The World Today for August 04, 2021

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Little Brother

Azerbaijani authorities filmed journalist Khadija Ismayilova in intimate situations in her home in Baku, alleged that she drove a colleague to suicide and charged her with tax fraud. Sentenced to seven years in prison, she was released on bail after 18 months but prohibited from leaving the former Soviet Republic on the Caspian Sea for five years.

When the ban ended, she quickly fled. But she didn’t know that Azerbaijani authorities had installed an Israeli company’s military-grade spyware in her smartphone, according to an investigation that included 17 respected media outlets around the world, the Paris-based journalism nonprofit Forbidden Stories and Amnesty International.

Ismayilova was one of almost 200 journalists, human rights advocates, businesspeople, politicians and others whose privacy was violated with the technology. For three years, NSO Group’s Pegasus spyware hacked her phone’s contents, including accessing her camera and microphone remotely.

“NSO’s spyware is a weapon of choice for repressive governments seeking to silence journalists, attack activists and crush dissent, placing countless lives in peril,” stated Amnesty International Secretary General Agnès Callamard in a statement.

French President Emmanuel Macron was on a list of 50,000 targets for the spyware, Reuters wrote, prompting French prosecutors to launch a probe. The smartphones of family members of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, whom Saudi officials killed in Istanbul in 2018, were reportedly monitored, too. The parents of 43 students who disappeared in southwest Mexico in 2014 were also on the list. They had been agitating and petitioning their government to do more to recover their children, wrote the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project.

Meanwhile, NSO issued a press release disputing the investigation’s findings and initially disputed the charges against the company. Later, it admitted its concern. “We are checking every allegation, and if some of the allegations are true, we will take stern action, and we will terminate contracts like we did in the past,” NSO Chief Executive Shalev Hulio said. “If anybody did any kind of surveillance on journalists, even if it’s not by Pegasus, it’s disturbing.”

Launched from an Israeli kibbutz, the NSO Group is worth more than $1.5 billion, the Washington Post reported. Executives said they would consider closing Pegasus if officials could find a better way to protect national security. But he admitted that NSO does not know what its clients do with its software.

Indian author Arundhati Roy rejected those rationalizations and not just because the company charges maintenance fees for a service that violated the privacy of people exercising their rights. “There has to be something treasonous about a foreign corporation servicing and maintaining a spy network that is monitoring a country’s private citizens on behalf of that country’s government,” she argued in a Guardian opinion piece.

Writing in the Hindustan Times, Zia Haq cited 20th-century French thinker Michel Foucault to explain why the use of the spyware was widespread. Today, information is power, he wrote. It follows that governments will push boundaries to obtain it.

Perhaps governments have the right to do so. They just need to be prepared to be exposed and deal with those consequences.



The Usual Suspects

The leader of a Belarus exile group that helps Belarusians flee from persecution was found dead in the Ukrainian capital on Tuesday, raising suspicions that the activist may have been murdered, the Guardian reported.

Vitaly Shishov of the Belarusian House in Ukraine (BDU) – which has helped Belarusians escape Lukashenko’s government and find refuge in Ukraine and other safe havens in Poland or Lithuania – was found hanging in a Kyiv park not far from his home. His partner had initially reported him missing after he failed to return from a run and could not be reached by phone.

Police said that they have started a murder investigation and are examining all scenarios including a possible “murder disguised as a suicide.”

Shishov was an outspoken critic of Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko and organized protests against his regime. He fled Belarus last year after mass protests erupted against Lukashenko over disputed presidential elections.

Lukashenko then launched a violent crackdown, arresting thousands of protesters and opposition politicians, as well as forcing others to flee.

Meanwhile, Shishov’s friends and colleagues suspect that the activist was targeted by the Belarusian government. They added that he had recently complained of being followed by strangers while jogging.

His death has raised further concerns about Lukashenko’s targeting of dissidents abroad, even though Western nations have hit Belarus with multiple sanctions.

Lukashenko received international condemnation in May when his government forced the grounding of a Ryanair jet flying through Belarus’ airspace in order to arrest a dissident journalist on board.


Mirror Images

Brazil’s Supreme Electoral Court (TSE) opened a probe into President Jair Bolsonaro this week after the far-right leader claimed that the current electronic voting system is vulnerable to fraud, reported Reuters.

