World Leaders Pledge $4 Billion to Public Education Affected by Pandemic

Thursday marks the second and final day of the Global Education Summit in London, hosted by Kenya and the United Kingdom. International governments and corporations pledged to donate $4 billion for the Global Partnership for Education, which provides fair access to public education in 90 countries and territories that account for 80% of children out of school. The summit emphasized the importance of equitable access to education amid warnings that COVID-19 has exacerbated already under-resourced public education programs in less economically developed countries. Experts alerted the organization that it was unlikely for those forced out of schools due to the pandemic to return. Australia’s former prime minister Julia Gillard gestures as she speaks during the closing ceremony on the second day of the Global Education Summit in London, Britain, July 29, 2021.Julia Gillard, former Australian prime minister and chair of the partnership, noted that the pandemic affected access to education in all nations but poorer countries where families may lack internet connection or electricity were devastated. Gillard said that this pledge puts the partnership on track for completing the goal of raising $5 billion over five years. Ambassador Raychelle Omamo, Kenyan Cabinet secretary for foreign affairs, warned of the pandemic’s devastating impact on global education, saying “education is the pathway, the way forward.” Malala Yousafzai, a Nobel Peace Prize winner from Pakistan and activist for female education, spoke to the summit leaders and stressed the significance of accessible education for young girls who are often discriminated against. She warned that 130 million girls were unable to attend school because of the pandemic and said that “their futures are worth fighting for.” Addressing the conference with Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced his government’s commitment to girls’ education and its goal of enrolling 40 million more girls in school by 2026. Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta and Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson applaud during the closing ceremony on the second day of the Global Education Summit in London, Britain, July 29, 2021.”Enabling them to learn and reach their full potential is the single greatest thing we can do to recover from this crisis,” Johnson said. Johnson faced criticism for advocating for girls’ education while simultaneously cutting the U.K.’s overseas aid budget. The prime minister pledged $602 million to the Global Partnership for Education, while slashing $5.6 billion from the U.K.’s international development allowance. British officials said that the budget cut is temporary and was a necessary action due to the economic strain from pandemic recovery. The Global Partnership for Education also received criticism for continuing funding to partner countries that openly discriminate against students. Investigations by Human Rights Watch uncovered open exclusion of pregnant students in Tanzania and Rohingya refugee children in Bangladesh.  Some information for this report came from the Associated Press. 

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US Car Dealers Struggle to Find Inventory Amid Semiconductor Shortage

As the U.S economic recovery continues, many Americans want to buy new cars and trucks. But finding them is hard amid a global semiconductor shortage. VOA’s Kane Farabaugh has more on how COVID-19 continues to affect supply and demand in the automotive industry.

Producers: Kane Farabaugh, Adam Greenbaum. Videographer: Kane Farabaugh.

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Face Masks Are Back for Many Americans 

Face mask requirements are returning to the United States in some communities and workplaces, along with directives for mandatory coronavirus vaccinations, in a new push to curb the easily transmissible delta variant of the infection that has already killed more than 611,000 Americans.

On the Independence Day holiday earlier this month, U.S. President Joe Biden heralded the strides the country had made in combating the coronavirus. But now he said he was seriously considering requiring that the more than 2.1 million federal workers be vaccinated, and that he would adhere to face mask rules when he visited parts of the country where the virus was surging.

The U.S. is now recording more than 60,000 new coronavirus cases each day, the government said, up from fewer than 12,000 a day in late June.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi, the leader of the Democratic-controlled U.S. House of Representatives, has reimposed a mask requirement in the chamber.

The western state of Nevada, where the popular Las Vegas gambling mecca is located, is reimposing mask rules for indoor gatherings, as is the Midwestern city of Kansas City, Missouri. A major newspaper, The Washington Post, said it would require that all its journalists be vaccinated before returning to the office in mid-September.

The requirements follow new guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which said Tuesday that new data suggested even vaccinated people could pass on the virus if they became infected. The CDC said masks should be worn inside public places in communities that have seen a dramatic increase in COVID-19 cases in recent weeks. COVID-19 is the disease caused by the coronavirus.

