Report: Advanced Economies Complicit in Transnational Corruption

Anti-corruption efforts in seemingly “clean” advanced economies have stalled even as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has brought to the fore that nation’s role in fostering kleptocracy in recent decades, Transparency International said in a report on Tuesday.

While painting a grim picture of the global fight against corruption, the Berlin-based watchdog put the spotlight on countries that have historically scored high, meaning favorably, on its annual Corruption Perceptions Index.

Those countries remain among the “cleanest” in the world. But from Germany to France to Switzerland, most saw their CPI scores drop or stagnate last year.

Five traditionally top-scoring countries — Australia, Austria, Canada, Luxembourg and the United Kingdom — saw a significant decline in their assessments, Transparency International said.

The U.S. scored 69, a “negligible” increase of 2 points, but a Transparency International expert called the rating “troubling.”

Even Denmark, ranked No. 1, was relegated to the “little or no enforcement” category in the fight against foreign bribery.

Cross-border corruption takes many forms, from countries allowing corrupt foreign actors to launder stolen funds through their economies to governments failing to punish companies that bribe foreign officials.

In recent years, investigators have uncovered myriad instances of corrupt money finding its way into Western economies, from nearly $2 billion worth of U.K. property owned by Russians accused of financial crime or with links to the Kremlin, to tens of billions of dollars laundered into Canada each year. 

Transparency International said that while its Corruption Perceptions Index does not capture transnational graft, that form of corruption remains the advanced economies’ “biggest weaknesses.”

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine “made it painfully apparent how inaction on transnational corruption can have catastrophic consequences,” the report says. “Not only have advanced economies helped to perpetuate corruption elsewhere, but they have also enabled kleptocracies to consolidate, threatening global peace and security.”

Gary Kalman, executive director of Transparency International U.S., said the U.S., thanks to the sheer size of its economy and financial secrecy rules, remains a “major facilitator of corruption internationally.”

“If you take a bribe for a thousand dollars, you put that in your pocket. If you’re trying to steal millions or billions, you need to find, as they say, ‘a more sophisticated investment strategy,’ and hiding it in an economy that’s over 20 trillion dollars makes it a little bit easier to hide,” Kalman said.

Transparency International is not the first organization to call out Western nations for aiding kleptocracy.

Last year, Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen said the United States was arguably “the best place to hide and launder ill-gotten gains.”

“And that’s because of the way we allow people to establish shell companies,” Yellen said. 

Transparency International said there are signs that the U.S. and other nations are taking the problem seriously but more needs to be done.

In 2021, the U.S. Congress enacted the Corporate Transparency Act, which aims to end the use of anonymously owned companies for money laundering.

Facilitating the transnational corruption, Kalman said, are financial service providers who are not currently subject to anti-money laundering reporting obligations.

“These are the lawyers, the accountants, the money managers, the corporate formation agents, those that create trusts for wealthy people, investment advisers who are currently not covered by any anti-money laundering responsibilities,” Kalman said.

To close the loophole, he said Congress should pass the Enablers Act, which was approved by the House of Representatives last year but fell short in the Senate.

A Justice Department task force created to seize Russian assets following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is increasingly targeting enablers and facilitators of sanctions evasions.

Earlier this month, the Justice Department announced criminal charges against two businessmen, one of them Russian and the other British, for facilitating the ownership and operation of a luxury yacht owned by a sanctioned Russian oligarch.

The $90 million, 255-foot yacht, owned by Viktor Vekselberg, was previously seized by Spanish authorities at the request of the U.S.

The U.S. is also a member of the multinational Russian Elites, Proxies, and Oligarchs (REPO) Task Force, which has seized billions of dollars in Russian assets.

“While some governments appear to have finally woken up to the problem that they had helped create, ending top-scoring countries’ complicity in cross-border corruption —originating from Russia and beyond — requires a long-term, concerted effort,” Transparency International said.

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US Contends Russia Violating Nuclear Arms Treaty

The U.S. accused Russia on Tuesday of violating the nuclear arms control START treaty, contending that Moscow was refusing to allow inspection activities inside Russia.

The treaty, the last major pillar of post-Cold War nuclear arms control efforts, took effect in 2011 and was extended in 2021 for five more years. It sets a limit on the number of strategic nuclear warheads that the United States and Russia can deploy and the deployment of land- and submarine-based missiles and bombers to deliver them.

Together, the two countries still account for about 90% of the world’s nuclear warheads.

Washington has been trying to preserve the treaty, but ties with Moscow are the worst they have been in decades, the result of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine nearly a year ago. The U.S. has led Western allies in supplying munitions to Ukraine to help fend off the Russian attack.

“Russia’s refusal to facilitate inspection activities prevents the United States from exercising important rights under the treaty and threatens the viability of U.S.-Russian nuclear arms control,” the State Department said.

In August, Moscow suspended cooperation with inspections under the treaty. It blamed travel restrictions imposed by Washington and its allies after Russia invaded Ukraine but said it was still committed to complying with the provisions of the treaty.

The State Department said Russia had a “clear path” to comply with the treaty by permitting inspections to continue.

On Monday, Russia told the United States that the treaty could expire in 2026 without a replacement, claiming that Washington was trying to inflict “strategic defeat” on Moscow in Ukraine.

Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov told the RIA state news agency that it “is quite a possible scenario” there will be no nuclear arms control treaty after 2026.

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Mali Jihadist Leader in Secret Talks With Northern Groups

A powerful al-Qaida-affiliated leader in the Sahel has been in secret talks with armed groups in northern Mali that, like him, are fighting militants backed by the Islamic State group, sources close to the meetings said.

The jihadist is Iyad Ag Ghaly, an ethnic Tuareg who heads the Support Group for Islam and Muslims (GSIM), which has been battling the self-described Islamic State (IS) for influence in the Sahel.

He has recently held clandestine meetings in northern Mali, including with leaders of armed groups that have been fighting bloody battles with IS jihadists, the sources said.

They confirmed the talks had taken place but did not comment on mounting speculation that the GSIM would join forces with these groups.

Northern Mali is the birthplace of a jihadist insurgency that has destabilized the entire region and stoked fears that it could spread to countries farther south on the Gulf of Guinea.

Across the Sahel, thousands have died and millions have fled their homes to escape the violence.

“I was received on an individual basis and alone by Iyad Ag Ghaly lkala in the Kidal region last week. Others went in small groups. He said the same thing to everyone, about uniting the sons of the Kidal region,” a local leader told AFP, asking not to be identified.

Kidal is a crossroads region in the north that is not under the control of the Malian state but by a coalition of predominantly Tuareg groups called the Coordination of Azawad Movements (CMA).

The CMA launched a fight for regional independence in 2012 that was joined by jihadists, and which they later fanned into their insurgency.

In 2015, the CMA signed a peace agreement with the Malian government and pro-state armed groups.

Separate forces against IS

Today, the Kidal region is relatively unscathed from the violence sweeping Mali.

But south of the region, in the Gao and Menaka areas, the CMA, pro-state groups and the GSIM have separately been fighting IS for months.

Hundreds of civilians have died and there has been a mass exodus of people fleeing their homes.

The source who met Ag Ghaly said “he paid tribute to the expected amalgamation” of the CMA’s diverse groups, which could take place in February.

Ag Ghaly has been considered by many Malian commentators and officials as an unavoidable figure in efforts to end the country’s prolonged crisis.  

He was in contact with the government years ago, but the question of a dialogue between jihadists and the authorities has been off the political radar since the 2020 coup.

The recent meetings “aren’t new,” another leader in the north told AFP, saying that Ag Ghaly had always been in touch with powerful men in his region.

Russian ‘mercenaries’

Ag Ghaly also met representatives of the civilian populations, telling them of his willingness to “defend Sharia and protect them from the Malian army and Russian mercenaries,” a local government official said.

The ruling junta has forged close ties with the Kremlin, bringing in operatives that France and others say are from the Wagner paramilitary group.

Ag Ghaly “wants to impose himself as the uncontested leader of the northern Sahel,” said a foreign diplomat, adding that the question was how the junta would respond to “this worrying new landscape.”

