Taiwan moved up six spots on this year’s World Press Freedom Index. Here’s why that’s troubling.

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF THE WASHINGTON POST)

WorldViews

Taiwan moved up six spots on this year’s World Press Freedom Index. Here’s why that’s troubling.

May 3 at 12:18 PM

Taiwan appeared to make a sudden leap forward in press freedom this year, moving up six places to secure the 45th spot in the 2017 World Press Freedom Index.

However, its climb should concern people about the state of media freedom — especially in Asia, according to Reporters Without Borders, the media watchdog nonprofit that releases the annual ranking.

That’s because Taiwan’s jump “does not reflect real improvements, but rather a global worsening of the situation in the rest of the world,” the group said in a statement. In particular, it masks the decline of media freedoms in other Asian countries, as well as the growing threat of “press freedom predators” in the region, such as China and North Korea.

“In this area, the situation reflects the global situation that prevails in the 2017 RSF World Press Freedom Index: a world in which strongmen are on the rise and attacks on the media have become commonplace, even in democracies,” the group said.

The Paris-based organization (also known internationally by its French name, Reporters sans Frontières, or RSF) pointed to China exerting economic and political pressure to influence Taiwanese media. Taiwan is a self-governing democratic island that China considers part of its territory, and Beijing is extremely sensitive to questions about Taiwan’s status.

It is not unusual for some Taiwanese media outlets to take stances that echo Chinese Communist Party propaganda, Taipei RSF bureau director Cédric Alviani told The Washington Post by phone Wednesday, which the United Nations has declared World Press Freedom Day.

“In Taiwan, the Taiwanese tycoons also have their own businesses in China,” Alviani said. “It’s easy for China to put pressure on the business executives and say, ‘Okay, you have to be nice with the media you own. We want you to cover the story this way or we don’t want you to mention that.’ ”

Alviani also pointed to Apple TV recently allegedly blocking a satirical comedy show that is critical of the Chinese government — ironically titled “China Uncensored” — not only in mainland China but also in Hong Kong and Taiwan, which are not subject to Chinese law. Reporters Without Borders last month condemned the tech company’s move as setting a dangerous precedent for “international corporate submission to the demands of Chinese censorship.”

“This kind of self-censorship is much more serious than the one a single reporter would apply to himself,” Alviani said.

Apple spokesman Tom Neumayr told The Post “there was a couple day period” when the show was not available in Taiwan and Hong Kong but that it has since been made accessible there.

Despite the obstacles, Taiwan continues to hold the highest rank for press freedom among Asian countries, followed by South Korea (at 63rd place) and Mongolia (69th), according to this year’s index. Coverage of political scandals in South Korea — which led to the impeachment and ouster of Park Geun-hye this year — proved that the media there maintained its independence, the group said.

“However, the public debate about relations with North Korea, one of the main national issues, is hampered by a national security law under which any article or broadcast ‘favourable’ to North Korea is punishable by imprisonment,” the group pointed out.

It was Taiwan’s relative freedom that led Reporters Without Borders to decide this year to open its first Asia bureau in Taipei, rather than in Hong Kong or elsewhere in Asia.

Hong Kong dropped four places on the World Press Freedom Index from 2016, coming in at 73rd this year. Media there continue to face challenges when covering stories that are critical of mainland China, and reporters have faced physical intimidation and oppression.

“This is the kind of thing that made us think twice, because if we open an office in Hong Kong, our communications and safety might not be ensured,” Alviani said. “To open an original bureau, you need to find a place that is stable, a place where you could foresee what is happening in coming years.”

Alviani said that RSF journalists have been reporting from Taipei since last month, in a sort of “soft opening” for the new bureau, and that it will be fully operational in the coming months.

Part of the bureau’s focus will be on the countries that hold “many of the worst kinds of records” for media freedom in the Asia-Pacific region, including:

  • The world’s biggest prisons for journalists and bloggers: China (176th) and Vietnam (175th).
  • Most dangerous countries for journalists: Pakistan (139th), the Philippines (127th) and Bangladesh (146th).
  • Second-biggest number of “press freedom predators” at the head of the world’s worst dictatorships: Laos (170th), China (176th) and North Korea (180th).

The group called out Chinese President Xi Jinping as “the planet’s leading censor and press freedom predator” and one of the biggest reasons China ranks 176th among 180 countries on this year’s index. Only Syria, Turkmenistan, Eritrea and North Korea are ranked lower.

On Wednesday, World Press Freedom Day, China further clamped down on the media, issuing regulations that go into effect June 1, according to Reuters.

The rules “apply to all political, economic, military, or diplomatic reports or opinion articles on blogs, websites, forums, search engines, instant messaging apps and all other platforms that select or edit news and information,” Reuters reported. “All such platforms must have editorial staff who are approved by the national or local government Internet and information offices, while their workers must get training and reporting credentials from the central government.”

The Chinese government’s censorship and restrictions on media and the Internet, combined with its growing economic and political power, have the potential to affect other countries and private companies, Alviani said.

“China’s philosophy is more like everyone is free to do whatever they want to report — but within a certain limit, and this limit is never very clear,” he said. “In philosophical terms, freedom has to be unconditional. If you’re free within certain limits, you are not free.”

