Biden Administration Highlights New Initiatives for Tribal Nations

U.S. President Joe Biden drew enthusiastic applause from tribal leaders attending day one of a two-day White House Tribal Nations Summit in Washington, where Biden announced new policies for improving tribal consultation across federal agencies.

“Consultation has to be a two-way, nation-to-nation exchange,” he said. “Federal agencies should strive to reach consensus among the tribes, and there should be adequate time for ample communication.”

Tribes have long sought more inclusion in federal decision-making on policies in keeping with the U.S. Constitution and hundreds of treaties negotiated with the U.S. government between 1778 and 1871.

In 2019, however, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) found some federal agencies did not respect tribal sovereignty or tribes’ relationship with the government and failed to adequately consult tribes on infrastructure projects impacting tribal natural and cultural resources.

Biden announced he had signed a new memorandum of understanding (MOU), unifying consultation processes across the government agencies. It directs agency heads to keep public records on all consultations, summarizing all tribal concerns and recommendations and showing how tribal input is considered into the agency decisions.

Agency heads also must explain their reasoning if and when tribal suggestions are not incorporated into agency action.

“Tribal nations should know how their contributions influence the decision making,” Biden said, adding that the MOU will require all relevant federal agencies to participate in annual training on the tribal consultation process.

Managing environmental issues

Separately, U.S. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland announced several initiatives aimed at strengthening Washington’s relationship with 574 federally recognized tribes and boosting their sovereignty and economic development.

From wildfires and drought to the widespread loss of species and their habitats, climate change is “the challenge of our lifetime,” Haaland told tribal leaders attending the first in-person summit.

“If we are going to successfully overcome these threats, we must work together,” Haaland said.

To that end, the Commerce Department will join the Interior and Agriculture Departments by signing Joint Secretarial Order 3403. That order, issued in November 2021, is designed to ensure that federal agencies work with tribes to manage millions of hectares of federal lands, waters and wildlife.

“Today, the Departments of Interior and Agriculture are outlining a series of new steps to ensure tribes can participate in the stewardship of federal lands and waters,” Haaland said.

That includes, said Haaland, “producing a first of its kind report on the many existing legal authorities we have as agencies to advance co-stewardship with tribal nations as the United States works to honor our trust and treaty responsibilities to protect tribal sovereignty and revitalize tribal communities.”

Closing digital divide

A 2021 study by Arizona State University’s American Indian Policy Institute found that 18% of tribal reservation residents had no internet access and 33% were forced to rely on smartphones to access the internet.

Haaland announced that the Interior and Commerce departments will sign a memorandum of understanding with the Federal Communications Commission to better coordinate in promoting wireless services on tribal lands and give tribes a voice in developing national broadband policy.

The Interior Department also will establish a new Office of Indigenous Communication and Technology to help tribal nations and communities manage, develop and maintain broadband infrastructure, as well as forge partnerships with the tech industry.

“All of these new tools will help strengthen our nation-to-nation relationship while ensuring that communities have the tools — both new and old — to reach true self-determination and move toward a more prosperous era for Indian country,” Haaland said.

Documenting boarding school histories

Haaland also announced the Interior Department, with support from the National Endowment for the Humanities, will in 2023 begin work on a permanent oral history project to document the experiences of students in the federal Indian boarding school system.

Following the discovery in 2021 of more than 200 sets of remains on the grounds of the Kamloops Indian Residential School in Canada, the Interior Department launched the Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative to study the impact of these boarding schools on Native American attendees, descendants and their families.

The department released the first volume of findings in May, reporting that between 1819 and 1969, the federal government operated 408 federal schools in 37 states.

Investigators have so far identified more than 1,000 other federal and non-federal institutions involved in educating and assimilating Native American, Native Alaskan and Native Hawaiian children. These included day schools, orphanages and standalone dormitories.

They report that the schools used “systematic militarized and identity-alteration methodologies” in their effort to Americanize Native children, giving them English names, banning their languages, cultural and spiritual practices.

“The federal Indian Boarding School Initiative is about more than reliving the trauma of our past,” Haaland said in her announcement Wednesday. “It’s about making sure that survivors of these brutal federal policies are seen and heard and that their stories are told to future generations.”

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Somalia Military Rebuilding Shows Signs of Improvement

Despite relentless al-Shabab attacks, Somali defense officials say the country is making progress in building a viable security force capable of not only protecting state institutions but also expanding governmental authority.  

In central Somalia, federal troops supported by local fighters have been slowly seizing territories from al-Shabab since August. The current military offensive is entirely planned and executed by Somali commanders and local forces, a significant and confidence-boosting achievement.  

“We inflicted heavy defeat on terrorists, and we have dislodged them from large territory in the regions, Hiran in particular, which has been the focal point for the operation,” Army Chief Brigadier Gen. Odawa Yusuf Rage told VOA Somali.  

“The ultimate goal is to remove these terrorists from Somalia and eliminate them.”  

Gen. Rage and Defense Minister Abdulkadir Mohamed Nur were in Jubbaland this week to oversee regional forces that are planning to join the operations. The strategy is intended to open a new front against al-Shabab in the south.  

Troops trained by Turkey and the United States are the core of Somali forces undertaking these operations. 

On September 30, 2017, Turkey established the largest overseas military training facility in Somalia. Turkey has so far trained 5,000 commandos known as Gorgor (the eagle). To strength the command and leadership, Turkey also trained 316 officers and 392 non-commissioned officers. 

The training courses are continuing, and army recruitment centers in Mogadishu are attracting young university graduates.    

Gen. Rage, who himself was trained in Turkey, praised Ankara’s role. “It’s contributing significantly to the training and building of the Somali national army,” he said.  

Rage said troops trained by Turkey have made a “significant difference” in the fight against al-Shabab.  

The Turkish Defense Ministry said its engagement with Somali forces is to contribute to peace and stability in Somalia. It said the aim is to improve the organization, training, military infrastructure and logistics systems of the Somali National Army.  

“The battalions trained and equipped by Turkey have been successful in recapturing large numbers of al-Shabaab-controlled settlements, defending their bases and neutralizing terrorists,” said a Turkish statement sent to VOA. “These battalions will form the backbone of the Somali National Army in the future. We believe that the personnel trained by the Turkish Armed Forces will serve not only the security of Somalia, but also the security of Africa and beyond.”  

The elite Somali forces known as Danab (lightning) are trained by the U.S., and they are the other major forces involved in ongoing operations. Danab force strength is inching closer to 2,000 including a new batch of 350 troops that started training just few weeks ago at an airfield west of Mogadishu.

Somali defense officials said current operations will be boosted upon the return of 5,000 more soldiers trained in Eritrea, although no date has yet been set.   

The government said it also is pursuing other initiatives to train more forces abroad. 

Turkey drones  

Somali security officials have acknowledged that Turkish drones are participating in the operations against al-Shabab, by conducting bombings and monitoring the militants.  

Two security officials who requested not to be identified because of the sensitivity of the project told VOA Somali that Turkish drones were involved in airstrikes in Lower and Middle Shabelle regions in recent weeks.  

The presence of Turkish drones was confirmed in September by the Minister of Interior, Federal and Reconciliation, Ahmed Moallim Fiqi, who was speaking to a local television station.  

But Somalia’s defense officials avoid confirming or denying it.  

“We don’t discuss specific operations by any particular country,” Defense Minister Abdulkadir Mohamed Nur told VOA Somali.  

General Rage was equally dismissive in discussing Turkish drone operations.  

“That is not an issue I want to talk to about,” he said. “Whether it exists or doesn’t exist, I will answer another time, but at this time I have no information about it.”  

Unlike the U.S. military, which has been publicly reporting airstrikes against al-Shabab for many years, including some that took place during recent operations, Turkey has not commented on its clandestine drone operations.

On the multilateral level, Turkey supports all efforts to increase the capacity of the Somali National Army, read a statement by the Turkey Defense Ministry. That statement did not mention the word “drone” once, although VOA inquiry mainly focused on the drone issue.  

But Somali officials said Turkish drones were effective in bombing al-Shabab when troops met stiff resistance from the militants.   

Former Mogadishu intelligence chief Major Ibrahim Moallim Abdullahi, who has been following the operations of Turkish drones, said recent progress by the troops would not have been possible without the drones.   

“Turkish drones are playing a significant role in the ongoing operations,” he said.

Abdullahi said Turkish drones arrived in the country last year, but their activities were limited to surveillance until this year when operations started.  

What is the strategy?

Despite the success on the front lines, some security experts are questioning if the government has a “clear strategy” to defeat al-Shabab. Al-Shabab fighters this week penetrated a popular hotel next to the Presidential Palace, killing nine people. In October, the group detonated two large bombs at a busy junction killing 121 people and injuring more than 330 others. 

Critics argue the government only joined up for the fight after local mobilizations developed in the Hiran region against al-Shabab. In addition, in the town of Wabho in Galmudug State, troops vacated after briefly capturing it.  

“If you are starting a war, it needs a clear strategy, which has a starting point and an end point,” Abdullahi said. “What you need in liberated areas is to have the police, intelligence, and service providers ready in place.” 

