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Belarus Cracks Down on Journalists Amid Continued Protests

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  • Belarus has experienced nearly a month of constant protests against President Alexander Lukashenko over what is widely viewed as a stolen election.
  • Lukashenko has turned to Russian President Vladimir Putin for help, who has slowly increased his rhetoric from helping protect Belarus against external threats to authorizing a police force to help against protesters if the situation turns bad enough.
  • However, despite instances of brutal crackdowns, the protests have been largely peaceful, and Lukashenko has no intention of stepping down.
  • On the recommendation of the country’s counter-terrorism office, Belarus revoked the credentials of nearly two dozen journalists, even going so far as to deport some.

Unrest in Belarus

Over the last week, Belarus has revoked the media credentials for journalists, seen some of its largest protests to date, and had Russian President Vladimir Putin threatening the use of Russian security forces against protesters in the country.

The unrest in Belarus stems from the country’s August 9 presidential elections, which saw its longtime authoritarian leader Alexander Lukashenko going against political outsider Svetlana Tikhanovskaya.

Despite her widespread popularity, official results had Lukashenko winning 80% of the vote, triggering massive protests across the country that have continued on since. Shortly after the results, Tikhanovskaya appeared in neighboring Lithuania, with different reports emerging about whether she fled to the country or was escorted there by Belarusian security personnel.

The initial protests against the allegedly fraudulent election results saw hundreds of thousands take to the streets, with over 7,000 people being detained. Since then, there’s been a pattern of large protests, nearly all of which are peaceful, and differing police responses. Initially, security forces would severely crackdown on the protests but then back off and let the protesters march at Independence Square, only to crackdown again if protesters approached government buildings.

Revoking Journalist Credentials

While security forces have been trying to contain the protests through various methods, the regime focused on a new target this week: journalists.

On Saturday, it was reported by various news agencies that their reporters either lost their accreditation to report in Belarus or were even deported from the country. The Associated Press, Germany’s ARD Television, and the BBC each had two reporters lose accreditation, and four of those journalists were also deported. The U.S.-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty said five of its journalists lost accreditation, while the Belarusian Association of Journalists said 17 Belarusians working for foreign outlets lost their credentials. 

Alarmingly, the decision to revoke credentials was taken on the recommendation of Belarus’ counter-terrorism unit, with no other information given out as to why these journalists were targeted.

In response to this news, exiled-candidate Tikhanovskaya said, “If true, it is another sign that this regime is morally bankrupt and the only way it will attempt to cling onto power is by fear and intimidation.”

“This tactic will not work. Belarusian people are not afraid anymore. We will win. The darkest hour is always before the dawn.”

The U.S. Embassy condemned the move, saying in a statement: “We stand with the Belarusian people in their aspirations for a democratic, prosperous future and support their call for the government of Belarus to carry out democratic reforms and respect human rights.”

Germany also responded by calling on the Belarusian ambassador to answer questions about the removal of journalists.

Sunday’s Renewal of Protests

The backdrop for the situation in Belarus over the last month has been nearly non-stop protests. Sunday saw some of the biggest to-date, with between tens and hundreds of thousands taking to the streets.

The weekend was also Lukashenko’s birthday, and protesters sent well-wishes by chanting “Happy Birthday, You Rat!”

Although Sunday was largely a peaceful event, there were scenes of armored personnel carriers heading towards Independence Palace and protesters shouting “shame!” as they passed.

Independence Palace was also the scene of a face off against police. According to the Ministry of the Interior, 140 people were arrested because of Sunday’s events.

Lukashenko, for his part, has tried to maintain a strongman image during all of this, vowing that no re-election or recount would take place. He’s been spotted at least twice in public with a flak jacket and carrying rifles.

Putin Offers His Help

Despite attempts to look strong, Lukashenko has turned to outside help, notably to Russian President Vladimir Putin. On Lukashenko’s birthday, Putin called the leader to invite the embattled Belarusian to Moscow for a visit.

This is just the latest show of support by Putin. Since the start of the massive protests, Putin has been active in trying to keep Lukashenko in power. Some of those efforts include promising a Russian presence in Belarus if necessary.

Both countries are justifying the remarks and promises by claiming that ‘foreign powers’ are trying to oust Lukashenko, and that NATO was amassing troops in neighboring Poland, which NATO denies.

That language was also used by Putin and Lukashenko to invoke a defense pact between the nations. Belarus has strong linguistic and cultural ties to Russia, and unlike most former-Soviet nations, it has kept a close relationship with Russia.

The relationship was so close that in the late ’90s Russia and Belarus were working out deals to become a unified nation. Those deals were more-or-less frozen after Putin first became the Russian president, but they still resulted in Russia and Belarus having an extremely strong defense treaty and a system for citizens of either nation to freely live in the other.