The Washington Post Hosts Reporters Without Borders 2017 World Press Freedom Index

 

Play Video67:57
The Washington Post and Reporters Without Borders held a conversation on freedom of press around the world. The program featured a presentation of the 2017 World Press Freedom Index followed by a conversation with Tom Malinowski, Former Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor and journalists from Syria, Turkey and Canada, moderated by The Post’s Dana Priest. (Washington Post Live)

Read more:

U.S. says time to act on North Korea, China says not up to Beijing alone

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF THE REUTERS NEWS AGENCY)

U.S. says time to act on North Korea, China says not up to Beijing alone

By Michelle Nichols and Lesley Wroughton | UNITED NATIONS

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson warned on Friday that failure to curb North Korea’s nuclear and missile development could lead to ‘catastrophic consequences,’ while China and Russia cautioned Washington against threatening military force.

Washington has recently lavished praise on Beijing for its efforts to rein in its ally Pyongyang, but Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi made clear to the U.N. Security Council it was not only up to China to solve the North Korean problem.

“The key to solving the nuclear issue on the peninsula does not lie in the hands of the Chinese side,” Wang told the 15-member council in remarks contradicting the White House belief that it does wield significant influence.

The ministerial meeting of the council, chaired by Tillerson, exposed old divisions between the United States and China on how to deal with North Korea. China wants talks first and action later, while the United States wants North Korea to curtail its nuclear program before such talks start.

“It is necessary to put aside the debate over who should take the first step and stop arguing who is right and who is wrong,” Wang told the council. “Now is the time to seriously consider resuming talks.”

Tillerson responded: “We will not negotiate our way back to the negotiating table with North Korea, we will not reward their violations of past resolutions, we will not reward their bad behavior with talks.”

North Korea did not take part in the meeting.

In Tillerson’s first visit to the United Nations he scolded the Security Council for not fully enforcing sanctions against North Korea, saying if the body had acted, tensions over its nuclear program might not have escalated.

“Failing to act now on the most pressing security issue in the world may bring catastrophic consequences,” he said.

The United States was not pushing for regime change and preferred a negotiated solution, but Pyongyang, for its own sake, should dismantle its nuclear and missile programs, he said.

“The threat of a nuclear attack on Seoul, or Tokyo, is real, and it’s only a matter of time before North Korea develops the capability to strike the U.S. mainland,” Tillerson said.

Tillerson repeated the Trump administration’s position that all options are on the table if Pyongyang persists with its nuclear and missile development, but Wang said military threats would not help.

‘FRIGHTENING’ CONSEQUENCES

Wang said dialogue and negotiations were the “only way out.”

“The use of force does not solve differences and will only lead to bigger disasters,” he said.

U.S. President Donald Trump said in an interview with Reuters on Thursday that a “major, major conflict” with North Korea was possible over its nuclear and ballistic missile programs.

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov cautioned on Friday that the use of force would be “completely unacceptable.”

“The combative rhetoric coupled with reckless muscle-flexing has led to a situation where the whole world seriously is now wondering whether there’s going to be a war or not,” he told the council. “One ill thought out or misinterpreted step could lead to the most frightening and lamentable consequences.”

Gatilov said North Korea felt threatened by regular joint U.S. and South Korean military exercises and the deployment of a U.S. aircraft carrier group to waters off the Korean peninsula.

China and Russia both also repeated their opposition to the deployment of a U.S. anti-missile system in South Korea. Gatilov described it as a “destabilizing effort,” while Wang said it damaged trust among the parties on the North Korea issue.

Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida told the council that to bring North Korea back to the table the international community “must send a strong message that provocation comes at a high price.”

“There is no doubt that dialogue is necessary … however under the current situation where North Korea continues to advance its nuclear and ballistic missile programs, meaningful dialogue is clearly not possible,” he said.

The Trump administration is focusing its North Korea strategy on tougher economic sanctions, possibly including an oil embargo, a global ban on its airline, intercepting cargo ships and punishing Chinese banks doing business with Pyongyang, U.S. officials told Reuters earlier this month.

Since 2006, North Korea has been subject to U.N. sanctions aimed at impeding the development of its nuclear and missile programs. The council has strengthened sanctions following each of North Korea’s five nuclear tests.

(Editing by Frances Kerry and James Dalgleish)

Hezbollah And It’s Illegal Actions (According to the UN treaty) In South Lebanon

  • (THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF THE CHRISTIAN SCIENCE MONITOR)
  • Correspondent

APRIL 25, 2017 The stated objective of the Hezbollah-coordinated press tour of southern Lebanon was to see new Israeli defensive installations on the border – indications, according to the powerful Shiite Lebanese militia, of Israeli fears of Hezbollah’s growing military might.

But as the convoy of vehicles carrying a large group of Lebanese and foreign reporters reached the outskirts of this village on the Mediterranean coast, around a dozen uniformed Hezbollah fighters came into view in an orange orchard on the side of the road. Clutching rifles, machine guns, and grenade launchers, their faces streaked in black cream, the fighters stood still and silent, in a frozen tableau.

The unprecedented spectacle appeared to be a deliberate and calculated breach of a UN Security Council resolution that bans non-state forces from bearing arms in southern Lebanon, and it illustrated the unmatched sway Hezbollah wields, and the impunity it enjoys throughout the country. That is the culmination of more than a decade in which Iran’s key ally amassed influence and power to defend its military priority against those who wish to see the group disarmed.

Viewing Hezbollah fighters in the field is rare enough, but this brief, subtly-delivered roadside display served to signal Hezbollah’s defiance and autonomy to multiple audiences. They included Israel, the Lebanese government, and UNIFIL, the United Nations peacekeeping force deployed in south Lebanon, whose headquarters lay less than a mile away from the orchard.