“I know this is not a message America wants to hear,” CDC Director Rochelle Walensky told CNN on Wednesday. “With prior variants, when people had these rare breakthrough infections, we didn’t see the capacity of them to spread the virus to others, but with the delta variant, we now see that you can actually now pass it to somebody else.”

She stressed that vaccines against the coronavirus were preventing greater levels of hospitalization and death. But millions of Americans remain skeptical of the vaccines and are refusing to get inoculated, or are saying  they are unlikely to do so.

Walensky said unvaccinated people were accounting for “a vast majority” of new infections. Two-thirds of the vaccine-eligible population of people 12 years and older in the U.S. have received at least one dose. Still, the government said slightly less than half of the U.S. population of more than 328 million people had been fully vaccinated.

“We can halt the chain of transmission,” Walensky said Wednesday on “CBS This Morning.” “We can do something if we unify together, if we get people vaccinated who are not yet vaccinated. If we mask in the interim, we can halt this in just a matter of a couple of weeks.”

With the new federal guidance, numerous state and municipal governments across the U.S. are reconsidering or rescinding their earlier easing of mask rules.

The CDC also called on school systems across the country to require masks for students, teachers and visitors as they start the new school year in August and September. But some states in the South have passed laws banning masks in schools, leaving it unclear as to how they may react to the new CDC guidance.

Some information in this report came from The Associated Press.

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Myanmar is Aiming to Eliminate Free Press, Media Group Says

In just under six months Myanmar has become one of the worst jailers of journalists in the world, with at least 32 currently detained, a media freedom watchdog said Wednesday. 

The targeting of media since the February 1 coup marks a “drastic reversal” of positive inroads made by the Southeast Asian country toward greater freedom of expression since the end of its last period of military rule, the Committee to Protect Journalists said in a special report. 

Since Myanmar’s army toppled the elected civilian government and arrested its de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi, over 900 people have been killed and 5,400 arrested, charged or detained including dozens of journalists, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (Burma). 

As well as arrests, authorities have periodically imposed internet blackouts, revoked media licenses and issued warrants for reporters, a move that CPJ says is driving critical reporters underground or into self-imposed exile.

“As of July 1 at least 32 journalists were being held behind bars either on false news related charges or uncharged altogether,” Shawn Crispin, CPJ’s senior Southeast Asia representative, told VOA. “This is repression unlike I think probably we’ve seen anywhere in the world over the last six months. This is a worse situation than China. This is a worse situation than in Turkey.”

Those two countries usually account for the highest numbers of imprisoned journalists, according to CPJ’s census carried out each December. But Crispin said the data on those currently held in Myanmar make the country a close third. For comparison, last December Myanmar had only one journalist in jail.

At the height of the repression in June, CPJ documented at least 45 journalists behind bars. Myanmar later freed some of those. But for those still detained, conditions are dire with reports of torture and overcrowding. 

The CPJ said the full number being held may be higher, with many media organizations reluctant to identify their contributors for fear of reprisals.

“It seems pretty clear that the junta regime is aiming to eliminate free press altogether,” Crispin said, describing the current environment as an “humanitarian crisis for journalists.”

Local media have borne the brunt of repression but international news outlets have been restricted and at least four foreign journalists detained. Three of those—American reporter Nathan Maung, and correspondents from Poland and Japan—were later released. 

But Danny Fenster, the American managing editor for English-language local publication Frontier Myanmar, has been in custody for over 65 days.

Fenster, who is being held in Yangon’s Insein prison, told his lawyer he has the coronavirus but has not been provided with medical assistance. A court hearing scheduled for Wednesday was pushed back and his family have limited contact or updates on his wellbeing. 

The journalist, originally from metro Detroit, had been working in Myanmar for a couple of years. He was arrested on May 24 at Yangon airport, when he tried to fly home for a family visit.

U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said Tuesday the Myanmar military’s refusal to respect rights is “flatly unacceptable” and called for the release of those detained.

Shaky record

Media freedom record under Suu Kyi’s elected government was far from flawless. Two Reuters reporters who reported on abuses against the Rohingya Muslim minority were imprisoned for over 500 days. 