Defense Minister Nur rejects the idea the government approached this without a plan.  

“It is a government plan that started it off, and there is no fighting that the government has not planned or led,” he said. “There is nothing spontaneous about it.”

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Nigerian President: Ukraine War Funneling Arms, Fighters into Lake Chad Basin

Nigeria’s President Muhammadu Buhari says the war between Russia and Ukraine is allowing arms and fighters to stream into the Lake Chad region, bolstering the strength of terrorist groups.

The Nigerian leader spoke Tuesday in Abuja to a summit of heads of state from the Lake Chad Basin Commission, or LCBC.

Buhari called for more vigilance and cooperation among the commission’s six member nations against the increased proliferation of weapons into the Lake Chad basin.  He said weapons meant for the Ukraine war and to combat terrorism in the Sahel are being diverted to West Africa and ending up in the hands of terrorist groups.

He didn’t specify who was diverting the weapons but said the development was threatening improved stability in the region, where a multi-national joint task force created by the LCBC has been fighting terror forces for years.

The Russian and Ukrainian embassies in Abuja did not respond to calls for comment.

The chairman of the Partnership Against Violent Extremism, Jaye Gaskia, agrees the war in Ukraine is a threat to security in the African region.

“The longer this war goes on, the more it opens up for all manners of groups to be entangled with it, if not directly through financial and funding, through building solidarity and the rest, the more that becomes a possibility, the more insurgent groups in the Sahel begin to find the theater of war in Ukraine as a veritable source,” said Gaskia.

Buhari said the multinational forces are planning fresh operations in region but noted that military operations must be backed with sustainable development.

However, the commission has been hit by financial crisis, with nearly every member struggling to meet yearly obligations for intervention programs.

Nigeria’s contribution to the pact has dwindled from about $2.4 million in 2017 to $315,000 in 2021.

More than 30 million people in the Lake Chad basin are affected by fighting and the impacts of climate change.

This week, Nigeria’s water resources minister Suleiman Adamu, who is also chairman of the commission’s council of ministers, called for more support.

“Unfortunately, the commission has been facing financial crisis due to the non-payment of financial contributions and arrears of contributions in line with approved budgets. There’s an urgent need to tackle and address this persistent challenge to ensure that the executive secretariat delivers on its mandate especially in implementing the Lake Chad Basin emergency development program. I’ll like to use this opportunity to encourage all of you to urgently look into this crucial issue and carry out the needed advocacy in your respective countries,” said Adamu.

Security analyst Patrick Agbambu blames global economic downturn for the financial problems and says it will have consequences on the fight against terrorism if allowed to continue.

“Countries around the world are currently experiencing financial downturn, the region is not exempted. Nigeria particularly is also experiencing that and it’s going to affect the intensity of the execution of the war,” he said.

Gaskia said the Russia-Ukraine war is making countries shift their priorities.

“With the war, which has also compounded the cost of living crisis, it therefore also means that financing and funding has to be shifted to other more immediate needs and this is probably going to go on for another year or two,” said Gaskia.

On Tuesday, President Buhari ceded the leadership of the Lake Chad Basin Commission to Mahamat Idriss Deby Itno, the president of the transitional military council of Chad.

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Study: South Africa Resilient to Chinese Attempts to Influence Media 

South Africa’s free press has been largely successful at resisting efforts by the Chinese government to influence its content, say analysts, affirming a recent study by the U.S.-based think tank Freedom House.

“In South Africa, we have a deep historical suspicion of state media,” said Anton Harber, professor of journalism at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg.

South Africa’s wariness of state media, he said, stems from the country’s legacy of apartheid, the former state policy of racial segregation and discrimination that ended in 1994. Under apartheid, the media was censored.

“SA’s media is resilient and will always be skeptical when it comes to certain issues being shaped in a certain line of thought,” said Reggy Moalusi, executive director of the South African National Editors’ Forum.

The Freedom House report, titled “Beijing’s Global Media Influence 2022,” said South Africans as a whole, including journalists, are highly skeptical of Chinese state narratives. It said that, despite success by the Chinese government in building ties with the ruling African National Congress party, “coverage of China in South African media remains overall diverse … and often critical of the Chinese government.”

Areas of concern

Even with a democratic government and free press, the Chinese government still attempts to influence South Africa’s media environment, according to the2022 findings by Freedom House, which studied China’s media influence in 30 countries around the world from January 2019 to December 2021.

A private Chinese company with links to the Chinese Communist Party (CPP), StarTimes Group has invested 20 percent in local satellite provider StarSat, which offers Chinese state media television channels, the report said.

Another example cited in the report is South Africa’s Independent Media group, which publishes some 20 newspapers in the country. Since 2013, the group has been 20 percent owned by a Chinese consortium whose shareholders include state media. Its digital version, Independent Online, is the second most-read news site in the country.

Independent Media regularly publishes content from Chinese newswire Xinhua as well as Chinese state perspectives. “None of its outlets carry much negative commentary on China,” Freedom House said.

The company’s outlets published 16 articles, interviews and speeches by the Chinese ambassador and consul generals between 2020 and 2021, the report found. It also gives print space to local South African academics and political figures who support Beijing’s line.

Its foreign editor wrote an op-ed during the pandemic with false claims about COVID-19’s origins. Independent Media journalists have attended media junkets to China and one freelancer told Freedom House researchers that topics for articles and related links are sometimes directly provided by the Chinese embassy.

One example of China’s apparent influence on independent media took place in 2018 when columnist Azad Essa was abruptly let go after writing an article condemning Beijing’s treatment of the Uyghur Muslims.

When contacted by VOA for comment, the group’s editor-in-chief Aziz Hartley responded, “Editors have complete autonomy over their respective publications and their reporters are bound by the principles of unbiased, ethical and objective reporting.”

China’s efforts to influence the media landscape in South Africa were shown to have slowed in recent years, the report found.

The other side

Shao Hesong, second secretary at the Chinese embassy in Washington, referred questions to the Chinese embassy in South Africa, which did not reply to repeated requests for comment.

In a July op-ed published by state media China Daily, Dennis Munene, executive director of the Nairobi-based China-Africa Center at the Africa Policy Institute, made a case for more cooperation between China and African media.

Under the Chinese government’s China-Africa Vision 2035 program, he said, China and Africa “plan to strengthen cooperation in news coverage, creation of audiovisual content, training of media professionals and media technologies.” He argued there is the need for “more in-depth media exchanges’” and said Beijing “can develop technological tools for fact-checking on issues related to Sino-Africa relations.”

Africa findings

While South Africa has a high level of resilience against the Chinese government’s influence due to its diverse media landscape, the study found, the other African nations studied were a mixed bag.

“Our research found that Beijing is trying some of the same tactics in Africa as it does in Western countries, such as signing content-sharing agreements, paid advertorials, or placing ambassador op-eds,” Angeli Datt, a senior research analyst at Freedom House, told VOA.

In Nigeria, attempts at influence from China were “very high” — the fourth highest of all 30 countries surveyed — and while there was some resilience, it was less robust than in the other three. The Chinese embassy in Nigeria has reportedly contacted editors and even paid journalists not to cover negative stories, according to Freedom House.

In Kenya, there were “high” efforts by China to influence the media, but the East African country also had a “notable” level of resilience. For example, a Chinese state-owned company threatened to sue a Kenyan newspaper, The Standard, over its investigative reporting on abuses at a railway run by the firm. The paper refused to retract the story, and the Chinese embassy canceled its advertising with the paper.

Global media influence

Of the 30 countries studied from around the world, Beijing’s efforts at influencing the media were deemed “high” or “very high” in 16 of them, and only half of all those surveyed were found to be resilient to the messaging, the other half vulnerable.

“The Chinese government, under the leadership of President Xi Jinping, is accelerating a massive campaign to influence media outlets and news consumers around the world,” the report said.

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US House Democrats Pick Congressman Hakeem Jeffries as New Leader

Democratic lawmakers in the U.S. House of Representatives picked a new leader Wednesday, New York Congressman Hakeem Jeffries, who will become the first Black person to lead either major political party in Congress when the new congressional session opens in January.

The 52-year-old Jeffries, a House member for 10 years, has vowed to “get things done,” even though Democrats lost their narrow majority to opposition Republicans in the chamber in the November 8 elections.

His selection, in a unanimous vote by acclamation at a caucus of party lawmakers, marks a generational shift for Democrats. Outgoing House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, 82, has been the party’s leader for two decades but announced earlier this month she would remain in the House but not seek a party leadership position in the new Congress as Republicans take control.

Jeffries was one of three new leaders Democrats elected, along with Massachusetts Congresswoman Katherine Clark, 59, as the Democratic whip and California Congressman Pete Aguilar, 43, as caucus chairman.

Republican Congressman Kevin McCarthy of California is on track to becoming the new House speaker, although opposition from some conservative Republican lawmakers has left his election uncertain.

With Republicans controlling the House in the new Congress, while Democrats are assured of maintaining control of the Senate and Democrat Joe Biden is president, political agreement on major legislation is likely to be difficult in Washington.