The display of defiance was staged at a time of growing Hezbollah-Israel tensions. Hezbollah’s main strategic objective, analysts say, and one of its guiding principles in the complex arena of Lebanese politics, is to preserve its right to bear arms and its military prerogatives vis-à-vis Israel.

“Hezbollah wants to protect its right to fight Israel at a time of its choosing, and to secure its Shiite base’s political and economic rights in an antiquated sectarian political system,” says Randa Slim, a Hezbollah expert at the Middle East Institute in Washington. “To do the former, it needs a secure strategic depth in Syria, maintain and fully control its weapons arsenal in Lebanon, and a home-front that is not at war with itself.”

On the border

Opponents of Hezbollah say the border tour was another example of the party behaving above the law and holding the country hostage to its anti-Israel agenda.

“The tour … is considered an insult to the Lebanese state’s standing and a new threat to Lebanon’s relationship with the international community,” said Sami Gemayel, leader of the Kataeb Christian party.

UNIFIL was clearly unaware of the nature of the tour, although it acknowledged that shortly before it began, the Lebanese Army had informed it of a media visit to the border.

The reporters, many of them laden with cameras and video equipment, marched along a narrow path that weaved through an old Israeli minefield to reach within 100 yards of a large Israeli Army listening post bristling with antennas and containing giant golf-ball-shaped radars.

The location is usually out of bounds to the public, and the sight of dozens of reporters entering the area to film the Israeli outpost caught nearby Italian peacekeepers by surprise.

“No, no, no,” admonished an Italian UNIFIL officer, running up to the reporters with his finger wagging in the air. But a Lebanese Army officer accompanying the tour took him by the shoulder and walked him back down the path. More stony-faced Italian soldiers looked on as the reporters departed the scene shortly afterwards in their vehicles.

“This was an assault on UNIFIL’s credibility and ability to operate along the Blue Line,” says Aram Nerguizian, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, referring to the UN’s name for Lebanon’s southern border.

Overture to the UN

Stung by Hezbollah’s bold display, Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri hurried to Naqoura the next day to meet with UNIFIL officials and reassure them that it is Lebanon’s government that controls the southern border, not Hezbollah.

“What happened yesterday is something that we, as a government, are not concerned with and do not accept. So I came here to emphasize that our role as a government is to preserve Resolution 1701,” Mr. Hariri told reporters, referring to the UN Security Council resolution that helped end the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah war, in part by the ban on non-state weapons near the border.

Hariri, accompanied by the minister of defense and the commander of the Lebanese Army, added that his trip was intended “to tell the Lebanese armed forces that they and only they are the legitimate force in charge of defending our borders.”

The rare Hezbollah-arranged tour was held amid growing concerns in some quarters since January that a new war between Hezbollah and Israel may be imminent. The election of President Trump and his administration’s vow to roll back the influence of Iran, Hezbollah’s sponsor, across the Middle East has given rise to feverish speculation that the Lebanese group, which has gained invaluable battle-field experience in Syria’s civil war and amassed thousands of new surface-to-surface missiles, could come under attack by Israel.

Furthermore, Israel has repeatedly warned that the growing influence of Hezbollah in Lebanon since the two-month 2006 war means that in the next conflict the Jewish state will treat Lebanon as the enemy, rather than limit its operations to Hezbollah alone. With that threat in mind, Hariri, while at UNIFIL headquarters, called on the UN to help turn the current cessation of hostilities with Israel into a permanent cease-fire to offset the chances of another highly destructive war.

Hezbollah’s priorities

Ali Fayyad, a Hezbollah parliamentarian, nevertheless dismissed “exaggerated interpretations” of the tour and insisted in a statement that “the resistance [Hezbollah] is in a defensive position and that it is seeking to consolidate … stability in the south based on the equation of deterrence with the Israeli enemy.”

Hezbollah’s opponents say the party controls the levers of power over the Lebanese state in order to safeguard its own interests. While that is generally true, such criticism can ring hollow in a country where politicians of all political persuasions are widely seen as routinely exploiting state resources either for personal enrichment or to fund patronage networks on which their popular support rests.

And while Hezbollah’s influence within the Lebanese state today reaches into political, economic, security, and judicial spheres, analysts say its principle motive is less the acquisition of power but to defend and sustain what it calls its resistance priority – the anti-Israeli military component that lies at the heart of the party’s ideology.

Still, Hezbollah’s determination to hold onto its formidable military assets and the attempts by its opponents to de-fang the party have caused more than a decade of political divisions between the Hezbollah-led March 8 parliamentary coalition, oriented toward Iran and Syria, and the rival, pro-Western March 14 coalition, headed by Hariri. Sectarian tensions have soared and on occasions the country has come close to collapse.

When Hezbollah spent the 1990s battling Israel’s occupation of south Lebanon, its armed status was sanctioned by successive Lebanese governments and guaranteed by neighboring Syria, then the dominant force in Lebanon. After Israel withdrew its troops in May 2000, Syria continued to provide cover for Hezbollah’s military wing despite growing calls in Lebanon for its disarmament.

String of domestic victories

But that fig leaf was removed with Syria’s political disengagement from Lebanon in April 2005, two months after the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, the current premier’s father, for which Damascus was blamed by many.

With Syria gone, Hezbollah had to take a more proactive stance to defend its weapons even as its domestic enemies sniffed new opportunities to have it disarmed. Hezbollah struck alliances with Shiite and Christian parties, joined the government for the first time, and used its weight to block legislation that threatened its interests.

It even resorted to taboo-breaking violence in May 2008, storming the western half of Beirut in response to a government decision to shut down its private telecoms network. The action triggered several days of sectarian fighting that brought the country to the brink of civil war before the government was humiliatingly forced to rescind its earlier decision.