But under the junta, CPJ’s Crispin says, Myanmar has used expanded laws around false news and incitement to target journalists as it seeks to “black out the news” of the deadly crackdown on pro-democracy campaigners.

“We found that many news outlets that were free to operate under Aung San Suu Kyi’s civilian government are now effectively operated underground. That means they have to close the bureaus,” he said, adding that many report from safe houses or while on the run. 

American journalist Maung told VOA his team at Kamayut Media knew they could face danger at any time. 

On March 9 around 40 armed soldiers raided their news outlet, and arrested Maung and his colleagues. 

“They interrogated me for the first four days, they didn’t give me water for three days,” Maung told VOA. 

The journalist said his captors kept him handcuffed, blindfolded and in stress positions.

“The first few days when I was being tortured I thought I could be killed anytime,” Maung said.  

His colleague Hanthar Nyien suffered too. CPJ’s report says Nyien was forced to kneel on an ice block, burned with cigarettes, and threatened with rape to force the journalist to hand over the code to unlock his smartphone.

The prison guards later learned that Maung was American, and he was released after 98 days. Nyien remains in custody.

“My body is in the United States but my mind everyday stays with my friends in the prison,” Maung said.

Myanmar’s military council has not directly responded to VOA’s queries on the treatment of detainees, but a spokesperson said the questioning of suspects is “in accordance with the rule and regulations.”

In a seemingly unrelenting crackdown “it’s hard to find positive strength in what’s happening right now in Myanmar for free press,” Crispin said. “They really are trying to erase the opening that allows the free press to take hold.”

But print outlets have pivoted to news shared over Facebook, and citizen journalists are risking arrest, bullets and tear gas to record the actions of the security forces.

A number of journalists have sought sanctuary in neighboring countries including Thailand and India.

“The junta can’t stop the internet, they can’t shut down Facebook…they can’t shut down information,” said one Myanmar reporter. 

The journalist, who is in hiding outside the country, asked for their identity and location to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation.

“We don’t want to settle here. We want to keep working and reporting for Burma. We’re illegal here. We don’t have any document, so they [the authorities here] can arrest us and deport us back to Burma any day. We have to be low profile and very cautious,” the journalist said.

Crispin urged neighboring countries to provide a safe haven for journalists in hiding.

“It’s our hope that they will be allowed sanctuary in neighboring countries that would make it a little safer for them to report the news,” he said.

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UNAMA Chief: Without Meaningful Negotiations, Taliban Lose Legitimacy

The Taliban will lose the international legitimacy they gained through their negotiations in Doha if the group does not fulfill its obligation to negotiate with the Afghan government for a political settlement to the conflict, the head of the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan said Wednesday in Kabul. 

“If there is no movement at the negotiating table, and instead human rights abuses and, worse still, atrocities occur in districts they control, the Taliban will not be seen as a viable partner for the international community,” Deborrah Lyons said while addressing a meeting of the Joint Coordination and Monitoring Board (JCMB), created in 2006 for coordination between the Afghan government and the international community. 

The Taliban have been officially talking to a team of Afghans that includes government representatives since September last year but there has been little movement in that discussion. 

Earlier this month, a high-level delegation of Afghans led by Abdullah Abdullah, the head of Afghanistan’s High Council for National Reconciliation (HCNR), went to Doha to meet the Taliban negotiation team in an effort to boost the process, with little success. 

The Taliban promised to negotiate with an Islamic Republic of Afghanistan (IRoA) team, as the Afghan team is called, in a deal it signed with the United States in February 2020 that paved the way for the withdrawal of foreign forces from Afghanistan. 

However, only parts of that deal were met. Other parts that included meaningful intra-Afghan negotiations for a political settlement, and a permanent and comprehensive cease-fire as a result of that settlement, are yet to materialize. 

On the contrary, the level of violence in Afghanistan has surged since the announcement that foreign troops are withdrawing from Afghanistan. In the last several months, the Taliban have made swift territorial gains and surrounded several cities, even if they have not captured a city yet.   

