April 29, 2017

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by Suhaile Md

The White Helmets have had largely positive press coverage in international media. But there are some controversial allegations about the volunteer group, mostly from supporters of the Syrian regime.  On April 5, we spoke to founder Mr James Le Mesurier about it. This is part two of two. Read part one here.
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IT’S difficult to doubt the agenda of a group of volunteers who risk their lives to pull babies out of broken buildings.

However last year (Sep 21) when the Associated Press (AP) asked Syria’s President Assad, if he would support the White Helmets’ Nobel Peace Prize nomination, he said: “It is not about the White Helmets, whether they are credible or not, because some organisations are politicised, but they use different humanitarian masks and umbrellas just to implement certain agenda… What did they achieve in Syria? And how un-politicised is the Nobel Prize? That’s the other question.”

Not an unreasonable question given that foreign powers have taken sides in the Syrian conflict. Russia and Iran back President Bashar al-Assad, while the United States (US), United Kingdom (UK), Saudi Arabia, and Turkey back the rebel groups. And the White Helmets are funded by the latter group.

Last year (Sep 28), the British Foreign Minister Boris Johnson said that the UK had donated £32m (S$56m) since 2012. Earlier in April 27, a US State Department press briefing revealed that the US government donated US$23m (S$32m)  to the organisation. By the end of last year, list of donor governments include Germany (7m euros), Canada (C$4.5m), and the Netherlands (8.5m euros) as well.

White helmets training. Image from Mayday Rescue Facebook page

Donations by itself do not prove a nefarious agenda. Yet skeptics say that foreign governments don’t just give millions away altruistically either.

Mr James Le Mesurier, founder of the White Helmets and a former British diplomat, disagreed: “There’s a huge difference between funding which is conditional, and funding which is unconditional… Yes we get money (from the above countries)… but it has never been a secret.”

“For accountability and transparency reasons we have to publish it on the website, we have auditors to confirm where the money has gone.”

He added: “If it was a covert programme, we are doing a really really shit job at it.”

If it was a covert programme, we are doing a really really shit job at it.

The White Helmets have an annual budget of “US$30m to $32m,” with about “75 per cent from governments, and 25 per cent coming from private donations”. Private donations range from a few dollars worth to seven-figure sums.

This year, US$15m was raised “from organisations that are not western governments”. Regardless of the source, “we do not accept them if there’s any political conditionality” like wearing a certain logo, or making certain comments on media, said Mr Mesurier.

Still, the early White Helmet teams were trained in Turkey by ARK, a for-profit international contracting firm funded by Friends of Syria, “a coalition of about 35 different countries who provide support to those that are in opposition to the Assad Government,” said Mr Mesurier. He worked as a consultant there.

Surely, that reasonably raises questions of foreign agenda? Possibly regime change, or the overthrowing of President Assad, as it’s widely viewed?

The White Helmets do not have a regime change agenda, how exactly does rescuing somebody from a building result in the toppling of Assad in Damascus?

He replied: “What you need to connect, if you’re going to make this point, is means to ends… what ARK was doing, was funding media activists, giving them cameras, it’s good governance development, it was civil society development… the White Helmets were one of eight programmes.

“The White Helmets do not have a regime change agenda, how exactly does rescuing somebody from a building result in the toppling of Assad in Damascus?”

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Not agents of the CIA, or Mossad, or MI6…

Mr Mesurier said he’s been called an operative of foreign spy agencies like America’s CIA, Israel’s Mossad, and UK’s MI6, among others.

None of which are true. The idea of a rescue force came about when he was working in the private for-profit ARK. His job there “involved meeting mayors, local politicians, media activists, and designing and delivering training courses in peace and stabilisation activities”.

After the bombings started, it was in one of those meetings that local leaders said they needed to find ways to protect themselves. That’s when the idea to train rescue teams hit.

In 2013, a local leader in a village in Northern Aleppo sent Mr Mesurier’s 25 volunteers to train in Turkey. That’s where they were first issued with the protective helmets. It was white, because it’s “$5 cheaper than the other colours”.

White helmet volunteers training. Image from Mayday Rescue Facebook page.

Volunteers were lay people, teachers, bakers, blacksmiths, tailors and so on. Word spread and other communities in rebel held areas started approaching ARK. The growth and spread of the White Helmets was not the clandestine efforts of a spy. It was the simple need for a first-response rescue group.

In August 2014, the various teams came together, adopted their charter, pledge of neutrality, and voted in a leader, Mr Raed Saleh. The organisation was formalised then. Mr Saleh runs the show now, not Mr Mesurier.

Mr Mesurier left ARK around that time to set up Mayday Rescue, a non-profit organisation registered in the Netherlands, “because he didn’t feel right doing it (training White Helmet teams) on a for profit basis”.

Mayday Rescue supports the White Helmets with training and mentorship. While it has no management function, funding does go through Mayday Rescue. According to its website, the annual report and financial statements for 2016 will be published online this coming June.

Amongst other expenses, the money goes to the equipment purchases, training costs, and the “very very meagre” monthly stipend of US$150 each volunteer gets. Those who were maimed in service, as well as families of those who lost their lives, are also supported with a stipend. The White Helmets set up the Herofund in 2014 to help with public fundraising.
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Neutrality not respected

The White Helmets, he repeated throughout the interview, are neutral. They save everyone regardless of background.

The Syrian government is not convinced. It does not allow the White Helmets into regime controlled areas. Even when the White Helmets had six fire fighting teams near the vicinity of the forest fires in Latakia earlier this year, the Syrian government declined their offer to help, said Mr Mesurier.

Maybe it has something to do with online clips of some volunteers who have been very outspoken in their comments about the regime? Those are very few and far between and do not represent the view of the organisation, he said.