More recently, Hezbollah was able to secure the election of its Christian ally, Michel Aoun, as president. The previous incumbent left office in May 2014 and both sides submitted candidates. But Hezbollah and its allies refused to attend parliamentary sessions to elect a new president unless assured that Mr. Aoun would carry the vote. Hariri and his allies sought a compromise by dropping their own candidate and nominating another Christian ally of Hezbollah.

Still Hezbollah dug in its heels, insisting on Aoun. After a two-and-a-half-year deadlock, Hariri yielded to Hezbollah’s demand and Aoun was elected last November in a deal that saw Hariri appointed prime mininister. The result has effectively left the March 14 coalition shattered beyond repair, its leaders either marginalized or compelled into reluctant cooperation with Hezbollah.

That has left Hezbollah effectively the victor of the political battle that shaped post-2005 politics in Lebanon with no serious domestic challenge to its armed status.

“So far, Hezbollah’s assessment is that it can achieve its interests and the means to achieving them without ruling Lebanon – especially now that Michel Aoun is the president,” says Ms. Slim, the Hezbollah expert. “The moment any of these means are threatened, as we have seen in the case of [the anti-regime uprising in] Syria, Hezbollah will fight back.”

NORTH KOREA IS ANGRY AT CHINA FOR INCREASING SANCTIONS

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF THE NORTH KOREAN OFFICIAL NEWS AGENCY ‘YONHAP’)

NORTH  KOREA IS ANGRY AT CHINA FOR INCREASING SANCTIONS

2017/04/22

SEOUL, April 22 (Yonhap) — North Korea has apparently asked China not to step up anti-North sanctions, warning of “catastrophic consequences” in their bilateral relations.

Pyongyang issued the warning through commentary written by a person named Jong Phil on its official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA), which was released Saturday.

It’s rare for Pyongyang’s media to level criticism at Beijing, though the KCNA didn’t directly mention China in the commentary titled “Are you good at dancing to the tune of others” and dated Friday.

The commentary instead called the nation at issue “a country around the DPRK,” using North Korea’s official name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

“Not a single word about the U.S. act of pushing the situation on the Korean peninsula to the brink of a war after introducing hugest-ever strategic assets into the waters off the Korean peninsula is made but such rhetoric as ‘necessary step’ and ‘reaction at decisive level’ is openly heard from a country around the DPRK to intimidate it over its measures for self-defense,” the commentary’s introduction in English read.

“Particularly, the country is talking rubbish that the DPRK has to reconsider the importance of relations with it and that it can help preserve security of the DPRK and offer necessary support and aid for its economic prosperity, claiming the latter will not be able to survive the strict ‘economic sanctions’ by someone.”

Then, the KCNA commentary warned that the neighbor country will certainly face a catastrophe in their bilateral relationship, as long as it continues to apply economic sanctions together with the United States.

“If the country keeps applying economic sanctions on the DPRK while dancing to the tune of someone after misjudging the will of the DPRK, it may be applauded by the enemies of the DPRK, but it should get itself ready to face the catastrophic consequences in the relations with the DPRK,” it said.

North Korea watchers here say the commentary appears to be Pyongyang’s response after Chinese experts and media have recently called for escalating sanctions against the North, including the suspension of oil exports, in case of its sixth nuclear test.

[email protected]

(END)

Coexistence In The Middle-East (And Every Where else On Earth): Or Self Inflected Armageddon?

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF THE SAUDI NEWS AGENCY  ASHARQ AL-AWSAT)

Opinion

Coexistence Is the Last Chance to Avoid the Precipice

Last week, Egypt’s Coptic Christians cancelled Easter celebrations in mourning for those who were killed in two separate terrorist explosions targeting churches in the cities of Tanta and Alexandria.

In Iraq too, new maps are being drawn by sectarianism, while minorities shrink and ethno-religious fabric change under the violence perpetrated by Iran on one side and ISIS on another.

Likewise, we openly witness how shredded Syria has become, and under the eyes of the international community, it is well on the road of partition and population exchange– finally, the less said the better it is when the subject matter is ongoing events in occupied Palestinian territories.

Given this painful regional climate, the ongoing arguments about Lebanon’s future electoral system become a travesty, not much different from the ‘crowded’ field of Iran’s presidential elections where neither votes nor abundance of candidates mean a thing against what the Supreme Leader utters and the elitist Revolutionary Gaurd the (IRGC) dictates.

In Lebanon, the Middle East’s ‘democratic’ soft belly, the Lebanese’ daily bread and butter is endless and absurd arguments and counter-arguments about what the most appropriate electoral system should look like in upcoming parliamentary elections. This is not actually new. Moreover, true intentions behind what is going on have nothing to do with what is being said, whether the intention is escalation or hypocrisy.

The real problem is that the Lebanese are acutely divided on several basic issues regarding conditions of coexistence, political representation and even the meaning of democracy.

For a start, one must ask oneself whether the next elections – regardless of what system is adopted – are going to produce any change in the status quo? Is there any common Lebanese vision as to what the country’s identity is among the ostensible ‘allies’, let alone political adversaries and those dependent on foreign backing and sectarian hegemony?

Then, one may also ask – given defective mechanisms of governance – would ‘state institutions’ still be relevant and meaningful? Would any electoral law be effective in the light of accelerating disproportionate sectarian demographics, and the fact that one large religious sect enjoys a monopoly of military might outside the state’s umbrella, while still sharing what is underneath that umbrella?

