Delay in Creating New US Cybersecurity Board Prompts Concern

It’s a key part of President Joe Biden’s plans to fight major ransomware attacks and digital espionage campaigns: creating a board of experts that would investigate major incidents to see what went wrong and try to prevent the problems from happening again — much like a transportation safety board does with plane crashes.

But eight months after Biden signed an executive order creating the Cyber Safety Review Board it still hasn’t been set up. That means critical tasks haven’t been completed, including an investigation of the massive SolarWinds espionage campaign first discovered more than a year ago. Russian hackers stole data from several federal agencies and private companies.

Some supporters of the new board say the delay could hurt national security and comes amid growing concerns of a potential conflict with Russia over Ukraine that could involve nation-state cyberattacks. The FBI and other federal agencies recently released an advisory — aimed particularly at critical infrastructure like utilities — on Russian state hackers’ methods and techniques.

“We will never get ahead of these threats if it takes us nearly a year to simply organize a group to investigate major breaches like SolarWinds,” said Sen. Mark Warner, a Virginia Democrat who leads the Senate Intelligence Committee. “Such a delay is detrimental to our national security and I urge the administration to expedite its process.”

Biden’s order, signed in May, gives the board 90 days to investigate the SolarWinds hack once it’s established. But there’s no timeline for creating the board itself, a job designated to Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas.

In response to questions from The Associated Press, DHS said in a statement it was far along in setting it up and anticipated a “near-term announcement,” but did not address why the process has taken so long.

Scott Shackelford, the cybersecurity program chair at Indiana University and an advocate for creating a cyber review board, said having a rigorous study about what happened in a past hack like SolarWinds is a way of helping prevent similar attacks.

“It sure is taking, my goodness, quite a while to get it going,” Shackelford said. “It’s certainly past time where we could see some positive benefits from having it stood up.”

The Biden administration has made improving cybersecurity a top priority and taken steps to bolster defenses, but this is not the first time lawmakers have been unhappy with the pace of progress. Last year several lawmakers complained it took the administration too long to name a national cyber director, a new position created by Congress.

The SolarWinds hack exploited vulnerabilities in the software supply-chain system and went undetected for most of 2020 despite compromises at a broad swath of federal agencies and dozens of companies, primarily telecommunications and information technology providers. The hacking campaign is named SolarWinds after the U.S. software company whose product was exploited in the first-stage infection of that effort.

The hack highlighted the Russians’ skill at getting to high-level targets. The AP previously reported that SolarWinds hackers had gained access to emails belonging to the then-acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf.

The Biden administration has kept many of the details about the cyberespionage campaign hidden.

 

The Justice Department, for instance, said in July that 27 U.S. attorney offices around the country had at least one employee’s email account compromised during the hacking campaign. It did not provide details about what kind of information was taken and what impact such a hack may have had on ongoing cases.

The New York-based staff of the DOJ Antitrust Division also had files stolen by the SolarWinds hackers, according to one former senior official briefed on the hack who was not authorized to speak about it publicly and requested anonymity. That breach has not previously been reported. The Antitrust Division investigates private companies and has access to highly sensitive corporate data.

The federal government has undertaken reviews of the SolarWinds hack. The Government Accountability Office issued a report this month on the SolarWinds hack and another major hacking incident that found there was sometimes a slow and difficult process for sharing information between government agencies and the private sector, The National Security Council also conducted a review of the SolarWinds hack last year, according to the GAO report.

But having the new board conduct an independent, thorough examination of the SolarWinds hack could identify inconspicuous security gaps and issues that others may have missed, said Christopher Hart, a former National Transportation Safety Board chairman who has advocated for the creation of a cyber review board.

“Most of the crashes that the NTSB really goes after … are ones that are a surprise even to the security experts,” Hart said. “They weren’t really obvious things, they were things that really took some deep digging to figure out what went wrong.”

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Garbage Hunters: Deciphering North Korea Through Its Trash

On a blustery January afternoon, Professor Kang Dong-won is scouring the beach for trash — specifically, North Korean trash that’s washed ashore on the remote Yeonpyeong Island near the disputed sea border with North Korea.  

“Ah, right here,” Kang exclaims as he reaches under a heap of garbage tangled by a fraying rope. “Eskimo,” he says, holding up a blue plastic package. “North Korean ice cream.”  

It’s the 35th different type of Eskimo brand ice cream Kang has found during his past year of hunting for North Korean garbage. In total, he says he has collected 1,414 pieces of North Korean trash from South Korean beaches.   

“The waste is so diverse — food, beverages, snacks, medicines, cosmetics. It’s like a little (North Korean) market here at the beach,” says Kang, a professor of political science and diplomacy at Dong-A University in Busan, South Korea.   

Though it may seem strange, examining trash is one of the few ways to observe North Korea’s economy firsthand during the coronavirus pandemic, which has made the country more inaccessible than ever to outsiders.   

New ‘dark age’    

Since North Korea sealed its borders in February 2020, most foreigners, such as diplomats and aid workers, have left the country.  

Increased border patrols — which include shoot-to-kill orders, according to U.S. officials — have drastically reduced the flow of defectors and smuggling across the North Korea-China border.    

Meanwhile, domestic travel restrictions complicate the ability of North Koreans to covertly use Chinese cell phones to communicate with those outside the country.    

The restrictions are severing already fragile links to North Korea, plunging the country into what some observers say is a new “information dark age.” 

The situation is frustrating for scholars like Kang, who has visited Pyongyang and made several research trips to Chinese cities on the North Korea border. Since those kinds of trips are now impossible, he has instead turned to trash. 

Trash: more revealing than you may think   

During a brief garbage hunt with VOA, Kang found a diverse range of items, including toothpaste containers, instant noodle packages, fruit juice boxes, and a piece of North Korean propaganda slamming South Korean conservatives. 