White helmets training. Image from Mayday Rescue Facebook page.

Also, it’s a war zone. The volunteers are lay persons who used to be housewives, teachers, bakers, and so on before the war. Their volunteerism exposes them to “tremendous stress”, they take “tremendous risks” to their lives. Mr Mesurier did not say so, but it’s understood: When you spend your days picking up bodies due to regime bombs, it’s only natural to be angry at the regime.

To the date of the interview (Apr 5), 171 volunteers have died and 488 were permanently maimed. There are currently 3,100 volunteers.

171 volunteers have died and 488 were permanently maimed. There are currently 3,100 volunteers.

When asked if he thinks the volunteers are targetted, Mr Mesurier said with finality, “absolutely”. Their centres have been bombed before. And the regime airstrikes infamously engage in “double-tap” attacks where a bombed site is struck again shortly after its first round – to get at the people who run in to help victims.

Interestingly, the volunteers are able to move freely in opposition held areas of Syria in spite of it being an “archipelago of local warlords” and “local arms organisations”. Although yes, in some parts, like ISIS controlled areas, the White Helmets are not allowed to use their GoPro head cameras when they go about their work.

Nonetheless, they can clear checkpoints “from top to bottom”, which is “fairly unusual”, said Mr Mesurier. He doubts any other organisation is able to do that. In fact, this also shows that the White Helmets are not western spies or agents. They would not have such freedom of movement otherwise.

It’s probably because of the “trust that people have of the White Helmets,” he added. Furthermore, the services the White Helmets provide to local communities have not been successfully replicated by local armed groups.

“Some local warlords have tried to set up their own rescue teams… but the values that makes people want to join an extremist organisation are almost the opposite of the values that make somebody want to be a White Helmet”.
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So are the White Helmets western stooges or not?

Skeptics would charge that the graphic videos and images are used in the propaganda war to make the President Assad’s regime look bad. This garners support for regime change, exactly what the western governments funding the White Helmets want.

To that, Mr Mesurier replied that the White Helmets just want the bombings to stop, not remove Assad or change regimes. Showing images “is not regime change”, it’s about “making truth accessible”, to show that people are suffering.

Mr Salah Skaff, 25, reacts carrying the body of his daughter Amira Skaff, 1.5 year old, after an airstrike on the rebel held besieged city of Douma, in the eastern Damascus suburb of Ghouta, Syria April 7, 2017. – REUTERS/Bassam Khabieh

It’s hard to argue with that. Given the volunteers’ lives lost and thousands of online videos that capture the harrowing circumstances the volunteers face, it’s hard to believe the white helmets work hard just to make the regime look bad.

It would be far safer and easier to spread fake news instead. (Read more here.)

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Mr James Le Mesurier was awarded the Order of the British Empire last year for his work with the White Helmets. In the past, he served as a British Army Officer from 1989 to 2000. Later he had a diplomatic stint for the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office. After which, he moved on to various roles in the private sector risk management companies. This information is publicly available on his LinkedIn profile.

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Featured image from Mayday Rescue Facebook page

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White Helmets on the job. Image from Mayday Rescue Facebook page.

by Suhaile Md

The White Helmets have had largely positive press coverage in international media. But there are some controversial allegations about the volunteer group, mostly from supporters of the Syrian regime. We spoke to founder Mr James Le Mesurier about it it. This is part one of two.

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YOU may have seen the videos from civil war-torn Syria: Volunteers braving bombs, their white helmet-clad heads bobbing about, looking for survivors, pulling bodies out of building rubble. The Syria Civil Defense, or White Helmets as they are popularly known, was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize last year. But last month (Mar 20), Syrian President Bashar al-Assad said: “White Helmets are Al-Qaeda members and that’s proven on the net.”

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Unsurprisingly, the White Helmets disagreed. And it’s not the only accusation hurled at them, said Mr James Le Mesurier, founder of the organisation, in an interview with TMG on April 5. The organisation has also been accused of faking rescue missions for propaganda purposes, and acting in the interests of western powers like the United States (US), and the United Kingdom (UK), by pushing for regime change in Syria. Read our other story on that here.

 

Mr James Le Mesurier, one of the founders of the White Helmets.

“We believe there is a deliberate, propaganda campaign to undermine the credibility of the White Helmets”, said Mr Mesurier at the sidelines of the Milipol Asia-Pacific Exhibition. The 45-year old former British diplomat and army officer gave a presentation on community resilience at the security exhibition.
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Accusations and rebuttals

Some of the harshest accusations have been debunked by watchdogs.

One particular viral video of a speech claimed that the White Helmets use actors to make fake rescue videos. The speech was by Ms Eva Bartlett at an event organised by the Syrian Mission to the United Nations (UN). Ms Bartlett, a Canadian, describes herself as “an independent writer and rights activist”.

Said Mr Mesurier: “She (Eva) is a founding member… of the Syrian Solidarity Movement, which is a pro-Assad government forum… how can she be an independent investigative journalist? The two are dichotomous.”

Her claims were, however, rubbished by UK’s Channel 4 news and Snopes. The video was posted on Dec 13 last year on Facebook page In The Now. The page is run by Russia Today (RT), a state-backed news site but Channel 4 notes that In The Now is “not branded as such”. Russia is a staunch ally of President Assad. The video garnered 4.3m views, over 53,000 reactions (comments and likes), and nearly 114,000 shares.

More recently, Pulitzer prize-winning website, PolitiFact, debunked the claim that the White Helmets orchestrated the hoax chemical attack on April 4 this year, in Idlib, Syria, to draw the US into bombing the Syrian regime.

