the age of 16. 


Children Missing From Hotels

There are 200 asylum-seeking children missing from government care in the United Kingdom according to the parliamentary undersecretary of state at the Home Office.

When children are seeking asylum in the U.K. alone or separated from their parents, the government puts them up in hotel rooms for temporary accommodation. They have done so since 2021 and have temporarily accommodated 4,600 children in that time. However, Simon Murray, the parliamentary undersecretary of state at the Home Office, said that 200 of the children placed in those hotels are missing, including at least 13 who are under the age of 16.

In response to this information, a collection of more than 100 charities sent a letter to the Prime Minister demanding the end of the procedure of placing kids in hotels over safety concerns. The letter says that these children are at risk of trafficking and exploitation by staying in these hotels alone.

Other officials have echoed these concerns, claiming these hotels are targets for organized crime where people use these vulnerable children for labor or trafficking.

Parliament Calls Incident “Horrific”

Murray told the House of Lords on Monday that despite the media reports, his department does not know of any kidnapping cases, though they are investigating. He went on to say there are many reasons why children go missing. 

However, lawmakers were not appeased by Murray’s assurances. In a later debate, one member of Parliament called the missing cases “horrific” and another said that it was “putting children at risk.”  The children’s commissioner for England also reportedly chimed in asking for, quote “assurances on the steps being taken to safeguard the children.” 

Murray went on to say that the use of hotels for asylum-seeking children will hopefully be phased out as soon as possible but did not give a timeline. 

The nonprofit Refugee Council called on the government in a tweet to spare no expense in the location of these missing kids.

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

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100,000 U.K. Nurses Launch Biggest Strike in NHS History

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Opposition leader Keir Starmer called the strike “a badge of shame on this government.”


The NHS Grinds to a Halt

Some 100,000 members of the Royal College of Nursing (RCN), the United Kingdom’s largest nursing union, launched a historic 12-hour strike Thursday after the government refused to negotiate on higher pay.

The work stoppage, which spans England, Wales, and Northern Ireland, is only the second in the RCN’s 106-year history and the largest the NHS has ever seen. It marks the breaking point for many underpaid nurses and the culmination of a years-long decline in the NHS’s quality of care, put under increasing stress by severe staffing shortages.

Although most NHS staff in England and Wales received a pay rise of around £1,400 this year, worth about 4% on average for nurses, they say it has not kept up with inflation as Britain plunges deeper into a cost-of-living crisis.

When inflation is accounted for, nurses’ pay dropped 1.2% every year from 2010 to 2017, according to the Health Foundation.

Meanwhile, the number of patients waiting for care has reached a record 7.2 million in England, or over one in eight residents, more than double what it was seven years ago.

In July, the cross-party Commons Health and Social Care Select Committee estimated the staffing shortfall could be as high as 50,000 nurses and 12,000 doctors, what one MP called the “greatest workforce crisis in history.”

Many nurses argue that boosting pay will help hospitals recruit more staff.

The RCN demanded a pay raise 5% above the retail rate of inflation, which amounts to a 19% increase, but both Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and the government’s health secretary have claimed that’s not affordable.

During Thursday’s strike, partial staffing continued to remain open for urgent care such as chemotherapy, kidney dialysis, and children’s accident and neonatal units.

Sunak and Starmer Brawl in Parliament

Labor leader Keir Starmer grilled Sunak during Wednesday’s Prime Minister’s Questions (PMQs) on the upcoming strike.

“Tomorrow will be the first-ever nationwide nurse’s strike,” he said. “All the Prime Minister has to do to stop that is to open the door and discuss pay with them. If he did, the whole country would breathe a sigh of relief. Why won’t he?”

“We have consistently spoken to all the unions involved in all the pay disputes that there are,” Sunak replied. “Last year, when everyone else in the public sector had a public sector pay freeze, the nurses received a three-percent pay rise.”

Starmer fired back: “Nurses going on strike is a badge of shame for this government. Instead of showing leadership, he’s playing games with people’s health.”

Sunak called Starmer’s demand that he reopen negotiations with the RCN “just simply a political formula for avoiding taking a position on this issue.”

“If he thinks the strikes are wrong, he should say so,” Sunak said. “If he thinks it’s right that pay demands of nineteen percent are met, then he should say so. What’s weak, Mr. Speaker, is he’s not strong enough to stand up to the union.”

While Starmer has called on Sunak to negotiate with the RCN, he has not explicitly backed the 19% pay raise himself.

Unless the government returns to the bargaining table, the RCN plans to launch a second round of strikes on Dec. 20 to be followed by ambulance strikes that Wednesday and the next.

If the government still refuses to budge, the union said in a statement that nurses will strike for longer periods in more places starting in January, disrupting more health services.

Other industries are also set to see work stoppages this month, including workers on railways, buses, highways, and borders, as well as teachers, postal workers, baggage handlers, and paramedics.

See what others are saying: (BBC) (CNN) (The Guardian)

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Fortnite Developer Sued By Parents for Making the Game as “Addictive as Possible”

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One child mentioned in the lawsuit played over 7,700 rounds of Fortnite in two years.


Epic Games Sued 

A Quebec City judge recently approved a 2019 class-action lawsuit accusing Fortnite developer Epic Games of deliberately making Fortnite addictive.

The parents who brought forward the lawsuit claim their children have become so obsessed with the game that in some cases, they’ve stopped eating, showering, or socializing. The lawsuit claims that these kids have played thousands of games since Fortnite’s release in 2017. In one example, a teenager played over 7,700 games in less than two years. 

If the lawsuit succeeds, players addicted to Fortnite living in Quebec since September 2017 could receive compensation. The plaintiff’s attorney, Philippe Caron, reports that over 200 parents outside the lawsuit have reached out to him, saying their child’s well-being has diminished since downloading Fortnite. He told The Washington Post that they are very confident about their case. 

Epic Games Responds

“We plan to fight this in court,” Natalie Munoz, a spokesperson for Epic Games said to The Post, “We believe the evidence will show that this case is meritless.” 

Munoz also said that Fortnite does allow parents to supervise their child’s playtime and require permission for purchases.

The parents involved in the lawsuit are claiming that they were not aware of the dangers playing Fortnite could pose for their children. 

“If she had been informed by the defendants of the risks and dangers associated with the use of FORTNITE,” the lawsuit says of one guardian. “She would have categorically refused to allow the game to be downloaded.” 

See what others are saying: (BBC) (The Washington Post) (Deadline

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