The 2015 peace agreement has often been deemed crucial to efforts to end Mali’s bloodshed, but after much fanfare following its signing, it remains dormant.

In December, the CMA and other groups suspended participation in the deal, blaming what they called the junta’s “inertia” in tackling the crisis in the northeast.

An international team is expected to head to Kidal on Wednesday with the aim of reviving contacts over the agreement, diplomatic sources said.

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Exclusive: Somalia Sends Thousands of Army Recruits Abroad for Training

The Somali government has sent thousands of military recruits to nearby countries for training to strengthen the army for its war against al-Shabab militants, according to the national security adviser for the Somali president.

In an exclusive interview on January 26 with VOA Somali, Hussein Sheikh-Ali said Somalia has sent 3,000 soldiers each to Eritrea and Uganda in the past few weeks. He said an additional 6,000 recruits will be sent to Ethiopia and Egypt.

“We want to complete making 15,000 soldiers ready within 2023,” Ali told VOA in the one-on-one interview in Washington where he met with U.S. officials to seek more support for Somalia.

The news comes as a report by the Mogadishu-based think tank Heritage Institute for Political Studies (HIPS) cast doubt that the government will meet its December 2024 deadline to have 24,000 soldiers ready to assume security responsibilities when troops from the African Transitional Mission in Somalia (ATMIS) are scheduled to leave.

“This timetable is ambitious because the Somali security services are unlikely to be fully autonomous by then, nor is it likely that al-Shabab will have been militarily defeated,” the report said.

“The deadline and the fact the army is in a war while at the same time they are being rebuilt … we argue it’s a tight deadline,” said Afyare Elmi, executive director of HIPS and the report’s coauthor. “It will be difficult to meet.”

The report noted that in November, the Somali government asked ATMIS to delay the first drawdown of 2,000 soldiers by six months, from December 2022 to June 30, 2023.

Ali said the delay was requested because the troops Somalia is expecting to take over from ATMIS are in training abroad. He also said the government doesn’t want to disrupt military operations against al-Shabab in central Somalia, as the areas ATMIS troops would vacate will have to be taken over by Somali forces.

The Somali government recently brought home most of the 5,000 soldiers who were trained in Eritrea. Ali defended the decision to send more recruits there, calling the plan “transparent.” He said the government is ahead of its training schedule.

He said the government will have 24,000 troops trained and fully equipped by next year.

“There is no reason for ATMIS to stay or to continue to stay in Somalia,” he added.

Ali also made a bold prediction that the government will defeat the militant group by next summer.

“Our … primary goal is that in the summer of 2024, before June or July, that there will be no al-Shabab person occupying a territory in Somalia. You can note that down,” he said.

Financial challenges

The Somali army, working with local clan militia, succeeded in taking several towns and villages in central Somalia from al-Shabab in 2022.

Despite these successes, Somali security forces have other challenges, including financial constraints, and capability and training gaps, the HIPS report said.

The Somali parliament recently approved its biggest-ever budget for 2023 at $967 million, but domestic revenue is very low, and two-thirds of the budget comes from external support. That budget allocates $113 million for the national army.

“To date, the Somali authorities alone cannot afford the army they want,” the report said.

Elmi said building an army without a budgetary plan could result in an unsustainable situation.

“An army is more than paying a salary. So many expenses come with it,” he said.

“We have only emphasized sustainability. We are not specifying a number. We are saying they must be affordable. That affordability is coming from the capacity of the state.”

Capability gaps

The report said ongoing military operations highlighted two major capability gaps for the Somali National Army (SNA). It says the troops suffered from many casualties over the years from improvised explosive devices, lack of equipment and armored personnel carriers, and a shortage of explosive ordnance disposal teams.

The report said Somali army units trained by the United States, known as Danab (Lightning), and Turkey, known as Gorgor (Eagle), are now “reasonably well equipped,” but the regular army units are only marginally better equipped than the Ma’awisley, the local clan militias supporting government forces.

“This inequality is so pronounced that officials now talk about the SNA being effectively two armies — one that is mobile, and one that is largely stationary,” the report says.

The report also highlights struggles in generating and deploying “hold” forces that can stabilize newly recaptured areas.

“There is an important difference between pushing al-Shabab forces out of areas and holding them long enough to deliver a real peace dividend to the local inhabitants,” it said.

The report further said al-Shabab made stabilization efforts much harder by destroying schools, medical facilities, wells and other important infrastructure.

Security and intelligence experts say it’s the responsibility of other government agencies such as police, intelligence and regional paramilitary forces to relieve the army in stabilizing recovered territories.

“To hold the areas seized, to defend themselves and to go forward and seize more territory is difficult for them, both quantity and quality,” said Brigadier General Abdi Hassan Hussein, a former intelligence officer and former police commander of Puntland region.

Hussein said the capacity of Somali soldiers has been affected by a decades-long international weapons embargo on Somalia. He said the United Nations and other stakeholders must look into the issue.

“If the stakeholders do not play a role in this fight and it fails, [peace] will be far away,” Hussein said.

Al-Shabab strategy

Al-Shabab is unwilling to fight the government’s war. It wants to fight its own war and is trying to draw the government into its war, experts on the militant group said.

The militant group has been using an older strategy to withdraw from territories as government forces and local militias approach. But the group’s fighters are not going far, according to former al-Shabab official and defector Omar Mohamed Abu Ayan.

“They are not defending the towns, which they used to do,” said Abu Ayan. “Instead of moving further away, they are hovering around in the forests nearby the towns, and then they send suicide bombers back into the town.”

Abu Ayan also said al-Shabab started withdrawing its money from banks after the government froze funds and shut down hundreds of accounts suspected of having links to the group.

“They developed hostility towards the banks,” he said. “They also called the companies and businesses and asked them to give the money they were supposed to pay them several years in advance, so that they can accumulate more money. They have also reduced their expenses.”

The Somali government announced that President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud is hosting the heads of states from the “front-line” countries of Kenya, Ethiopia and Djibouti this week to discuss the war against al-Shabab. Defense ministers and army chiefs from the four countries met in Mogadishu on Tuesday ahead of Wednesday’s summit.

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Expectations Low for Blinken’s China Trip to Reset Relations

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s upcoming trip to Beijing does not mean the United States is heading toward a substantial change in its relationship with the People’s Republic of China, according to U.S. analysts.

Blinken would be the first top U.S. diplomat to visit Beijing since 2018.

Meanwhile, officials from the two countries are preparing for another in-person and pull-aside meeting between their leaders this year, according to a U.S. official who spoke to VOA on the condition of anonymity.

But expectations are low that Blinken’s meetings with senior PRC leaders would result in large deliverables or reset the fraught relationship between the two countries.

“I don’t think there should be many expectations that we’re going to see anything significant breakthroughs for the trip,” said Jude Blanchette, the Freeman Chair in China Studies at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).

“I also don’t think that’s a bad thing, given how far the relationship has deteriorated over the last five years,” Blanchette told reporters during a telephone briefing on Monday evening.

This month, Blinken told an audience at University of Chicago’s Institute of Politics that open lines of communication can put guardrails on U.S.-China ties amid rising tensions, adding temperature has been lowered after then-Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan in August of 2022.

President Joe Biden last met with Chinese President Xi Jinping on the margins of the G-20 Summit in Bali last November.

India will host this year’s G-20 Summit in New Delhi from September 9-10. The U.S. will host this year’s Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Leaders’ Summit in San Francisco in November.

Russia’s Ukraine invasion

February 24 of this year will mark one year since Russia invaded Ukraine. The United States said it has been very clear to PRC about the implications of providing security and material support to Russia’s war against Ukraine.

Last Thursday, the U.S. Treasury sanctioned a Chinese company — Changsha Tianyi Space Science and Technology Research Institute Co. LTD, also known as Spacety China — for providing satellite imagery of Ukraine to support the Kremlin-linked mercenary Wagner Group’s combat operations for Russia.