Even simple commercial products can offer insights about North Korea’s economy.  

Mundane details such as ingredient lists and production dates can show what North Korea is able to produce and import during the pandemic.    

Many of the packages specify the exact North Korean factory where the product was made. In some cases, the factory is a known military facility — a detail that can indicate what products the North provides to its soldiers, Kang says.  

Even the packaging material holds clues. Newer trash, Kang says, is often composed of recycled or locally sourced product, likely because of North Korea’s import difficulties.    

The most insightful trash, according to Kang, is North Korean medicine containers, which help him better understand the kind of traditional Korean methods of healthcare often used in North Korea. “This is revealing because these items could not be easily obtained even if I were able to visit North Korea,” he says.  

Kang also pays attention to the way North Korea, perhaps the least capitalist country in the world, markets its products. In recent years, he says, North Korean brands have put more effort into creating sleek advertising on their products. “Not even North Korea can ignore the tastes and desires of its people,” he says.    

Locals unimpressed 

Although North Korean garbage can be found on several South Korean beaches, many of Kang’s trash hunts occur on Yeonpyeong Island.  

Part military outpost, part quiet fishing village, Yeonpyeong feels disconnected from the rest of South Korea. It is reachable only by a passenger ferry that runs once a day, if weather conditions allow.   

At its closest, North Korean territory is just four kilometers away from Yeonpyeong and easily visible with the naked eye. It’s not difficult to find North Korean trash here, especially at beaches facing the North.    

But many longtime residents say they barely notice the North Korean garbage. Eighty-one-year-old Oh Gui-im, who frequently collects oysters at the beach, says she’s seen a lot more than just trash wash ashore during her 55 years on the island.  

“Landmines also float around,” she told VOA. “You have no idea how much stuff comes from the North. So many products — and even human corpses.”   

Growing trend 

While local residents may be unimpressed by the trash, a growing number of Korea analysts are interested, especially when so many other sources of information about North Korea have run dry.    

“It’s kind of become, I like to say, like lunar studies,” says Chad O’Carroll, the Seoul-based chief executive of Korea Risk Group, which monitors North Korea. “Telescopes, satellite imagery — that’s pretty much how we’re having to do it.”    

Examining North Korean trash is not only a way to learn about North Korea’s economy, he says, it’s also a way to feel more physically connected to the country.   

“North Korea is a very abstract country and when you’re looking at it through the computer screen all day and making phone calls and researching online, it’s sometimes easy to forget that it’s just a few dozen miles away from where we’re sitting right now,” he says.    

Kang agrees. He says at first some questioned why a university professor would spend so much time looking through trash. But he says he’s found so much useful info that he’s written a book on the topic. 

“With this trash, I can see the lives of North Koreans,” he says.    

With North Korea closed indefinitely, scraps may be all that he has for a while. 

Lee Juhyun contributed to this report.

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Garbage Hunters: Deciphering North Korea Through Its Trash

With its borders closed and virtually all foreigners gone, North Korea is more inaccessible than ever during the coronavirus pandemic. So to learn about the reclusive country’s economy, some North Korea watchers are picking up whatever scraps they can. In some cases, that means literally examining North Korean trash, as VOA’s Bill Gallo reports from the inter-Korean border.

Camera: William Gallo                                     Produced by: Rod James   

 

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IMF Approves $455 Million Loan to Republic of Congo

The International Monetary Fund board on Monday approved a three-year $455 million loan for the Republic of Congo to help undergird the small African nation’s economic recovery. 

The global crisis lender will provide $90 million immediately under the Extended Credit Facility to help the oil-dependent country deal with the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The economy “is expected to strengthen in the second half of the year, supported by vaccine rollout, social spending, and domestic arrears, payments,” IMF Deputy Managing Director Kenji Okamura said in a statement 

“However, the nascent recovery is facing significant risks, including a possible worsening of the pandemic (and) continued volatility in oil prices.” 

But reducing the nation’s “debt vulnerabilities” will be key, Okamura said, noting the government is working on restructuring its debt. 

The Republic of Congo, a land of 5 million people that abuts the vast Democratic Republic of Congo, relies on oil for most of its wealth and has built up debt to China through loans that helped build some of its petroleum infrastructure. 

The IMF estimates the economy will grow 2.4% this year, after a slight contraction in 2021. 

 

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US Stocks Stage Dramatic Intraday Recovery 

Following the worst week for U.S. stocks since the early days of the coronavirus pandemic, market volatility continued Monday — partly due to worries about Russian military movements near Ukraine.  

The Dow Jones Industrial Average closed up 100 points after six consecutive days of losses. For most of Monday’s session, it appeared there would be a significant seventh day of losses, with the benchmark index in a free-fall, dropping 1,100 points (3.3%) before staging an extraordinary recovery.  

It was the sharpest one-day comeback for the Dow and the S&P 500 index since October 2008.  

The tech-laden Nasdaq composite closed 0.6% higher earlier in the day, trading more than 4% lower.  

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization announced Monday it is dispatching ships and jet fighters to eastern Europe following the increase in Russian military forces near Ukraine.  

The U.S. Defense Department also announced Monday it has placed 8,500 troops on standby for possible deployment to central and eastern Europe to bolster NATO defenses. The previous day, the State Department instructed the families of U.S. diplomats in Ukraine to leave the country.  

“The market already had downward momentum. Throwing in some geopolitical headlines was essentially another reason to sell,” according to Tom Essaye, president of Sevens Report Research. 

Investors have been anxiously eyeing anticipated action by the Federal Reserve to stem inflation because interest rate hikes could throttle growth for the U.S. economy.  

A decision on interest rates by the Fed is expected on Wednesday.  