The other day in his Easter sermon the Maronite Patriarch Cardinal Bechara Ra’i said “the (Lebanese) Christians are nobody’s bullied weaklings, but are rather indispensable (!)…”. This is tough talk indeed, but it too is not new.

From what is widely known about Cardinal Ra’i, even before assuming the Patriarchate, is that he is highly interested in politics, and that political views are as candid as they are decisive. On Syria, in particular, he has been among the first to warn the West against and dissuade its leaders from supporting the Syrian uprising; when he claimed during his visits – beginning with France – that any regime that may replace Bashar Al-Assad’s may be worse, and thus it would better to keep him in power.

The same path has been followed by current Lebanese president Michel Aoun, who was strongly backed by Hezbollah, to the extent that the latter forced a political vacuum on Lebanon lasting for over two years.

Of course, Hezbollah, in the meantime, had been imposing its hegemony over Lebanon, fighting for Al-Assad in Syria, and training the Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen as part of Iran’s project of regional dominance. In promoting this ‘project’ globally, but particularly in the West, Iran has given it the themes of ‘fighting terrorism’ – meaning ‘Sunni Muslim terrorism’- and ‘protection of minorities’ within the framework of a tactical ‘coalition of the minorities’.

A few days ago Aoun said during an interview that “the aim behind what is taking place in the Orient is to empty it of Christians and partition the region into several states”. Again, this is not something new, as it used to be said on the murder and kidnapping road blocks during the dark days of the Lebanese War between 1975 and 1990. Those days the fears of uprooting were common and widespread; reaching the climax within the Christian community with rumors that the mission of American diplomat Dean Brown was to evacuate Lebanon’s Christians to Canada, and within the Druze community during ‘the Mountain War’ (1983-1984) that they would be expelled to southern Syria.

However, Aoun, as it seems, has not been quite aware of who was applying the final touches on population exchange, and drawing the map for the ‘future’ states he has been warning against. He has simply ignored the full picture, turning instead, to repeat old talk in order to justify temporary interests that are harmful if not fatal to minorities, rather than being beneficial and protective.

In this context, come the ‘try-to-be-smart’ attempts to impose a new electoral law in Lebanon as a means of blackmail, as if the country’s sectarian ‘tribal chieftains’ are naïve or debutants in the arena of sectarian politics. The latest has come from Gebran Bassil, the foreign minister and President Aoun’s son-in-law, when he expressed his “willingness to entertain the idea of a Senate, on the condition that it is headed by a Christian!”. This pre-condition was quickly rejected by the Speaker of Parliament Nabih Berri on the basis that the presidency of a Senate, as approved in “Taif Agreement” – which is now part of Lebanon’s Constitution – was allocated to the Druze; and thus, what Bassil had suggested was unconstitutional.

It is worth mentioning here that all suggestions regarding the future electoral law have ignored the issue of a Senate. It was has also been obvious that another item in the “Taif Agreement” was being intentionally ignored too, which is adopting ‘Administrative De-Centralization’.

However, if some Lebanese parties feel uncomfortable with the idea of ‘De-Centralization’, more so as both Iraq and Syria seem to be on their way to actual partition, it is not possible anymore to separate Lebanon’s politics from its demographics.

The latter are now being affected by radical and everlasting demographic changes occurring across the country’s disintegrating eastern borders with Syria. These include what is being reported – without being refuted – about widespread settlement and naturalization activities in Damascus and its countryside. Furthermore, once the population exchange between Shi’ite ‘pockets’ of northern Syria and the Sunni majority population of the Barada River valley is completed, the new sectarian and demographic fabric of Damascus and its countryside would gain a strategic depth and merge with a similar fabric in eastern Lebanon.

This is a danger that Lebanese Christians, indeed, all Lebanese, Syrians, Iraqis and all Arabs, must be aware of and sincere about. The cost of ignoring facts on the ground is tragic, as blood begets blood, exclusion justifies exclusion, and marginalization undermines coexistence.

Nation-building is impossible in the absence of a free will to live together. It is impossible in a climate of lies, while those who think they are smart gamble on shifting regional and global balances of power.

Eyad Abu Shakra

Eyad Abu Shakra

Eyad Abu Shakra is the managing editor of Asharq Al-Awsat. He has been with the newspaper since 1978.

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Sessions: We’ll fund the wall ‘one way or the other’

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF CNN)

Sessions: We’ll fund the wall ‘one way or the other’

Story highlights

  • Sessions said they can get the money for the wall
  • Trump promised Mexico would pay for it

Washington (CNN) Attorney General Jeff Sessions said Sunday he does not expect the Mexican government to outright pay for President Donald Trump’s border wall, but there are a number of ways to extract the billions of dollars needed to build it.

