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How Pandemic Upended Croatias Bold EU Presidency Plans

Among the many things that have been upended by the coronavirus pandemic around the world was Croati..

Among the many things that have been upended by the coronavirus pandemic around the world was Croatias ambitious agenda for its six-month term at the helm of the European Union, which ended Tuesday.

“Despite all our best original plans, related to promoting a whole set of issues most important for Europe’s security and prosperity … our presidency has ended up being a genuine crisis-management presidency,” said Pjer Simunovic, Croatias top diplomat in Washington.

Simunovic said his country took its turn in the rotating office in January with plans to address employment, technology, competitiveness, environment, green energy, EU enlargement, external partnerships, as well as to work toward a smooth and well-regulated Brexit and adoption of the EU’s budget.

Instead, he said in an interview, Croatias presidency has been dominated by “virtual meetings replacing the in-person meetings at all levels, and almost everything getting focused on dealing with the immediacy of the multifaceted danger in front to us.”

“We all had to plan and execute on the fly,” he added.

The role of the EU presidency is to build consensus and facilitate joint decision-making among the blocs nearly 30 members, Simunovic said. Toward that end, he credited the member states for working together to bring home more than 500,000 EU citizens who were left stranded by the pandemic around the world.

Simunovic said his country – an EU member since 2013 – also advocated strongly for the union to open accession talks with two other countries in its southeastern Europe neighborhood – Albania and North Macedonia. An EU-Western Balkans summit in May confirmed the “EUs commitment to the region,” he said.

As another example of solidarity within the EU, the ambassador cited ongoing negotiations on financial rescue packages for the member nations most severely hurt by the pandemic.

“On top of the first EU relief package, adopted in April, of 500 billion euros, complemented by a banking package facilitating lending, the European Commission proposed, in late May, the second relief package, consisting of 750 billion euros, 500 billion in grants, 250 billions in favorable loans,” he said.

Simunovic described that proposal as “fair, balanced and appropriate,” adding that progress towards an agreement was made at the final EU summit of Croatias presidency, including a pledge to finalize an agreement at a summit in July.

Independent analysts also are pleasantly surprised by the EUs success in responding to the pandemic.

“There is some pride along with a sense of shock that Europe has been pulling together,” said Stephen Szabo, a senior fellow at the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies and an adjunct professor at Georgetown University. But he said the success came only after “a disastrous beginning” in which the member states failed to help the hardest-hit countries, such as Italy.

“Still this is only the first stage of what promises to be a long-term crisis,” he said, adding that the economic effects “will be felt for years and will pose a challenge for European solidarity.”

Simunovic discussed the concept of “strategic autonomy” as the pandemic forces nations to evaluate the strength of their supply chains. The notion is perfectly understandable, he said, but he believes collaboration among the EU members will be critical going forward.

He predicted that ties will be “established and reinforced along the lines of reliability” among what he described as “genuine allies.”

Simunovic said Europe stands ready to work alongside the United States to strengthen transatlantic ties and tackle global challenges, including those posed by state actors playing with different rules – Russia and China most prominently among them.

“Globalization will not disappear, trade and investment will continue to flow around the world, as it is happening, but there will be more caution, more safeguards,” he said.

The ambassador predicted Germany, which assumes the presidency for a six-month term beginning Wednesday, will find itself like Croatia in a continuous “crisis management” mode, with “hard issues remaining to be addressed and resolved.”

“We wish our German friends the best of luck, with our full support and great expectations,” he said. “We are in the same boat amidst the rough seas.”

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Former pope Benedict XVI ‘extremely frail’, says German newspaper report

Issued on: 03/08/2020 – 05:41

Former pope Benedict XVI became seriously ill himself after visiting..

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Former pope Benedict XVI became seriously ill himself after visiting his sick brother in Germany in June and is "extremely frail", according to a report in the Monday edition of the German Passauer Neue Presse newspaper.

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Benedict, 93, is suffering from erysipelas of the face, a virus that causes a facial rash and episodes of severe pain, the newspaper reported, citing the former pope's biographer Peter Seewald.

"According to Seewald, the Pope emeritus is now extremely frail," the report says. "His thinking and his memory are quick, but his voice is hardly audible at the moment."

Seewald reportedly visited Benedict in Rome on Saturday to present him with his biography.

