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Hong Kong Undercuts Press Freedoms, Effectively Bans Freelance and Student Journalists

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  • Hong Kong just changed who it recognizes as journalists, using a system that would be easier to track them and restrict who can register as one.
  • The move was highly criticized as a way to restrict freelance and student journalism. The issue has sparked conversations and concerns about freedom of the press, speech, and more.
  • The change comes the same day that mainland China sentenced billionaire Ren Zhiqiang to 18-years for varying corruption charges. The charges, however, are seen as retaliation for criticizing President Xi Jinping’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic in March.
  • On top of civil rights issues, concerns for human rights increased following a Tuesday report that highlighted the extent of a labor camp system in Tibet.

Hong Kong Press Under Attack

Police in Hong Kong issued new rules Tuesday that effectively ban freelance and student journalism, and allow police to more easily track and restrict journalists who are part of a recognized media organiztion.

In Hong Kong, the formerly autonomous city was known for its democracy, free speech, and independent journalism. Yet, recent events have effectively forced changes in the city, and the latest escalation targets journalists.

In a letter to four local journalist groups, Chief Superintendent Kenneth Kwok said that changes would be made to Police General Orders, which are police rulings. These recent changes would redefine who law enforcement recognizes as journalists. Currently, the police recognize “media representatives” as reporters, photographers, and television crews who carry proof of ID from newspapers, agencies, and television or radio stations.

Kwok’s letter explained the changes, saying, “After the amendment, the definition of ‘media representatives’ under the Police General Orders will be more concise and clearer, allowing frontline personnel to identify media representatives more efficiently and swiftly,”

These changes require domestic journalists to register with a state database that keeps track of their identity and credentials. Foreign journalists working for a “prominent” foreign news outlet are exempt from registering.

These latest changes will likely gut freelance and student journalism as neither group is employed by a news organization. Both those groups are bothersome to Hong Kong police, who accuse them of actively taking part in protests and demonstrations rather than impartially reporting them.

Local press groups don’t see the issue that way. A statement by eight organizations and associations characterized the changes as a major attack on independent journalism in the city.

“Today, the police have broken this relationship by planning to make a significant amendment without first discussing and consulting our sector. We demand the police to scrap the relevant amendment, or we will respond by taking any possible and necessary measures.”

The head of the Hong Kong Journalist Association, Chris Yeung, added his thoughts in an interview with the Hong Kong Free Press, saying, “It is quite regrettable. [The existing arrangement] was worked out among police, the government, and us years ago. It was an important part of our relationship.”

This attack against the press isn’t a new thing. On multiple occasions over the last few weeks, journalists were fined for breaking coronavirus public gathering restrictions while covering demonstrations after providing Hong Kong Journalist Association credentials.

https://hongkongfp.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/08/photo5361710746125315821-Copy-1050x699.jpg
A fine given to a journalist while covering coronavirus demonstrations. Via Hong Kong Free Press

Billionaire Sentenced to 18-Years Behind Bars

Many of the restrictions Hong Kong is beginning to face aren’t new to Mainland China. For decades, the mainland hasn’t had freedom of the press, association, or speech. The case of Ren Zhiqiang, for instance, highlights the lack of freedom of speech in China.

Ren is a Chinese billionaire who was sentenced to 18 years in prison Tuesday for embezzling $16.3 million in public funds, accepting bribes, and abusing power that caused the loss of $17.2 million for a state-owned company that he once was in charge of.

Despite none of those charges being directly related to freedom of speech, his case is seen as retaliation for something he wrote. Ren, a life-long Communist Party member, has a long-standing reputation of speaking out against the leadership of the Communist Party.

His most recent critique allegedly came in March, when a letter appeared on Chinese social media that attacked how the government was handling the COVID-19 outbreak. The letter is technically anonymous, but media outlets in China and across the globe have stated that Ren was the author.

Adding to that possibility was the fact that shortly after the letter came out, Ren disappeared in March. It wasn’t until April that charges were brought against him.

Ren’s alleged letter didn’t waste time criticizing the Communist Party. “This outbreak of the Wuhan pneumonia epidemic has verified the reality: when all media took on the ‘surname of the Party,’ the people ‘were abandoned’ indeed. Without a media representing the interests of the people by publishing the actual facts, the people’s lives are being ravaged by both the virus and the major illness of the system.”

“Surname of the Party,” is a euphemism used by party officials in 2016 to say that the press needed to be loyal to the Party. At the time, Ren critiqued that decision and was suspended as a party member for a year.