Lyons said the Taliban had “inherited responsibility” for the areas they have taken over. 

“The world is watching closely how they are acting, especially towards civilian populations, women and minorities,” she said. 

At the meeting attended by Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah, Lyons also pointed to the humanitarian crisis unfolding in the wake of the increased violence. 

“Eighteen million Afghans today are facing dire humanitarian needs. That is twice the number of the same category last year. It represents half the country,” she said. 

The crisis, which includes millions of people internally displaced due to violence, has been exacerbated by waves of COVID-19 and a persistent drought. 

According to the U.N., civilian casualties this year are 50% higher, compared to the same period last year. Half of all those killed or wounded are women and children. 

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Biden Administration Wants to Require Businesses to Disclose Ransomware Attacks

The Biden administration is throwing its support behind congressional legislation that would require companies to report major data breaches by hackers, including the ransomware attacks that are increasingly targeting U.S. critical infrastructure.

“The administration strongly supports congressional action to require victim companies to report significant breaches, including ransomware attacks,” Richard Downing, a deputy assistant attorney general at the U.S. Department of Justice, told members of the Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday.

“In particular, such legislation should require covered entities to notify the federal government about ransomware attacks, cyber incidents that affect critical infrastructure entities, and other breaches that implicate heightened risks to the government, the public or third parties,” Downing said.

The announcement came as members of Congress are advancing more than a dozen bills in response to a recent escalation in ransomware attacks, while the administration has taken a whole-of-government approach to respond to what it sees as a public safety, economic and national security threat.

Emphasizing that information sharing is critical between companies and the government, Judiciary Committee Chairman Dick Durbin said there is “general bipartisan support” for congressional action in response to the cybersecurity threat.

“And I hope it leads — I think it will — to specific legislation to deal with this,” said Durbin, a Democrat.

Last week, a bipartisan group of senators introduced the Cyber Incident Notification Act of 2021, a bill that would require federal agencies and contractors as well as critical infrastructure operators to notify the government within 24 hours of a cyber breach that “poses a threat to national security.” To encourage information sharing, the bill would grant limited immunity to companies that report a breach.

“We shouldn’t be relying on voluntary reporting to protect our critical infrastructure,” Democratic Senator Mark Warner, chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee and one of the bill’s co-sponsors, said in a statement last week. “We need a routine federal standard so that when vital sectors of our economy are affected by a breach, the full resources of the federal government can be mobilized to respond to and stave off its impact.” 

The bill’s Republican co-sponsors include Senators Marco Rubio, vice chair of the Intelligence Committee, and Susan Collins, a senior member.

Once seen as a financial crime, ransomware attacks have grown in both number and severity over the past year and a half. Testifying before Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said the attacks have surged by 300% over the past year. This year alone, Mayorkas said, ransomware attacks have resulted in economic losses of $300 million.

In May, a ransomware attack on Colonial Pipeline, the operator of the largest fuel pipeline in the country, disrupted its operations for several days, setting off fuel shortages and panic buying. In June, meat processor JBS USA said it paid $11 million to cybercriminals following a ransomware attack that disrupted its operations.

Legislative proposals such as the Warner bill seek to address what law enforcement officials have long identified as a major impediment to their ability to respond to a ransomware attack: a reluctance by businesses to notify law enforcement about cyber breaches.

Companies are not currently required to disclose when they have been attacked by ransomware criminals. Fearing loss of operations or reputational harm, most victims choose not to report. The FBI estimates that about 25% to 30% of such incidents get reported, according to Bryan Vorndran, assistant director of the FBI’s cyber division.

The FBI has long encouraged victims of ransomware attacks to notify law enforcement, saying such information sharing can help it better understand and respond to the threat. Now, it wants notifications made mandatory.

“Because far too many ransomware incidents go unreported, and because silence benefits ransomware actors the most, we wholeheartedly believe a federal standard is needed to mandate the reporting of certain cyber incidents, including most ransomware incidents,” Vorndran testified.

“The scope and severity of this threat has reached the point where we can no longer rely on voluntary reports alone to learn about incidents,” Vorndran said.