Bolsonaro, who is running for reelection next year, said that the present system would help his leftist rival, former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, return to power. He added that he would not accept the results of next year’s presidential elections if the voting system does not adopt printed receipts that can be counted in the event of disputed results.

His comments prompted his supporters to rally in multiple cities in support of the proposal. Meanwhile, a congressional committee will vote later this week on Bolsonaro’s proposal to introduce paper ballots.

On Monday, the TSE voted to investigate Bolsonaro on whether he committed a crime by attacking the country’s electoral system on social media and threatening Brazil’s democracy.

TSE judges emphasized that electronic voting is free of fraud, adding that there “has never been a documented fraud case in any election” since the system was implemented in 1996.

Bolsonaro’s critics said that the president is sowing doubt with his unfounded claims to build legitimacy when he doesn’t accept official results in 2022.



YouTube suspended Sky News Australia’s channel from its platform for one week over allegations that the broadcaster was spreading Covid-19 misinformation and violating its community policies, the New York Post reported.

The Google-owned video service claimed that some of the videos and content in the network’s channel denied the existence of the coronavirus as well as questioned the efficacy of masks and vaccines. A YouTube representative said the move was “in accordance with … our long-standing strikes system.”

Rupert Murdoch owns Sky News Australia as well as the New York Post, the Wall Street Journal and Fox News among other media outlets internationally.

The ban comes after concern in Australia about how the once-niche pay-TV station, sometimes called the “Fox News of Australia,” has expanded its audience via controversial and grievance-laden programming not unlike that which catapulted Fox News into a top broadcaster, the Washington Post noted.

Regardless, under YouTube’s strike system, Sky News Australia will be banned from posting videos or streaming for a week. Access will be restored after the one-week ban but the strike will remain on the channel for 90 days, Newsweek reported.

Sky News said in a statement that it “acknowledges YouTube’s right to enforce its policies.” However, the network told Newsweek that it “expressly rejects that any host has ever denied the existence of Covid-19 as was implied, and no such videos were ever published or removed.”

Digital Editor Jack Houghton of Sky News Australia called the ban a “‘disturbing’ assault on freedom of thought.”


Cooling Effect

The unprecedented Australian bushfires of 2019-2020 burned more than 18 million hectares of land and killed an estimated one billion animals, according to the United Nations Environment Programme.

They also had a bigger impact on last year’s climate, even surpassing the coronavirus pandemic lockdowns, the Hill reported.

A new study found that fires cooled down the Earth’s Southern Hemisphere so much that they ended up lowering average surface temperatures across the globe.

Lead author Richard Fasullo and his team wrote that sulfates and other smoke particles from the wildfires interacted with clouds to make their droplets smaller. This in turn reflected more incoming solar radiation back to space, which subsequently caused the planet to cool down by about 0.06 degrees Celsius within six months.

On the other hand, the lockdowns resulted in slightly higher temperatures because reduced emissions led to clearer skies over many cities. Fasullo’s team also suggested that about 0.05 degrees Celsius of warming may have resulted globally from last year’s shutdowns and will continue until the end of 2022, according to the Washington Post.

Researchers explained that the fires’ disruptive impact stems from a large amount of sulfates and other particles injected into the atmosphere: This can cause various phenomena, such as tropical storms to move northward from the equator.

“What this research shows is that the impact of regional wildfire on global climate can be substantial,” Fasullo said in a statement. “There are large-scale fingerprints from the fires in both the atmosphere and ocean.”

COVID-19 Global Update

More than 180 nations worldwide have confirmed cases of the coronavirus. The following have the highest numbers worldwide as of 4 a.m. ET*:

  1. US: 35,238,173 (+0.30%)
  2. India: 31,769,132 (+0.13%)
  3. Brazil: 19,985,817 (+0.16%)
  4. Russia: 6,251,953 (+0.34%)
  5. France: 6,242,948 (+0.39%)
  6. UK: 5,951,736 (+0.37%)
  7. Turkey: 5,795,665 (+0.43%)
  8. Argentina: 4,961,880 (+0.30%)
  9. Colombia: 4,807,979 (+0.14%)
  10. Spain: 4,523,310 (+0.45%)

Source: Johns Hopkins University

*Numbers change over 24 hours

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