Spacety China’s Luxembourg-based subsidiary also was sanctioned.

U.S. officials and China watchers have said Russia’s war on Ukraine would be on the agenda during Blinken’s meetings in Beijing.

“The debate over China’s policy toward Russia and Ukraine within China is one of the most contentious issues that I encountered when I was there,” said Scott Kennedy, a senior adviser and Trustee Chair in Chinese Business and Economics at CSIS, who spent six weeks in China last fall. “A lot of people inside China in the expert community think that the Chinese made a strategic blunder.”

But in public, PRC officials stick with Beijing’s policy position and narrative.

“The U.S. is the one who started the Ukraine crisis and the biggest factor fueling it,” said Mao Ning, a spokesperson from China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs on Monday.

PRC visas 

The Beijing government has suspended all 10-year multiple entry visas for Americans issued before March 26, 2020, when Beijing stopped issuing visas because of the coronavirus pandemic.

This runs counter to a reciprocal agreement that China made with former President Barack Obama’s administration, according to Dennis Wilder, professor of Asian Studies at Georgetown University.  Wilder served from 2009 to 2015 as senior editor of the U.S. president’s Daily Brief.

Wilder told VOA that Blinken likely will press PRC officials to have the suspension lifted because it affects many Chinese Americans, as well as business and educational exchanges.

While Americans can apply for new PRC visas, the extensive private information required in the visa application could be used against applicants or to pressure overseas dissent, said experts.

The current PRC visa application requires private information of applicants’ spouse, parents (even deceased) and children, such as their date of birth, country of birth, nationality, address and occupation. It also asks if applicants’ parents are in China.

In comparison, information of an applicant’s family members is optional in the previous four-page visa form.

There also is additional requirement for visa applicants who were born in Taiwan or Hong Kong to provide documents with their original names in Chinese characters, such as for their birth certificates.

PRC authorities are “looking for vulnerabilities” of overseas Chinese Americans, because such information can be used as a leverage to pressure applicants’ families living in China, said Wilder, citing examples of several Chinese American reporters who left the mainland China because of this type of pressures.

“I would be worried filling out all that information,” Bonny Lin, director of China Power Project at CSIS, told VOA.

“It would not be uncharacteristic of what we’ve seen in terms of the overall trend in China, in which China wants to have better control and increased surveillance on all activities within its border,” she said.

Asked if such private information provided by U.S. officials traveling to China can be used as a form of political intelligence, Lin agreed.

“Definitely yes, because they are collecting that information for use,” she said.

For PRC nationals applying for U.S. non-immigrant visas, while applicants are required to provide their family information, the requirement is not as extensive. Also, the U.S. does not ask for specific and private information about visa applicants’ children.    

A U.S. State Department spokesperson declined to provide comments to VOA.

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Protesters Say Russian Ship Bound for Antarctica Unwelcome at South African Port  

Climate activists in South Africa are protesting a refueling stop by a Russian ship that they say is ignoring a ban on exploring oil and gas in Antarctica.

Protest organizers Greenpeace Africa and Extinction Rebellion say the seismic tests the Akademik Alexander Karpinsky has been conducting in Antarctica for the past 25 years are harmful to marine life like dolphins and whales.

They also say that fossil fuels should stay in the ground if the world is to prevent catastrophic global warming.

The ship’s operator, Polar Marine Geosurvey Expedition, a subsidiary of Russia’s state-owned mineral explorer RosGeo, insists it is not exploring for oil and gas in Antarctica but simply conducting research.

South African environmental lawyer Cormac Cullinan isn’t convinced and says it’s vital everyone sees the importance of fighting global warming.

“It’s incredibly Important from a climate change perspective because the oceans there absorb a lot of the Co2 from the atmosphere but it’s also part of regulating the world’s climate and, also the currents and the weather system. But it’s also very much affected by climate change because the ice is melting,” he said.

Cormac says it’s problematic that there isn’t a government for Antarctica but instead an agreement signed in the 1950s, called the Antarctic Treaty System, where 29 countries have decision-making powers.

“Decisions are made by consensus and over the last years, when they tried to declare more marine protected areas, countries like Russia and China block them so it’s not really going anywhere,” he said.

He says terms of the treaty are only binding on the people who’ve signed up to them. And he says policing compliance is almost impossible because there’s no international police force dedicated to this task.

“If there is a big enough dispute, it could be referred to the International Court of Justice. But you know in a situation like this, often countries won’t take on another country like Russia because they think Russia may retaliate in other ways,” he said.

Cullinan is working on a Declaration for the Rights of Antarctica which environmentalists hope will be launched towards the end of this year or early in 2024. He says among other things, they hope it will make it possible for lawyers to represent Antarctica in courts of law.

“Certainly, if you think how important human rights are in the world. Even though you know governments violate rights all the time, just the fact that we’ve got agreed standards of behavior.”

He says a similar rights-of-nature declaration is being worked out for the Amazon rain forest which spreads across several countries.

Meanwhile, in Cape Town, Greenpeace Africa volunteer Elaine Mills says her organization is working on a letter of demand to send to the government.

“The one is that Alexander Karpinsky and other vessels like it are not allowed into South Africa. The second is that the Alexander Karpinsky and vessels like it have to prove that they are engaged in genuine scientific research before they are allowed entry into our ports. The third one is that we want the parties to adopt a treaty that no hydrocarbon extraction will ever be allowed within the Antarctic region,” said Mills.

Contacted by VOA, the South African Ministry and Department of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment did not provide comment.

South Africa announced Tuesday that it will host representatives of its partners in the BRICS bloc, namely Russia, China, India and Brazil, in Limpopo province on Wednesday and Thursday.

Naval exercises with Russia and China are also planned in February, a few days before the one-year anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

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US Congressman George Santos to Recuse Himself From Committee Assignments

U.S. Representative George Santos, who has admitted to fabricating much of his resume, told fellow Republican lawmakers on Tuesday he would not serve on committees for now, lawmakers said.

House of Representatives Speaker Kevin McCarthy said the freshman lawmaker asked if he could recuse himself from his committee assignments while he works to clear up an ethics cloud. McCarthy called it an “appropriate decision.”

“The voters have elected him,” McCarthy told reporters. “He’ll have a voice here in Congress. And until he answers all those (ethics) questions, then at that time, he’ll be able to be seated on committees.”  

The embattled congressman has faced calls from fellow New York Republicans to step down over fabrications about his career and history.

Santos, who announced his decision in a closed-door meeting with fellow Republican lawmakers, has rebuffed calls for his resignation, saying he would vacate his seat only if he loses the next election.

“He just said he recused himself for a while and then he’ll come back,” Representative Don Bacon told reporters.

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Africa’s Largest Photography Library Opens in Accra

Ghanaian photographer and film maker Paul Ninson has opened Africa’s largest photography library in Ghana’s capital, Accra.  The hub called the ‘Dikan Center,’ houses more than 30,000 photography books and collections on African photography pioneers, diaspora, and creatives.  Nneka Chile reports from Accra, Ghana.

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Nordic Unions to Quit Global Journalists’ Body IFJ, Citing ‘Corruptive Activity’

Finnish, Norwegian, Danish and Icelandic unions will quit a global media federation on Tuesday in protest at “corruptive activity,” including allowing Russian state media journalists in Ukraine to stay as members, the Finnish union said.

The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ), which represents 600,000 journalists in 146 countries, denounced the accusations as “false, defamatory and damaging.”

The Nordic members accused the IFJ of longstanding undemocratic practices, unethical finances and of allowing the Russian state media representatives to continue as members.

“We call this corruptive activity,” Hanne Aho, the chair of the Union of Journalists in Finland, told Reuters, adding the four Nordic unions would resign from the IFJ on Tuesday.

The leader of the Norwegian Union of Journalists, Dag Idar Tryggestad, said the unions had fought for years to put in place democratic rules on IFJ elections as well as transparency around decisions and spending.

“..we believe this (resignation) is the only thing that can save IFJ. Changes must be forced,” he said.