The remarkable afternoon turnaround for the stock market followed a U.S. Treasury auction of two-year notes. 

“There was a lot of demand for that Treasury auction that came out at 1 p.m.,” Essaye told VOA. “People around the market looked and said, ‘Wow, maybe bond investors and traders aren’t quite as nervous about the Fed going crazy on rate hikes as everybody else is.’” 

The White House brushed off concern about the market volatility.  

“We focus on the trends of the economy, not any one day,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters during a routine briefing Monday.  

“The market is up about 15%” compared to when Joe Biden took over from Donald Trump as U.S. president, noted Psaki, adding that “unlike his predecessor, the president does not look at the stock market as a means by which to judge the economy.” 

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Russian Markets Plunge as War Fears Mount

The Russian stock market took a dive Monday as war fears triggered a massive sell-off, with tens of billions of dollars wiped from the value of some of the country’s leading businesses.

As concerns mount that President Vladimir Putin is poised to order an invasion of neighboring Ukraine, the ruble also hit a 14-month low, prompting the Central Bank to intervene by halting its regular purchases of foreign currency to help prop up the ruble.

“The Bank of Russia has decided not to purchase foreign currency on the domestic market,” the bank said in a statement. “This decision was made in order to reduce the volatility of financial markets.”

The bank regularly converts the proceeds of the country’s oil and gas exports to avoid the ruble being impacted by swings in the value of global commodities.

The bank offered no details on when it would resume buying foreign currencies. The ruble was down 2.3% in early Monday trading but steadied after the bank’s announcement.

Meanwhile, the Russian stock market plunged more than 10% on Monday but was 7% down when trading concluded. Since the start of the Russian military buildup on the borders of Ukraine in October, the market has lost more than a quarter of its value.

Anders Aslund is chairman of the International Advisory Council at the Center for Social and Economic Research, a policy group in Warsaw, Poland. Aslund predicts the market could fall much further if the geopolitical confrontation between Russia and Western powers over Ukraine worsens.

“So far, the Russian RTS stock index in USD has only fallen 27% from its high point on October 27 before Putin started threatening Ukraine,” Aslund tweeted. “It has far more to fall. In 2008, it fell by 80% from May to October (Georgia war + global financial crisis).”

Meanwhile, the European stock markets have held fairly steady in recent weeks — a blitheness that’s not necessarily reassuring, analysts say, as the European stock markets didn’t miss a beat in the immediate wake of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo in 1914, a slaying that triggered World War I. 

The London and Paris bourses were “slow to grasp why Sarajevo was different and unique,” noted Ambrose Evans-Pritchard, international business editor of The Telegraph.

European investors and traders appeared Monday to take greater note of the geopolitical maneuverings, and markets nudged down lower on the news that Britain was joining the United States in withdrawing some diplomats and their families from the embassies in Kyiv, the Ukrainian capital. 

The German and French stock markets were down about 2% in early trading, with analysts saying a New York Times report that U.S. President Joe Biden is considering deploying 5,000 troops to bolster the defenses of Ukraine’s NATO neighbors contributed to jitters.

The London stock market also traded lower. Some analysts suggested the dips were as much the result of traders watching what the U.S. Federal Reserve might do about tightening monetary policy than the unfolding Ukraine crisis.

With the crisis deepening, the attention of the markets and Western policy makers is turning to the possible energy implications for Europe, which gets about half of its natural gas supplies from Russia. Fears have been mounting that the Kremlin might retaliate by stopping gas exports in the event the West imposes fresh sanctions on Russia. The result would be an energy shock for a continent that is already mired in an energy crunch and experiencing soaring prices.

“Should tensions between Russia and the Ukraine escalate, the initial uncertainty around its impact on gas flows would likely lead the market to once again add a significant risk premium to European gas prices,” Goldman Sachs analysts told clients.

Last week, the Reuters news agency reported the U.S. State Department has been putting together a global strategy to increase supplies of liquefied natural gas to Europe in the event a Russian invasion of Ukraine leads to gas shortages.

Amos Hochstein, senior adviser for energy security at the State Department, has been holding talks with several Middle East and North African countries, as well as companies in Europe, about how to boost gas supplies if Russia seeks to weaponize energy.

In London Monday, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson told reporters that the intelligence about Russian intentions was “gloomy” but added that a Russian invasion was not inevitable.

“The intelligence is very clear that there are 60 Russian battle groups on the borders of Ukraine. The plan for a lightning war that could take out Kyiv is one that everybody can see. We need to make it very clear to the Kremlin, to Russia, that that would be a disastrous step,” Johnson said.

He added, “We also need to get a message (to Moscow) that invading Ukraine, from a Russian perspective, is going to be a painful, violent and bloody business. I think it’s very important that people in Russia understand that this could be a new Chechnya.”

He was referring to the brutal wars fought between Russia and Chechen rebels in the 1990s that left tens of thousands of people dead. Chechnya had waged wars of independence against Russia.

Speaking as Britain started to withdraw some embassy staff from Ukraine, Johnson said, “We do think it prudent to make some changes now.”

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More Women, Minorities Take Up Truck Driving Due to High Demand

A shortage of truck drivers in the U.S. has led to all kinds of troubles for consumers and businesses. That has led to some trucking companies doing all they can to get new drivers on the road. VOA’s Aunshuman Apte has more from New York City.

Camera: Aunshuman Apte                       Produced by: Aunshuman Apte 

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California Nursing Homes Use Robotic Pets to Help the Elderly

In a California senior care community, very special pets are helping residents keep their spirits up, fight anxiety and feel loved. Officials say these animals are therapeutic, low-maintenance and never get moody. Angelina Bagdasaryan has the story, narrated by Anna Rice.