Newly empowered House Republicans have said they intend to focus their attention on launching numerous investigations of the Biden administration, on issues such as last year’s chaotic military withdrawal from Afghanistan, its handling of migration issues at the U.S. border with Mexico, and the business affairs of Biden’s son, Hunter Biden, and any financial links to the president.

The White House has said it will cooperate with some Republican inquiries but not one involving Hunter Biden.

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US Concerned Over American Jailed in Russia and Not Heard From

The United States is deeply concerned about American Paul Whelan, who is in a Russian jail, White House national security spokesman John Kirby said on Wednesday after Whelan’s family said they had not heard from him for a week.

U.S. diplomats have been trying to get more information about Whelan’s condition and his whereabouts, Kirby said.

“As we speak this morning, regrettably, we do not have an update specifically about where he is or what condition he’s in,” Kirby told reporters in a telephone briefing. “That deeply concerns us, and we certainly share the anxiety and the concern of the land and family.”

Kirby addressed the issue after Whelan’s brother, David Whelan, said the family had become concerned about his whereabouts.

David Whelan said in an e-mail on November 29 that it was unusual that the family did not know the whereabouts of the former U.S. Marine and corporate security executive, who is serving 16 years in the Russian region of Mordovia on charges of espionage, which he denies.

The U.S. State Department has said it has been negotiating with Russia on a potential prisoner swap that would involve Whelan and U.S. women’s basketball star Brittney Griner, who is serving nine years in Russia after being convicted on drug charges.

The negotiations appear to be stalled as the Russian side has not provided a “serious response” to any of the U.S. proposals on a prisoner swap, a senior U.S. diplomat said on November 28.

The penal colony’s staff said Paul Whelan was moved to the prison hospital on November 17, a day after a visit by U.S. and Irish diplomats, David Whelan said in the e-mail.

Paul had spoken to his parents every day from the 17th to the 23rd and did not mention the move and had appeared healthy and well to the diplomats, David Whelan said in the e-mail.

“Paul has always mentioned when he’s been transferred to the prison hospital,” said David Whelan, adding that the transfers usually have occurred without his request or need for medical attention.

“And he spoke to our parents a number of times after the [penal colony] staff say he was moved, at least as recently as November 23, and never mentioned it,” David Whelan said, questioning why his brother has been prohibited from making calls if he is at the prison hospital.

“Is he unable to make calls? Or is he really still at [prison colony] IK-17 but he’s been put in solitary and the prison is hiding that fact?” David Whelan asked.

David Whelan added that it was highly unusual that the family did not hear from him on November 24, the U.S. Thanksgiving Day holiday.

Some information for this report came from by Reuters.

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Malawi Launches Africa’s First Children’s Malaria Vaccine

Malawi and the World Health Organization are rolling out a new malaria vaccine for young children that backers say will reduce deaths from the mosquito-borne disease.

The RTSS vaccine was pilot tested on more than one million children in Ghana, Kenya and Malawi and recommended a year ago by the WHO. Despite a low effectiveness rate of 30%, the vaccine has raised hopes that some of the more than 400,000 people who die annually from malaria can be saved. 

Malaria remains a huge public health problem in Malawi, with about one third of its 20 million people getting infected each year. 

According to the ministry of health, the disease kills five Malawians every day, most of them children under the age of five or pregnant women who were not presented early enough for care.  

The health ministry says the first phase of the vaccination campaign will target 330,000 children, who were not reached during vaccine trials. 

The vaccine, sold by GlaxoSmithKline as Mosquirix, is meant for children under the age of five and requires four doses. 

“Malaria is major problem in children. They are the ones at highest risk of dying,” said Dr. Charles Mwansambo, Malawi’s secretary for health. “That’s why even when we were doing the earlier studies, we found that once we get maximum benefit, we should target this age group. The main reason is that they are the ones that are most likely to die from malaria.” 

Last year, the government launched a nationwide anti-malaria initiative known as Zero Malaria Starts with Me, aimed at eliminating the disease by 2030. 

Mwansambo said the vaccine is a key part of that initiative. 

“It actually prevents about 33 percent of deaths. Meaning that if you add the 33 to those that we can prevent using insecticide treated nets, if will also add on those [we can] prevent by indoor residual spraying, it [can] add up to something significant that will end up eliminating malaria,” he said. 

However, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, backers of the vaccine, have raised concerns about whether the vaccine is worth the cost. 

In July, the Associated Press quoted Philip Welkhoff, director of malaria programs for the Gates Foundation, as saying the foundation will no longer offer direct financial support for the vaccine, although it will fund an alliance backing the vaccine. 

He said Mosquirix has much lower efficacy than the foundation would like and that the vaccine is relatively expensive and logistically challenging to deliver. 

Dr. Neema Kimambo, a WHO representative in Malawi, said the malaria vaccine itself is not a silver bullet but part of a combination of all interventions to fight the disease. 

“Where it [vaccination] was done, we have seen how it has reduced under-five deaths and we believe that as we expand now, we are definitely to save more lives of children under five,” she said. 

Maziko Matemba, a health activist and community health ambassador in Malawi, said he hopes the malaria vaccine efficacy will improve as time goes by. 

“I have an example with COVID-19. When we had AstraZeneca, the efficacy when it started — as you know it was also a new vaccine — it was less that certain percentage and people said no it was less than this. But over time, we found that the efficacy has gone up,” Matemba said. “So we are monitoring the launch of this new vaccine with keen interest.

“I know that other partners are saying the worthiness of investment is not worth it, but looking at the way we are coming from, Malawi in particular, this could be one of the tools to prevent malaria.” 

Besides WHO, other partners supporting Malawi in the fight against malaria include USAID, UNICEF, the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria and a global health nonprofit organization, PATH. 


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Ukraine Ramps Up Security at Diplomatic Missions After Blast at Embassy in Spain

Ukraine on Wednesday ramped up security at its embassies abroad after Spanish police and government said an employee at the Ukrainian embassy in Madrid was injured opening a letter bomb. 

The staff member suffered light injuries and went to hospital under his own steam, police said in a statement. 

Ukraine’s Foreign Affairs Minister Dmytro Kuleba has ordered all Ukrainian embassies abroad to “urgently” strengthen their security, according to a statement from Ukraine’s foreign ministry. 

The minister also urged his Spanish counterparts to “take urgent measures to investigate the attack,” the statement said, adding that whoever was behind the attack “will not succeed in intimidating Ukrainian diplomats or stopping their daily work on strengthening Ukraine and countering Russian aggression.” 

The letter, which arrived by ordinary mail and was not scanned, caused “a very small wound on the ring finger of the right hand” of the employee, Mercedes Gonzalez, the Spanish government’s representative in Madrid, told broadcaster Telemadrid. 

Detectives are investigating the incident, aided by forensic and intelligence investigators, Spanish police said. Spain’s High Court will lead the investigation. 

An officer at Ukraine’s embassy to Spain declined to comment. 

The residential area surrounding the embassy in northwestern Madrid has been cordoned off and a bomb disposal unit is deployed at the scene, state broadcaster TVE reported. 


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UN Puts Baguette on Cultural Heritage List

The humble baguette — the crunchy ambassador for French baking around the world — is being added to the U.N.’s list of intangible cultural heritage as a cherished tradition to be preserved by humanity.

UNESCO experts gathering in Morocco this week decided that the simple French flute — made only of flour, water, salt, and yeast — deserved U.N. recognition, after France’s culture ministry warned of a “continuous decline” in the number of traditional bakeries, with some 400 closing every year over the past half-century.

The U.N. cultural agency’s chief, Audrey Azoulay, said the decision honors more than just bread; it recognizes the “savoir-faire of artisanal bakers” and “a daily ritual.”

“It is important that these craft knowledge and social practices can continue to exist in the future,” added Azoulay, a former French culture minister.

With the bread’s new status, the French government said it planned to create an artisanal baguette day, called the “Open Bakehouse Day,” to connect the French better with their heritage.

Back in France, bakers seemed proud, if unsurprised.

“Of course, it should be on the list because the baguette symbolizes the world. It’s universal,” said Asma Farhat, baker at Julien’s Bakery near Paris’ Champs-Elysee avenue.

“If there’s no baguette, you cant have a proper meal. In the morning you can toast it, for lunch it’s a sandwich, and then it accompanies dinner.”

Despite the decline in traditional bakery numbers, France’s 67 million people still remain voracious baguette consumers — purchased at a variety sales points, including in supermarkets. The problem is, observers say, that they can often be poor in quality.

“It’s very easy to get bad baguette in France. It’s the traditional baguette from the traditional bakery that’s in danger. It’s about quality not quantity,” said one Paris resident, Marine Fourchier, 52.

In January, French supermarket chain Leclerc was criticized by traditional bakers and farmers for its much publicized 29-cent baguette, accused of sacrificing the quality of the famed 65-centimeter (26-inch) loaf. A baguette normally costs just over 90 euro cents (just over $1), seen by some as an index on the health of the French economy.

The baguette is serious business. France’s “Bread Observatory” — a venerable institution that closely follows the fortunes of the flute — notes that the French munch through 320 baguettes of one form or another every second. That’s an average of half a baguette per person per day, and 10 billion every year.