Both Aho and Tryggestad said the Nordic unions’ latest disappointment resulted from the IFJ not taking action against the Russian Union of Journalists for setting up regional journalists’ associations in Ukrainian territories invaded by Russia.

“They have been able to do so in all tranquility without the international federation expelling the Russian union,” Aho said.

The IFJ said its executive committee had triggered a formal process for suspending and expelling the Russian Union of Journalists. It said expenditure was formally audited every year, adding that it had sought to answer all questions posed by the Nordic unions.

“We entirely reject what are false, defamatory and damaging allegations,” IFJ Deputy General Secretary Jeremy Dear told Reuters in an emailed response.

The Nordic unions also complained about what they said was the IFJ’s non-transparent use of finances, including its decision to hold its world congress last year in Oman, which has limited press freedom, Aho said.

The congress in Oman was organized at the end of May, at a time when journalists were widely accusing FIFA, the world governing body of soccer, of corruption and criticizing it for taking the World Cup to Qatar despite its poor track record on human rights.

“Trappings at the congress were extremely flamboyant so we began to wonder where the money had come from to pay for them,” Aho said, asking if it was appropriate for journalist unions to accept such lavish sponsoring.

Aho said the Union of Journalists in Finland had requested and received IFJ’s budget for the congress, which showed that up to 745,000 euros ($811,000) of the total of 778,000 euros ($844,675) came from Omani ministries and private companies as well as the Oman Journalists’ Association, while IFJ itself paid only 33,000 euros ($35,818) of the expenses.

The IFJ said the amounts included subsidies negotiated by the Oman Journalists’ Association.

“This has been normal procedure used in the hosting of successive IFJ congresses over decades,” it wrote in a statement shared with Reuters.

The IFJ, on its website, says it promotes collective action to defend human rights, democracy and media pluralism.

“IFJ policy is decided democratically at a Congress which meets every three years and work is carried out by the Secretariat under the direction of an elected executive committee,” it says.


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France Hit by New Wave of Strikes Against Macron’s Pension Reform

Striking workers disrupted French refinery deliveries, public transport and schools on Tuesday in a second day of nationwide protests over President Emmanuel Macron’s plan to make people work longer before retirement. 

Huge crowds marched through cities across France to denounce a reform that raises the retirement age by two years to 64 and poses a test of Macron’s ability to push through change now that he has lost his working majority in parliament. 

On the rail networks, only one in three high-speed TGV trains were operating and even fewer local and regional trains. Services on the Paris metro were thrown into disarray. 

Marching behind banners reading “No to the reform” or “We won’t give up,” many said they would take to the streets as often as needed for the government to back down. 

“We won’t drive until we’re 64!” bus driver Isabelle Texier said at a protest in Saint-Nazaire on the Atlantic coast. 

“For the president, it’s easy. He sits in a chair … he can work until he’s 70, even,” she said. “We can’t ask roof layers to work until 64, it’s not possible.”  

After January 19, when more than a million people took to the streets on the first nationwide strike day, unions said initial data from protests across the country showed a bigger turnout. 

“It’s better than on the 19th. … It’s a real message sent to the government, saying we don’t want the 64 years,” Laurent Berger, who leads CFDT, France’s largest union, said ahead of the Paris march. 

Opinion polls show a substantial majority of the French oppose the reform, but Macron intends to stand his ground. The reform is “vital” to ensuring the viability of the pension system, he said on Monday.  

Some felt resigned amid bargaining between Macron’s ruling alliance and conservative opponents who are more open to pension reform than the left.  

“There’s no point in going on strike. This bill will be adopted in any case,” said 34-year-old Matthieu Jacquot, who works in the luxury sector. 

For unions, who were likely to announce more industrial actions later in the day, the challenge will be maintaining walkouts at a time when high inflation is eroding salaries. 

Though protest numbers appeared to be up, some initial data showed strike participation down on Tuesday from January 19. 

A union source said some 36.5% of SNCF rail operator workers were on strike by midday — down nearly 10% from January 19 — even if disruption to train traffic was largely similar. 

Utility group EDF EDF.PA said 40.3% of workers were on strike, down from 44.5%.  

Unions and companies at times disagreed on whether this strike was more or less successful than the previous one. For TotalEnergies TTEF.PA, less workers at its refineries had downed tools, but the CGT said there were more. 

At a local level, some announced “Robin Hood” operations unauthorized by the government. In the southwestern Lot-et-Garonne area, the local CGT trade union branch cut power to several speed cameras and disabled smart power meters.  

“When there is such a massive opposition, it would be dangerous for the government not to listen,” said Mylene Jacquot, secretary general of CFDT’s civil servants branch.  

The pension system reform would yield an additional 17.7 billion euros ($19.18 billion) in annual pension contributions, according to Labour Ministry estimates. Unions say there are other ways to raise revenue, such as taxing the super rich or asking employers or well-off pensioners to contribute more.  

“This reform is unfair and brutal,” said Luc Farre, the secretary general of the civil servants’ UNSA union. French power supply was down by about 5% or 3.3 gigawatts (GW) as workers at nuclear reactors and thermal plants joined the strike, EDF data showed. 

TotalEnergies said deliveries of petroleum products from its French sites had been halted, but customers’ needs were met. 

The government made some concessions while drafting the legislation. Macron had originally wanted the retirement age to be set at 65, while the government is also promising a minimum pension of 1,200 euros a month. 

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US First Lady Jill Biden Donates Inauguration Outfits to Smithsonian

Jill Biden’s inaugural outfits have a new home at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History in Washington. These inaugural dresses have always been about much more than looking great, as the first lady and the fashion designers explain. Maxim Moskalkov has the story. Camera: Dmytri Shakhov

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Pope Francis Begins 6-Day Peace Pilgrimage to Central Africa

Pope Francis is heading to central Africa Tuesday to bring a message of peace to two of the region’s most violence-plagued nations. 

The 86-year-old pontiff’s six-day trip will begin in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where he will preside at an outdoor Mass at N’dolo airport in the capital, Kinshasa, that is expected to draw more than one million people. At least half of the DRC’s 95 million people are members of the Roman Catholic Church, making it the Church’s largest community in Africa.  

But the United Nations says about 5.7 million people are displaced in the DRC due to years of fighting in the North Kivu region between government forces and the armed rebel group M23, as well as attacks by groups affiliated with the militant Islamic State group.  

The papal visit is the first to the Democratic Republic of Congo since John Paul II came in 1985.  Francis was initially scheduled to travel to the country last July, but was forced to postpone the trip due to his chronic knee ailment. The itinerary for that trip also included a visit to Goma, the capital of North Kivu, but it was scrapped due to security concerns. 

The pope will leave the DRC on Friday for South Sudan, where he will be joined by Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, and the Right Reverend Ian Greenshields, the moderator, or leader, of the Church of Scotland.  The trio will join forces to call for an end to the violence that has plagued the nation since breaking away from Sudan in 2011. A civil war has led to a humanitarian crisis that has left 2 million South Sudanese displaced. 

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

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New Round of Strikes as French Workers Protest Pension Reforms

Tuesday brought a new round of strikes in France as citizens protest proposed pension reforms. 

Worker strikes severely limited Paris metro and other rail services, while Air France canceled some of its short and medium flights. 

Half of the primary school teachers planned to strike, their union said, while power supplies were down with workers in the electrical sector also going on strike. 

Tuesday’s round of protests follows an initial round on January 19 in which more than a million people participated. 

President Emmanuel Macron’s government is proposing raising the retirement age in France from 62 to 64 years of age. 

Macron said Monday the change is necessary to keep the pension system working. 

Unions have said the government could instead tax the super rich. 

Some information for this report came from Agence France-Presse and Reuters. 

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US, South Korea Ramping Up Exercises in Response to North Korean Threats

The United States and South Korea will increase the pace and scope of joint military exercises, and expand intelligence sharing, in response to repeated and more frequent missile tests by North Korea.   

U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and South Korean Defense Minister Lee Jong-sup promised a more resolute response to what they described as Pyongyang’s unprecedented level of provocations over the past year.   