The defense pact was used to justify an initial Russian presence in Belarus just in case there was an external military threat, but that seems to have changed on Friday. Putin told state television that he ordered the creation of a “certain reserve of law enforcement officers” at Lukashenko’s request that would be ready to intervene in Belarus if things got out of hand.

He also ominously warned protesters, “We have agreed not to use it until the situation starts spinning out of control and extremist elements acting under the cover of political slogans cross certain boundaries and engage in banditry and start burning cars, houses and banks or take over administrative buildings.”

There’s now a cloud hovering over the protests in Belarus: if protesters push the protests to the levels Ukraine saw when it ousted its pro-Russian leader in 2014, then Russia claims it will directly intervene.

Ukraine during the 2014 Orange Revolution. Via: New York Times

For Putin this is multilayered: many media outlets, like the New York Times, think this is an effort for not only Lukashenko to look like he has support, but also for Putin to look strong. The Russian leader is currently facing his own struggles internally. One state in eastern Russia has been rocked by months of constant protests after Putin arrested the popular governor of the region. This is a marked difference from past Russian protests, which are often in the urban centers of Moscow and St. Petersburg.

Additionally, the recent poisoning of Alexei Navalny, a prominent opposition member in Russia, has led to widespread discontent. The Russian government denies any poisoning took place, while doctors in Russia and Germany, where Navalny was transferred to for recovery, say he was without-a-doubt poisoned.

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

International

Petition Calls for Ban on Sexualized Fanfiction in South Korea

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  • A petition circulating across South Korea calls for sexualized fanfiction depicting K-pop stars and other real people to be outlawed and classified as sex crimes.
  • The petition particularly focuses on the way male stars are depicted in same-sex relationships and argues that they often feature people who are minors.
  • A similar petition was submitted last week to President Moon Jae-in; however, it focused on deep fakes. Because both petitions have over 200,000 signatures, they will need to be addressed by President Moon.

K-Pop Fanfiction Causes Chaos

A petition began circulating across South Korea this week demanding that “real person slash” fanfiction works be outlawed and charged as sex crimes.

“Real person slash” refers to a specific form of fanfiction that most often features sexualized versions of K-pop stars and other real people.

In particular, the petition focuses on the way male stars are depicted in same-sex relationships and the age of some of the people being portrayed. The petition notes, “due to the nature of the profession of idols, whose average age is young, many of the victims are still minors or children.”

The petition was submitted to the Blue House, South Korea’s version of the White House, and currently has over 200,000 signatures. It received a big boost in attention after K-pop star Nancy, from the group Momoland, was secretly filmed by a member of her agency while she was changing backstage. This person then doctored some of the images and uploaded them online.

While Nancy’s case isn’t hand-drawn fanfic, it did fuel outrage at what’s seen as an ineffective approach towards sex crimes in the country. Signers of this petition believe that these fanfics fall into the same category of likely illegality as deep fakes.

Deep Fakes Also Being Targeted

Additionally, just last week deep fakes – which often feature k-pop stars – had its own petition submitted to the president last week with over 300,000 signatures.

Because both petitions have over 200,000 signatures, they will need to be addressed by President Moon Jae-in

For years South Korea has struggled with secret cameras, deep fakes, revenge porn, and more violent sex crimes, such as the infamous Nth Room case that saw certain stars filming themselves having sex with women against their consent.

See What Others Are Saying: (CNA) (The Korea Herald) (South China Morning Post)

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International

Italy Begins Largest Mob Trial in Decades

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  • Italian prosecutors have started their trial against more than 320 defendants linked to the  ‘Ndrangheta crime syndicate.
  • The charges range from murder and drug trafficking to extortion and money laundering.
  • The case is so large, high-profile, and potentially dangerous that the government built a bunker for the event in Calabria, the home territory of the ‘Ndrangheta.
  • Details uncovered could deliver a massive blow to organized crime in Italy and potentially across the world as the ‘Ndrangheta has major dealings in Europe, Australia, and the Americas.

Hundreds of ‘Ndranghetisti Facing Charges

A major mob trial kicked off in Italy Wednesday involving more than 320 defendants who are part of or associated with the ‘Ndrangheta crime syndicate.

In addition to these defendants going on trial, 90 others have elected for a fast-tracked trial elsewhere in Calabria.

While this is a massive affair, it’s still not the country’s largest mob-related trial in history. That happened in the ’80s against the Cosa Nostra from Sicily.

The trial is so high-profile and potentially dangerous that the government built a bunker for the event in Calabria, close to the home territory of the ‘Ndrangheta.

The court is looking at many charges against the defendants, including extortion, drug and arms trafficking, money laundering, and Mafia association – a term used in Italy’s penal code for members of organized crime.

Breaking Into the Family

Investigators hope that the trial will show just how entrenched organized crime is in the territory, as it’s believed that the ‘Ndrangheta has dealings with local politicians and businessmen. These dealings are believed to not only stem from their illicit activities but also from their legitimate businesses that were initially funded via crime-related funds. Either way, the trial is seen as a major blow for the group.