Camera: Vazgen Varzhabetian             

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UAE Bans Flying of Recreational Drones After Fatal Attack

The United Arab Emirates has banned the flying of drones in the country for recreation after Yemen’s Houthi rebels claimed a fatal drone attack on an oil facility and major airport in the country.

As of Saturday, drone hobbyists and other operators of light electric sports aircraft face “legal liabilities” if caught flying the objects, the Interior Ministry said, adding it may grant exemptions to businesses seeking to film.

A rare drone and missile strike on the capital of Abu Dhabi blew up several fuel tankers and killed three people last week.

The Houthis, who hold Yemen’s capital and have fought a bloody, yearslong war with a Saudi-led military coalition that includes the UAE, claimed the assault. While the UAE has largely withdrawn troops from the stalemated conflict, the country continues to be a major player and support local militias on the ground.

The UAE said the Houthis targeted the country with bomb-laden drones and cruise and ballistic missiles, adding the country had intercepted some of the projectiles. In response to the strike, the Saudi-led coalition has escalated attacks on the rebel-held parts of Yemen in the last week.

Government regulations in the UAE already restrict flying drones in residential areas as well as near, around and over airports. Drone users typically must obtain a certificate from the civil aviation authorities. 

 

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Facebook Removes Kurdish Pages Linked to Misinformation on Belarus Migrant Crisis

Meta, the parent company of Facebook, has removed two popular Kurdish Facebook pages accused of spreading misinformation that helped convince thousands of Kurds to mass along the border of Belarus and Poland late last year.

The two accounts, one from a Kurdish lawmaker with 143,000 followers and another belonging to a Kurdish journalist with nearly 270,000 followers, were spreading misinformation that falsely claimed Kurds who went to the Belarus-Poland border would be allowed into the European Union.

There was no such immigration plan. Instead, frustrated crowds clashed with border guards and thousands were later deported. 

The false posts were among many seen by Kurds who traveled to the border area and were interviewed by VOA.

“We followed the crowd towards the Polish borders after rumors on Facebook. It resulted in nothing more than adversity for this destitute people,” said Hersh Saeed Ahmad, a Kurdish migrant in Belarus.

But the accounts on Facebook continued to publish widely read posts until earlier this month when VOA contacted Meta asking if the pages were violating the company’s policies. 

“Meta has decided both pages violated our policies for misinformation under Violence & Incitement Community Standards, and both have been taken down,” a spokesperson from the company told VOA in an email.

The episode illustrates how the social media network continues to struggle to police even well-known spreaders of misinformation who are involved in high-profile news events, especially when misinformation is being published in languages other than English.

Spreading misinformation 

The Belarus-EU border crisis began last July and worsened by November, when thousands of migrants from the Middle East, North Africa and Iraqi Kurdistan, attempted to cross into the EU from Belarus.

In mid-November, violence broke out at the Polish border when security forces used tear gas and water cannons to prevent migrants from breaking the border fencing. Polish police at the time reported several injuries in their ranks from migrants throwing stones at them.

At the time, Facebook told news outlets that it was working to shut down information about human trafficking in the region.

But two prominent Kurdish Facebook pages continued to traffic in misinformation about the situation at the border until earlier this month.

Sirwan Baban, a member of the Kurdistan Regional Parliament, and Ranj Pshdary, a Kurdish journalist based in Greece, used their pages on Facebook to tell their followers in early November that the EU and Germany had decided to open their borders to let in migrants stranded on a Belarus-Poland border point.

 

It was a claim denied by EU officials at the time, but thousands of migrants, mostly Kurds, still stormed the Polish border fence and clashed with police.

VOA interviews with officials in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq and Kurdish migrants in Belarus confirmed that misinformation on Facebook, including from Baban and Pshdary, helped to lure thousands of people towards the Polish border.

Hersh Saeed Ahmad, a 36-year-old Kurd from Sulaimani province, is among those migrants who, after reading posts on social media, took his wife and 4-year-old child to the Polish border in November.

“Our situation after the storming turned from bad to worse,” he said. “Our admission by Germany was nothing more than lies and rumors on Facebook.”

Another migrant, Bahadin Muhsin Qadir, said they were told the Polish security at the border had announced through loudspeakers that they will be transferred through buses to Germany.

The standoff at the border during extreme weather conditions left more than a dozen people dead, according to human rights activists, who say the total number is likely higher but hard to confirm due to restricted access to the area.

Ari Jalal, the head of Kurdish foundation Lutka for Refugees and Migrants, told VOA that his group registered two deaths among the Kurds at the border. He said about 4,000 migrants have since returned to the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, with about 1,100 people remaining in Belarus camps.

“In addition to bodily and material damage, the Kurdish migrants are also psychologically broken down completely,” said Jalal, while expressing his frustration at “how gullible Kurdish youth can be manipulated by livestream videos on social media.” 

Facebook’s efforts 

Working with independent experts, Meta says it works to detect and remove harmful false claims that could contribute to the risk of imminent violence or physical harm ­— such as claims in Arabic and Kurdish that either the Polish border is open to migrants or Germany is sending buses for the migrants to the border. 

In November, The New York Times reported that an account belonging to a Kurdish-German influencer widely known online as Karwan Rawanduzy was disabled on Facebook for frequently promoting bogus stories that fueled the crisis.

In early December, Meta released a threat report saying it removed 38 Facebook accounts, five groups and four Instagram accounts linked to the Belarusian KGB that were inflaming the migrant crisis. It also reported taking down 31 Facebook accounts, four groups, two Facebook events and four Instagram accounts that originated in Poland and targeted Belarus and Iraq.

Despite those high-profile takedowns, the social media giant missed other far-reaching pages that were still being used to mislead migrants.