Although it seems like the quintessential French product, the baguette was said to have been invented by Vienna-born baker August Zang in 1839. Zang put in place France’s steam oven, making it possible to produce bread with a brittle crust yet fluffy interior.

The product’s zenith did not come until the 1920s, with the advent of a French law preventing bakers from working before 4 a.m. The baguette’s long, thin shape meant it could be made more quickly than its stodgy cousins, so it was the only bread that bakers could make in time for breakfast.

The “artisanal know-how and culture of baguette bread” was inscribed at the Morocco meeting among other global cultural heritage items, including Japan’s Furyu-odori ritual dances, and Cuba’s light rum masters.

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Report: Authoritarianism on the Rise as Democracy Weakens

Democracy is being degraded around the world because people are losing faith in the legitimacy of elections and see freedom of expression being stymied, among a range of other problems, according to a global body founded to promote democracy worldwide.

The 34 member-country International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, or International IDEA, said in a report that the decline in democratic rule is being fueled by efforts to undermine credible election results, widespread disillusionment among youth over political parties and their out-of-touch leaders as well as the rise of right-wing extremism that has polarized politics.

The Stockholm-based organization said in its annual Global Report on the State of the Democracy that the number of countries moving toward authoritarianism is more than double those moving toward democracy and that authoritarian regimes worldwide have deepened their repression, with 2021 being the worst year on record.

Authoritarianism is gaining in countries like Afghanistan, Belarus, Cambodia, the Indian Ocean island nation of Comoros and Nicaragua.

The 64-page report that measures democratic performance in 173 nations, concluded that progress within democratically-run countries has stalled over the last five years.

International IDEA Secretary-General Kevin Casas-Zamora said its essential for democracies to now push back against a “toxic mix” of crises ranging from the skyrocketing cost of living to fears over nuclear war climate change that are confronting them.

“Never has there been such an urgency for democracies to respond, to show their citizens that they can forge new, innovative social contracts that bind people together rather than divide them.” he added.

In Europe, democratic rule in 17 countries has eroded over the last five years, affecting 46% of the high-performing democracies, the organization said.

In Asia and the Pacific, democracy is receding while authoritarianism solidifies. Although over half of the region’s population lives in democracies, almost 85% of that number lives in countries were democracy is weak or backsliding. Even democracies such as Australia, Japan and Taiwan are suffering democratic erosion.

The report also noted that three out of seven backsliding democracies are in the Americas, pointing to weakening institutions even in longstanding democracies. A third of democracies in that region have experienced declines including Bolivia, Brazil, El Salvador and Guatemala.

In the United States, threats to democracy persist following the presidency of Donald Trump, illustrated by Congress’s political paralysis and the rolling back of long-established rights.

“The world is at a critical crossroads,” International DEA said, adding that efforts are underway to revive democratic rule through “appropriate and corresponding mechanisms.” Those include reforming existing democratic institutions and rethinking the ‘social contract’ between citizens and government in a way that responds to new and evolving public needs and demands.

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EU Seeks Special Court for Russian Crimes Against Ukraine

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen called Wednesday for a special court to prosecute Russian crimes against Ukraine. 

Von der Leyen proposed a court backed by the United Nations “to investigate and prosecute Russia’s crime of aggression.” 

She also said Russia and Russian oligarchs need to pay for costs to rebuild Ukraine from the damage done by Russian forces since they invaded Ukraine in February. 

“Russia’s horrific crimes will not go unpunished,” von der Leyen said. 

She spoke as NATO foreign ministers met in Romania on the final day of meetings that include discussing the conflict and support for Ukraine. 

NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg said Tuesday Ukraine would one day join the Western military alliance in direct defiance of Russian President Vladimir Putin.  


“NATO’s door is open,” Stoltenberg said, renewing a commitment for Ukraine membership first made in 2008 but stalled since then. He noted that North Macedonia and Montenegro recently joined the West’s chief post-World War II military alliance, and that Sweden and Finland also will do so soon.  


“Russia does not have a veto” on countries joining, Stoltenberg said. “We stand by that, too, on membership for Ukraine.”  


“President Putin cannot deny sovereign nations to make their own sovereign decisions that are not a threat to Russia,” the former Norwegian prime minister said. “I think what he’s afraid of is democracy and freedom, and that’s the main challenge for him.”  


But Ukraine will not soon join NATO, which under terms of the alliance’s charter, would likely push the armed forces of the 30-member nations directly onto the battlefield fighting Russian troops. It would be a commitment far beyond the billions of dollars in military and humanitarian assistance the United States and its allies have already sent to the Kyiv government to help Ukrainian fighters defend their country.  


U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced that the United States is sending Kyiv another $53 million to support the purchase of critical electricity grid equipment in the face of weeks-long Russian airstrikes targeting Ukrainian infrastructure to knock out power and water systems as winter weather takes hold in the country.  


The top U.S. diplomat said the equipment would be sent to Ukraine on an emergency basis and include distribution transformers, circuit breakers, surge arresters, disconnectors, vehicles and other key equipment.  


Some information for this report came from The Associated Press, Agence France-Presse and Reuters 

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Biden Hails Semiconductor Plant as ‘Game Changer’ for American Manufacturing

President Joe Biden on Tuesday toured a $300 million semiconductor manufacturing facility in Michigan that aims to create 150 jobs and said the U.S. was “not going to be held hostage anymore” by countries like China that dominate the industry. 

“Instead of relying on chips made overseas in places like China, the supply chain for those chips will be here in America,” Biden said to a crowd of more than 400 people who gathered to see him at an SK Siltron CSS facility in Bay City. “In Michigan. It’s a game changer.” 

The company is part of the South Korean SK Group conglomerate, and the facility will make materials for semiconductors that will be used in electric vehicles. 

Biden tied the project directly to the CHIPS and Science Act, which he signed in August. The bill includes about $52 billion in funding for U.S. companies for the manufacturing of chips, which go into technology like smartphones, electric vehicles, appliances and weapons systems. 

Biden also said that China’s president, Xi Jinping, expressed dissatisfaction with the legislation when the two men met on the sidelines of the Group of 20 summit earlier this month in Bali, Indonesia. 

“And he’s a little upset that we’re deciding we’re going to once again be, you know … we’re talking about the supply chain, we’re going to be the supply chain. The difference is going to be, we’re going to make that supply chain available to the rest of the world, and we’re not going to be held hostage anymore.” 

China has pushed back vocally against the legislation and also against an October move by the administration to impose export controls on chips, a move intended to block China from getting these sensitive technologies.  

Foreign ministry spokeswoman Mao Ning in October accused the U.S. of “abusing export control measures to wantonly block and hobble Chinese enterprises.” 

This week, in response to a separate proposal through the National Defense Authorization Act aimed at banning government agencies from doing business with Chinese semiconductor manufacturers, she said: “The US needs to listen to the voice calling for reason, stop politicizing, weaponizing and ideologizing economic, trade and sci-tech issues, stop blocking and hobbling Chinese companies, respect the law of the market economy and free trade rules, and defend the security and stability of global industrial and supply chains.” 

But those concerns seemed far away as Biden enjoyed the welcoming crowd and painted his vision of his nation’s technological future.  

“Where is it written,” he said, “that America will not lead the world in manufacturing again?” 

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US Pleas for Calm Fail to Resonate Along Turkish-Syrian Border

U.S. efforts to ease tensions between Turkey and Kurdish fighters in northern Syria appear to be having little effect, with both sides refusing to back down despite warnings that a conflict will only benefit the Islamic State terror group.

U.S. defense and military officials say they have been in constant contact with Turkey, a NATO ally, and with the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a key partner in the fight against IS, so far to no avail. 

“We have not seen signs of de-escalation,” a spokesperson for the U.S.-led coalition to defeat IS told VOA via email Tuesday, repeating the call for “immediate de-escalation on all sides.” 

“We continue to oppose any military action that destabilizes the region and threatens the safety of the civilian population as well as disrupts our ongoing operations to defeat ISIS,” the spokesperson added, using another acronym for the terror group. 

Despite the repeated pleas, both Turkey and the SDF indicated Tuesday they are bracing for the conflict to grow, with Turkish officials adamant that the SDF be seen not as an ally in the war on terror but as an extension for the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a Turkey-based terror group.

“Our determination to eliminate this threat against our national security will continue unabated,” said Turkish embassy officials in Washington, communicating on the condition of anonymity.

“We are guided by the ultimate goal of ensuring the protection of the Turkish borders and striking at the root of terrorism,” the Turkish officials told VOA, adding, “Terrorist shelters, hideouts, fortifications, their so-called HQs [headquarters] and training centers constitute legitimate targets.”

But the U.S. has been hesitant to abandon the SDF, crediting the mainly Kurdish force with helping to crush the IS self-declared caliphate in Syria in 2019. 

Already, Washington’s inability to broker a lasting understanding between the SDF and Turkey has put some of the 900 U.S. troops in Syria, part of an ongoing counter-IS mission, in harm’s way when a Turkish airstrike hit within 300 meters of U.S. personnel.

And for its part, the SDF is warning that the situation on the ground is about to get worse. 