Sessions made his comments in an appearance on ABC’s “This Week,” where he was attempting to square Trump’s promise that Mexico would pay for the border wall with Mexico’s firm position to the contrary.
“We’re going to get it paid for one way or the other,” Sessions said.
Trump took to Twitter on Sunday morning to say the wall would stop drugs and the gang MS-13. He also said that Mexico would pay for the wall “in some form.”
Trump promised during the campaign that within his first 100 days as president he would get Congress to pass legislation fully funding the wall and establishing mandatory minimum prison sentences for people illegally entering the US after already being deported. That promise, one of many in his “Contract with the American Voter,” said Mexico would reimburse the US for the cost of the wall.
Trump has also threatened to target remittances, or cash transfers from people within the US to people in Mexico.
Sessions referenced a Treasury Department watchdog report during the Obama administration that said excess payments of about $4 billion a year were going to people that shouldn’t get them, and he said reining in the problem could lead to savings over time that could pay for the wall.
“These are mostly Mexicans,” Sessions said. “And those kind of things add up. Four billion a year for 10 years is 40 billion.”
The Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration issued a report in 2011 saying people who were not authorized to work in the US were paid $4.2 billion in refundable tax credits in one year.
The Justice Department did not respond Sunday to a question asking if the report is the one Sessions referenced. The Treasury inspector general also did not return a request for information on whether any actions were taken following the release of the report and if more up-to-date figures exist.
An internal estimate from Customs and Border Protection put the cost of the wall at $21.6 billion, while an estimate from Democrats on the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee said the wall could cost as much as $66.9 billion.
Sessions implied other actions at the border and in trade could pay for the wall, although he said he did not expect the Mexican government itself to foot the bill.
“I don’t expect the Mexican government to appropriate money for it,” Sessions said. “But there are ways that we can deal with our trade situation to create the revenue to pay for it. No doubt about it.”
The Trump administration has requested a $1 billion “down payment” from Congress to begin construction of the wall. Administration officials in televised interviews on Sunday said funding for the wall is a priority in budget negotiations ahead of a potential government shutdown Friday, but stopped short of saying Trump would not accept a bill that didn’t include the funding

Russia hacked Danish defense for two years, minister tells newspaper

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF THE REUTERS NEWS AGENCY)

Russia hacked Danish defense for two years, minister tells newspaper

Russia has hacked the Danish defense and gained access to employees’ emails in 2015 and 2016, NATO member Denmark’s defense minister told newspaper Berlingske on Sunday.

The report comes at a time when several Western governments, including the United States, France and Britain, have accused Russia of resorting to hacking to influence elections — allegations Moscow has repeatedly dismissed as baseless.

A report from the Danish Defense Intelligence Service’s unit for cyber security said “a foreign player” had spied against Danish authorities and gained access to non-classified documents.

It did not name the country behind the espionage, but Foreign Minister Claus Hjort Frederiksen told Berlingske it was Russia.

“It is linked to the intelligence services or central elements in the Russian government, and it is a constant battle to keep them away,” Frederiksen told the newspaper.

A spokeswoman from the Danish Defense Ministry confirmed that the minister had been quoted correctly but said he would give no further comments for the time being.

Spokespeople at the Kremlin were not available to comment on Sunday.

Frederiksen told Berlingske the hacking had been possible due to insufficient security around emails with non-classified material, something that has since been improved.

The group behind the attack went under the name APT28 or Fancy Bear and was one of two groups which allegedly gained illegal access to U.S. democrats’ emails last year, according to Berlingske.

Frederiksen said in January that Denmark plans to increase military spending in response to Russian missile deployments in the Baltic region that it perceives as a threat.

(Reporting by Teis Jensen, additional reporting by Maria Kiselyova; editing by Clelia Oziel)

South Korea and Japan Feel Betrayed By “The Clown” (Trump)

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF SOUTH KOREAN NEWS AGENCY TPM)

Let’s stop for a moment and note that President Trump and his skeletal foreign policy team have accomplished the fairly difficult feat of deeply alienating South Koreans (and seemingly many Japanese as well) while notionally protecting them from the threat of a militaristic and aggressive North Korea.

As the AP noted here yesterday, countries in the region are looking at Trump as, to quote the AP, “Unpredictable. Unhinged. Dangerous.” Consider that this is in a confrontation with Kim Jong-un. North Korea under the Kim dynasty has specialized in extremely provocative, high risk gambits. Thirty four years ago, they blew up several members of the South Korean cabinet in a bomb attack in Rangoon. Kim Jong-un apparently just had his half brother killed in a poison attack in Kuala Lumpur. Trump has strong competition in the unpredictable and unhinged and dangerous department.

But what’s really driving anxiety and anger is this issue with the confusion over the whereabouts of the Carl Vinson and its carrier strike group. As I argued yesterday (and as I think is consensus opinion), the false impression seems to have been more a matter of internal confusion than intentional deception. But the South Korean press and public seems to see it very differently. Headlines in South Korea are saying that Trump lied and as this article in the Times put it, “South Koreans feel cheated after U.S. Carrier Miscue.”

Of all Trump goofs and scandals, this seems to be one of the more innocent ones in terms of intent. Maybe we’ll learn otherwise but I don’t think this was intentional. But when you’re talking tough and getting into stand offs over nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles and a major global city vulnerable to overwhelming artillery fire, you’ve got to have your shit together. You need clarity about what you’re doing and you need to be know what you’re doing and appear to know what you’re doing. Deception is an inherent part of military affairs. Strategic ambiguity is too. But if you’re going to be bluff or deceive, you need to make sure people think you were doing it on purpose. Small errors and confusions can have very, very big consequences. We can parse different quotes from the White House and Pentagon and see how the confusion arose. But step back. When you find out that the global hegemon ‘said’ its ships were in one place when they were actually thousands of miles away, that seems either weirdly duplicitous or stupid in a way that invites mockery or fear.

Here’s text from the Times about one South Korean paper’s coverage …

On Wednesday, after it was revealed that the carrier strike group was actually thousands of miles away and had been heading in the opposite direction, toward the Indian Ocean, South Koreans felt bewildered, cheated and manipulated by the United States, their country’s most important ally.

“Trump’s lie over the Carl Vinson,” read a headline on the website of the newspaper JoongAng Ilbo on Wednesday. “Xi Jinping and Putin must have had a good jeer over this one.”