False claim of open border 

In the case of Sirwan Baban, a lawmaker, and Ranj Pshdary, who calls himself a journalist, both with thousands of followers, Facebook for months served as their main medium to encourage migrants to amass at the Polish border.

Pshdary, 32, from Iraqi Kurdistan’s Qaladza town, has gained recognition in Kurdish media for his role in covering the Belarus crisis. On November 13, he went live on Facebook to tell migrants “the great news” that the EU was going to open its doors to let them in. In the video, viewed and shared by thousands, people claiming to be migrants in Belarus or their relatives, joined Pshdary’s call in encouraging the migrants to prepare to cross into Poland “in the next couple of days.”

“The Polish border will be opened to migrant on November 15 and the migrants will be sent to Germany via buses,” Pshdary said.

Three days later, thousands of migrants, mostly Kurds, headed from a Belarus forest to the Polish border, anticipating a crossing into Poland. They clashed with the Polish police, but no migrants crossed over.

Pshdary, in another live Facebook video titled “I confess that we failed,” admitted he had intentionally misled people.

“I don’t want to conceal from you that I was the organizer of the crowd. On Friday, [Nov. 12, 2021], I met with the representatives of the migrants… Seeing that the Belarus police were torturing a lot of young migrants, there was no option but to encourage those people to cut the barbed wire fence so that those young people can be seen as perpetrators and violated against [by the Polish security].”

Pshdary said in his Facebook Live he believed that falsely saying the border was open would have created a spectacle with women, children and older migrants out in the cold, thus embarrassing EU politicians and forcing them to open their doors on a humanitarian basis.

When reached by VOA, Pshdary insisted that his plan was “good intentioned” and aimed at helping the migrants who desperately reached out to him for a way out.

Lawmaker resigns from diaspora committee

Lawmaker Sirwan Baban, who served as a member of the Kurdistan Regional Parliament’s diaspora committee at the time of the crisis, gave similar false hopes to migrants on Facebook and on TV.

On November 8, he appeared in a live interview with the Kurdish media network Rudaw, which was streamed live on Facebook with 755,000 views, claiming he had access to a “proclamation” from the EU: “It says the migrant situation in Belarus has escalated and become tragedy and a global issue. Therefore, the European Union has met tonight, telling Poland, ‘Let Belarus continue its dictatorship. You open your borders and allow the migrants in. Once in Poland, we will distribute them among other European countries.'” 

In an interview with VOA, Baban denied coordinating his false information about border openings with Pshdary, claiming that he had received reliable information that the EU’s refugee committee and some German officials had made a “recommendation” to let in the migrants. However, he declined to share the source of his information with VOA.

“This issue is portrayed this way in Kurdistan only to implicate me,” he added. 

In addition to using his Facebook page, Baban also went live on several Facebook groups and other social media pages to promote the story which — at the time — was also denied by Kurdish Foreign Relations officer Safin Dizayee in an interview with VOA Kurdish Service.

Among videos Baban posted of alleged migrants celebrating and thanking him for his efforts to influence EU officials is a young girl introducing herself as Saya and saying, “Mr. Sirwan Baban, the parliamentarian, thank you very much for such a great news … I will see you in Germany.”

The Kurdistan Regional Parliament’s diaspora committee in an urgent statement on November 11 accused Baban of spreading misinformation “that pushes the youth into harm’s way.”

The head of the committee, Rebwar Babkai, told VOA that Baban has since been forced to resign from the committee due to his role in spreading the misinformation.

“I hope this is a lesson to all of us holding a public position to feel the responsibility of our jobs,” Babkai said, adding it was unclear if his region’s government was going to take further action against Baban.

Limits of Facebook’s enforcement? 

Some social media observers say Facebook’s failure to detect those pages after months of misinformation shows “a gap” that needs to be filled particularly in non-English content.

“I think Facebook needs to do more when it comes to content in local languages,” said Dlshad Othman, a Kurdish cybersecurity expert based in Washington.

Othman said the social media company has improved over the years in moderating content in major Middle Eastern languages such as Arabic, often at the expense of languages for smaller populations like the Kurds. A Facebook representative declined to answer VOA questions about how many Kurdish-literate moderators the company employs. 

Moustafa Ayad is the executive director for Africa, Middle East and Asia at the UK-based Institute for Strategic Dialogue, a research group that monitors online extremism and disinformation. He told VOA that while Facebook’s technical advances such as the development of artificial intelligence have been helpful in countering disinformation, the company needs to do more.

“I believe all of these issues can be fixed with effective moderation in those languages,” he said. “It is not only just language skills but also an understanding of what is happening in those countries in a geopolitical and social level.” 

Facebook says it works with law enforcement, academics, non-profit organizations and others to detect and remove harmful false claims, ads, posts, pages and groups about people smuggling over international borders, and did so during the crisis in Belarus. It uses technology, human review and “reports from our users and trusted partners to detect and remove such content,” said a Meta spokesperson in an email to VOA.

“We remove this content as soon as we become aware of it regardless of who posts the content,” the spokesperson said.

 

While their pages were removed, the journalist and lawmaker still have a presence on Facebook.

As of January 19, Pshdary, the journalist, has a personal account with 3,600 followers. 

The lawmaker Baban’s personal account has over 15,000 followers. On a recent post, he invites viewers to like his new page created on January 22.

 

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Biden Pushes Expansion of Domestic Semiconductor Manufacturing

U.S. President Joe Biden touted a $20 billion investment by American technology company Intel to build a semiconductor factory in Ohio to address a global shortage that has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic and the U.S.-China trade war.

In a speech from the White House on Friday, Biden said the Intel factory, part of the administration’s effort to work with the private sector, would create thousands of jobs. He urged Congress to pass legislation to further expand domestic chip manufacturing, framing it in the context of strategic competition with China.