The letter in March also referenced a conference President Xi Jinping gave talking about the virus, saying: “I too am curiously and conscientiously studying [Xi’s teleconferenced February 23] speech, but what I saw in it was the complete opposite of the “importance” reported by all types of media and online. I saw not an emperor standing there exhibiting his “new clothes,” but a clown who stripped naked and insisted on continuing being emperor.”

Despite holding a series of loincloths up in an attempt to cover the reality of your nakedness, you don’t in the slightest hide your resolute ambition to be an emperor, or the determination to let anyone who won’t let you be destroyed” he continued.

To be clear, it’s possible that Ren actually did everything he’s been accused of. Embezzling and accepting bribes are often how relationships between businesses and Communist party officials work in China. The sentencing court also recognized that he “voluntarily” admitted to all the charges.

However, the timing reflects a pattern in China that suggests officials are fine with minor forms of corruption if its mutually beneficial and only crackdown when someone gets on their bad side.

Constant confessions mean that courts have a 99% conviction rate, although most cases on the mainland are against business people and party officials.

Tibetan Vocational Training

On top of curbing the freedom of the press in Hong Kong, or allegedly silencing a critic on the mainland, a Tuesday report by German Anthropologist Adrian Zenz details a widespread labor camp system similar to what is happening in Xinjiang.

All across China, there are “vocational training centers,” many of which are used to combat poverty. However, in places like in Xinjiang, they are believed to be used to sinicize the local ethnic and cultural groups. The extent of these camps varies/ Xinjiang officials are accused of extrajudicial detentions and cultural genocide, while the camps in Tibet are seen as coercive efforts to change the populations.

Like Xinjiang, Tibet is filled with ethnic and religious minorities, many of whom live a traditional nomadic, herding lifestyle. According to Zenz’s report, which was corroborated by outlets like Reuters, Tibet’s program has “trained” half a million Tibetans. That’s 1/6 of all Tibetans.

The reason Tibet’s program has drawn particular concern is because revelations indicate that not only is the program being used to combat poverty, but it’s also being used to specifically target those with traditional lifestyles in order to “modernize” them.

Zenz notes that while extrajudicial detentions don’t seem to happen in Tibet, there is a heavy emphasis on coercing the population to join the military-style labor camps by party and government officials.

See What Others Are Saying: (South China Morning Post) (Independent) (The Guardian)

International

U.S.-Negotiated Ceasefire in Nagorno-Karabakh Ends in Bloodshed Just 4 Minutes After It Started

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  • A U.S.-backed ceasefire between Azerbaijan and Armenia that took effect Monday was broken only four minutes after it started.
  • It’s unclear which side broke it, although evidence points to Azerbaijan, which has made substantial gains in the ongoing conflict.
  • This is the third failed ceasefire, although neither side seems to have expected it to last very long. The last two were brokered by Russia.
  • The combatants are supposed to meet Thursday for negotiations to resolve the conflict, but based on how things are going, that’s unlikely to happen.

Back to Square One

A ceasefire between Armenian and Azeri forces that was brokered by U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo fell apart on Monday just four minutes after it started.

The ceasefire was agreed to by both parties and was first announced by U.S. President Donald Trump.

“Congratulations to Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan and Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev, who just agreed to adhere to a ceasefire effective at midnight,” Trump tweeted Sunday.

The two countries are fighting over the region of Nagorno-Karabakh, alongside a few neighboring regions with a heavy Armenian troop presence. The regions in question are internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan but features a majority ethnic Armenian population, who in ’92 formed a state called the Republic of Artsakh. Artsakh receives financial, commercial, developmental, and military ties with Armenia proper.

Map of Nagorno-Karabakh/ Artsakh and occupied territories. Via eurasia.net

On September 27, tensions over the region broke out into open conflict after both sides accused the other of breaking a decades-long ceasefire. Major players in the region, like Turkey and Russia, each support different sides in the war. Turkey has provided material support to Azerbaijan, including drones and fighter jets. Russia provides Armenia with arms and anti-drone missile defense system; however, unlike Turkey Russia has consistently made efforts to negotiate a ceasefire.

Unfortunately, every Russian brokered ceasefire has similarly ended just minutes after starting, with each side blaming the other for breaking the agreement.

Third Ceasefire

The U.S. brokered ceasefire seemed to have a good start, with Armenian President Nikol Pashinyan tweeting, “As agreed in Washington DC, with US mediation, the Armenian side will fully maintain the ceasefire starting from 8 a.m.”