“Their [Turkey’s] preparations are in full swing for an imminent ground offensive,” SDF Commander Mazloum Abdi said Tuesday in a virtual forum hosted by Columbia University. 

Turkish proxy forces in Syria “are now fully prepared,” he said, speaking through an interpreter. “The Turkish armed forces have also been amassing a huge number of forces and equipment on the border, too.” 

Turkey launched what it calls Operation Claw-Sword with a series of airstrikes against Kurdish targets in Syria and Iraq earlier this month, describing it as retaliation for a November 13 bombing in Istanbul that killed eight people and injured dozens more. 

The SDF has denied any connection to the terror attack, arguing that suspects currently in Turkish custody have connections to IS. 


Abdi has also argued that IS is hoping to reap the rewards of renewed Turkish-Kurdish hostilities, pointing Tuesday to new intelligence estimates. 

“ISIS is actively preparing to break out many prisoners and are waiting for a Turkish offensive,” he said. “They’re expecting a ground offensive and will carry out their own planning if and when the ground offensive takes place.” 


U.S. officials, likewise, have voiced concern that IS cells in northeastern Syria are benefiting. 

The U.S.-led coalition confirmed Tuesday that anti-IS missions are no longer a priority for the SDF, and in Washington, the Pentagon said the number of patrols aimed at hunting down the terror group’s remnants is shrinking. 

“They [the SDF] have reduced the number of patrols that they’re doing, and so that therefore necessitates us to reduce the patrols,” Pentagon press secretary Brigadier General Patrick Ryder told reporters. 

“Continued conflict, especially a ground invasion [by Turkey], would severely jeopardize the hard-fought gains that the world has achieved against ISIS,” he said. 

On Tuesday, Turkey pushed back against such charges, saying such concerns “cannot be more detached from reality.”

“The fact is, Daesh remains a threat above all to the neighboring countries due to the wrongdoings and ill-advised strategies of those who make these kinds of statements,” Turkey’s ambassador to the United Nations, Feridun Sinirlioglu, told the Security Council, using the Arabic acronym for IS. 

“We have on countless occasions warned against the mistake of subcontracting the fight against Daesh to another terrorist organization, namely the so-called Syrian Democratic Forces, which in reality is nothing but the PKK,” he added. 

In a further effort to reduce tensions, the Pentagon said it expected Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin to speak soon with his Turkish counterpart. 

SDF officials hope, this time, the message to Ankara will be more forceful. 

“The U.S. position should be stronger,” Abdi told VOA Kurdish in an interview Monday, referring to a 2019 tweet from then-candidate and now U.S. President Joe Biden, which described former President Donald Trump’s support at the time for a Turkish invasion of Syria “a betrayal.” 


“I recently sent a letter to President Biden and reminded him of these things,” Abdi said. “President Biden should keep the promises he made in the past. We hope he will keep them now.” 

Zana Omer of VOA’s Kurdish Service and VOA United Nations correspondent Margaret Besheer contributed to this report. 

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Anti-Government Protests Grow in China and Elsewhere While Technology Tries to Keep Up  

As protests continue in cities across China over the government’s harsh “zero-COVID” policy, a separate battle is taking place on social media sites within China and around the world; a fight that is testing the strength of China’s online censorship apparatus, known as the Great Firewall.

Human Rights Watch China Director Sophie Richardson said Chinese officials appear to be resorting to “low-tech approaches” to tamp down online speech even as the protesters have become more adept at getting their messages past government censors.

“Literally police stopping people on the streets, on public transportation, and forcing them to hand over their smartphones so that police can inspect them to see if they’ve got chats about the protests, if they’ve taken pictures or videos, or if they’ve sent these kinds of materials to other people,” she told VOA via Skype on Tuesday.

Some protesters in cities such as Beijing and Shanghai are getting information out about the crackdown by using technology and other techniques to circumvent government censors who are believed to be using an automated system to help block prohibited content.

Over the weekend, researchers noted that outside of China, when people on Twitter tried to share tweets about the protests and the ensuing crackdown at the hands of police, Chinese language accounts intervened to block the information from spreading.

“Numerous Chinese-language accounts, some dormant for months or years, came to life early Sunday and started spamming the service with links to escort services and other adult offerings alongside city names,” according to The Washington Post.

Many Chinese citizens have been able to use virtual private networks – or VPNs – to get over the Great Firewall to post photos, messages, videos and other materials on platforms including Twitter.

Ji Feng, a former student leader of the 1989 Tiananmen Square pro-democracy protests, told VOA that students with VPNs are “jumping over the great firewall,” to gain access to information.

Richardson says those postings have been “an extraordinary breach of the firewall” with Chinese authorities likely to crack down on VPN use.

“As of a few years ago, the use of unauthorized VPNs was criminalized,” she says. “And so we are expecting to hear that people will be prosecuted simply on charges of using that kind of technology.”

The Associated Press reported Tuesday that “videos and posts on Chinese social media about protests were deleted by the ruling party’s vast online censorship apparatus.”

Richardson expects a more complete assessment in the next few weeks of “the extent to which authorities will have used basic garden variety surveillance cameras, which are just legion across all urban Chinese areas now, to identify protesters, and possibly they’ll be used as a basis for prosecuting people who were doing nothing more than exercising their right to free speech.”

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With Media Under Fire, Organizations Rally to Offer Support

From the evacuation of Ukrainian journalists in occupied cities to legal support for independent reporters from Russia, a community of organizations is working to keep media safe.

In Ukraine, the February 24 invasion led to an unprecedented level of requests for assistance from the country’s National Union of Journalists of Ukraine.

Before then, the union had “hot spots” with journalists covering conflict in Donbas. But now, says union chair Sergiy Tomilenko, “every media worker in our country [has become] a front-line journalist. And it’s clear that we weren’t ready for that.”

In the past year, the union has worked with journalists, including on evacuations for those in cities occupied by Russian forces and by providing support for those close to the front lines.

The union is also tracking deaths. As of November, the war has killed 43 journalists in Ukraine, including eight who were on assignment. The other journalists lost their lives in shelling or after signing up to the armed forces.

“Of course, we divide those who continue to work as journalists and those who went to war, but we still count our military colleagues who died on the battlefield among these victims, since the only cause of their death is Russian aggression,” Tomilenko told VOA.

“If there had been no Russian invasion, the famous cameraman Viktor Dedov—one of the best, originally from Mariupol— would have been alive. But he died as a civilian under the bombing in his city. And Oleksandr Makhov and other journalists who died defending the country at the front would also be alive,” Tomilenko said.

The union head said that Russian forces tried to intimidate and recruit Ukrainian journalists in occupied cities. They had lists of local journalists, and from the start “a campaign of individual pressure on independent journalists began,” he said.

In some cases, Tomilenko said, troops asked local media to become propagandists, broadcasting pro-Russian material. But, he said, “the vast majority” refused.

The arrival of the troops in occupied regions made life dangerous even for those journalists who had planned to stay. It was simply too “deadly to remain,” Tomilenko said.

But supporting media affected by Putin’s war involves outside help.

The union has been working with the London-based Justice for Journalists Foundation, or JFJ, and other groups to monitor attacks and to offer training.

When it comes to security workshops for reporting in combat zones, the requests “are nonstop,” Maria Ordzhonikidze, director of the JFJ told VOA.

But, she said, “We also help Russian journalists.”

In fact, attacks on Russian media are what led to the creation of the JFJ. It was founded after the killing in 2018 of three Russian journalists who were investigating mercenaries in the Central African Republic.

“In Russia, free journalism has ended, a lot of people tried to leave, many left. And here the role of our foundation is to continue to provide support,” Ordzhonikidze said.

For those journalists, that support often comes in the form of legal training, she said.

Community support

Lana Estemirova, who works with the JFJ, told VOA the foundation’s work supporting media and tackling impunity in attacks has opened up awareness of the scale of the problem.

A lack of justice is close to Estemirova’s heart. Her mother, Natalya Estemirova, a prominent Chechen human rights activist, was abducted and killed in 2009. Natalya Estemirova worked for the Russian human rights organization Memorial, which was banned by the Kremlin and was one of the recipients of the Nobel Peace Prize this year.

The European Court of Human Rights in 2021 ruled Russia had failed to properly investigate the murder. Work on a new podcast made Lana Estemirova more aware of the global spread of impunity.

“We began to look for interesting journalists from Belarus, Africa, South America to compare situations and find out what unites us all,” said Lana Estemirova. In doing so, she learned of the high rate of attacks on journalists in Mexico, where nearly all cases go unresolved.

More than 15 journalists have been killed in Mexico in 2022, making the country the most deadly place for media outside a war zone.

“When you start talking to journalists from other continents, you realize that there is no border to this problem,” she said

Estemirova believes that those who work in an atmosphere of risk should do so in the knowledge they will have the help and solidarity of their colleagues.

“They believe that they have a mission: the search for truth. It is very important that journalists who are walking along this road – and this is a rather lonely road – have support.”

One way to do that is to publicize the work of journalists persecuted for their investigations.


