Issued on: Modified:
Russians appeared to have paved the way for Vladimir Putin to stay in power until 2036 by voting overwhelmingly for a package of constitutional changes which will also boost pensions, partial results of a nationwide vote showed on Wednesday.
Results, after almost a third of ballots had been counted, indicated that the former KGB officer who has ruled Russia for more than two decades as president or prime minister would easily win the right to run for two more terms. That means he could remain president for 16 more years.
The Central Election Commission said 74% of votes counted across the world's largest country had supported changing the constitution. Just under 25% had voted no of the 30% of ballots counted.
Russians have been encouraged to vote with prize draws offering flats and an ad campaign highlighting other constitutional amendments in the same reform bundle, such as the pensions protection and a de facto ban on same-sex marriages.
One-off payments of 10,000 roubles ($141) were transferred to those with children at Putin's order as people headed to polling stations on Wednesday, the last day of the vote, held over seven days to try to limit the spread of the coronavirus.
"I voted for the amendments to the constitution," Moscow resident Mikhail Volkov said. "We need radical changes and I'm for them."
Others voted for the changes with less enthusiasm.
"I didn't read about the amendments if I'm honest," another voter, Lyudmila, said. "What's the point of voting if they've already decided for you. It's like that in our country – read something and vote. I voted."
Turnout was around 65%, election officials said. The required turnout is 50% and the amendments will pass if they are backed by a simple majority of voters.
Putin, 67, made no mention of how the changes could affect his own career in an eve-of-vote speech on Tuesday. They would allow him to run for another two six-year, consecutive stints after his current term expires in 2024.
Putin has said he has yet to decide on his future. Critics say they are sure he will run again, but some analysts say he may want to keep his options open to avoid becoming a lame duck.
At 60%, according to the Levada pollster, his approval rating remains high but well down on its peak of nearly 90%.
With Russia reporting thousands of new Covid-19 cases each day, opponents have been unable to stage protests but have mocked the vote online, sharing photographs of polling stations in apartment stairwells, courtyards and the boot of a car.
A small group of activists staged a symbolic protest on Red Square on Wednesday afternoon using their prostrate bodies to form the date — 2036 — before being swiftly detained by police, TV Rain reported.
The "No! Campaign," called on supporters to vote against the changes and then discuss the result on Moscow's Pushkinskaya SquarRead More – Source
Drugmaker Sanofi charged with manslaughter over birth defects
Issued on: 03/08/2020 – 15:37
French prosecutors have indicted pharma giant Sanofi for manslaughte..
French prosecutors have indicted pharma giant Sanofi for manslaughter over birth defects linked to an epilepsy drug, the company said Monday, in a long-running case that has also seen it charged with fraud.
The charges relate to the drug valproate, marketed as Depakine among other trade names, which studies say has caused disabilities in about 15,000-30,000 children whose mothers took the medicine while pregnant.
On the market since 1967, the drug is used to treat epilepsy, migraines and bipolar disorder.
But research found that when pregnant women took the drug, their children had an elevated risk — between 10 to 40 percent — of congenital malformations, autism and learning difficulties.
Sanofi is facing separate charges of aggravated fraud and unintentionally causing injury in 42 cases filed by families, but insists it had warned health authorities of the drug's risks already in the 1980s.
On Monday, the company confirmed a report in Le Monde newspaper that prosecutors have now also charged it with manslaughter.
But in a statement sent to AFP it insisted it had "fulfilled its obligation" of providing information on the drug and its side-effects, and said it "contests the validity of these proceedings."
Sanofi said it has filed a legal challenge to the indictment.
Under the French legal system, charges do not automatically result in a trial as prosecutors can decide not to proceed based on a lack of evidence.
Last month, a French court ordered the state to pay thousands of euros in damages over the scandal, saying officials should have ensured the drug was not taken by pregnant women.
The court found that health officials knew about the risk of birth defects from Depakine already in 1983, aRead More – Source
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..
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.
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
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.”
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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