"At the meeting the emeritus Pope, despite his illness, was optimistic and declared that if his strength increased again he would possibly take up his pen again," the paper said.

Benedict visited his sick brother Georg in Germany in June, marking his first trip out of Italy since his shock resignation in 2013.

Georg Ratzinger died just two weeks later,Read More – Source

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Index Resignations ‘Blow to Media Freedom’ in Hungary

Working as a reporter and deputy editor for the Hungarian publication Index was a pinnacle in Szabol..

Working as a reporter and deputy editor for the Hungarian publication Index was a pinnacle in Szabolcs Panyi’s career as a journalist.

From 2013 to 2018, Panyi covered Hungarian politics, uncovered corruption scandals and won numerous awards for his work. People would recognize him on the streets or at protests, shaking his hand. He even saw a government official on TV reading a printout of one of his stories.

“That was the influence Index had,” he told VOA. “Both personally and professionally, it was one of the best parts of my life.”

During his time at the news website, Panyi said he never received external pressure that influenced his reporting. But rumors lingered about a “set date” for when the publication would be bought out by a pro-government businessman.

“We knew that it was just too popular and powerful to be simply shut down in a very obvious manner,” said Panyi, who now reports for Direkt36, a nonprofit investigative journalism center in Hungary. “So, the government tried to find more covert ways to try to influence Index.”

Fears of outside interference grew last month when editor-in-chief declared that its independence was “in danger” and under threat from “outside interference.”

On July 22, Dull was fired and two days later more than 70 Index staffers and the editorial board resigned in protest — more than half of the publication’s staff. Now, journalists and media freedom advocates worry about the state of press freedom in the country.

Index was one of the flagship outlets for independent reporting in Hungary,” Tamas Bodoky, executive director of the Hungarian watchdog and investigative news group Atlatszo, told VOA. “This is a huge blow for the remaining press freedom in Hungary.”

Independent journalism has been in steady decline in Hungary since Viktor Orbán was elected prime minister in 2010. Media ownership is concentrated among allies of the ruling party, including via the KESMA conglomerate formed in 2018 that accounts for 40% of all news outlets. In December, only nominees from the ruling party were elected to the state Media Council, journalists say they have difficulty accessing information, and analysis of distribution of state advertising shows bias to pro-government outlets.

In 2013, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) ranked the country 56 out of 180 countries in its annual press freedom index, where 1 is the most free. It has since fallen to 88.

Against that backdrop, Index was one of the few large outlets offering independent news.

The Hungarian government’s International Communications Office told VOA, “The government does not engage in matters related to the media market.”

Why resign?

In an editorial published last month, Dull warned that the editorial staff was in danger and raised concerns over an “organizational overhaul.”

Plans by directors to restructure the staff were framed as a way to cut costs, according to a Facebook group formed by some of the former staff. The journalists, however, said the plans risked compromising editorial standards.

Top editors repeatedly lobbied for assurance of the site’s independence but were given no answers from management.

“This is such a strong infringement on the editorial independence of Index.hu that we simply could not accept,” the staffers wrote on the Facebook page.

Following changes to parts of its ownership in 2018, Index started publishing a barometer to alert readers to any potential interference.

Further changes came in March, when businessman Marco Vaszily acquired a 50% stake in the company that sells Index‘s advertising.

Vaszily is chair of pro-government television outlet, TV2 and was involved in the 2014 takeover of Origo, at the time Hungary’s largest online news site. More than 30 Origo journalists later resigned over what they said was a pro-government shift in editorial content.

Laszlo Bodolai, head of the foundation that owns Index, denied the site’s independence was at risk, Reuters reported. He said Dull’s inability to control internal newsroom tensions led to a drop in revenue as advertisers stayed away.

Index did not respond to VOA’s request for comment.

Bodoky, from the Hungarian watchdog group, said he wished the employees had stayed with the news outlet. Right now, he said, “the stakes are too high” for journalists to leave independent publications.

“I think they left the ship too early,” he said.

The full circumstances of the resignations are unclear: the employees have non-disclosure agreements, which can only be waived by the publication’s owner, they wrote on Facebook.

One journalist told VOA the agreements were signed recently and were not common in Hungary.

Loss for independent news

Index is the largest independent news outlet in Hungary, accounting for the reach of about half of all of the country’s independent publications. The publication receives more than 1 million viewers every day.

Panyi compared the loss of the outlet to Americans losing both the Washington Post and the New York Times.