Natalya Zubkova is a journalist in the small Russian town in the Kuzbass region, and she founded the website “News of Kiselyovsk” in 2017.

Zubkova covered issues including education, the environment, authorities and crime. But she also received death threats and was physically attacked.

After four years, the news website closed and Zubkova fled the country.

But her work caught the attention of filmmaker Alina Simone.

New York-based Simone applied for a JFJ grant to make a documentary, “Black Snow,” about how Zubkova tried to tell the world about life in a city of seven coal mines and 90,000 people.

It is a place where mining activity often turns the snow black and where citizen journalism requires remarkable courage.

“Natalya tried to protect the interests of ordinary people with her journalism, and was forced to leave Russia in the end,” said Simone.

She was so impressed by the videos that Zubkova posted on YouTube that she decided to make a story about her Russian colleague.

“I had a very strong sense of camaraderie toward her. When I arrived in Kiselyovsk and Kemerovo, the atmosphere there frankly shocked me,” Simone said. “Everything looked much worse in terms of the attitude toward journalists, activists, and also foreigners. We were under constant surveillance. Our car was followed all the time … Already in August 2019, it was clear to me where everything was going.”

Simone said the community of Russian journalists is under threat.

“These people are deprived of their profession, they are pressured. Often their lives are destroyed. It is very difficult to explain to the West what it means to be a citizen journalist in a region whose governor, Sergei Tsivilyov, has family ties to Vladimir Putin,” Simone said.

But organizations such as the JFJ are working to provide support and assistance to those on the front lines in Ukraine or under threat in Russia.

This article originated in VOA’s Russian service.

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Tears, No Fears for Senegal After Advancing into Knockout Phase

Emotions ran high as Senegal qualified for the knockout phase of the World Cup exactly two years after the death of Papa Bouba Diop, the player who kickstarted their 2002 run to the quarterfinals.

Kalidou Koulibaly wore a special armband with Diop’s number 19 and the players held a banner with a portrait of the midfielder after their captain’s 70th-minute strike sealed a 2-1 win against Ecuador and effectively sent them into the last 16.

Diop, who died at age 42, scored the goal in Senegal’s 1-0 win against France in the 2002 tournament and two in a 3-3 draw with Uruguay in their last group game.

“This victory and this (man-of-the-match) trophy are for the family of Papa Bouba Diop, this is a very special day,” an emotional Koulibaly told a news conference after what he said was one of the most important games of his and his teammates’ careers.

“We wanted to commemorate the great player he was, he’s a legend of Senegalese football, he made me dream, he made all of us dream so we could not mess it up on the anniversary of his death.”

Koulibaly, who spent eight seasons at Napoli before joining Chelsea this season, also sent “strength to the people of Naples, my second home,” who have been affected by the landslide on the island of Ischia.

Senegal was without its Sadio Mane, who was ruled out of the tournament before it started with a fibula injury, and the Bayern Munich striker was on his teammates’ minds.

“We also play for Sadio, he’s our star, our brother, we’re a family,” said Koulibaly before Coach Aliou Cisse also mentioned former coach Bruno Metsu, who led them to the quarterfinals in 2002, and died in 2013.

“I don’t forget all those who helped us be here today,” he said.

Koulibaly, however, quickly set the team’s sights on the next game. Senegal will face the winner of Group B, England.

“We’re not listening to what’s being said. We believe in ourselves, and we don’t intend to just go through the motions here,” Koulibaly said.

“Two-thirds of the world thought that we were done after Sadio got injured but the other third, us, Africa, had faith.

“After his injury, there was more pressure on the team leaders, but everyone stepped up. We fear no one, we are a good team with a lot of talent,” he added.

Cisse said that Senegal is used to playing make-or-break games.

“We’ve played so many important games, like the final of the African Nations Cup,” he said of Senegal’s victory against Egypt on penalties in February.

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Azerbaijan Stands Up to Iran, with Turkey’s Support

 As anti-government protests continue in Iran, Tehran is escalating tensions with its neighbors, accusing them of interfering in its domestic affairs. One of those neighbors, Azerbaijan, has Turkey’s support and is pushing back.

Iran has recently carried out military exercises on Azerbaijan’s border and warned Baku not to incite Iran’s significant Azeri minority.

Iran’s Revolutionary Guard has carried out numerous drone strikes against Kurdish groups based in Iraq’s semi-autonomous Kurdistan region, which it accuses of inciting Iran’s Kurdish minority.

Zaur Gasimov, an expert in the region at Bonn University, said the exercises and attacks are part of a systematic policy by Tehran. 

“Iran tries to shift the attention of the Iranian population towards foreign policy, towards conflicts on the border, and towards a polemic with its neighbor countries,” Gasimov said. “The military drills were conducted not only on the border with the Republic of Azerbaijan in the north but also with Iraq and Turkey. So, they are like messages to the region, but they are addressed much more to the local audience.”

But Baku is pushing back against Tehran, carrying out its own military exercises on Iran’s border. Meanwhile, Azerbaijani security forces this month have detained 19 people and accused them of working for Iranian intelligence.

Huseyin Bagci, head of the Ankara-based Foreign Policy Institute, said Baku is emboldened by its support from Turkey, some of which is enshrined in a common defense agreement.

“Turkey and Azerbaijan [are] brothers, friends,” Bagci said. “And they have this Shusha agreement, which is not binding but important. If Azerbaijan is under attack or in danger, Turkey will come unconditionally to the help of Azerbaijan. Iran is trying to extend its influence, but Turkey is like a barrier stopping Iran’s influence in Azerbaijan.”

Turkish military support was vital to Azerbaijan in 2020, when it decisively defeated Armenian-backed forces in a conflict over the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh enclave.

This month, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev condemned Tehran for its military exercises, pledging to defend his country’s secular state and ethnic Azeris both in Azerbaijan and Iran. Analyst Gasimov said Aliyev’s increasingly assertive stance toward Tehran is a significant change for the region.

“The last three decades, Baku was very cautious in its relationship to the very large Azeri-speaking community in northern Iran,” Gasimov said. “But we have seen the conduct of the military drills on the border to Iran as the reaction to the Iranian military drills by the Azeri side. [At] the same time, new discourse in Baku about the Azeri speakers in Iran were two gestures addressed to the Iranian political class, saying that something has changed in the region.”

In a move analysts say will further anger Tehran, Baku opened an embassy in Israel. The two countries already have close military ties, despite Tehran’s warnings. For now, Ankara has refrained from commenting on the turmoil in Iran, but some analysts warn that silence will be tested if Tehran ratchets up tensions with Baku.

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US Bat Species Devastated by Fungus Now Listed as Endangered

The Biden administration declared the northern long-eared bat endangered on Tuesday in a last-ditch effort to save a species driven to the brink of extinction by white-nose syndrome, a fungal disease.

“White-nose syndrome is decimating cave-dwelling bat species like the northern long-eared bat at unprecedented rates,” said Martha Williams, director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The agency is “deeply committed to working with partners on a balanced approach that reduces the impacts of disease and protects the survivors to recover northern long-eared bat populations,” she said.

First documented in the U.S. in 2006, the disease has infected 12 types of bats and killed millions. The northern long-eared bat is among the hardest hit, with estimated declines of 97% or higher in affected populations. The bat is found in 37 eastern and north-central states, plus Washington, D.C., and much of Canada.

Named for white, fuzzy spots that appear on infected bats, white-nose syndrome attacks bats’ wings, muzzles and ears when they hibernate in caves and abandoned mines.

It causes them to wake early from hibernation and to sometimes fly outside. They can burn up their winter fat stores and eventually starve.

The disease has spread across nearly 80% of the geographical range where northern long-eared bats live and is expected to cover it all by 2025.

Little brown bat also suffering

Another species ravaged by the fungus is the tricolored bat, which the government proposed to classify as endangered in September. A third, the little brown bat, is being evaluated for a potential listing.

Bats are believed to give U.S. agriculture an annual boost of $3 billion by gobbling pests and pollinating some plants.

The Fish and Wildlife Service designated the northern long-eared bat as threatened in 2015. With its situation increasingly dire, the agency proposed an endangered listing in March and considered public comments before deciding to proceed. The reclassification takes effect January 30, 2023.

“This species is in dire straits, but we never want to give up hope,” said Winifred Frick, chief scientist with Bat Conservation International, a nonprofit group. “We can do amazing things when we work hard and have legal protections in place to protect these small colonies that are left.”

In many cases, the service identifies “critical habitat” areas considered particularly important for the survival of an endangered species. Officials decided against doing so for the northern long-eared bat because habitat loss isn’t the primary reason for its decline, spokeswoman Georgia Parham said. Calling attention to their winter hibernation spots could make things worse, she added.

Recovery efforts will focus on wooded areas where the bats roost in summer — usually alone or in small groups, nestling beneath bark or in tree cavities and crevices. Emerging at dusk, they feed on moths, beetles and other insects.

Under the Endangered Species Act, federal agencies are required to consult with the Fish and Wildlife Service to be sure projects that they fund or authorize — such as timber harvests, prescribed fires and highway construction — will not jeopardize a listed species’ existence.

For nonfederal landowners, actions that could result in unintentional kills could be allowed but will require permits.