We believe there is a deliberate, propaganda campaign to undermine the credibility of the White Helmets

It’s not possible to keep up with every claim made online. Detractors usually just pull together low resolution pictures of White Helmet volunteers and place it along those of gun-toting fighters, without dates or context, to imply they are the same people. That’s held up as “proof” that it’s a terrorist organisation.

But how often, asked Mr Mesurier, can someone differentiate one bearded man from another in a low grain picture? “You’re kind of like how do you respond to that?” It’s far easier to slap a few pictures together and sow doubt online than it is to track down facts and ascertain truth.

Yes, a few members of the White Helmets used to be former fighters, but they gave up their guns and now save lives. People change, he added. Just because they did not clear their social media history of pictures and slogans from the time when they took up arms does not mean they are still fighting.

And not just anybody can join the White Helmets. If the locals don’t trust the volunteers, they wouldn’t be able to get anything done. Which is why members are vetted by the local communities. So a “bad guy… wouldn’t be accepted as a member of the team”, said Mr Mesurier. There are currently 3,100 volunteers in 107 teams across Syria.
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White Helmets training. Image from Mayday Rescue Facebook page.

But what about the damning video, from May 6, 2015? White Helmet volunteers were caught on tape running in to clear a body seconds after a gunman executed a man. It turns out that the deceased was tried and sentenced to death in a local Sharia court, said Mr Mesurier. When his father found out about the time of execution, he called the White Helmets to help him conduct a proper burial. Besides, the gunman was clad in a balaclava, not a white helmet. Accusing the White Helmets of this act would be akin to accusing Joseph of Arimathea of crucifying Jesus.

The White Helmets are an unarmed, neutral group, interested in saving lives, insisted Mr Mesurier. By its own records, since March 2013 when the first team was formed, it has saved over 87,500 people. Anyone “dug out of building rubble, and put on a stretcher” plus a few other criteria is considered a life saved, he said.
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If it’s so good, why are there detractors in the first place?

Short answer: war and politics.

In 2011, the “Arab Spring” political protests against the ruling governments across parts of the Middle East spread to Syria as well. By 2012, the protests against President Assad in Syria soon devolved into a full-blown civil war. Over time, global and regional powers took sides. Iran and Russia support the Syrian regime led by President Assad. The US, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey support the rebels.

The White Helmets was started by Mr Mesurier when he was working for ARK, a for-profit international contracting firm based in Turkey. ARK was funded by Friends of Syria, “a coalition of about 35 different countries who provide support to those that are in opposition to the Assad Government,” said Mr Mesurier. The White Helmets are no longer under ARK but its donors include the US and UK, among others. But he insists there is no nefarious agenda. (Read more here: So what if we’re funded by western governments?)

The misinformation, said Mr Mesurier, comes mostly from Sputnik News and RT news. These are Russian state-backed news media. He believes the Russian government encourages it. To that end, he showed a tweet by the Russian Embassy in UK shortly after a documentary on the White Helmets won the Oscar for best documentary short feature.

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Said Mr Mesurier: “Every time there’s a video of White Helmets rescuing women, children, old people, from buildings bombed by (Syrian) government aircraft… that undermines what Assad says of it being a simple choice between him, as the good guy, and ISIS as the bad guys.”

But the work of the White Helmets has shown that there are many Syrians who don’t want either President Assad or the extremists.  “And that is a threat to him… how to deal with it? Accuse a volunteer rescue organisation of being affiliated with Al-Qaeda.”
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The mechanics of fake news

Mr Mesurier found a broad pattern to how fake news is spread. There are three phases.

First, it usually starts with blog posts by a “supposedly independent journalist of some variety… who typically claims to be new media, anti-mainstream media”. Such posts make their way into social media echo chambers.

Anybody who tries to be critical about the assertions in the post will face resistance from the writer’s supporters whose line of argument is usually: “You are taken in by mainstream media, you are blind, you don’t see what’s really going on in the world.”

So with the blog and some social media reaction, the next phase kicks in. “State-sponsored media” like RT or Sputnik news will invite said blogger on its channel where he or she is then “introduced as an independent investigative journalist”.

This is followed by “a series of leading questions that has them (Russia and Syria) define their story”. This narrative then enters a far larger audience. “What supports all of that is the industrial amounts of social media, who are not real people but bots that create fake profiles.”

What supports all of that is the industrial amounts of social media, who are not real people but bots that create fake profiles

The final phase is when national leaders make reference to sources like Sputnik news and RT. When members of the public look into the claims, there seems to be proof because so many people are talking about it online. No matter that the origins of the claims are based on shoddy reporting in a blog. Little can be done about such sites, “they’re not accountable (to a board or editors)… they cannot be sued”, said Mr Mesurier.

Furthermore, the effort it takes to disprove these allegations “is disproportionately greater than the amount of effort that it takes” to make it.

It takes only a few minutes to plaster together a couple of low resolution images from the web to make it seem as if a volunteer is actually a fighter in disguise. But to debunk it, both the volunteer and the fighter whose images were used need to be tracked down. In one such actual case, it was found that the fighter and volunteer were from two different cities altogether.

The White Helmets do not have a dedicated team addressing allegations. At the end of the day, said Mr Mesurier, the focus is on rescuing people, not debunking myths.

“We believe the record of the White Helmets speaks for itself.”

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Featured image from Mayday Rescue Facebook page

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GERMAN police are on the hunt for a brazen attacker. Officers comb a quiet street turned crime scene late on Tuesday (April 11) after a bus carrying the Borussia Dortmund football team was hit by three explosions.

The devices were planted in bushes on the side of the road, near the players’ hotel in what police say was a deliberate assault on players and staff.

Dortmund police chief Gregor Lange said, “We assumed from the start that the blast was a targeted attack on the Borussia Dortmund team. That is why we immediately activated the emergency plan to put all available police forces on duty.”