“Like North Korea, which is often accused of displaying fake missiles during military parades, is the United States, too, now employing ‘bluffing’ as its North Korea policy?” the article asked.

Then there’s this from the political front …

“The 50 million South Koreans, as well as many common-sensical people around the world, cannot help but feel embarrassed and shocked,” said Youn Kwan-suk, spokesman of the main opposition Democratic Party, which is leading in voter surveys before the May 9 presidential election.

The quote from the Democratic Party spokesman centers not just on the Carl Vinson goof but a statement from President Trump claiming that Korea “used to be part of China.” The quote actually comes from the full quote version of his description of that ‘nobody could have known how complicated Korea could be’ exchange he had with President Xi of China at Mar a Lago. Quoting the President from his interview with the Wall Street Journal …

He then went into the history of China and Korea. Not North Korea, Korea. And you know, you’re talking about thousands of years …and many wars. And Korea actually used to be a part of China. And after listening for 10 minutes I realized that not — it’s not so easy. You know I felt pretty strongly that they have — that they had a tremendous power over China. I actually do think they do have an economic power, and they have certainly a border power to an extent, but they also — a lot of goods come in. But it’s not what you would think. It’s not what you would think.

To the extent we can collapse thousands of years of history into simple yeses and nos, Korea was never part of China. It’s a complicated question if you want to dig into it because the two countries’ histories are deeply intertwined. But again, short version: Korea was never part of China. And Koreans, with a strong sense of national identity, certainly don’t think that Korea was ever part of China. It must be even more bewildering and jarring to see that the President thinks this on the basis of a ten minute conversation with the President of China.

To get the full picture of what happened here, it’s important to understand that the reports of the carrier group returning to Korean waters stirred pretty intense anxiety in the first place. That doesn’t mean it was a good or bad idea. Stand-offs provoke tension even when they’re necessary and well-thought-out. But people in the region seemed to be more afraid of precipitous action from President Trump than North Korea – already a bad sign. Finding out that the US either lied or miscommunicated internally about where its ships even were just adds more fuel to the fire.

At the moment, there seems to be an active debate in the region about whether the deception was intentional and whether the US’s two key regional allies were in on it.

As one Japanese expert quoted in the Times puts it, “When it comes to matters that concern Japan, the two militaries communicate essentially in real time.” Given the depth of the US-Japan security relationship, it would be hard to believe this isn’t the case. (Hard for me to believe it’s not the same in the US-ROK (South Korea) military to military relationship.) This same expert argued that by letting the misconception persist, the Japanese were in essence cooperating with the US deception aimed at overawing the North Koreans – one that in a narrow sense may actually have worked. But this means or seems to mean that the Japanese and South Koreans were tacitly furthering a US deception or misdirection – not realizing that it wasn’t so much a deception on the US part as simply a confusion within the US government. As another Japan expert, Narushige Michishita at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies in Tokyo puts it with some understatement: “Whatever the case, whether it was deliberate misinformation or a miscommunication between the Pentagon and the White House, it’s quite serious. It undermines the credibility of U.S. leadership.”

Just as a point of perspective, here’s the online front page of The Korea Times, an English language Korean news publication, that I just grabbed as I was writing.

International misunderstandings happen. It is always surprising to see, even in the gravest historical crises, how much of a role chance and accident play in outcomes, sometimes tragic outcomes. That said, this is the kind of stuff that happens when you have a clown serving as President, large numbers of top position at the key departments unfilled and a climate of back-stabbing and organizational chaos.

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China Is Getting Fed Up With North Korea’s Little Fat Boy With The Bad Haircut

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF CNN)

(CNN) China may be getting fed up with continued nuclear bluster from long-time ally North Korea and tilting toward the United States.

A day after North Korea’s Vice Foreign Minister said Pyongyang would test missiles weekly and use nuclear weapons if threatened, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman said Beijing was “gravely concerned” about North Korea’s recent nuclear and missile activities.
In the same press conference, spokesman Lu Kang praised recent US statements on the North Korean issue.
“American officials did make some positive and constructive remarks… such as using whatever peaceful means possible to resolve the (Korean) Peninsula nuclear issue. This represents a general direction that we believe is correct and should be adhered to,” Lu said.

Watch: N. Korea performance shows US in flames

 Watch: N. Korea performance shows US in flames

That direction was not evident from North Korean leadership, as state-run TV highlighted a propaganda video showing missile strikes leaving the US in flames.
North Korean Vice Foreign Minister Han Song-ryol ratcheted up the rhetoric in an interview with the BBC.
“If the United States is reckless enough to use military means, it would mean from that very day an all-out war,” Han said.
Statements of that vein do not help the situation, according to the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman.

Trump: North Korea pushed off by past presidents

 Trump: North Korea pushed off by past presidents

“China firmly opposes any words or actions that would escalate rivalry and tension,” Lu said.
US President Donald Trump has been pressing China to rein in North Korea, suggesting that doing so could ease US-China relations over trade and other issues.
Experts point out that China also wants to prevent North Korea from becoming a full-fledged nuclear power — and certainly wants to prevent a war on its southern border that could send millions of refugees flooding into China and potentially risk bringing a US military presence to China’s borders.

Exclusive: Putin-linked think tank drew up plan to sway 2016 U.S. election – documents

 

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF REUTERS NEWS AGENCY)

Exclusive: Putin-linked think tank drew up plan to sway 2016 U.S. election – documents

By Ned Parker, Jonathan Landay and John Walcott | WASHINGTON

A Russian government think tank controlled by Vladimir Putin developed a plan to swing the 2016 U.S. presidential election to Donald Trump and undermine voters’ faith in the American electoral system, three current and four former U.S. officials told Reuters.