Turbines also a threat

The Fish and Wildlife Service said it will also work with wind energy companies to reduce the likelihood that bats will strike turbines. These collisions are currently a threat in roughly half of the northern long-eared bat’s range, an area likely to grow as wind energy development expands.

The service has approved nearly two dozen plans allowing wind energy and forestry projects to proceed after steps were taken to make them more bat-friendly, said Karen Herrington, Midwest regional coordinator for threatened and endangered species.

Operators can limit the danger by curtailing blade rotation during bats’ migration season and when winds are low.

Research continues for methods to fight white-nose syndrome, including development of a vaccine. The service has distributed more than $46 million for the campaign, which involves around 150 agencies, private organizations and Native American tribes.

“We have to find a cure for white-nose syndrome that is killing our bats and we have to protect the forests where they live,” said Ryan Shannon, senior attorney at the nonprofit Center for Biological Diversity. “This endangered listing will help on both counts.”

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Supreme Court Wrestles with Biden’s Deportation Policy

The Supreme Court on Tuesday wrestled with a politically tinged dispute over a Biden administration policy that would prioritize deportation of people in the country illegally who pose the greatest public safety risk.

It was not clear after arguments that stretched past two hours and turned highly contentious at times whether the justices would allow the policy to take effect, or side with Republican-led states that have so far succeeded in blocking it.

At the center of the case is a September 2021 directive from the Department of Homeland Security that paused deportations unless individuals had committed acts of terrorism, espionage or “egregious threats to public safety.” The guidance, issued after Joe Biden became president, updated a Trump-era policy that removed people in the country illegally regardless of criminal history or community ties.

On Tuesday, the administration’s top Supreme Court lawyer told the justices that federal law does “not create an unyielding mandate to apprehend and remove” every one of the more than 11 million immigrants living in the country illegally.

Solicitor General Elizabeth Prelogar said it would be “incredibly destabilizing on the ground” for the high court to require that. Congress has not given DHS enough money to vastly increase the number of people it holds and deports, the Biden administration has said.

But Texas Solicitor General Judd Stone told the court the administration is violating federal law that requires the detention and deportation of people who are in the U.S. illegally and who have been convicted of any serious crime, not just the most serious, specifically defined ones.

Chief Justice John Roberts was among the conservative justices who pushed back strongly on the Biden administration’s arguments.

“It’s our job to say what the law is, not whether or not it can be possibly implemented or whether there are difficulties there, and I don’t think we should change that responsibility just because Congress and the executive can’t agree on something. … I don’t think we should let them off the hook,” he said.

Yet Roberts, in questioning Stone, also called Prelogar’s argument compelling.

“It’s impossible for the executive to do what you want it to do, right?” Roberts asked.

Roberts wasn’t totally satisfied when Stone said the number of people potentially affected total 60,000 to 80,000.

Justice Brett Kavanaugh said that whatever the actual number, “the resources still aren’t there.”

The court’s three liberal justices, on the other hand, were sympathetic to the Biden administration’s arguments. Justice Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan, made clear they believed that Texas and Louisiana, which joined Texas in suing over the directive, weren’t even entitled to bring their case.

The case is the latest example of a Republican litigation strategy that has succeeded in slowing Biden administration initiatives by going to GOP-friendly courts. Kagan picked up on that during arguments, saying that Texas could file its suit in a courthouse where it was guaranteed to get a sympathetic hearing and that one judge stopped “a federal immigration policy in its tracks.”

In a separate ongoing legal dispute, three judges chosen by then-President Donald Trump are among the four Republican-appointed judges who have so far prevented the administration’s student loan cancellation program from taking effect.

The states said they would face added costs of having to detain people the federal government might allow to remain free inside the United States, despite their criminal records.

Federal appeals courts had reached conflicting decisions over DHS guidance.

The federal appeals court in Cincinnati earlier overturned a district judge’s order that put the policy on hold in a lawsuit filed by Arizona, Ohio and Montana.

But in the separate suit filed by Texas and Louisiana, a federal judge in Texas ordered a nationwide halt to the guidance and a federal appellate panel in New Orleans declined to step in.

In July, the court voted 5-4 to leave the immigration policy frozen nationwide. Conservative Justice Amy Coney Barrett joined the court’s three liberals in saying they would have allowed the Biden administration to put in place the guidance.

At the same time, the court said it would hear arguments in the case in late November.

The justices have several questions to sort through, whether the states should have been permitted to file their challenge in the first place, whether the policy violates immigration law and, if it does, whether it was appropriate for the Texas-based judge to block it.

On that last point, Prelogar said the judge’s decision to “vacate” the policy was wrong, and her argument questioned whether judges have been getting it all wrong for decades.

The issue touched a nerve, especially among Roberts, Kavanaugh and Ketanji Brown Jackson, the justices who once served on the federal appeals court in Washington that regularly vacates policies it determines are unlawful.

“Fairly radical,” Roberts said. “Pretty astonishing,” Kavanaugh said. Jackson, more restrained, also questioned Prelogar’s reasoning.

“There seems to be a kind of D.C. Circuit cartel,” Kagan joked.

A decision in U.S. v. Texas, 22-58, is expected by late June.

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Russia Donates 260,000 Tons of Fertilizer to Africa

Russia has donated 260,000 metric tons of fertilizer it produced that was sitting in European ports and warehouses for use by farmers in Africa, the United Nations said Tuesday.

“This will serve to alleviate humanitarian needs and prevent catastrophic crop loss in Africa, where it is currently planting season,” U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric told reporters, welcoming the announcement.

He said a ship chartered by the World Food Program left the Netherlands on Tuesday carrying 20,000 tons of the fertilizer destined for the southeastern African nation of Malawi. Dujarric said it would take about a month to reach Beira, in Mozambique, and then would be transported overland to Malawi, which is a landlocked country.

“It will be the first of a series of shipments of fertilizer destined for a number of other countries on the African continent in the coming months,” Dujarric added.

Fertilizer crunch

Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on February 24, world fertilizer prices, which were already inflated due to the COVID-19 pandemic, surged further, in part due to quotas Moscow imposed on its fertilizer exports, saying it wanted enough for its own farmers.

The U.N. said fertilizer prices have risen a staggering 250% since before the pandemic in 2019.

Russia is a top global fertilizer exporter. The disruptions, shortages and price increases that its quotas have contributed to have made fertilizer unaffordable for some smaller farmers. This could dramatically decrease their harvests, which could potentially lead to food shortages next year.

The World Food Program’s chief economist told VOA that developed and developing countries are dependent on fertilizer for half of their food production.

“Right now, with all that is happening, we are looking at essentially a shortfall of about 66 million tons of staple foods because of shortage of or unaffordability of fertilizer,” Arif Husain said. “I am talking about crops like wheat, corn, rice. Now, that 66 million tons of food, that is enough to feed 3.6 billion people for one month.”

Watch related video by Margaret Besheer:

Russia has complained that Western sanctions are to blame for its decrease in fertilizer exports. But Western nations repeatedly stress that they do not sanction food or fertilizer products from Russia.

But some shippers, banks, insurers and other companies involved in the transport or purchase of Russian grain and fertilizer have been reluctant to do business with Moscow, fearing they could run afoul of the sanctions.

Diplomacy continues

A package deal signed in Istanbul on July 22 has made it possible for more than 12 million metric tons of Ukrainian grain to get to market from three of its Black Sea ports, while working to build confidence with the private sector in order to return to pre-invasion export levels of Russian fertilizers and grain.

“The U.N. is continuing intense diplomatic efforts with all parties to ensure the unimpeded exports of critical food and fertilizers from both the Russian Federation and Ukraine, that are exempt from sanction regimes, to the world markets,” Dujarric told reporters.

The deal, known as the Black Sea Grain Initiative, was renewed on November 17 for an additional four months.

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Namibia’s Ruling Party Chooses First Female Presidential Candidate

Namibia’s ruling party has selected Netumbo Nandi-Ndaitwah as the party’s vice president, putting her in line to be the country’s first female presidential candidate when the current leader steps down in March 2024.

During a prolonged party congress that ended Monday night, members of Namibia’s ruling Swapo party re-elected Netumbo-Nandi Ndaitwah, the country’s deputy prime minister, as its vice president. 

According to the Swapo constitution, she will be the party’s candidate for president when the incumbent, Hage Geingob, completes his limit of two terms in office in about 15 months.

Ndaitwah cruised to an easy first-round victory over two other candidates, including her boss, the current prime minister.

Speaking to VOA, Ndaitwah said she is prepared to lead.

“The point I am trying to make is there is no easy time in life,” she said. “So, every time it has its own challenges and I can tell you, whatever the challenges, there are always people who are ready to face those challenges and I am one of those. This is the time I am given in order to take the position. I am asking party members to give me that opportunity and I am ready.”

More than 700 delegates descended upon the capital for the party congress. 

Amongst the delegates were observers from nearby countries, such as Mike Bimha, national political commissar for Zimbabwe’s ZANU-PF party. 

He commended Namibia’s ruling party for ushering in new leadership through democratic systems and processes.