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The players were on their way to a home match against Monaco when their bus was struck, smashing several windows.

Spanish defender Marc Bartra has been hospitalised and is undergoing surgery on his hand.

The attack sending shock waves through the European football community.

Atletico Madrid coach Diego Simeone said in Spanish, “I’ve nothing really to say. I’m speechless. I’m just concerned.”

Many fans were already at the club’s ground when word of the blast reached them.

The stadium announcing that the game had been called off and will now be played on Wednesday (April 12) night.

-Reuters

 

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BB BE: Relax & Vote

ELECTIONS serve to be pivotal in leadership transition in the higher echelons of leadership in the public sector. It determines the country’s leaders and major decisions that will affect the people and the country on a global level. An election is thus an event that is anticipated.

In Singapore, taking into account the constitutional changes in the Elected Presidency last year and the announcement that this year’s presidential elections will be reserved for candidates from the Malay community, Singaporeans will definitely be looking forward to being part of the journey in choosing the next president of Singapore in September this year.

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Here are some leadership transition in the world to look out for:

1. Berlin, Germany – Angela Merkel runs for fourth term 

Dr Angela Merkel. Image by Alexander.kurz from Wikimedia Commons. 

The German federal election has been set on September 24 this year to elect the members of the Bundestag, the legislative body of Germany. Members serve four year terms with elections held every four years unless the Bundestag is dissolved by the president before the said four years.

German chancellor Angela Merkel’s party has won an election in the small southwestern state of Saarland, which is an indication of a trend for the upcoming election in September. Dr Angela Merkel will be running for the fourth term this year. The leader of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) received criticisms for her controversial open-door policy. In September last year, her approval rating fell to a five year low of just 45 per cent.

Far-right party Alternative for Germany (AfD) has gained popularity in the wake of the migrant crisis and Brexit victory in the UK. Former European Parliament President Martin Schulz is standing for the SDP in a bid to become Germany’s next Chancellor.

The Head of the Warsaw office of the European Council on Foreign Relations Mr Piotr Buras said that “despite the criticism of Merkel and her sinking support, a majority of voters support the idea of her remaining Chancellor.” He expects the coalition – made up of the Christian Democrats and SDP – to remain in power after the election. He added that there was an outside chance of a coalition between the SNP, Green Party and left-wing populist party Die Linke.

Dr Merkel has been the chancellor of Germany since 2005 and the leader of the CDU since 2000.

2. Tehran, Iran – 12th Presidential election: President Rouhani runs for a second term

President Hassan Rouhani. Image from Wikimedia Commons

Iran will be holding its 12th Presidential election on May 19 this year.

Cabinet spokesperson Mohammad Bagher Nowbakht said that President Hassan Rouhani will be running for a second term and that he will be the only cabinet minister registering in the upcoming elections. Mr Rouhani is the current and seventh President of Iran. Tasnim news agency reported that a conservative cleric Mr Ebrahim Raisi will run for Iran’s presidency as well. This new candidate “has transformed the race, potentially unifying opponents to President Hassan Rouhani in a strong challenge to his re-election,” Bloomberg Politics reported. Mr Raisi declared his candidacy a day after two other conservatives “bowed out”.

An associate fellow at the Chatham House (the Royal Institute of International Affairs) described the upcoming elections as a “very serious race with huge consequences.”

3. Beijing, China – 19th Chinese Communist Party National Congress

From left to right: (Politburo Standing Committee) Zhang Gaoli, Liu Yunshan, Zhang Dejiang, Xi Jinping, Li Keqiang, Yu Zhengsheng and Wang Qishan. Image from Getty Images by Feng Li 

While the People’s Republic of China does not hold democratic elections, 2017 is an important year for China politically as the Chinese Communist Party will be hosting the 19th National Congress in autumn this year, which will likely determine the country’s top leadership.

In this leadership transition, around 60 per cent of the party’s leaders will retire, including 11 out of the 25 member Politburo and five out of seven members of the country’s powerful Politburo Standing Committee. The only two not retiring in the incumbent group are President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang. This event is critical as it will not only affect how China is governed, it will also have an impact on President Xi’s political posture and the continuity of Chinese leadership.

According to Managing Director and Head of China Macro Research for Credit Suisse Mr Vincent Chan, the National Congress “goes a long way in deciding the top leadership around President Xi Jinping and how far he could consolidate his power, and potentially creates conditions for him to extend his rule in China beyond 2022 (his scheduled retirement date)”. In Mr Chan’s words, this meeting could decide China’s political landscape during the next decade.

4. Paris, France – French Presidential Elections

From left to right: Mr Francois Fillon, Mr Emmanuel Macron, Mr Jean-Luc Melenchon, Ms Marine Le Pen, and Mr Benoit Hamon.  Image from Reuters.

The French will be going to the ballot boxes in April and May of 2017. The presidential candidates will first run against one another on April 23. If no candidate gets half the vote, the top two candidates will compete against each other in a run-off vote on May 7.

This election comes as a surprise as french elections are usually a fierce contest between the conservative Les Republicans and the left-wing Socialist Party. Yet, this year, the limelight is mainly on candidates from neither of the two parties.

Battered by his lack of popular support, incumbent French President Francois Hollande will not be seeking re-election. There are five prominent candidates running for the presidency this April – Mr Emmanuel Macron, Ms Marine Le Pen, Mr Francois Fillon, Mr Jean-Luc Melenchon and Mr Benoit Hamon.