“This is a country of 10 million, which just lost its largest source of independent news,” Panyi said. “It’s a huge blow to media freedom in Hungary.”

Independent outlets remain, but they have significantly smaller audiences than Index, Bodoky said. Pro-government news sources are overwhelming the media landscape, he added.

“If you are an average person in Hungary and you don’t actively look for critical or independent reporting, then you get the government propaganda,” he said. “You get it on the state-owned television channel, you get it on the commercial radio channels, in the daily papers and so on.”

In addition to the lack of independent news outlets, Panyi said another element to the Hungarian media landscape is advertising. When state-owned companies take control over advertising for publications, it can give the state the power to determine which publications get advertising. This forces publications to make a difficult decision.

“Editor in chiefs and CEOs have to make the decision whether to accept money from the government, which will eventually save them because there’s a huge hole in their budget,” Panyi said. “But in return, they are cutting deals like they’re not going to report on certain issues regarding the prime minister’s family.”

The changes at Index are part of a “moment of alarming symbolism,” according to the Media Freedom Rapid Response consortium of rights groups.

In a letter to the presidents of the European Council and Commission, the group said that independent media in Hungary are under enormous pressure and cited a 2020 Media Pluralism Monitor report that found funds from the European Union, distributed through the prime minister’s office, are used to finance pro-government media. The Center for Media Pluralism and Media Freedom is a research center funded in part by the EU.

The fight to restore press freedom will likely be “a long fight,” Panyi said. But, he added, hope remains. He said Hungarians are still in search of unbiased news and independent journalism.

As for the staffers who resigned, they have no immediate plans other than a commitment to independent journalism.

“We sincerely hope that we will manage to stay together, work together, and keep doing what we have been doing for the past 20 years,” the staffers wrote.

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Protest against coronavirus curbs draws crowds in Berlin

Issued on: 01/08/2020 – 21:56

Loudly chanting their opposition to face masks and vaccines, thousan..

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Loudly chanting their opposition to face masks and vaccines, thousands of people gathered in Berlin on Saturday to protest against coronavirus restrictions before being dispersed by police.

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Police put turnout at around 20,000 — well below the 500,000 organisers had announced as they urged a "day of freedom" from months of virus curbs.

Despite Germany's comparatively low toll, authorities are concerned at a rise in infections over recent weeks and politicians took to social media to criticise the rally as irresponsible.

"We are the second wave," shouted the crowd, a mixture of hard left and right and conspiracy theorists as they converged on the Brandenburg Gate, demanding "resistance" and dubbing the pandemic "the biggest conspiracy theory".

Few protesters wore a mask or respected the 1.5-metre (five-foot) social distancing requirement, an AFP journalist reported, despite police repeatedly calling on them via megaphone to do so.

After several warnings, Berlin police ordered demonstrators to leave the area at the end of the afternoon.

Police tweeted they had launched legal proceedings against organisers for not respecting virus hygiene rules.

A handful of people held a counter demonstration. Dubbing themselves "grandmothers against the extreme right", they hurled insults against "Nazi" protesters.

The protest's "Day of Freedom" slogan echoes the title of a 1935 documentary by Nazi-era film-maker Leni Riefenstahl on a party conference by Hitler's National Socialist German Workers' Party.

Several politicians condemned the demonstration as Germany seeks to minimise transmission of a virus which had claimed just over 9,000 deaths as of Saturday — a far lower toll than its neighbours.

'Covidiots'

Saskia Esken of the Social Democrats, a junior coalition partner in Angela Merkel's government, blasted the demonstrators as "Covidiots".

In a tweet Esken railed: "No distancing, no mask. They are not only putting at risk our health but also our success against the pandemic as well as economic recovery, education and society. Irresponsible!"

Health Minister Jens Spahn agreed: "Yes, demonstrations should also be possible in times of coronavirus, but not like this. Distance, hygiene rules and masks serve to protect us all, so we treat each other with respect."

Jan Redmann, regional head of Merkel's Christian Democrats in the eastern state of Brandenburg, also took aim at the marchers.

"A thousand new infections a day still and in Berlin there are protests against anti-virus measures? We can no longer allow ourselves these dangerous absurdities," Redmann complained.

Interior Minister Horst Seehofer, who hails from Merkel's traditional right ally the Christian Social Union, showed a measure of understanding, however.

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