They described two confidential documents from the think tank as providing the framework and rationale for what U.S. intelligence agencies have concluded was an intensive effort by Russia to interfere with the Nov. 8 election. U.S. intelligence officials acquired the documents, which were prepared by the Moscow-based Russian Institute for Strategic Studies [en.riss.ru/], after the election.

The institute is run by retired senior Russian foreign intelligence officials appointed by Putin’s office.

The first Russian institute document was a strategy paper written last June that circulated at the highest levels of the Russian government but was not addressed to any specific individuals.

It recommended the Kremlin launch a propaganda campaign on social media and Russian state-backed global news outlets to encourage U.S. voters to elect a president who would take a softer line toward Russia than the administration of then-President Barack Obama, the seven officials said.

A second institute document, drafted in October and distributed in the same way, warned that Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton was likely to win the election. For that reason, it argued, it was better for Russia to end its pro-Trump propaganda and instead intensify its messaging about voter fraud to undermine the U.S. electoral system’s legitimacy and damage Clinton’s reputation in an effort to undermine her presidency, the seven officials said.

The current and former U.S. officials spoke on the condition of anonymity due to the Russian documents’ classified status. They declined to discuss how the United States obtained them. U.S. intelligence agencies also declined to comment on them.

Putin has denied interfering in the U.S. election. Putin’s spokesman and the Russian institute did not respond to requests for comment.

The documents were central to the Obama administration’s conclusion that Russia mounted a “fake news” campaign and launched cyber attacks against Democratic Party groups and Clinton’s campaign, the current and former officials said.

“Putin had the objective in mind all along, and he asked the institute to draw him a road map,” said one of the sources, a former senior U.S. intelligence official.

Trump has said Russia’s activities had no impact on the outcome of the race. Ongoing congressional and FBI investigations into Russian interference have so far produced no public evidence that Trump associates colluded with the Russian effort to change the outcome of the election.

Four of the officials said the approach outlined in the June strategy paper was a broadening of an effort the Putin administration launched in March 2016. That month the Kremlin instructed state-backed media outlets, including international platforms Russia Today and Sputnik news agency, to start producing positive reports on Trump’s quest for the U.S. presidency, the officials said.

Russia Today did not respond to a request for comment. A spokesperson for Sputnik dismissed the assertions by the U.S. officials that it participated in a Kremlin campaign as an “absolute pack of lies.” “And by the way, it’s not the first pack of lies we’re hearing from ‘sources in U.S. official circles’,” the spokesperson said in an email.

PRO-KREMLIN BLOGGERS

Russia Today and Sputnik published anti-Clinton stories while pro-Kremlin bloggers prepared a Twitter campaign calling into question the fairness of an anticipated Clinton victory, according to a report by U.S. intelligence agencies on Russian interference in the election made public in January. [bit.ly/2kMiKSA]

Russia Today’s most popular Clinton video – “How 100% of the 2015 Clintons’ ‘charity’ went to … themselves” – accumulated 9 millions views on social media, according to the January report. [bit.ly/2os8wIt]

The report said Russia Today and Sputnik “consistently cast president elect-Trump as the target of unfair coverage from traditional media outlets.”

The report said the agencies did not assess whether Moscow’s effort had swung the outcome of the race in Trump’s favor, because American intelligence agencies do not “analyze U.S. political processes or U.S. public opinion.” [bit.ly/2kMiKSA]

CYBER ATTACKS

Neither of the Russian institute documents mentioned the release of hacked Democratic Party emails to interfere with the U.S. election, according to four of the officials. The officials said the hacking was a covert intelligence operation run separately out of the Kremlin.

The overt propaganda and covert hacking efforts reinforced each other, according to the officials. Both Russia Today and Sputnik heavily promoted the release of the hacked Democratic Party emails, which often contained embarrassing details.

Five of the U.S. officials described the institute as the Kremlin’s in-house foreign policy think tank.

The institute’s director when the documents were written, Leonid Reshetnikov, rose to the rank of lieutenant general during a 33-year-career in Russia’s foreign intelligence service, according to the institute’s website [bit.ly/2oVhiCF]. After Reshetnikov retired from the institute in January, Putin named as his replacement Mikhail Fradkov. The institute says he served as the director of Russia’s foreign intelligence service from 2007 to 2016. [bit.ly/2os4tvz]

Reuters was unable to determine if either man was directly involved in the drafting of the documents. Reshetnikov’s office referred questions to the Russian institute.

On its website, the Russian institute describes itself as providing “expert appraisals,” “recommendations,” and “analytical materials” to the Russian president’s office, cabinet, National Security Council, ministries and parliament. [bit.ly/2pCBGpR]

On Jan. 31, the websites of Putin’s office [bit.ly/2os9wMr] and the institute [bit.ly/2oLn9Kd] posted a picture and transcript of Reshetnikov and his successor Fradkov meeting with Putin in the Kremlin. Putin thanked Reshetnikov for his service and told Fradkov he wanted the institute to provide objective information and analysis.

“We did our best for nearly eight years to implement your foreign policy concept,” Reshetnikov told Putin. “The policy of Russia and the policy of the President of Russia have been the cornerstone of our operation.”

(Reporting by Ned Parker and Jonathan Landay, additional reporting by Warren Strobel and Arshad Mohammed; Editing by David Rohde and Ross Colvin)

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