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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

Police Arrest Hong Kong Man for Booing Chinese National Anthem

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The man’s boos were launched during the first time the Chinese national anthem had ever been played for a Hong Kong athlete at the Olympics.


Instulting the Anthem

Hong Kong authorities announced Friday that a man was arrested for allegedly booing and “insulting” the Chinese national anthem while watching the Olympics on Monday.

The unnamed 40-year-old, who identified himself as a journalist, was allegedly watching the Olympics fencing medal ceremony for Hong Konger Edgar Cheung at a local mall. When the anthem began playing, he allegedly began booing and chanted “We are Hong Kong!” while waving a British Hong Kong Colonial flag.

The man’s actions were particularly noteworthy because it was the first time the Chinese national anthem had been played for a Hong Kong athlete in the Olympics. Hong Kongers compete at the Games under a separate committee called Hong Kong, China. The last time a Hong Konger won gold was in 1996 for windsurfing, at which time the British anthem of “God Save the Queen” was played.

Concerns for Freedom of Speech

The man is suspected of breaking the relatively new National Anthem Ordinance, which was passed in June 2020, and has a penalty of up to three years in prison and fines of $6,000 for anyone who publicly and intentionally insults the anthem. The law mirrors one in mainland China, but it has faced considerable scrutiny from increasingly persecuted pro-democracy lawmakers in Hong Kong.

They argue that it tramples the right to free speech, which is supposed to be enshrined in the city’s Basic Law. Hong Kong police, however, say that’s not the case and claim that his actions breach common restraints on freedom of speech. Senior Superintendent Eileen Chung said that his actions were “to stir up the hostility of those on the scene and to politicize the sport.”

Police issued a warning that it would investigate reports of others joining his chants or violating the separate National Security law passed last year.

This incident isn’t the only case of alleged politicization of the Games. Badminton player Angus Ng was accused by a pro-Beijing lawmaker of making a statement by sporting a black jersey with the territory’s emblem. The imagery was very similar to the black-and-white Hong Kong flag used by anti-government protesters.

Ng countered that he wore his own clothes to the event because he didn’t have sponsorships to provide jerseys and he wasn’t authorized to print the emblem on a jersey himself.

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

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Canadian Catholic Priest Says Residential Schools Survivors Lied About Abuse

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The Roman Catholic Church is facing considerable backlash across Canada for its treatment of indigenous peoples in the residential school system, along with its subsequent efforts to downplay the problem.


Priest Sparks Outrage

Father Rheal Forest was put on forced leave Wednesday following remarks he made over a weeks-long period starting July 10 in which he doubted victims of the country’s infamous residential school system.

Residential schools were a system of schools largely for indigenous children that were mostly run by the Catholic Church with federal government funding. The schools were notoriously cruel and long faced allegations that children had been abused or went missing under their care.

To date, over 1,300 unmarked graves have been found at four former residential schools across Canada, a fraction of the over 130 that used to exist.

Forest, of the St. Boniface archdiocese in Winnipeg, was standing in for a couple of weeks while the main priest at his church was away. During that time, Forest told parishioners that victims of the residential schools, particularly those sexually abused, had lied.

“If [the victims] wanted extra money, from the money that was given to them, they had to lie sometimes — lie that they were abused sexually and, oop, another $50,000,” he said.

“It’s kind of hard if you’re poor not to lie.”

In that same sermon, he also added that during his time with Inuit groups in the north of the country, most had allegedly said they appreciated the residential school system. Instead, he said they blamed any abuses on lay people working at the facilities rather than priests or nuns.

Forest’s comments drew a ton of backlash, prompting the archdiocese to place Forest on leave. A spokesperson for the archdiocese said that the institution “completely disavow” Forest’s comments, adding, “We very much regret the pain they may have caused to many people, not least of course Indigenous people and, more specifically, survivors of the Residential School system.”

Overall, the archdiocese has attempted to apologize to indigenous communities for its part in the residential school system, with Archbishop Albert Legatt saying in a video that the way forward was by “acknowledging, apologizing, and acting” on terms set by indigenous groups.

Church Allegedly Kept Money From Victims

Forest’s views and subsequent dismissal aren’t the only public relations scandal the Roman Catholic Church faces in Canada.

According to documents obtained by CBC News, the Church spent over a decade avoiding paying out money to survivors per a 2005 agreement. At the time, it, alongside the protestant churches that also ran some residential schools, agreed to pay an amount to victims of the schools in the tens of millions.

Instead, according to an internal summary of 2015 court documents, the Catholic Church spent much of that money on lawyers, administration, a private fundraising company, and unapproved loans. It seems that some of this was technically legal, such as a promise to give tens of millions back via “in-kind” services; however, there was no audit completed to confirm that these services actually happened or to prove the alleged value of the services. This led to doubts about whether or not they were done effectively.

The Catholic Church was unique among the signatory churches in the 2005 agreement with its efforts to avoid paying victims. All of the other denominations paid out their sums many years before without issues.

While priests such as Father Forest have supported the Church, there has been internal backlash. Father André Poilièvre, a Saskatoon priest and Order of Canada recipient, said the Church’s actions are “scandalous” and “really shameful,” adding, “It was a loophole. It might be legal, but it’s not ethical.”

With these latest revelations, widespread anger at the Church has triggered allegations that indigenous groups are behind a spree of church burnings across the country.

The entire situation is likely going to continue to smolder as a government commission set up to investigate the schools estimates there will be thousands of more unmarked graves found across Canada.

See what others are saying: (CBC News) (The Guardian) (CTV News)

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Tokyo Sets Back-to-Back Records for Number of Daily COVID-19 Cases

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Some positive cases were detected among people attending the Olympic Games, including a handful of athletes.


Cases Going Up

The Tokyo Olympic Games found itself in more controversy on Wednesday after Tokyo experienced a record number of daily COVID-19 cases for the second day in a row.

On Tuesday, the city recorded 2,848 new cases of the virus, passing the 2,500 daily new case threshold for the first time since the pandemic began. Then on Wednesday, it shattered the record again with 3,177 new COVID-19 cases.

At least 155 of those new cases were detected among people attending the Games, including a handful of athletes, which contrasts Prime Minister Suga Yoshihide’s promise that the Olympics wouldn’t be hit with the virus. The spike in new cases has largely been attributed to the delta-variant, something that many countries are dealing with around the world.

Nishimura Yasutoshi, a Japanese economic minister, told a parliamentary panel this week that COVID-19 cases are expected to continue rising for at least a few days. He also explained that many people may have delayed getting tested last week due to holidays, therefore inflating total daily new case numbers.

Governors in prefectures around Tokyo have moved to ask the government for states-of-emergency, which Tokyo is already under.

Doubts About Government Response

The prime minister said in a press conference on Tuesday that “the government has secured a new drug that reduces the risk of serious illness by 70 percent,” adding, “we have confirmed that this drug will be used thoroughly from now on.”

However, he never actually mentioned what drug he was referencing.

“In any case, under these circumstances, I would like to ask the people to avoid going out unnecessarily and to watch the Olympics and Paralympics on TV,” Suga continued.

He also stressed that canceling the Olympics amid the outbreak was completely out of the question, although there have been continued calls from the public and opposition lawmakers for just that.

Beyond refusing to cancel the Games, Suga is facing backlash for refusing to enact strict state-of-emergency protocols. Currently, the measures in Tokyo are almost all voluntary and consist of asking people to stay home, along with requesting restaurants that serve alcohol to completely close and telling all others to shut down by 8 p.m.

See what others are saying: (Reuters) (NPR) (The Wall Street Journal)

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