During a joint news conference following an hour-long meeting at the Ministry of National Defense in Seoul, Austin assured South Korean officials that Washington’s resolve remains firm, and that the Pentagon will use “the full range of U.S. defense capabilities, including our conventional, nuclear, and missile-defense capabilities” to defend its long-time ally.   

Austin and Lee also said the two countries would move ahead with new table-top exercises next month, as well as additional exercises and training.   

Prior to the meeting, U.S. officials had promised a resumption of joint, live-fire exercises later this year.   

Austin said South Korea could also expect more support along the lines of recent U.S. deployments, which included the deployment of F-22 and F-35 fighter jets, and a visit by the Ronald Reagan Carrier Strike Group.   

The United States currently has about 28,500 troops stationed in South Korea. But Pyongyang’s bellicose behavior has stoked growing concern in South Korea, prompting President Yoon Suk Yeol to suggest earlier this month that Washington might need to redeploy nuclear weapons to the peninsula while saying Seoul could also begin to develop its own nuclear arsenal.   

Austin met with Yoon Tuesday, following his meeting with Lee, though neither spoke to the media.    

Lee, though, seemed satisfied with Austin’s assurances.   

“Even if they [North Korea] do use their nuclear capabilities, the Republic of Korea and the United States have the capability to deter their efforts,” Lee said, speaking through a translator.   

“The United States has the will to deter other uses of nuclear weapons, as well,” he added. “This goes on to demonstrate that we have the capability to deter any additional provocation by North Korea.”   

“As things continue to evolve, our alliance continues to strengthen,” Austin added. “And we look for ways to strengthen that extended deterrence.”   

This is Austin’s third trip to South Korea and his fourth meeting with Lee.   

In a joint statement following their meeting, the two also committed to working with Japan to improve and facilitate the sharing of missile warning data due to the North Korean threat.   

Support for Ukraine   

Austin’s visit to Seoul Tuesday followed a visit Monday by NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg.   

Stoltenberg urged South Korea, which has mostly provided humanitarian aid to Ukraine, to increase its military support for Kyiv.   

When asked Tuesday whether that could happen, South Korea’s Lee seemed to leave open the possibility.   

Lee said he and Stoltenberg “shared a sentiment on the need for the international effort in overcoming this crisis” in Ukraine.   

“Regarding our weapons support, our Republic of Korea weapons support, I’ll just say that I like to leave my answer that we are directing our close attention to the situation in Ukraine,” Lee said. 

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5 Things to Know About DR Congo

Pope Francis on Tuesday is expected to land in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Africa’s largest predominantly Catholic country, for a landmark three-day visit.   

Here are five things to know about this vast nation:   

Mineral wealth, dire poverty  

The Democratic Republic of Congo is awash with minerals and precious stones, from gold, diamonds and coltan to tin, copper and cobalt.    

Harboring the Congo River — the second-largest in Africa after the Nile — the Democratic Republic of Congo also has huge hydroelectric potential, as well as 80 million hectares (197 million acres) of arable land.    

But decades of war and chronic mismanagement means that little of the country’s enormous wealth trickles down to the population of some 100 million people.    

About two-thirds of the Congolese population survive on under $2.15 a day, according to the World Bank.   

Ethnic mosaic  

Occupying a vast area the size of continental western Europe, the Democratic Republic of Congo is about 80 times larger than its former colonial power, Belgium.    

It is the second-largest state in Africa after Algeria.   

Some 250 different ethnic groups live in the Democratic Republic of Congo, speaking hundreds of different languages.    

French is the country’s official language, and local tongues Kikongo, Lingala, Tshiluba and Swahili are also officially recognized.    

Despite its size and diversity — the former province of Katanga tried to secede in the 1960s — there is a fierce sense of national unity.   

Troubled east  

The Democratic Republic of Congo has been ravaged by brutal conflicts in recent decades. The first Congo war, between 1996-1997, resulted in the overthrow of dictator Mobutu Sese Seko.   

The second Congo war, between 1998-2003, sucked in nine different countries, involved about 30 armed groups and caused millions of deaths according to some estimates. It also bankrupted the country.    

Most of the Democratic Republic of Congo is now at peace, but its mineral-rich eastern provinces remain plagued by dozens of armed groups and civilian massacres are common. 

Secular, religious  

Secularism has been enshrined in the Congolese Constitution since 1974, which also recognizes freedom of worship.    

According to estimates, about 40 percent of the country is Catholic, 35 percent Protestants of various denominations, nine percent Muslims and 10 percent Kimbanguists — a Christian movement born in the Belgian Congo.    

Official Vatican statistics put the proportion of Catholics in the DRC at 49 percent of the population.   

Atheists are exceedingly rare in Congolese society, which remains deeply religious and influenced by the church. During the colonial period, education was entrusted to Catholic missionaries.    

Rumba, survival  

Congolese people are renowned for their sense of humor and resourcefulness in the face of trying conditions.    

Many jokingly refer to “Article 15” of the constitution, which purports to instruct citizens to sort things out themselves.    

Music also plays an outsize role in the country’s culture. UNESCO listed Congolese rumba as an intangible cultural heritage of humanity in December 2021.    

Congo is also famed for its so-called sapeurs — dandies known for their ultra-elegant clothing and sense of style.  

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10 Years After EU’s ‘Never Again’ Tragedy, Little’s Changed

A decade ago this year, the head of the European Union’s executive branch stood, visibly shaken, before rows of coffins holding the corpses of migrants drowned off the Italian island of Lampedusa. Some of them, small and bone-white, contained the bodies of infants and children. 

“That image of hundreds of coffins will never get out of my mind. It is something I think one cannot forget. Coffins of babies, coffins with the mother and the child that was born just at that moment,” Jose Manuel Barroso, then president of the European Commission, said in 2013. 

More than 300 people died on October 3, 2013 after a fire broke out on a fishing boat that had set off from Libya on the world’s deadliest migration route. The boat, which carried almost 500 people looking for better lives in Europe, capsized only hundreds of meters (yards) from shore. 

“The kind of tragedy we have witnessed here so close to the coast should never happen again,” Barroso said. The EU must boost “our surveillance system to track boats, so that we can launch a rescue operation and bring people back to safe grounds before they perish,” he added. 

Nothing of the sort will be considered by EU leaders at a summit next week. Indeed, almost a decade on, little has improved. 

About 330,000 attempts were made to enter Europe without authorization in 2022 — a six-year high. The International Organization for Migration says more than 25,000 people have died or gone missing trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea since 2014. 

The search and rescue mission launched in response to the Lampedusa tragedy was shut down a year later over concern that the Italian navy ships only encouraged people to set out in the hope of being plucked from the sea. 

Civilian boats run by charities have been hounded and impounded by governments for trying to save lives. The EU provides vessels and equipment to the Libyan coastguard to prevent people leaving, and Turkey and several other northern African countries get financial support. 

At their February 9-10 summit, the EU’s 27 heads of state and government are set to renew a call to beef up borders and pressure the often-impoverished countries that people leave or cross to get to Europe, according to a draft statement prepared for the meeting, seen by The Associated Press. 

The leaders will give “full support” so that the border and coastguard agency Frontex can deliver “on its core task, which is to help Member States protect the external borders, fight cross-border crime and step up returns” – the EU’s euphemism for deportation. 

The EU will “enhance cooperation with countries of origin and transit through mutually beneficial partnerships,” said the text, which could change before the summit. It did not list the ways the partnerships might be beneficial for those countries, only the means of persuasion that could be used on them. 

The EU’s aid budget should be put to “the best possible use” to encourage countries to stop people leaving, it said. Those that don’t accept their nationals back would find it harder to get European visas. Bangladesh, Gambia, Iraq and Senegal are already being monitored. 

After a meeting last week of interior ministers, the EU’s Swedish presidency said that “both positive incentives and restrictive measures are required. We must make use of all relevant policy areas in this regard, such as visa policy, development cooperation, trade and diplomatic relations.” 