Mr Emmanuel Macron, an ex-banker and former economy minister, is currently hailed as the centrist front-runner as the presidential candidate of his centrist party En Marche. Mr Macron is staunchly pro-Europe and a social liberal. Trailing behind Mr Macron is Ms Marine Le Pen, a former lawyer and leader of National Front. Ms Le Pen has promised to take France out of the euro and the Schengen open-border zone, reintroduce the franc and tighten border controls and trade barriers. She is not dismissing the possibility of calling a referendum on leaving the European Union if the bloc isn’t agreeable to her requests of a radical treaty renegotiation. Third in the polls is former Prime Minister and Thatcherite, Mr Francois Fillon of Les Republicans. Mr Fillon began his campaign as a front-runner in 2017 but saw his popular support plummet after a French newspaper accused him of fictitiously employing his British wife, Mrs Penelope Fillon, using public funds. Despite the ‘Penelopegate’ scandal, Mr Fillon will still run for president and enjoys the loyal support of traditionalist Catholics.

The other two notable candidates in the race are ex-education minister Mr Benoit Hamon who is backed by the Socialists and Mr Jean-Luc Mélenchon of left-wing Unsubmissive France. However, it is unlikely that either will make it through the first round of elections in April.

All eyes are on the French elections as the results would not only affect France, but also the European Union and the rest of the world.

 

Featured image from TMG file.

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by Lee Chin Wee

HE SHIVERED. Night duties were the worst.

You’d think the scariest part of working in a morgue would be having to see dead bodies; but no, seeing dead bodies was fine. Corpses don’t hurt anyone – they just lie there limply in the storage area, waiting for their last rites and send-off.

No, the scariest part is when you don’t see a dead body when it’s supposed to be there. Because then, you have to figure out where it went – which means walking through deserted hospital corridors illuminated by fluorescent light, accompanied only by the gentle whirring of the air-conditioning.

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At that exact moment, the lights decided to flicker – briefly, but enough to make his hair stand on end. Stop scaring yourself, he thought. Already hard having to do extra duties after the break-in, now you still want to scared this scared that.

The North Koreans had to be mad. First, they used a chemical weapon to kill one of their people in broad daylight. Then, they claim that he died of a heart attack when everyone knows that’s rubbish. Then, they drive their embassy cars straight into the morgue and refuse to leave! What did they expect, that the Malaysian government would invite them in for teh and give them the body? Ridiculous.

That was a terrible day to be on guard duty, though.

He thinks that the North Koreans behaved like children. When they realised that standing outside the entrance and complaining to the duty officer wasn’t going to get them anywhere, they tried to distract the guards. He remembered how two North Koreans tried to distract the front desk guards by throwing a fit, then sending a third member round the back to find another entrance. Luckily, he just so happened to be taking a smoke break at that spot – the intruder had barely taken three steps towards the back door before he was ushered back to the carpark.

And don’t even start with the attempted break-in. He wasn’t on duty that night, but he’d heard from a friend that it was a complete farce. Three people dressed in all-black (possibly the three North Koreans who’d parked their cars outside the morgue) were caught on CCTV prying open the front gate and forcing their way into the morgue.

And here’s the kicker: After going through so much trouble to retrieve the body (and creating so much more work for hospital security), the North Koreans still dared to claim that the dead person isn’t Kim Jong Nam! He smirked. How can, when the hospital has done so many DNA and forensic tests?

There even were rumours that Kim’s son would be arriving in KL to identify and claim the corpse. The rumours were first spread a few weeks ago, but no one at the hospital has heard anything since. Perhaps it’s for the better – another assassination at the airport and yet another high-value North Korean dead body ending up in the mortuary would be a very bad idea.

Particularly now, with the media speculating that the Malaysian government was negotiating with the North Koreans to send the body back to their country. That would be a massive relief – hell, he’d pay for the transport fees himself if it meant not having to work overtime almost every day.

But will Malaysia agree to hand the corpse over? He recalled the Health Minister recently saying that the government would allow only Kim’s family members to claim his body. But the Minister also said, “the next of kin have not come forward to provide assistance on how the body is to be treated”.

But then, two days ago, Hassan was asked to drive Kim’s body from the hospital to the nearby funeral parlour. How come? No one said anything, but the staff suspected that preparation was being made to send it back to the North Koreans. But then Hassan received orders to transport the body back to the morgue.

Typical lah, our government. Left hand don’t know what the right hand is doing. If he had to do another month of additional night duty, he’d kill someone – just not a North Korean.

He smirked. Sometimes humour helped make time pass faster. Suddenly, his phone beeped – a short, sharp sound that cut straight through the uneasy silence in the morgue. He turned the screen on. The WhatsApp message was from Hassan: Bro, I kena driver duty again. Dis time they wan me to bring body bk to funeral parlour, den the news say that we returning the body to NK so they give us bk our people trapped there.

One dead body in exchange for nine Malaysians that the North Koreans were detaining illegally in their country? Seems very unfair, but it wasn’t his business to interfere in this kind of thing. If luck would have it, this might even be his last week doing extra night duty. Dreams do come true after all.

At that precise moment, the lights flickered again, then turned off. It seemed that power trips had a dark sense of humour.

 

Featured image from TMG file.

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“WHEN they call the roll in the Senate, the Senators do not know whether to answer ‘Present’ or ‘Not Guilty.” A humorous but depressing statement by Theodore Roosevelt, the 26th American president, describing the high and disappointing levels of corruption present in the American Senate.

Politicians are holders of public office. In a democracy, politicians are elected into the Government to represent the people and make legislative or executive decisions for the welfare of the country. Taking this into consideration, it is only normal to expect politicians to be individuals worthy of respect for their capabilities, moral compass and sincerity in serving the country.

However, despite the expectations placed on these politicians, corruption remains a persistent problem around the world. Unfortunately, according to Transparency International, no country achieved a score close to perfect in the Corruption Perceptions Index 2016.