In addition to ransomware attacks above a to-be-determined threshold, Downing said, the Justice Department wants mandatory notifications for two other types of breaches: supply chain attacks that could give outsiders access to critical U.S. infrastructure and government systems, and attacks involving high-value trade secrets related to critical infrastructure.

“Of particular significance, entities should be required to report any ransom demand; the date, time and amount of ransom payments; and addresses where payments were requested to be sent,” Downing said.

While supporting mandatory breach notifications, Downing and other officials opposed calls to make ransom payments illegal. Jeremy Sheridan, an assistant director for the U.S. Secret Service, told lawmakers that banning ransomware payments “would further push any reporting to law enforcement into obscurity.”

Jeff Seldin contributed to this report.


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Weightlifter Guryeva Wins Turkmenistan’s 1st Olympic medal

Sparsely populated and isolated from most of the outside world, Turkmenistan has finally won its first Olympic medal since independence from the Soviet Union.

Weightlifter Polina Guryeva won a silver medal for the Central Asian nation at the Tokyo Games on Tuesday, and then predicted she would go down in the country’s history.

“I was in shock because it’s the first Olympic medal in the history of the Turkmen people. It’s the first medal, which I won. No sport in Turkmenistan has had a medal, not one medal,” the 21-year-old Guryeva said. “I think I’ve entered the history of Turkmenistan by winning a medal. I’m so in shock.”

Guryeva lifted a total 217 kilograms in the 59-kilogram category, edging Mikiko Andoh of Japan for second place. Kuo Hsing-Chun of Taiwan won gold by lifting 236kg.

Guryeva, who calls Kuo her “idol” and copies her training exercises, finished in 28th place at the 2019 world championships while competing one weight category higher. On her coach’s advice, she used the one-year Olympic delay caused by the coronavirus pandemic to reset, dropping down a class.

“When the pandemic began, I didn’t have a chance of qualifying,” she said. “In October, I dropped down and started training. And I went to the Asian Championships in Uzbekistan, lifted 211 total, and then I got the chance to go to the Olympics. And then I started training even harder to get this medal.”

Guryeva will return home to a country which has often had little contact with the outside world but is trying to make its name in the world of sports. The gas-rich nation sent two medalists to the Soviet Union’s Olympic teams for the 1956 and 1960 Games but success has been rare since.

Hosting the 2018 weightlifting world championships at a lavish new sports complex in the capital, Ashgabat, was one step toward raising the country’s profile. Turkmenistan’s authoritarian president, Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, is a fan of cycling and the country was scheduled to hold the track cycling championships this year, too, but they were moved because of the pandemic.

The Turkmenistan government says it has not had any cases of COVID-19 but has made vaccinations mandatory.

For Kuo, the victory was about completing a set of major championship medals. The Taiwanese lifter finally added Olympic gold to her four world titles.

“I have all the pieces together. Now I am very happy,” she said through a translator.

Andoh lifted a total of 214kg for bronze despite what she later revealed was severe pain in her feet. After her last lift, she fell to the ground on stage with a smile and was helped away by her coaches.

In the 64-kilogram category, Maude Charron got hear a song at the Olympics that her “idol” never did — the Canadian national anthem.

Charron won an unusually open competition with six women in the running for a place on the podium ahead of their last lifts. Charron’s total of 236kg was four more than silver medalist Giorgia Bordignon of Italy and six ahead of Chen Wen-Huei of Taiwan.

Christine Girard, the Olympic champion from the 2012 London Games, never got to stand on the top step of the podium while “O Canada” was played because she originally finished in third place. The lifters that finished above her, from Kazakhstan and Russia, both later tested positive for doping.

“I asked her how to prepare for the games, how not to be too intimidated by the rings, and she wrote me a message,” Charron said. “Now I just feel like that’s her medal, that’s her moment because she didn’t have it in real time.”

Weightlifting has reallocated dozens of past Olympic medals and cut the Tokyo allocation for countries which racked up the most doping offenses.

“For sure anti-doping made a great deal in just cleaning the sport,” Charron said. “There is a progression in this clean way.”

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