Border fences are back on the table, even though the European Commission previously declined to help member countries pay for them, arguing they were not in line with “European values.” Several EU countries, notably Hungary, Austria and Slovenia, have erected border fences after well over one million migrants entered Europe in 2015, most of them war refugees from Syria and Iraq. 

A Dutch government position paper circulating in Brussels said that “all types of stationary and mobile infrastructure should be part of a broader package of border management measures, while guaranteeing fundamental rights as enshrined in EU and international law.” 

The land border between EU member Bulgaria and Turkey, from where many migrants set out, is of particular concern. Asked about it last Thursday, Home Affairs Commissioner Ylva Johansson said only that there isn’t enough money to help countries build fences. 

The commission wants to speed up asylum processing at the bloc’s borders, and has named a “Returns Coordinator” to expedite deportation. More than 900,000 people applied for EU asylum last year, sparking a border backlog. 

In a letter to the leaders, President Ursula von der Leyen said that pilot testing will be done in coming months on “an accelerated border procedure,” including the “immediate return” of those not permitted to stay. 

This “Fortress Europe” approach has evolved because of the EU’s failure to agree on the answer to a vexing question: who should take responsibility for migrants and refugees arriving in Europe, and should other members be obliged to help? 

The question has rarely arisen over the last year as millions of Ukrainian refugees were welcomed into Europe amid an outpouring of good will, notably from countries like Hungary or Poland that are staunchly opposed to helping take care of migrants from Africa or the Middle East. 

The commission’s Pact on Migration and Asylum, unveiled in 2020, was supposed to resolve the problem but little progress has been made. Now, EU officials say that members might endorse the reform plan before the 2024 elections usher in another commission. 

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Blinken, Abbas to Meet as US Urges Israeli-Palestinian Calm

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken is due to meet Tuesday with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas as part of a visit to the region in which Blinken has urged Israelis and Palestinians to ease tensions amid the bloodiest violence between them in years. 

The U.S. State Department said Blinken would discuss with senior Palestinian officials the importance of a two-state solution as well as political reforms. 

Ahead of his visit to the West Bank, Blinken met Tuesday with Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant in Jerusalem, saying at the start of their talks that U.S. commitment to Israel’s security “remains ironclad.” 

Blinken said Monday after meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that the United States remains committed to “Palestinians and Israelis enjoying equal measures of freedom, security, opportunity, justice, and dignity.” 

“We’re urging all sides now to take urgent steps to restore calm, to de-escalate,” Blinken said. “We want to make sure that there’s an environment in which we can, I hope, at some point create the conditions where we can start to restore a sense of security for Israelis and Palestinians alike, which of course is sorely lacking.” 

Some information for this report came from The Associated Press and Reuters. 

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NY Case Against Trump Over Hush Money to Porn Star Goes to Grand Jury

A grand jury is hearing evidence in New York over former President Donald Trump’s role in hush money payments to porn star Stormy Daniels during his 2016 presidential campaign, two sources with knowledge of the matter told Reuters. 

A grand jury could lay the groundwork for possible criminal charges against the former president by the Manhattan district attorney’s office. 

Former National Enquirer publisher David Pecker testified before the grand jury, one source told Reuters. Pecker was seen entering the lower Manhattan building where the grand jury is empaneled, according to the New York Times, which first reported on the grand jury on Monday. Pecker could not immediately be reached for comment. 

The publisher had offered to help Trump by buying rights to unflattering stories and never publishing them. 

The moves are an indication that the district attorney, Alvin Bragg, is closer to a decision on whether to charge Trump. 

Bragg’s office declined to comment on the Times report. 

Daniels said she had a sexual liaison with Trump and received $130,000 before the 2016 presidential election in exchange for not discussing her encounter with Trump, who denies it happened and in 2018 told reporters he knew nothing about a payment to Daniels. 

Trump’s former personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, was sentenced to three years in prison in federal court in New York for orchestrating hush payments to Daniels and another woman, former Playboy model Karen McDougal, who said she had a months-long affair with Trump before he took office. 

McDougal has said she sold her story for $150,000 to American Media Inc., but it was never published. The incident involved a practice known as “catch and kill” to prevent a potentially damaging article from being published. 

Pecker, AMI’s former chief executive officer and a longtime friend of Trump and Cohen, told prosecutors of their hush-money deals with McDougal and Daniels before the 2016 U.S. election won by Trump, the Wall Street Journal reported in 2018. 

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Haitians in US Feel Pressure to Sponsor Friends, Family Back Home

Haitians in the United States are facing enormous pressure to help family and friends under a U.S. migration program announced this month that may help some people escape Haiti’s escalating violence but is also putting strain on the nation’s diaspora.   

Giubert St Fort, a South Florida resident from Haiti, said he was inundated with calls almost immediately after the Biden administration said on January 5 that it was opening a new legal pathway for migrants from four countries, including Haiti, who had U.S. sponsors.   

“Things are very tense because everyone is expecting a call from someone,” said St Fort, 59, a social worker who is already sponsoring members of his family.   

“Many people unfortunately are not in a position to sponsor family members or friends back home, but they are receiving calls nonstop.”   

Haitians living in the United States, many of whom are struggling to make ends meet, say they are being sought out by everyone from immediate family members to distant acquaintances or neighbors they haven’t spoken with in years, community advocates and immigration lawyers said.   

Desperation to leave has grown in Haiti amid a political crisis and a spike in violence that most recently has included a wave of killings of police, triggering protests by angry officers who attacked the residence of interim Prime Minister Ariel Henry.   

U.S. President Joe Biden, a Democrat, has struggled with a record number of migrants crossing the U.S.-Mexico border, including the arrival of more than 10,000 Haitians to southern Texas in September 2021. Many of the asylum seekers were deported back to Haiti or rapidly expelled, despite objections from human rights groups and a U.S. career diplomat who said doing so was “inhumane.”   

In response, Biden expanded pandemic-era restrictions put in place by his Republican predecessor, former President Donald Trump, to rapidly expel migrants from Cuba, Haiti, Nicaragua and Venezuela to Mexico. At the same time, Biden’s administration opened up the possibility for up to 30,000 migrants from those same countries to enter via air each month by applying for humanitarian “parole.”   

‘Undue stress’   

The parole program is aimed at encouraging migrants to safely travel to the United States instead of braving boats or grueling land journeys through Central America to the border. U.S. officials say illegal crossings by the four nationalities have already dropped dramatically.   

A senior administration official said last week that about 1,700 people from Cuba, Haiti and Nicaragua have arrived in the United States through the program in recent weeks, with thousands more approved for travel.   

But finding willing sponsors is proving difficult for many Haitians as many immigrants already in the United States are concerned they won’t be able to provide for others with the rising cost of living and soaring rents, advocates and attorneys said.   

Tammy Rae, an American lawyer who works in Haiti, described the humanitarian parole program in a radio interview and was later flooded by calls from people seeking a sponsor.   

She said her clients have described being expected to sponsor entire extended families and in some cases face threats.   

“It’s true that this is a program that will unite families,” Rae said. “I would say it’s also a program that will place undue stress on families and cause family divisions.”   

The Department of Homeland Security, which administers the program, did not respond to a request for comment.   

Guerline Jozef, executive director of the nonprofit immigration advocacy group Haitian Bridge Alliance, which is helping Haitians find sponsors, described the dilemma.   

“People will say ‘I have more than one cousin I would like to sponsor, I’m only able to sponsor one of them,'” Jozef said. “And that creates a major issue because how do you choose which one to sponsor?” She is also opposed to the expulsions of Haitians and other migrants arriving at the southwest border, many of whom are seeking U.S. asylum.   

Jozef said immigrant advocates have long fought for measures such as humanitarian parole but said the program should not be attached to systematic deportation or expulsion of immigrants seeking asylum.   

“Unfortunately, it is attached to a lot of bad policies. It is being used to literally deter people from seeking protection at the U.S-Mexico border.” 

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New Czech President Vows to Boost Ties with Taiwan

Czech President-elect Petr Pavel vowed Monday to boost his country’s ties with Taiwan after holding a phone call with the island’s president and foreign minister. 