In fact, over two-thirds of the 176 countries and territories in this year’s index fall below the midpoint of Transparency International’s scale of 0 (highly corrupt) to 100 (very clean). The global average score is a paltry 43, indicating endemic corruption in a country’s public sector.

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Despite the dismal global situation, Singapore was ranked the top 7th country in the world in terms of the Corruption Perceptions Index. The relatively higher ranking Singapore enjoys compared to the rest of the world could be attributed to the G’s zealous commitment to remain a corruption-free society through the institutionalisation of anti-corruption tools such as the Prevention of Corruption Act and Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau.

Albeit increased efforts to curb corruption amongst the higher echelons of public sector leadership such as President Xi Jin Ping’s anti-corruption campaign in the People’s Republic of China, we still observe a handful of high profile corruption cases. As politicians are often put in the spotlight and placed on the pedestal, their mistakes become glaringly obvious and intolerable to the public. Often times, their mistakes can potentially threaten their entire political career.

Here are some of the politicians around the world who have gotten into serious trouble due to corruption, bribery, and abuse of power.
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1. Seoul, South Korea – President Park Geun-hye arrested on Friday (Mar 31)

Image from Wikimedia Commons. 

Park Geun-hye, former President of South Korea who was in office since 2013 was impeached on 10 March. South Korea’s top court has ruled to end Ms Park’s presidency over a corruption scandal. This is the first time a South Korean President has been expelled before the end of his or her term.

The 65-year-old former President was accused to have conspired with a friend and former presidential aide Choi Soon-sil to have asked for a 77.4 billion won (SGD$96.3 million) donation from 16 major businesses, including Samsung, to support her policy initiatives via two foundations. The companies, when investigated, claimed that they could not refuse as they feared business disadvantages in the form of government tax investigations. Her friend Choi Soon-sil was also accused of accepting bribes from the heir of Samsung group Lee Jae-Young.

She was arrested on Friday (Mar 31) on charges relating to abuse of power and bribery.

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2. Buenos Aires, Argentina – Fourth case against former Argentine President 

Image from Wikimedia Commons. 

Former Argentine President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner was indicted on Dec 27 last year in a corruption case. Federal judge Julian Ercolini approved the charges of illicit association and fraudulent administration. Ms Cristina denied them and defended that she was a victim of persecution. In May, she was indicted for manipulating currency exchanges, that allegedly caused economic damage to the government.

In recent news, she again defended herself from corruption allegations, claiming that she was a victim of “judicial persecution” and a media “witch hunt”. This is the fourth case to reach Cristina since she left office in December two years ago. Euronews reported: The charges relate to allegations of illegal enrichment using a family real estate company called Los Sauces, located in the southern Santa Cruz province. The judge has been given 10 days to either put Ms Cristina on trial or dismiss the case.

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3. Washington D.C, U.S.A – Michael Flynn resigns within one month as National Security Adviser

Image by Flickr user Jim Mattis.

Retired United States (US) Army lieutenant general Michael Flynn resigned on February 13 this year as National Security Adviser when it came to light that he provided wrong information to Vice President Mike Pence and other White House officials about his conversations with Russian Ambassador to the US, Sergey Kislyak.

A week before President Trump’s inauguration, he said that he had given “incomplete information” about a phone call with the ambassador pertaining American sanctions against Russia. Initially, he denied that he had any meaningful conversation with him and Vice President Mike Pence mentioned this in a TV interview. The White House then received a warning from the Justice Department that Mr Michael was not honest about his phone calls with the ambassador.

In his resignation letter, the former National Security Adviser said: “Unfortunately, because of the fast pace of events, I inadvertently briefed the vice president-elect and others with incomplete information regarding my phone calls with the Russian ambassador, I have sincerely apologized to the president and the vice president, and they have accepted my apology.”

In the latest news, the retired lieutenant general requested for immunity to testify on the alleged Russian election meddling, according to his lawyer Robert Kelner. The lawyer said that his client “has a story to tell”, but needs to guard against “unfair prosecution”. President trump has shown his support for Michael Flynn’s request.
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4. Paris, France – French Presidential Candidate’s wife, Penelope Fillon, charged for embezzlement of public funds

Image by Agence France-Presse photographer Eric Feferberg.

On 28 March, French presidential candidate Francois Fillon’s wife, Penelope Fillon, was charged with being paid the best part of €1 million for doing nothing as parliamentary assistant to her husband and his successor as MP between 1986 and 2013.  Penelope also faces separate charges of concealed misuse of funds for being paid €100,000 by a literary magazine owned by her husband’s wealthy friend.

Penelope Fillon, a British-born, was extremely public averse until she was embroiled in the political scandal involving the misappropriation of public funds, which is also dubbed as ‘PenelopeGate’.  The entire ‘PenlopeGate’ scandal has effectively poisoned her husband’s political career, causing Francois Fillon, previously a front-runner of the presidential elections, to sink in polls. He is now trailing in third place behind Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen.

Despite being involved in the messy political scandal, Francois Fillon has not broken under pressure and insists on running to become France’s next president. Additionally, there are concerns that tensions might arise if Francois Fillon becomes the president as he will enjoy total immunity from prosecutions while the country’s potential First Lady might undergo further questioning and stand trial during his tenure.
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UBER is putting the brakes on its pilot program for driverless cars after this crash on a Tempe, Arizona roadway.

Police say the accident happened Saturday when a driver failed to yield to the Uber vehicle while making a turn. The force of the collision sent the driverless SUV rolling onto its side.

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Two safety drivers were in the front seats of the Uber vehicle, which was in self-driving mode.