U.S. Congressman Frank Pallone (D-NJ) also spoke on behalf of local Armenian groups, writing “My colleagues in the Armenian Caucus have consistently called for the US to take decisive action holding Azerbaijan and Turkey accountable and bring an end to the bloodshed. I’m thankful @SecPompeo negotiated a ceasefire that hopefully holds and leads to an independent Artsakh.”

Many Armenians were correctly doubtful about how successful the ceasefire would be because of how all past ceasefires ended. Some online wrote things like, “Pres. Trump, since this humanitarian ceasefire like the previous two will likely not be observed by Azerbaijan, hope the US government has follow-up plans. Turkey is the main reason why this war is taking place, so sanctioning them would be the single most important act for peace.”

For their part, the Azeri perspective could be easily summed up with a tweet by a user that reflects the longheld grudge against Armenia for allegedly pushing ethnic Azeris out of Nagorno-Karabakh.

“Your proud team has not been able to save 1 million people for more than 30 years,” the user wrote. “The brutality of the Armenian government drove 1 million Azerbaijanis from the Azerbaijani lands in Karabakh. Now they are returning home. The only team you can be proud of is the Azerbaijani Army.”

It’s important to note that, it’s officially unclear who broke the ceasefire, with each side blaming the other for targeting and bombing civilian centers in Nagorno-Karabakh and neighboring Ganja, respectively.

News of the failed ceasefire quickly gained traction after Azeri Foreign minister Hikmet Hajiyev said, “Since 08.04 armed forces of Armenia started shelling Tartar region and its villages in violation of humanitarian ceasefire. As reported by MOD Azerbaijan armed forces of Armenia with artillery and mine launchers attacking our forces since 08.05

Armenia disputes this, claiming that they are trying to maintain the ceasefire even though Azerbaijan is the one shelling cities in Artsakh. This back and forth over who broke the ceasefires have continued the he-said-she-said narrative of the conflict. Virtually every event is disputed by either side, and restrictions on journalists make it hard to verify information.

Armenia does largely allow journalists to many spots in the warzone, although with some restrictions. Azerbaijan, however, heavily restricts journalists, and clear answers from their side of the front are hard to obtain.

Progress of the War

If a side stood to gain something from breaking a ceasefire, it’d probably be Azerbaijan. They have made huge gains towards gaining control of Nagorno-Karabakh. Even though both sides actively seek to play up their gains and diminish their losses, satellite images and alleged geolocation data show that Azeri forces are now in large parts of southern Nagorno-Karabakh.

Initial claims about geolocation date were disputed, however, on October 27, Armenian forces announced they were making strategic retreats from cities in southern Artsakh in an effort to consolidate forces and avoid unnecessary loses; however, they stressed these were minor setbacks.

This indeed may be a minor setback because other information indicates that while Azeri forces may have made some large gains, they also are having trouble holding the territory and may have suffered untenable losses for it.

Azeri losses are notoriously hard to confirm, but to date they have stated that 65 civillians have lost their lives in the conflict to date.

Armenia claims to have inflicted over 6,000 military casualties on Azeri forces since the conflict began. Officially, 900 soldiers and civilians have been killed on the Armenian side since the conflict began. Although doctors in Stepanakert, while speaking to The Daily Beast, say that over 1,000 soldiers have died, with an additional 300-400 civilian deaths.

Both sides are due to meet again on Thursday with members of the Minsk Group, which is co-chaired by the U.S., France, and Russia, in order to try and find a resolution to the conflict.

See What Others Are Saying: (The Hill) (ABC News) (The Daily Beast)

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International

Thousands of Nigerians Continue to Protest for Widespread Police Reforms Following SARS Disbandment

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  • Nigerians are protesting against human rights abuses carried out by the Special Anti-Robbery Squad, a police unit commonly known as SARS.
  • The police unit has been caught on video multiple times shooting, torturing, extorting, beating, robbing, and kidnapping Nigerians.
  • A video of a SARS officer shooting a young man while confiscating the man’s Lexus on October 3 sparked outrage across the West African nation, leading to protests since October 8.
  • Since then, the government has agreed to some demands and disbanded the unit for the fourth time, only to replace it with a SWAT unit.
  • Still, Nigerians continue to protest, demanding wide-scale police reforms.

SARS Accused of Major Human Rights Abuses

Nigeria has been rocked by ongoing protests over police brutality stemming from the long time corruption and abuse by the Special Anti-Robbery Squad.

The squad, better known as SARS, has long been embroiled in controversy for engaging in torture, mock executions, robbery, extortion, kidnapping, harassment, and murder. For many Nigerians, the unit is just the worst example of many of the abuses that Nigerian police engage in and is part of a systemic problem.