President Tsai Ing-wen congratulated Pavel on his win in Saturday’s presidential run-off over the populist billionaire Andrej Babis. 

“I thanked her for her congratulations, and I assured her that Taiwan and the Czech Republic share the values of freedom, democracy, and human rights,” Pavel said on Twitter. 

“We agreed on strengthening our partnership,” added the former general, who served as head of NATO’s military committee in 2015-2018. 

He said he “expressed hope to have the opportunity to meet President Tsai in person in the future.” 

The call is likely to anger China, which is trying to keep Taipei isolated on the world stage and prevents any sign of international legitimacy for the island. 

Beijing claims self-ruled, democratic Taiwan as part of its territory to be seized one day, by force if necessary. 

The Taiwanese presidential office said the call, which Taiwan’s Foreign Minister Joseph Wu also joined, lasted almost 15 minutes. 

“The president… acknowledged that President-elect Pavel carries on the spirit of former Czech President (Vaclav) Havel who respected democracy, freedom and human rights, under which the republic was founded, and is like-minded with Taiwan,” Tsai’s office said in a statement. 

Havel was the Czech Republic’s first president in 1993-2003. 

Before Havel became head of state, the anti-communist dissident playwright had in 1989 led the so-called Velvet Revolution, which toppled communism in former Czechoslovakia. 

As the Czech Republic’s fourth president, Pavel will replace pro-Chinese and pro-Russian incumbent Milos Zeman, whose final term expires in March.  

Zeman is currently visiting Aleksandar Vucic, the president of Serbia, which has not joined Western sanctions against Moscow following its invasion of Ukraine. 

In a sign that his foreign policy would vastly differ from Zeman’s, Pavel spoke with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy on the phone Sunday.  

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Belarusian President Arrives in Zimbabwe

Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko arrived in Zimbabwe on Monday for talks with his counterpart, Emmerson Mnangagwa, aimed at boosting “strong cooperation” in several areas between the two countries.    

Lukashenko landed in Zimbabwe’s capital city, Harare, for a two-day visit and was greeted by Mnangagwa and thousands of ruling party supporters.    

The two countries are close allies of Russia. Belarus has backed Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, a former Soviet republic, while Zimbabwe has claimed neutrality and refused to condemn Moscow. 

The two leaders plan to meet on Tuesday. The talks are aimed at strengthening “existing excellent relations” in areas such as politics, mining and agriculture, Zimbabwe’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement. 

“The visit is historic, as it is the first such undertaking to a sub-Saharan African nation, by President Lukashenko,” the ministry said, according to Agence France-Presse.    

Lukashenko has been in power since 1994. He was reelected in 2020 in a highly contested vote that was widely denounced as a sham, resulting in mass protests. Lukashenko’s government cracked down violently on demonstrators, arresting more than 35,000 people and brutally beating thousands, according to The Associated Press.    

Mnangagwa’s reign has been shorter, coming into power in 2017 after the leader of the previous 37 years, Robert Mugabe, was forced to resign because of numerous human rights violations. Mnangagwa has faced similar controversies.    

Both leaders have been accused by rivals and the West of being corrupt and limiting free speech by stifling dissent, accusations that Lukashenko and Mnangagwa have denied.    

Some information from this report came from Agence France-Presse and The Associated Press. 

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US General’s Bellicose China Memo Highlights Civilian-Military Divide

A controversial memo from a U.S. Air Force general predicting war with China in 2025 may reflect a growing disconnect between the way the United States’ civilian and military leadership view the relationship between the world’s two largest economic powers.

In the memo, which began circulating online over the weekend, General Michael Minihan opens with the stark statement, “I hope I am wrong. My gut tells me we will fight in 2025.”

Minihan, in charge of the Air Force’s Air Mobility Command (AMC), a 5,000-person unit focused on logistics, offers no evidence for his prediction of war between the U.S. and China other than a vague assertion that upcoming elections in the U.S. and Taiwan will create an opportunity for Beijing to attempt reunifying the self-governing island with the mainland. China has long claimed that Taiwan is part of Chinese territory.

‘Aim for the head’

The general’s memo orders units under his command to step up their training and readiness to be prepared “to deter, and if required, to defeat China.”

In addition to broad directives about the AMC’s logistical readiness, Minihan adds several specific orders, including the directive that “All AMC aligned personnel with weapons qualification will fire a clip into a 7-meter target with the full understanding that unrepentant lethality matters most. Aim for the head.”

A former C-130 pilot, Minihan has served in other senior roles in the U.S. military, including deputy commander of the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command from September 2019 to August 2021, so he has a deep understanding of the Chinese military.

Civilian-military split

Minihan’s comments appear to contradict statements by senior officials in the Biden administration, including Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin. Earlier this month, Austin told reporters that the U.S. has noted increasingly aggressive behavior by China toward Taiwan but downplayed the possibility of a near-term attack.

“We believe that they endeavor to establish a new normal, but whether or not that means that an invasion is imminent, I seriously doubt that,” he said.

In a statement sent to VOA, Pentagon press secretary Air Force Brigadier General Patrick Ryder said, “The National Defense Strategy makes clear that China is the pacing challenge for the Department of Defense and our focus remains on working alongside allies and partners to preserve a peaceful, free and open Indo-Pacific.”

Asked about the Minihan memo specifically, the Pentagon forwarded a statement attributed to an unnamed Defense Department official saying, “These comments are not representative of the department’s view on China.”

Other warnings from top brass

However, Minihan is not the first senior officer to warn of looming conflict with China in recent months. In October, Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Mike Gilday suggested that U.S. forces need to be prepared for potential conflict with China as soon as this year.

“I can’t rule that out,” Gilday said. “I don’t mean at all to be [an] alarmist by saying that, it’s just that we can’t wish that away.”

During his confirmation hearings in 2021, U.S. Indo-Pacific Command head Admiral John Aquilino was asked about a possible Chinese invasion of Taiwan. He replied, “My opinion is this problem is much closer to us than most think.”

In December, he said that people who were surprised by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last year should consider the possibility of a similar attack by China on Taiwan.

“This could happen in the Pacific region,” he said in an appearance at the Reagan National Defense Forum. “We shouldn’t be surprised that it can happen.”

‘Very unwise’

Michael O’Hanlon, director of research in foreign policy at the Brookings Institution, told VOA that he believes that the Minihan memo was a serious error, and one that ought to have been more sternly rebuked by the Department of Defense.

“It conflates the importance of deterrence with the likelihood of war in a way that is, I think, very unwise, and potentially dangerous because of the potential [for creating] a self-fulfilling prophecy,” he said. “It’s at odds with U.S. government policy, which does not call China a looming enemy. It calls China a ‘pacing challenge,’ or ‘our most consequential strategic competitor.’ Those words were carefully chosen to say that we need to think about the possibility of war with China, with an eye towards deterring it. But we don’t need to think about its imminence.”

O’Hanlon expressed concern that Minihan’s attitude toward China is gaining currency in the U.S., creating the possibility that some small future crisis, otherwise containable, might serve as the spark for a broader conflict.

“I worry that he’s just a blunter version of an attitude that’s becoming more prevalent,” O’Hanlon said. “I see this in a lot of the strategic community in the United States. There is an appropriate vigilance about China, and that’s all to the good, but we have to avoid demonizing them. We have to avoid thinking that the first crisis is just sort of the beginning of the inevitable fights and that we should get after it while we still are in the dominant position. That kind of attitude is a little bit too prevalent for my taste.”

No evidence of imminent threat

“There’s no evidence to support the assertion that China is seriously contemplating an attack on Taiwan in the next few years. No evidence,” Timothy R. Heath, a senior international defense researcher at the RAND Corporation, told VOA.

However, Heath said he sees a significant divide between the way senior military officers regard China and the attitude of the United States government.

“There is a surprising disconnect between the assessments being put out by senior political leaders and the statements by top military leaders, which express a much higher level of alarm and fear that an attack is coming or looming,” he said.