There were no serious injuries. But the investigation prompted Uber to ground its ongoing experiment with autonomous vehicles in Arizona, Pittsburgh and San Francisco.

Uber launched the pilot program last year, saying driverless cars “require human intervention in many conditions, including bad weather”. It also said the new technology had the potential to reduce the number of traffic accidents in the country.

Saturday’s incident is not the first time a self-driving car has crashed.

Last year, a Florida driver operating a Tesla Model S in autopilot mode was killed in a collision with a truck. And a Google self-driving vehicle in California smashed into a bus while trying to navigate around it.

The latest crash coming just days after Uber’s former president Jeff Jones quit less than seven months into the job, the latest in a string of high-level departures. -REUTERS

 

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by The Middle Ground

FAKE news doesn’t just spread misinformation and hate – it costs companies money too.

It is predicted that out of $80 billion of digital ad spending in 2017, over $16 billion will be eaten up by problematic content – the placing of advertisements next to unsavoury material, for instance, could hurt instead of help a company’s brand image.

A recent Times of London investigation revealed that YouTube channels promoting hate speech were earning tens of thousands of dollars thanks to ads placed by Google. Volkswagen ads, for instance, were shown on the channel of Wagdi Ghoneim – an extremist who has been banned from entering Britain for promoting terrorism.

As hundreds of companies in the UK pull their ads from Google, the company has been forced to announce new measures that will allow advertisers to avoid displaying their messages next to hate speech and fake news.

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Google’s move demonstrates that ad networks (and tech companies which profit off ads) can no longer be cavalier about where they place clients’ messages, or about the kind of content they allow on their networks. After criticism that it was not doing enough to prevent the spread of fake news, Facebook rolled out a fact-checking alert four days ago (Mar 22), notifying readers if the facts of an article are disputed by reputable sources.

Back home, fake news is causing consternation among local policy-makers and politicians. During the Committee of Supply debates on March 6, Dr Yaacob Ibrahim, Minister for Communications and Information, noted that there is a need to “harmonise legislature for the technological and online space”. He emphasised the G’s position that when online content is “directly targeting Singaporeans”, there is a need to ensure that it is “in line with our community values, including the need to uphold racial and religious harmony”.

Amendments to both the Film and Broadcasting Acts are due to be announced soon. Dr Yaacob indicated that more will be revealed, after consultation with the business community and the public.

This is a whole-of-government concern: In response to the Court of Appeal’s ruling against the Ministry of Defence (Mindef) in which Mindef was found to not qualify as a “person” under Section 15 of the Protection Online Harassment Act, the Ministry of Law issued a statement condemning the “scourge of false information.”

“Everyone, including the Government, should be entitled to point out falsehoods which are published and have the true facts brought to public attention,” said a MinLaw spokesman. “The Government needs to take steps to protect the public and Singapore’s institutions from the very real dangers posed by the spread of false information.”

In light of the controversy surrounding the spread of fake news, we take a closer look at what countries and tech companies are doing in response to this phenomenon.

 

1. Berlin, Germany – Facebook to potentially face “fake news fines” of up to €50 million (SG$75.5 million)

Image from Wikipedia Commons

Mr Heiko Maas, the German justice minister, has proposed new regulations to crack down on social media companies like Facebook and Twitter for publishing fake news. Social media companies may be fined up to €50 million (SG$75.5 million) if they fail to remove flagged posts.

Social media companies will have to delete offending material within one week. This doesn’t just include fake news, but also illegal content such as hate speech or racist language. Companies will also have to run 24-hour helplines for concerned users.

The proposals are more extensive than previous suggestions to impose €500,000 (SG$755,000) fines on the companies. This is part of a Bill that will be put to the German Parliament in an effort to combat malicious activity and disinformation campaigns online.

The German federal elections are due to be held in September this year. The proposed Bill aims to address fears that online hoaxes could influence the election outcome in favour of populist right-wing parties like the Alternative for Germany (AfD).

 

2. Beijing, China – The “Great Firewall” blocks out non-mainstream news; fake or otherwise

Image from Flickr

In November last year, Chinese Communist Party (CCP)-affiliated tabloid The Global Times weighed in on the fake news debate, saying that the controversy only strengthened the Chinese government’s case for controlling the internet.

In an editorial titled “Western Media’s Crusade Against Facebook”, the Global Times asked pointedly: “So long as the mainstream media is free and open, online rumours would do no harm in the big picture – isn’t that the consistent argument from the West?” It argued that, in trying to curb rumours and fake news, the West was being hypocritical in its push for free speech.

The CCP has long used the “Great Firewall” to limit Chinese citizens’ access to information. Social media sites Facebook and Twitter are blocked in the country, and Google withdrew its services in 2010, protesting the Chinese government’s onerous regulatory demands.

Fake news, however, is not the only thing that is censored. Politically-sensitive content, like references to the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, is also blocked. Many have criticised the CCP for its authoritarian habits, including artist and civil activist Ai Wei Wei, who has condemned the government for using “brute power to control information”

 

3. Brussels, Belgium – EU has 11-person task force to combat Russian disinformation

Image from Wikipedia Commons

In light of on-going political developments in the European Union (EU) – the French, German and Dutch elections, it is unsurprising that EU leaders are taking action to combat the rise of fake news and anti-EU propaganda aiming to stir up anti-establishment sentiments.

To this end, the EU has a task-force that tackles the problem of fake news in Europe – the East Stratcom. East Stratcom, an 11- person team consisting of diplomats, bureaucrats and former journalists, serves as Europe’s front line against fake news. It was created by EU to combat “Russia’s ongoing disinformation campaigns”. In the 16 months since its inception, it has discredited 2,500 stories (many with links to Russia). But it’s facing an uphill task given the volume of fake news.

