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Belarus detains dozens of Russian mercenaries before election, says state media

Issued on: 29/07/2020 – 17:17

Belarusian authorities said Wednesday they have detained dozens of R..

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Belarusian authorities said Wednesday they have detained dozens of Russian private military contractors days before Belarus' presidential vote, a sign of escalating tensions between the two neighbors.

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Belarus' authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko, who is seeking a sixth term in office in the Aug. 9 vote, has repeatedly accused Russia of trying to force Belarus to abandon its post-Soviet independence. Throughout his 26-year rule, the 65-year-old Lukashenko has relied on Russian subsidies and political support but has fiercely resisted Moscow's efforts to gain control over Belarus' economic assets.

The arrest of dozens of Russians accused of planning to destabilise Belarus amid the election campaign pushes political tensions between the countries to a new high.

Belarus' state news agency BelTA said that 32 members of Russia's Wagner private military company were detained overnight at a sanitarium outside Minsk by a SWAT team from the Belarusian State Security Committee, still known by its Soviet-era name KGB. Another person was detained in the country's south, said the BelTA, which published a list of the detained Russians.

Yulia Goncharova, the spokeswoman for Belarus' top investigative agency, the Investigative Committee, confirmed the detentions but refrained from further comment.

The Russian Embassy in Belarus had no immediate comment on the report, saying it hadn't received official information about the detentions from the Belarusian authorities.

BelTA said that Belarusian law enforcement agencies were acting on a tip that over 200 militants had arrived in Belarus on a mission to destabilize the country during the election campaign.

Lukashenko, the former state farm director, has ruled the ex-Soviet nation of 9.5 million with an iron hand, cracking down on dissent and free media, and extending his rule through votes the West has criticized as rigged.

The Belarusian leader is expected to easily win reelection on Aug. 9 despite a wave of opposition protests fueled by public fatigue with his rule and a painful economic fallout from the coronavirus pandemic.

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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.

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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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