“Today 75% of the production takes place in East Asia; 90% of the most advanced chips are made in Taiwan,” Biden said. “China is doing everything it can to take over the global market so they can try to outcompete the rest of us.”

Semiconductor chips function as the brains of cars, medical equipment, household appliances and electronic devices.

The $20 billion factory is an initial investment, said Patrick Gelsinger, chief executive officer of Intel, at the White House event.

“This site alone could grow to as much as $100 billion of total investment over the decade,” he said.

The White House pointed to other investments in semiconductor manufacturing in the United States earlier this year by Samsung, Texas Instruments and Micron.

“Congress can accelerate this progress by passing the U.S. Investment and Competition Act, also known as USICA, which the president has long championed and which he called for action on today,” said White House press secretary Jen Psaki, referring to legislation that aims to strengthen research, development and manufacturing for critical supply chains to address semiconductor shortages.

Driven by Washington’s desire to retain an edge over China’s technological ambitions, USICA was passed with rare bipartisan Senate support in June but still needs to be passed by the House of Representatives. It includes full funding for the CHIPS for America Act, which provides $52 billion to catalyze more private sector investments in the semiconductor industry.

“The Chinese have been really clear. They want an indigenous chip industry. They want to be globally dominant, and that means displacing the U.S. and others,” James Lewis, director of the technology and public policy program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told VOA.

The U.S. share of global semiconductor production has fallen from 37% to 12% over the past 30 years, according to government data.

Pandemic impact

The COVID-19 pandemic and extreme changes in consumer demand during lockdowns have exacerbated fragility in the global semiconductor supply chain.

“Consumer demand increased rapidly for items such as home computers, while supply could not keep up and many Chinese manufacturers were locked down,” Nada Sanders, professor of supply chain management at the D’Amore-McKim School of Business at Northeastern University, told VOA.

Meanwhile, the U.S.-China tariff war that began under the Trump administration and geopolitical conflicts between the two global rivals have made the environment even less conducive for cooperation, Sanders said.

The Intel factory will not be operational until 2025, but analysts say the initiative will still be effective to secure the supply of chips in the long run.

“You cannot underestimate demand for this stuff. It grows at about 10% a year,” Lewis said.

As the U.S. expands its domestic chip manufacturing capacity, analysts say a key component is working with international partners, including South Korea, Taiwan and Japan, to fill in the supply gap.

Earlier Friday, Biden discussed semiconductor supply chain resilience in his virtual summit with Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida.

“The leaders did discuss the importance of cooperation on supply chain security, including semiconductors, and the president described what we are doing at home and underscored the importance of working together on it,” a National Security Council spokesperson told VOA.

The spokesperson added that the two countries have been working closely in this area bilaterally through the Quad, a security dialogue forum involving the U.S., Australia, India and Japan.

“The new ministerial-level Economic Policy Consultative Committee (the Economic ‘2+2’) established by the leaders today will also cover this important issue,” the spokesperson said.

Taiwan, home to the Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company (TSMC) and the leading producer of advanced chips in the world, is another key partner.

“If China was to take over Taiwan, and use TSMC as a leverage point, that would be hugely disruptive,” Lewis said. “Taiwan and its proximity to China and China’s hostility drives a lot of the concern.”

The global chip shortage has pushed up inflation rates and hamstrung the administration’s economic recovery efforts. It contributed to the sharp increases in the price of new and used automobiles, which account for one-third of the annual price increases in the consumer price index.

Biden’s approval in the polls has been lagging recently, partly driven by inflation. Consumer prices jumped 7% in December compared with a year earlier, the highest inflation rate in 40 years. It has dampened economic recovery in a year that the administration says has shown the biggest job growth in American history.

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South Africa’s Indigenous People Fight Planned Amazon Headquarters in Court

South Africa’s Indigenous Khoi and San people are in court to block construction of the planned African headquarters for online retail giant Amazon. Opponents say the project will ruin a historically significant riverside site in Cape Town and harm the environment. 

Closing arguments are being heard Friday. 

The site is slated to be developed into a 70,000-square-meter complex that will house Amazon, along with other businesses. City authorities approved construction of the nine-story complex last year. 

But some Indigenous Khoi San leaders and community groups are trying to reverse the decision, saying it undermines the city’s own heritage and environmental standards. 

“We’re in a situation where a terrain that is so sacred to the people of our country is not just under threat, but being damaged and destroyed as we speak,” said Tauriq Jenkins, high commissioner of the Goringhaicona Khoi Khoin Indigenous Traditional Council, which is among the groups fighting the project.

Construction has already begun at the site, which is currently occupied by a restaurant and golf course. 

Property owners Liesbeek Leisure Properties Trust, or LLPT, said it did consult Indigenous groups while planning the site’s redevelopment. 

In a statement, company spokesperson James Tannenberger said the opposing community group and Indigenous council led by Jenkins “have been driving a misinformation campaign …after their concerns were validly dismissed by the competent authorities during the comprehensive three-year development approval process.” 

Other Indigenous leaders have given their approval to the project, Tannenberger added. 

He said the new site will also pay tribute to their history by including a museum and memorial site, along with creating low-income housing and jobs. 

The current divide within the Indigenous community is complex. 

The Khoi Khoi and San were some of the country’s first inhabitants and their presence in the southern tip of Africa dates back thousands of years. 

Their lands were lost to colonial settlements in the 1600s. 

“They’re enslaved, they’re oppressed, they’re exploited,” said June Bam-Hutchison, a researcher with the Center for African Studies at the University of Cape Town. “Their language was also taken away, their culture was taken away, their knowledge systems that sort of helped us in so many ways to build a more peaceful and healthier society, that has also taken away.” 

She said their unique cultural identity was only acknowledged by South Africa in more recent decades. 

“Today, they are now being recognized. That took some time. The land question remains very much unresolved, highly disputed,” she added. 