Apart from the team in Brussels, similar groups to tackle fake news were formed in countries such as Finland and the Czech Republic. Countries are also enhancing online security to address potential hacking attacks and European media outlets are improving fact-checking mechanisms to prevent false reporting.

On top of taking action, EU and its members are also pressurising social media companies such as Facebook to take a stronger position against fake news or face action from Brussels as a consequence.

 

4. California, United States – Facebook partners with fact-checkers to tag “disputed” articles

Image from Flickr

In response to allegations that the phenomenon of Facebook becoming a platform where ‘fake news’ proliferate is in its business interest, Mr Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Facebook, asserted that Facebook is also a victim of ‘fake news’ but it is extremely difficult for the site to clamp down on ‘fake news’ as “it’s not always clear what is fake and what isn’t”.

Still, Facebook has taken action to combat ‘fake news’ by rolling out its third-party fact-checking tool which informs users of “disputed content”. The site is partnering with five independent fact-checkers: ABC News, Associated Press, FactCheck.org, Politifact and Snopes.

When a story published is proven to be false, users attempting to share the disputed story will see a red alert stating that the article has been disputed by the relevant independent fact-checkers. Users who clicked on that warning will be greeted with more information about the disputed content.

Even when users choose to ignore the warning and publish the story, there will be another pop-up reiterating that the accuracy of the story has been disputed. When the user clicks “Post anyway”, other users who view the shared story on their timelines will be able to see that the story has been disputed.

On top of independent fact-checkers, the site will pass a story to third parties to fact-check if sufficient numbers of users report a story as fake.

However, the new tool was only made available to a limited number of users. This is unsurprising as Facebook is known to test pilot features on a small group of users before applying them across the entire site.

 

5. California, United States – Google deploys “anti-fake news army”

Image from Pixabay

Google is employing a team of 10,000 content-monitor contractors to examine “fake news” articles, in the hopes of restricting the spread of questionable content.

The Google contractors are not new hires – they are known as quality raters, and have long been assessing search results for accuracy. However, Google is now asking them to qualitatively examine search requests and to rate the results that follow. Content that is “offensive-upsetting”, as Google terms it, will be highlighted. It also aims to identify information that is “demonstrably inaccurate”.

“Offensive-upsetting” content includes material that “promotes hate or violence against a group of people based on criteria including (but not limited to) race or ethnicity, nationality or citizenship.” This may include racial slurs, child abuse, and instructional information on terrorist attacks.

Such content will not be directly removed, or changed. But it will be used to improve underlying search algorithms, so future searches will be more accurate and factual.

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Featured image Earth by Flickr user Kevin GillCC BY-SA 2.0

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by Bertha Henson

IT SEEMS like ministers here are out in force to drive home the security message in the aftermath of the London attacks. In Vietnam, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has called for fortitude and resilience should such an attack happen here. Others have called for unity and solidarity. But what exactly do these words mean? We take a stab at it. 

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What to do/not to do in a terrorist attack.
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(A public announcement service not sponsored by SGSecure)

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a. Don’t take selfies at the attack site. Definitely do NOT take wefies with the injured.

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b. Don’t attack police for “allowing’’ this to happen. It was bound to happen. Time enough for reviews and recriminations later.

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c. Don’t jam 999 with calls for updates. Switch on telly, listen to radio or see if there are Twitter updates from police. London police tweeted a total of 20 times in one hour.

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d. Don’t be an ASS and share gossip and speculation from sources which don’t have boots on the ground.

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e. Do run and help if you are in the vicinity. Like British MP Tobias Ellwood who is being hailed a hero. But no one is going to blame you if you run and hide.

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f. Don’t pin the responsibility for the attack on any group without proof. Because if you’re right, you’re just being its propaganda outlet. If you’re wrong, you’ve been very unfair to some people.

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g. Do a Paris Hilton post-9/11 and go shopping. Retail therapy is good and shows that you’re keeping the economy going.

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h. Do go to work as usual. Terrorism isn’t a contagious disease.

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i. Don’t go taking and uploading pictures of what police are up to in the aftermath. You’re just tipping off the bad guys.

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j. Do hand over pictures or videos of the attack to the police if you have them. No need to try and make a name for yourself for “being there’’. You don’t know what info you’ve captured that’s valuable. The opposite reaction applies too: Don’t hoard what you have because you don’t want to get “involved’’. All of us are already involved by then.

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k. Don’t grumble about road blocks, bag checks and security measures that mean you lose time standing in a queue or stuck in a jam on your way to school or work. The good news is that your bosses and teachers are stuck too.

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l. Do look for instances of humanity among the depravity; there will always be people who rise up in a crisis to lift spirits.

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m. Do respond to ground-up appeals for solidarity #WeAreSingapore or #SgStayingStrong.

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n. Do upload the SgSecure app on your phone if you haven’t done so.

 

Hopefully, we will never, ever have to go through any of the above. But you should know the mantra now: it’s not if, but when.

 

Featured image by Pixabay user TheDigitalWay. (CC0 1.0)

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A VIDEO emerged of Westminster Bridge on Wednesday (March 22) showing the moment a car was driven into pedestrians earlier in the day in the worst attack in London since 2005.

Five people were killed and about 40 injured after a car ploughed into pedestrians and a suspected Islamist-inspired attacker stabbed a policeman close to Britain’s parliament.

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The dead, in what police called a “marauding terrorist attack,” included the assailant and the policeman he stabbed. The other three victims were among those hit by the car as it sped across Westminster Bridge before crashing into railings just outside parliament.

It was the deadliest attack in London since four British Islamists killed 52 commuters and themselves in suicide bombings on the city’s transport system in July 2005, in London’s worst peacetime attack.

-Reuters/BBC

 

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