Heath said a combination of factors appear to have led to that disconnect. Political leaders, he said, tend to look at China as a strategic threat, but also as a trading partner and a potential collaborator in the fight against climate change. They see a country trapped in a major economic and demographic crisis, both of which have a higher priority in Beijing than reunification with Taiwan.

Military leaders, Heath said, tend to focus more closely on the undisputed fact that the Chinese People’s Liberation Army has grown more sophisticated and dangerous in recent years. They also have concerns closer to home.

“There is a political angle here, with Congress thinking about slashing the defense budget,” Heath said. “These generals – I hate to say it – they have an incentive to remind leaders of a potential major security threat that would require a strong defense.”

Chinese Foreign Ministry comments

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Mao Ning was asked to address the general’s comments in a news conference Monday.

“Taiwan is part of China,” she said. “Resolving the Taiwan question is a matter for the Chinese. The real cause of the new round of tensions across the Taiwan Strait is the [Taiwanese] authorities’ continued act of soliciting U.S. support for ‘Taiwan independence’ and the agenda among some people in the U.S. to use Taiwan to contain China.”

She added, “We urge the U.S. to abide by the one-China principle and the three China-U.S. joint communiqués, deliver on U.S. leaders’ commitment of not supporting ‘Taiwan independence,’ stop meddling in the Taiwan question, stop military contact with Taiwan and stop creating new factors that could lead to tensions in the Taiwan Strait.”

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Azerbaijan Embassy in Iran Suspends Work After Deadly Attack

Azerbaijan said on Monday it was suspending work at its embassy in Iran, days after a gunman stormed the mission, killing one guard and wounding two others. 

Iran has said the attack on Friday was motivated by personal reasons, but Baku labeled it an act of terrorism. 

“The operation of Azerbaijan’s embassy in Iran has been temporarily suspended following the evacuation of its staff and their family members from Iran,” Azerbaijani Foreign Ministry spokesman Ayxan Hacizada told Agence France-Presse.

“That doesn’t mean that diplomatic ties had been severed,” he said, adding that Baku’s consulate general in the Iranian city of Tabriz was “up and running.” 

In a phone call on Saturday with his Iranian counterpart Ebrahim Raisi, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev said he hoped “this violent act of terror would be thoroughly investigated.”

Tehran’s police said the attacker, who was arrested, was an Iranian man married to an Azerbaijani woman. 

The United States condemned the “unacceptable violence” and urged a prompt investigation. Russia’s Foreign Ministry said Moscow was “shocked” by the attack. 

Iran is home to millions of Turkic-speaking, ethnic Azeris, and it has long accused Azerbaijan of fomenting separatist sentiment inside its territory.

Relations between the two countries have traditionally been sour, with the former Soviet republic a close ally of Iran’s historical rival Turkey.

Tehran also fears that Azerbaijani territory could be used for a possible offensive against Iran by Israel, a major supplier of arms to Baku. 

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With Media on Trial or in Exile, Belarusian Journalists Strive to Keep Reporting

In a little over two years, the team at have seen their news outlet go from being one of the most read in Belarus to being labeled an “extremist” organization whose staff are equated with criminals.

Currently five of the media outlet’s journalists are standing trial in a case that many analysts see as a somber reminder of President Alexander Lukashenko’s war on the press.

Those closely following charges filed against the Belarusian media have grim predictions for how the trial will play out. In the past two years, Minsk has sentenced several journalists to lengthy prison terms.

But even after authorities forced the closure of, members of its surviving team are reconvening in exile and under a new name to ensure audiences still have access to news. drew the government’s ire for its coverage of the August 2020 contested presidential elections, when Lukashenko claimed victory and opposition candidates were detained or forced to flee. When demonstrations broke out across the country, authorities arrested scores of protesters and journalists.

The government later branded and other independent outlets as “extremist.” In May 2021, officials raided the newsroom, blocked access to its website and detained staff, including the editor-in chief Marina Zolatova and general director Lyudmila Chekina. A few months later, was declared “extremist” and banned.

A closed-door trial for Zolatova and Chekina on charges including tax evasion, “inciting hatred,” and endangering the country’s national security, started in the capital, Minsk, on January 9.

Their colleagues Volha Loika, Alena Talkachova and Katsyaryna Tkachenka, are being tried in absentia. All three had left the country earlier, according to the Belarusian human rights group Viasna.

For co-founder Kirill Voloshin, there is no question that the trial is a sham.

“I don’t think that there is any significance to this trial because it’s just a show for Lukashenko and his authority,” Voloshin told VOA from his new home in Lithuania. “It’s just a showcase that you should keep your mouth shut.”

“There’s no justice,” Voloshin added. “It’s just some imitation of a court.”

He believes the government came down hard on because it had such wide readership and influence in Belarus. At its height, around 70% of internet users in Belarus read, Voloshin estimated.

The Belarus embassy in Washington did not reply to VOA’s email requesting comment.

‘Harsh conditions’

The journalists will almost certainly be sentenced to lengthy prison terms, according to Gulnoza Said, the Europe and Central Asia Program Coordinator at the Committee to Protect Journalists.

“It is very clear that the Lukashenko regime is prosecuting every single journalist, every single critic, everybody who expresses or expressed in the past any dissenting views,” Said told VOA. “The difference between Lukashenko now and Lukashenko in the past is that now there is no pretext. The masks are off.”

“Officials are not even trying to pretend that the reasons behind this prosecution are not political,” she said.

The New York-based media advocate was especially concerned about the conditions journalists face in prison, noting that political detainees are often treated worse than criminals in Belarus.

If convicted, Zolatava and Chekina both face up to 12 years in prison.

“Belarusian prisons are notorious for really harsh conditions for all prisoners,” she said. “Many journalists, as well as political opponents of Lukashenko, are probably facing harsher conditions in prisons.”

More than 1,400 political prisoners are currently detained in Belarus, according to rights group Viasna.

The country is among the worst jailers of journalists in the world, with 33 reporters currently behind bars, either awaiting trial or serving sentences, according to the Belarusian Association of Journalists (BAJ). Two of those detained contributed to VOA’s sister network Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.

“This is their sacrifice for freedom of speech,” said Volha Khvoin, who is on BAJ’s board.

Belarusian authorities are destroying independent media “to make sure that the residents of Belarus have no access or the most difficult access to non-state media,” Khvoin wrote in an email to VOA.

People in Belarus can use a VPN to access the websites that authorities blocked, she said, but that can bring its own risks, since police often check the phones of people they detain.

A lack of access to independent media affects people’s understanding of the world, including the war in Ukraine, according to Khvoin.

People who don’t read independent media are more likely to support the Russian invasion of Ukraine, for instance, she said.

“Propaganda changes the consciousness of a person,” she said.

Media in exile

Due to the threat of imprisonment, few independent reporters still work inside Belarus. The BAJ estimates that around 400 reporters left the country since 2020, many of whom set up in Lithuania and Poland.

Voloshin, who helped found in 2000, is working with other exiled colleagues to found a successor to the media outlet.

Named Zerkalo — which means “mirror” in Russian — the website is working to replicate’s coverage of Belarus and reconnect with audiences in and outside the country.

Alongside its reporting on politics and human rights issues, Zerkalo is monitoring the case against’s team. When the trial began, it issued a statement saying the case “was fabricated from start to finish and appeared only because the regime is afraid of journalists.”

Zerkalo is part of a broader effort from exiled media to keep reporting on what’s happening inside Belarus.

The BAJ has coordinators in cities across Europe who are trying to help reestablish journalist networks from outside Belarus, said Khvoin, who is based in Warsaw.

“At the moment the ties between people from the Belarusian journalistic community have been preserved, and maybe they have become stronger in some way,” Khvoin wrote in an email to VOA. “Because in exile people need more support, contacts, maintaining life balance.”

To Voloshin, the spirit of lives on in Zerkalo, and that gives him some hope for the future of his country.

“’s mission was to report the truth on what’s happening in the country, highlighting the good and bad sides of what’s happening. That mission never disappeared,” Voloshin said. “This is one of the most important ways to demolish the dictatorship.”

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