The riverside development is contentious because of the site’s history. 

The Khoi San say it lies on a battlefield where they defended their territory from Portuguese colonizers in 1510. 

Jenkins said losing the case would set a dangerous precedent for giving up historic sites to corporate interests. 

Amazon, which does not own the site but will be leasing the space once constructed,declined to comment. 

 

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TotalEnergies to Leave Myanmar Over Human Rights Abuses

French oil giant TotalEnergies on Friday said it would withdraw from Myanmar over “worsening” human rights abuses committed since the country’s military took power in a February 2021 coup.

“The situation, in terms of human rights and more generally the rule of law, which have kept worsening in Myanmar… has led us to reassess the situation and no longer allows TotalEnergies to make a sufficiently positive contribution in the country,” the company said.

Total will withdraw from its Yadana gas field in the Andaman Sea, which provides electricity to the local Burmese and Thai population, six months at the latest after the expiry of its contractual period.

The company said it had not identified any means to sanction the military junta without avoiding stopping gas production and ensuing payments to the military-controlled Myanmar Oil and Gas Enterprise (MOGE).

Around 30% of the gas produced at Yadana is sold to the MOGE for domestic use, providing about half of the largest city Yangon’s electricity supply, according to Total.

International diplomatic pressure and sanctions have been building against Myanmar’s military junta since last year’s coup ousted civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

The European Union has imposed targeted sanctions on the Myanmar military, its leaders and entities, while Norwegian telecoms operator Telenor this week sold its stake in a Burmese digital payments service over the coup.

More than 1,400 civilians have been killed as the military cracks down on dissent, according to a local monitoring group, and numerous anti-junta militias have sprung up around the country.

Suu Kyi this month was convicted of three criminal charges and sentenced to four years in prison and now faces five new corruption charges. 

 

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Israel Probes Allegations Police Cyber-Spied on Citizens

Israel on Thursday launched an investigation into allegations police used the controversial Pegasus spyware on the country’s citizens.

In a letter sent to police commander Koby Shabtai, Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit asked to receive all wiretapping and computer spying orders from 2020 and 2021 in order to “verify allegations made in the media.”

The Israeli business daily Calcalist reported Thursday that Israeli police used Pegasus software to spy on an Israeli they considered a potential threat and attempt to gather evidence that could be used as leverage in future investigations.

According to the newspaper, which did not cite any sources, the police action represents a “danger to democracy.”

Police commissioner Yaakov Shabtai, reacting to the story, said that “the police have not found any evidence to support this information.”

“The Israeli police are fighting crime with all the legal means at their disposal,” Shabtai added in a statement.

Israeli security forces have wide leeway to conduct surveillance within Israel with judicial approval.

On Wednesday, Israel’s justice ministry pledged a full investigation into allegations that Pegasus spyware was used on Israeli citizens, including people who led protests of former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Pegasus, a surveillance product made by the Israeli firm NSO that can turn a mobile phone into a pocket spying device, has remained a source of global controversy following revelations last year it was used to spy on journalists and dissidents worldwide.

Once installed in a mobile phone, Pegasus allows access to the user’s messaging and data, as well as remote activation of the device for sound and image capture.

NSO would neither confirm nor deny it sold technologies to Israeli police, stressing that it does “not operate the system once sold to its governmental customers and it is not involved in any way in the system’s operation.”

“NSO sells its products under license and regulation to intelligence and law enforcement agencies to prevent terror and crime under court orders and the local laws of their countries,” it said in a statement sent to AFP.

Israel’s defense ministry, which must approve all exports of Israeli-made defense industry products, has also opened an investigation into sales of Pegasus overseas. 

 

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In Ethiopia, Guinea and Mali, Fears Rise Over Losing Duty-Free Access to US Market

For Sammy Abdella, the new year has brought bad tidings: the prospect of a steep drop in sales of scarves, rugs, baskets and other textile goods produced by Sammy Handmade in Ethiopia.

“The U.S. market is our main destination,” said Abdella, who estimates it accounts for nearly two-thirds of sales for his Addis Ababa-based home decor and fashion company. “So, losing that put us in a very, you know, bad situation.”

The source of Abdella’s stress? Effective January 1, Ethiopia was one of three countries — including Guinea and Mali — dropped from a U.S. trade program authorized by the African Growth and Opportunity Act of 2000.  AGOA gives sub-Saharan African countries duty-free access to U.S. markets for 6,500 products — if those countries meet eligibility requirements such as promoting a market-based economy and good governance and eliminating barriers to U.S. trade and investment.

Ethiopia lost its AGOA trade benefits for alleged “gross violations” of human rights in the conflict spreading beyond the northern Tigray region, and the West African nations of Guinea and Mali were disqualified for “unconstitutional change” in their respective governments, the U.S. Trade Representative’s office said.  Guinea experienced a coup d’etat in September. Mali has had two coups since 2020, and its military-led transitional government recently delayed elections. Mali also had been suspended from AGOA for all of 2013 after an earlier coup

A second AGOA delisting will have “serious consequences on the trade in Mali,” Mamadou Fofana, a Mali Chamber of Commerce and Industry spokesman, told VOA.

Mohamed Kaloko, head of Guinea’s Export Promotion Agency, said losing AGOA status raises the duty fee from zero to “at least 35%” for Guinean textiles, which he said were “well sought after on the American market.”

Gracelin Baskaran, a development economist at Cambridge University, predicted the suspensions would have limited impact on Guinea and Mali. Each sends relatively little to U.S. markets — less than 1% of their total exports, based on 2019 trade data.

But Ethiopia likely will feel “much larger effects,” Baskaran said. While the country ranks 88th among U.S. trade partners, its export-driven economic growth model has the American market as a key destination.