The organization is made up of multiple groups of tight-knight families that are all interconnected. For years investigators have tried to get more information on the group but following the arrest and prosecution of Luigi Mancuso, a boss in the ‘Ndrangheta, investigators finally had a way to look more closely at 12 families who make up part of the ‘Ndrangheta.

During their investigation police and prosecutors managed to turn some members of those families and use them as informants. They are expected to take the stand as witnesses during the trial. In total, prosecutors hope to put bring out over 900 witnesses.

If successful, this could be a massive blow to organized crime in Italy and potentially across the world as the ‘Ndrangheta has major dealing in Europe, Australia, and the Americas.

See What Others Are Saying: (ABC News) (LA Times) (Chicago Tribune)

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Hundreds Sickened By Mysterious Illness in India

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  • A mystery illness has hospitalized over 500 people in India and is linked to one death. While most people have recovered and been discharged from the hospital, under 100 people are still being treated.
  • Health officials believe that it is not a viral infection and that it is not tied to the coronavirus pandemic. One official told The Washington Post that it is a “point source epidemic,” but no one knows what is causing it.
  • Blood tests showed patients had high levels of lead and nickel and officials are trying to find what is behind that. Some are also pointing to pesticides used in mosquito treatment as a potential cause behind the outbreak.
  • Still, health officials are puzzled, and the situation comes while India currently trails the United States as the country with the most coronavirus cases. This mystery outbreak is also occurring in one of the hardest-hit states.

Mystery Illness in India

Health officials are still looking for what might be causing a mysterious illness that has sickened hundreds of people this month in India. 

The unidentified illness has put over 500 people in the hospital and taken one life. Most patients have been discharged and recovered but under 100 are still being treated. The disease was first reported on Sunday, and new instances have gone down since the start of the week.

The outbreak started in the state of  Andhra Pradesh. Symptoms range from nausea to anxiety to loss of consciousness, and in some cases, seizures. Some reports say the patient who died suffered from a seizure. Others note they may have fallen as well.

Many patients describe the sickness as hitting them quickly and suddenly as they were going about their day. Some got foggy vision, sore eyes, or incredibly tired before passing out. Many woke up in the hospital and were left with a gap in their memory. 

While the cause of this disease is unknown, health officials do not believe it is tied to the coronavirus in any way as no patients have tested positive. The illness is also not believed to be a viral infection of any kind. 

“What has been established by experts is that this is a case of acute intoxication of toxins. It is not chronic in nature. This is all we know for now,” one high-ranking official told The Washington Post. 

Because cases are already slowing significantly, some believe it might have stemmed from an isolated source or event. 

“This is a point source epidemic,” another official told the Post. “Whatever happened, occurred for one particular day and some people got affected. The number of new patients has dropped.”

Potential Causes

What that source or event may have been remains a mystery that officials are eager to solve. So far, no commonalities have been found between the patients as they all live in different places, are of different ages, and do not test positive for other kinds of illnesses that could be causing or contributing to this outbreak. Clues are beginning to emerge, though. 

One medical official told Al Jazeera that high lead and nickel levels were found in the blood tests of patients. So far, ten have been tested and another 30 will be tested shortly. At first officials thought these levels may have been a result of water contamination, but after water tests were conducted, neither lead nor nickel were found. 

Water contamination as a whole has not been ruled out though. 

“Health experts suspect that excessive use of bleaching powder and chlorine in sanitation programmes as part of Covid-19 prevention measures may be the cause of water contamination,” the Health Minister of Andhra Pradesh told the Indian Express. “This is just one of the causes we are exploring.”

Another theory at play stems from the fact that organochlorines, which are used as pesticides in mosquito control, were found in some water samples. One of the federal legislators in the state believes that the sickness could be tied to that. A public health director confirmed to Al Jazeera that “it is one of the possibilities.”

Timing With COVID-19

Still, all these ideas simply remain possibilities and officials have far more questions than they have answers about this situation. Health officials from the country and the World Health Organization have established a presence in Andhra Pradesh to get to the bottom of the situation.

The timing of this outbreak is unfortunate as the coronavirus pandemic continues to spread through India. While daily cases are much lower than they were when it peaked in September in the country, it still remains an issue. 

India is behind the United States in seeing the second-highest number of COVID-19 cases, totaling 9.7 million infections. Around 141,000 people have died in the country. In August, their outbreak was the fastest growing in the world. Andhra Pradesh is among the hardest-hit states in the country. 

Hope is on the horizon as India, like many other countries, could be on track to approve a vaccine within weeks. According to Reuters, health officials will prioritize 300 million people, including healthcare workers, policemen, and those above the age of 50.

See what others are saying: (Al Jazeera) (Indian Express) (Washington Post)

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