“Right from the first day, the conduct of congress went on very well and it was very purposeful,” he said. “Everybody was attending and the procedures were followed diligently. We were also delighted that the election process went on well. Procedures were followed and it was very transparent.”

The congress that was scheduled for three days was extended by a rerun for the deputy secretary general position, after none of the candidates won a majority of votes in the first round. 

Uahekwa Herunga was later declared the winner per the Swapo constitution, which requires a gender balance in the top four positions.

The ruling Swapo party has led Namibia since independence in 1990 and commands strong support from voters, paving the way for Ndaitwah to become the country’s first female head of state.

Only one woman has been elected head of state in Africa, that being Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of Liberia.

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Referendum Shows Slovenian Support for RTV’s Independence, Journalists Say

Journalists at Slovenia’s public broadcaster RTV have expressed relief at the results of a referendum aimed at protecting them from political interference.

The results show “citizens support us and want a professional, independent and quality public (broadcaster),” Helena Milinkovic, head of the coordination of trade unions of journalists of RTV, told VOA.

Marko Milosavljevic, journalism chair at the University of Ljubljana’s faculty of social sciences, sees the support of the law as a boost for media freedom in Slovenia.

“It enables public RTV to free itself from direct interference of politics and political parties,” Milosavljevic told VOA.

The referendum Sunday centered on reforms proposed by Slovenia’s newly elected government to protect RTV from political interference. More than 62 percent of voters were in favor of the law.

The referendum was requested by the former ruling center-right Slovenian Democratic Party (SDS) after the country’s new government in July endorsed changes that would end the practice of parliament nominating members of the RTV program council.

At present, parliament nominates 21 out of 29 members of the program council, a body that names the broadcaster’s chief executive and endorses production plans.

In challenging the reforms, the SDS said the legal changes would impact RTV’s independence because they were aimed solely at replacing the current management.

“Our media space is strongly leaning to the left and does not allow pluralism. RTV as a public broadcaster, which is paid by all, should show diversity and represent all segments of the Slovenian society,” Alenka Jeraj, a SDS member of parliament, told reporters after the referendum result.

“By manipulative statement that politics will be removed from the RTV, the government politics is in fact entering the RTV through a side door,” Jeraj said, adding that she believes the result shows “we are strongly moving away from democratic media standards.”

But most journalists and academics disagree.

Seven international media freedom groups, including the International Press Institute, the European Centre for Press and Media Freedom, and Reporters Without Borders last week issued a joint statement backing the reform.

“The new system of governance would significantly limit the ability of any government, current or future, to use its parliamentary majority to fill the councils with allies and interfere in the work of public media,” the statement read.

Most analysts say that ruling parties from both sides have pressured the public broadcaster ever since Slovenia’s independence in 1991. But, they say, the interference has never been so intense as when the SDS was in power from 2020 until June this year.

The SDS leadership claimed media bias at the broadcaster, and appointees at RTV made changes that critics say adversely impacted the station’s ability to report.

In 2021, the Program Council appointed Andrej Grah Whatmough as the head of RTV.

A few months later, the director of the broadcaster’s TV branch, Natalija Gorscak, was dismissed and many popular shows, including a weekly political segment, “Studio City,” were cancelled.

In July 2022, Whatmough appointed Uros Urbanija as the new director of the TV branch —a move that sparked protest from staffers and the Association of Journalists of Slovenia.

Urbanija was the director of the government communication office under former Prime Minister Janez Jansa. During that time, his department alleged bias at RTV and temporarily stopped financing for the state news agency STA. [[ 

In October, Whatmough issued letters to 38 staffers, mainly TV journalists, after they entered a studio during a live broadcast to show support for two colleagues they said were under pressure from Urbanija.

In his letter, Whatmough warned that the staff face dismissal if they breach their contract again.

Urbanija and Whatmough have denied any pressure on journalists. Whatmough said in remarks published on RTV that the warnings were issued solely because journalists had violated rules regarding entering the studio.

‘Party politics’

Prime Minister Robert Golob and his ministers welcomed the referendum result.

His center-left government had promised to free RTV of political pressures and adopted the amendments on RTV less than two months after taking power.

“The people clearly showed that they do not want interference of party politics in the managing of RTV Slovenia. Our government had promised (to stop) that, passed the law and this was now confirmed by people,” Minister of Culture Asta Vrecko, who is also in charge of the government’s media policy, told TV Slovenia.

However, Peter Gregorcic, the chair of the RTV’s Program Council, told Radio Slovenia he plans to ask the Constitutional Court to rule on whether the law is in line with the constitution.

He believes it is illegal to replace the management of the broadcaster by amending a law.

Any appeal could further delay the introduction of the law, which is due to come into effect in January.

The management of RTV Slovenia did not directly respond to VOA’s queries regarding the appeal, but referred VOA to a statement that read, “RTV Slovenia will continue to act in line with legislation and in the broadest public interest.” 

Most TV journalists still wary

Most TV Slovenia journalists welcomed the result but are wary of any further delay in implementing the law.

“We are happy and relieved by the referendum result,” Milinkovic, of RTV, told VOA. But, she said, until the legislation takes affect, “We expect pressures on staffers to continue.”

TV Slovenia runs a 24-7 operation and is one of the most popular TV channels in the country. The public broadcaster is financed predominantly by subscriptions that most households in Slovenia are obliged to pay.

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Biden Hosts Congressional Leaders to Discuss His Agenda

President Joe Biden said Tuesday he hopes lawmakers can work together to fund the government, boost spending for Ukraine and avert a crippling rail strike as he hosted congressional leaders at the White House. But Republicans’ pick to be the next speaker of the House served notice that things are “going to be different” once the GOP takes control of the chamber.

The meeting came as Biden looks to lock in more legislative wins before Democrats lose unified control of Washington on Jan. 3 and as the president is dependent on Congress to avoid a government shutdown on Dec. 16. Biden also wants a government funding bill to provide additional money for the COVID-19 response and to bolster U.S. support for Ukraine’s economy and defense against Russia’s invasion.

Biden has also called on Congress to step in and impose a tentative agreement between railroads and workers to avert a potentially crippling freight rail strike on Dec. 9.

Lawmakers are months behind on passing funding legislation for the current fiscal year, relying on stop-gap measures that largely maintain existing funding levels, that federal agencies have warned leaves them strapped for cash.

“We’re going to work together, I hope, to fund the government,” Biden told lawmakers, emphasizing the importance of Ukraine and pandemic funding as well.

The president said the “economy’s at risk” because of the looming rail strike, and he said he is “confident” that Congress could act to avert it. “There’s a lot to do, including resolving the train strike,” he said.

Meeting in the Roosevelt Room, Biden sat at the head of the conference table, flanked on either side by Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, the two smiling brightly at the start of the meeting.

Republican House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy sat next to Schumer, and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell was next to Pelosi and appeared more reserved.

As the meeting began, Biden quipped, “I’m sure this is going to go very quickly” to reach agreement on everything. Lawmakers spent a bit more than an hour with the president, who was joined by Vice President Kamala Harris and senior aides.

McCarthy is working to become speaker in January, though he must first overcome dissent within the GOP conference to win a floor vote on Jan. 3. Speaking to reporters outside the White House, McCarthy said Biden “got an indication that it’s going to be different” once Republicans take control of the House.

The GOP House leader, who has hardly spoken with Biden during the president’s first two years in office, said “I can work with anybody,” but that the Nov. 8 midterm elections show that “America likes a check and balance.”

Schumer and Pelosi described it as a “good” and “productive” meeting as they left the White House.

“There was good will in the room,” Schumer said, saying they were “trying to have a meeting of the minds.”

All the leaders said their preference was to pass a comprehensive spending bill for the fiscal year, rather than a continuing resolution that largely maintains existing funding levels.

“If we don’t have an option we may have to have a yearlong” stop-gap bill, Pelosi added.

McCarthy, who has promised to look more critically at the Biden administration’s requests for Ukraine aid, told reporters that, “I’m not for a blank check for anything.” He said he wasn’t necessarily opposed to more funding, but wanted to ensure “there’s accountability and audits.”

Congress is also taking up legislation to codify same-sex marriage, raise the debt limit and reform the Electoral Count Act in a bid to prevent another attempt like in 2020 when then-President Donald Trump and allied lawmakers tried to overturn the will of voters in the presidential election he lost to Biden. The Senate is set to take up the marriage bill on Tuesday, and the House will have to approve it before it goes to Biden’s desk.

“We’re going to find other areas of common ground, I hope,” Biden added, “because the American people want us to work together.”

Republicans are set to hold a narrow majority in the House come January, while Democrats are retaining control of the Senate. A runoff election in Georgia next week will determine whether Biden’s party will hold a 51-49 majority or Vice President Harris will be needed to break a 50-50 tie.

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Influx of Refugees in Kenya as Thousands Flee Drought and Hunger in Somalia

Record drought and hunger in Somalia are driving thousands to flee to neighboring Kenya for help. Relief groups say the influx of refugees at Kenya’s Dadaab camp is stretching the already overcrowded camp’s resources. Juma Majanga reports from the refugee camp in Dadaab, Kenya.

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