“China is the biggest destination,” accounting for 16.6% of Ethiopian exports, “but the U.S. is only one percentage point behind,” at 15.6%, she said, citing data from the Observatory of Economic Complexity.

‘Transformative’ program

Through AGOA, African businesses overall exported $8.4 billion worth of goods to U.S. markets in 2019, according to the U.S. Trade Representative’s office. 

“AGOA has been transformative for the continent,” Baskaran said, noting that textile and apparel imports from Africa to the U.S. “skyrocketed” through the program, “increasing from $356 million in 2001 to $1.6 billion within three years.”

But when a country gets suspended from AGOA, it loses its competitive edge and increases the chance that investors and businesses will seek other, more stable markets. 

“What we’ve seen over and over is that they [countries] don’t necessarily recover,” Baskaran said, “even years after benefits have been reinstated.”

She cited the experience of Eswatini (formerly Swaziland). In 2015, the U.S. government cut AGOA access to the tiny, landlocked southern African nation over labor and human rights violations. Many of the 30 textile and apparel factories established to produce for the American market closed down or moved to nearby Lesotho, and the value of Eswatini textile and apparel exports to the U.S. fell from $73 million in 2011 to just $319,000 in 2017, Baskaran said.

“Uncertainty around AGOA benefits creates long-term effects that undermine growth,” Baskaran said.

Kassahun Follo, president of the Confederation of Ethiopian Trade Unions, estimated that more than 200,000 jobs will be directly affected and more than 1 million indirectly, mostly in textiles, apparel and leather, by the loss of Ethiopia’s AGOA benefits.

Abdella expressed concern for Sammy Handmade and its 57 full-time workers.

“We also outsource to about 135 people,” he said, including weavers and others who produce handicrafts such as ponchos, baskets and leather purses.

The loss will also be felt in the United States, Abdella said. Along with his company’s direct sales to high-end department stores and boutiques, “we’ve had many wholesalers that actually buy from us, and then they in turn sell to retailers. Our wholesale clients are worried. … The market has become so competitive.”

‘People will be scared’

The Ethiopian Economic Association’s executive chairman, Mengistu Ketema, suggested the loss might prompt the Horn of Africa country to turn more to China, already Ethiopia’s top source of direct foreign investment. 

China pays little heed to a trading partner’s internal affairs, in contrast with the U.S. government, Mengistu told VOA.

“They don’t have any conditions attached when they support or do business with you,” he said of Chinese officials. “So, if you see where Ethiopia is now, when the U.S. and so many countries are turning their backs on her, considering China as an alternative is a good move. At least that would help her during her difficult time.”

In an emailed response to VOA, the U.S. State Department called China “a global strategic competitor. We offer alternatives in collaboration with our African and other partners consistent with our shared values.”

The email also said, in part: “The United States promotes democratic governance, respect for human rights, and transparency. Our focus is on strengthening local capacity, creating African jobs, and working with our allies and partners to promote economic growth that is beneficial, sustainable, and inclusive over the long term.”

Trade and statecraft

Trade is a tool of economic statecraft, “one of the best ways of promoting democracy,” said economist Baskaran, noting how economic sanctions effectively pressured South Africa to end apartheid in the 1990s.

Unfortunately, Baskaran said, “there are trade-offs” with sanctions. Businesses and individuals can “fall victim to the drive for large-scale change.”

In Mali’s capital, Bamako, Moussa Bagayoko weaves and dyes cotton fabric for a living. He sees the AGOA delisting as another blow on top of the pandemic, one that will land heavily on tradespeople like him.

“There is no more work for America,” Bagayoko said. “The coronavirus had completely shut us out of everything. … The U.S. government suspends us based on the fact that we do not have a good model of democracy at home. This suspension affects us craftsmen, not authorities.”

Bagayoko has participated in the trade program since 2013. “I earn my living through AGOA,” he said, “but not if it is taken away from me.”

The U.S. Trade Representative’s office has said it would help the governments of each delisted country work toward “clear benchmarks for a pathway to [AGOA] reinstatement.” Each country’s status could be reviewed as soon as it meets the program’s statutory requirements.

The overall AGOA trade program is up for renewal in 2025.

Contributors to this VOA report were Moctar Barry in Bamako, Mali, and Kadiatou Traore for the Bambara Service; and Zakaria Camara in Conakry, Guinea, for the French Service. Dereje Desta of the Horn of Africa Service and Carol Guensburg also reported from Washington.

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Senate Panel Moves Forward With Bill Targeting Big Tech

Legislation that would bar technology companies from favoring their own products in a way that undermines competitiveness moved forward Thursday after a Senate panel voted to move the bill to the Senate floor. 

The American Innovation and Choice Online Act received bipartisan support in a 16-6 vote in the Senate Judiciary Committee. 

The bill targets Amazon; Alphabet, the parent company of Google; Apple; and Meta, which was formerly called Facebook. 

The companies had worked strenuously to sink the bill, arguing it could disrupt their services. 

Smaller tech companies that supported the bill argued it will benefit consumers through adding competition. 

“This bill is not meant to break up Big Tech or destroy the products and services they offer,” said Senator Chuck Grassley, the top Republican on the judiciary panel. “The goal of the bill is to prevent conduct that stifles competition.” 

Matt Schruers, president of the Computer and Communications Industry Association, was critical of the bill and said he thought it would not pass the full Senate. 

“Antitrust policy should aim to promote consumer welfare — not punish specific companies,” he said in a statement. 

Another bill aimed at Big Tech, which has bipartisan sponsorship, is also working its way through Congress. The Open App Markets Act would prevent the Apple and Google app stores from requiring app makers to use their payment systems. 

The House of Representatives is also considering versions of both bills. 

Some information for this report came from Reuters. 

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