The most recent anger was sparked by a video that went viral on October 3, which shows a SARS officer was seen shooting a young man in front of a hotel while taking away his Lexus SUV. Adding to the collective anger was news that the phone used to record the incident was quickly confiscated by SARS officers after the video went live.

Following days of simmering, the tensions boiled over on October 8, after activists and social media called for wide-scale protests to demand SARS be disbanded. Like many recent protests worldwide, the message was quickly spread and amplified with the help of social media, prompting tens of thousands of people across Nigeria to take to the streets and make #endSARS trend online.

Wide-Scale Protests Across Nigeria

Since October 8, the ongoing protests have been mainly peaceful, although there have been incidents of police interfering with heavy-handed tactics. Online, hundreds of videos can be found of police using water cannons and tear gas to disperse crowds. Others show them wildly shooting into crowds of protesters.

However, these actions often have the opposite of their intended effect and draw out more protesters daily. Additionally, the videos of violent police tactics amplify the message worldwide, especially as members of the Nigerian diaspora push the topic online.

Nigerian actor John Boyega has actively supported the movement on Twitter, calling out Nigerian police corruption. Similarly, Nigerian rapper Burna Boy made serious efforts to spread information about the protests to his global audience.

On October 10, he made a statement, promising to help fund any protester who is harmed and/or arrested by police during demonstrations. He also asked for donations to that fund and promised to make sure people are educated about the situation. To that end, he has been funding billboards with #ENDSARS and relevant information across the United Kingdom.


In North America, multiple artists have come out in support of the cause. Rapper Kanye West tweeted out, “I stand with my Nigerian brothers and sisters to end police brutality, the government must answer to the peoples cries #EndPoliceBrutalityinNigeria”

Meanwhile, fellow artist Drake highlighted a post about the situation on his Instagram story.

SARS Out, SWAT In

As the protests continued, the message and movement evolved. On Sunday, a list of demands began to be circulated on social media.

Beyond wanting SARS disbanded, the demands called for anyone arrested during the protests to be released. It also called for compensation for those killed by police brutality in Nigeria.

It’s unknown exactly how many have died as a result of the protests, but Human Rights Watch estimates that upwards of 10 people have been killed by police while protesting.

Demonstrators are also calling for an independent body be set up within 10 days to investigate and prosecute all reports of police misconduct, as well as psychological evaluations and retraining of SARS operatives before they were moved to other units.

Additionally, protesters want to ensure that Nigerian police are adequately paid, so they’re less willing to engage in corruption.

Protesters got a major victory on Sunday when the government announced that SARS would be disbanding and there would be investigations into the conduct of the officers. Until those investigations were complete, SARS officers would be placed into other units after a psychological evaluation, in line with protester demands.

However, for many protesters, this wasn’t enough. They want widespread police reforms, especially because disbanding SARS isn’t a new thing.

This will be the fourth time the unit has been disbanded, and each time it’s brought back, it faces the same accusations. It’s widely believed that the unit isn’t the problem and instead blame the mindset within Nigerian police that allows a unit like SARS to be so brutal and corrupt.

It wasn’t until Tuesday that police finally agreed to stop using force against protesters. At the same time, President Muhammadu Buhari gave a speech where he promised that widespread police reforms would come.

“I want to use this opportunity to address the recent genuine concerns and agitations by Nigerians about the excessive use of force, and in some cases extrajudicial killings and wrongful conduct, by men of the Nigerian police force,” he said.

The disbanding of SARS is only the first step in our commitment to extensive police reform in order to ensure the primary of the police and other law enforcement agencies remain the protection of lives.” and added, “We will also ensure that all those responsible for misconduct or wrongful acts are brought to justice.”

Many Nigerians were bitterly disappointed when it was announced that SARS would be replaced with a group known as Special Weapons Assault Team, or SWAT.

With that, protests continued into Wednesday, and demands have been expanded to call for more fundamental changes to the police system. The calls are similar to ones made against police in countries like the U.S. and U.K. following the death of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and others.

See What Others Are Saying: (Reuters) (CNN) (Vanguard Nigeria)

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Cardi B and Los Angeles Times Face Backlash for Perceived Stances on Armenia and Azerbaijan Conflict

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  • Estimates say that the ongoing conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijani in Nagorno-Karabakh has resulted in more than 1,000 military deaths, on top of dozens of civilian deaths on both sides.
  • It has also hyper-polarized online communities, causing both celebrities and new outlets to become bombarded with backlash for their perceived stances on the situation.
  • Rapper Cardi B, for instance, shared a fundraiser for Armenia on her Instagram Story at the request of a business associate and quickly removed it after facing outrage from Azeri internet users.
  • The artist later admitted she didn’t do enough research on the topic before appearing to take a side and only wants peace.
  • The Los Angeles Times faced similar backlash, but from Armenian activists, after posting an article that featured a quote from an Azeri diplomat.

Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict Goes Online

Rapper Cardi B and The Los Angeles Times have each found themselves in hot water after receiving backlash from Azeri and Armenian groups over tweets and articles published over the last two days.

On Monday, The Times ran an article about the ongoing conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia and its efforts to help the breakaway region of the Republic of Artsakh.

Armenians felt the article was so poorly done that hundreds showed up at the paper’s El Segundo headquarters on Tuesday to protest. The group blocked access to the nearby Imperial Highway and adjacent streets, shouting “Shame on the LA Times.”

However, many took issue with the fact that it also included a quote from the Consul General of Los Angeles, who provided an unsubstantiated claim.

“The racist and white supremacist propaganda promoted by Armenia and their allies, with which they intend to cash in on the already divisive environment and Islamophobic prejudices, must be condemned by everyone who believe that such dangerous bigotry and intolerance have no place in Europe, U.S. or anywhere else.” The Consul general told the Los Angeles Times

Armenian activists claim that including the quote without any pushback was irresponsible and was spreading disinformation.

The ongoing conflict has proven to be hyper-polarizing for all sides involved, and given that Los Angeles has one of the largest Armenian populations in the world, many felt such a strong local reaction was not unsurprising. To give context, there is only one city in the world with a larger Armenian population that the LA-metro area: Yerevan, the capital of Armenia.

Worldwide there have been mass protests from the Armenian diaspora. On Wednesday, Brussels had hundreds of protesters outside of E.U. government buildings chanting “Hayastan!”- the Armenian word for Armenia.

“Just Want Peace”

It’s not just Armenians pushing back online. On Monday, Cardi B shared an Armenian fundraiser on her Instagram Story and it turned into a nightmare for the artist. The fundraiser is run by the Armenian government and uses the funds for various projects in Artsakh.

Turkish and Azeri users online pushed back at the artist for appearing to support the Armenian side of the conflict. In fact, some argued that by promoting that fundraiser, Cardi B was supporting terrorism.

By Tuesday morning, she took down the post and issued an apology on Twitter. She explained that she shared the fundraiser as a favor to her Armenian real-estate consultant after a quick conversation.

“He’s saying there’s a lot of terrible genocides going on in his country,” she wrote. “And he says, ‘Can you please post something for a cause, a good cause for Armenia?’”

“And we said, ‘sure, why not?’ you know? We love to support everybody. And I wake up and I see a lot of people from Azerbaijan is writing me things, writing me stuff, and I did not know that this is a war between two countries.”

The rapper went on to talk about her positive experience in Armenia but tried to distance herself from the situation by adding that both countries seem to be filled with history and are interesting.

“I did a little bit of research today since you guys left me so much [comments]. My wish is that both the countries would just be at peace. Know what I’m saying?” She added. “There’s no little land. You guys already have big pieces of land. There is no little tiny land that is worth chaos death fighting, especially in this year.”

She also responded to a user who was trying to push the hashtag #CardiBSupportsTerrorism, writing, “Stfu I don’t support terrorism.I literally posted it for my friend with out doing no research on what’s going on .Im sorry about that .I don’t like war .I don’t like conflicts between two countries period cause I hate innocent people being affected by it.”

Fighting On the Ground Continues

In Nagorno-Karabakh, fighting has continued since September 27. Over the past week, Azerbaijan claims to have captured some towns in the south of the region. If true, this marks a pretty significant advancement into the territory for Azeri troops.

While the fighting has escalated, so have the casualties, though exact numbers are hard to determine on both sides. Neither Armenia nor Azerbaijan are reporting how many military deaths have occurred since fighting began. Only the breakaway Republic of Artsakh has given any numbers, claiming it has lost 280 soldiers since the fighting began.

Total military deaths are thought to be over a thousand currently.

Even though the combatants are slow to reveal military casualties, they are more open about civilian deaths. Azerbaijan has hit multiple cities in Artsakh with missiles and drone strikes, leading to reportedly over two dozen civilian deaths.

On the other side, Armenian forces are accused of targeting Azeri cities like Ganja with their own attacks, leading to about a dozen deaths.

See What Others Are Saying: (New York Times) (Los Angeles Times) (Reuters)

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