June 23, 2017

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TRUE Fitness and True Spa outlets in Malaysia were shuttered abruptly today, following the company’s sudden closures of True Fitness and True Yoga outlets in Thailand yesterday (June 9). 

The company’s announcement to customers in Malaysia said that the business is “no longer financially viable due to evolving market conditions”.

True Fitness Malaysia said on the website that it has purchased memberships and personal training sessions for its members to redeem from Chi Fitness, a different fitness centre that has yoga, pilates and muay thai classes.

Affected customers can only redeem their fitness sessions after July 3. True Fitness Malaysia said that “The validity of these redemptions would be for 24 months from July 3, or until all membership months and personal training sessions have been utilised.”

A spokesman from True Group told the Straits Times that it’s still business as usual for True Fitness Singapore. 

Many have taken to social media to air their grievances. 

 

This is not the first time that an international fitness chain has ceased its operations abruptly.

On July 20, last year, California Fitness announced that all its Singapore branches would be closed. Just a week before, it had closed all 12 outlets across Hong Kong. The company faced severe backlash as it did not have enough money to refund customers.

 

Featured image by Flickr user Health Gauge. CC BY 2.0

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by Danielle Goh

GOOGLE announced on June 1 that it will be launching an “ad blocker” and a tool called Funding Choices on Chrome early next year.

But Google’s “ad blocker” is more of an ad filter that will rid websites of ads blacklisted by Coalition for Better Ads, an industry group that develops global standards for online advertising. Those on the black list includes auto-playing ads that blare loud music, ‘sticky’ ads that are pinned to the page even after scrolling, and ads with a ten second countdown.

Funding Choices will prevent Chrome users from depriving publishers of revenue by blocking all ad blockers. Users will have to disable their ad blockers to view the website. It will also provide publishers with an alternative source of revenue. An option to pay for ad free access will be available to users. 

On twitter, some welcomed the move but voiced their concerns that Google might have a conflict of interest. Currently, advertising makes up 86 per cent of its revenue. 

Some were not too happy about Google’s new ad blocker…

While others understood that the move will have a widespread impact on digital advertising. Google is a dominant player, accounting for 40.7 per cent of digital ad revenues in the US. Chrome is the internet’s most popular browser.

Mr Sridhar Ramasawamy, senior vice-president of ads and commerce at Google said in a blog post that Chrome will stop showing ads on websites that are “not compliant with Better Ad Standards starting in early 2018.” The “ad blocker” is expected to be turned on by default on mobile and desktop. Google has not elaborated on the tech it will be using to filter ads.

But Google is helping publishers to prepare with a tool called Ad Experience Reports, alerting them to offensive ads on their sites and explains how to resolve the issues.

Funding Choices is currently available to publishers in North America, UK, Germany, Australia and New Zealand, and will be available in other countries later this year. This new tool will allow publishers to charge users for ad free access. Google will get a ten per cent cut from each charge. Details are not yet announced about how Google plans to distribute the money.

Mr Ramasawamy, said that Google’s new initiative would prevent people from blocking all ads, a solution that takes a “big toll on content creators”. About one in four people are estimated to have used a desktop ad blocker, and about one in ten on phones. 

By removing the most intrusive ads, Google hopes that it can improve browsing experience, and safeguard a vital source of revenue for publishers. Chrome already blocks some adverts such as pop-ups. Some publishers see the move as a good thing. “We’re supportive of action as it helps to clean up the ad-ecosystem and improves consumer trust,” said Mr Jason Klint, the CEO of Digital Content Next, the trade group for digital media publishers like Vox Media and CBS Interactive. (Vice News, Jun 2)

While it may be good news for the advertising industry, smaller publishers and ad companies might find it harder to adapt to the changes. With fewer resources, it might be financially challenging to reformulate ads to meet Google’s standards.

Others are concerned that Google will have a conflict of interest as advertising makes up 86 per cent of its revenue. Previously, Google controversially paid Adblock Plus $25 million annually to ensure that its ads are unblocked. EU antitrust regulators might be extracting a $9 billion fine from Google, if it’s found guilty of skewing search results for its own shopping service.

Google’s new “ad blocker” seems to be a good thing for everyone, publishers, advertisement companies and consumers. But concerns remain that Google’s expanding influence and policing of advertisements might also be a move to block competitors.

 

Featured image by Sean Chong.

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Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May waits for the result of the vote in her constituency at the count centre for the general election in Maidenhead, June 9, 2017. REUTERS/Toby Melville TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY

by Sharanya Pillai

DISMAY for Theresa May, as the UK general elections returned a hung parliament today (June 9). The UK Prime Minister’s Conservative Party lost its parliamentary majority after May’s decision for a snap election backfired disastrously. Calls now abound for her resignation.

While the Tories won the most seats, the party is still short of the 326 seats needed for the majority, having lost 26 seats to the opposition Labour Party and five to the Liberal Democrats. Seven frontbencher Tories are out, including Cabinet Office minister Ben Gummer, who authored the widely-criticised Tory manifesto.

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The opposition Labour Party meanwhile has had a field day, gaining 31 seats as of 0700 GMT (3pm Singapore time) and nearly wiping out the Tories in London. Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn has called on May to step down, and pundits are taking bets on whether May will make way for the left-wing political outsider to become PM.

In a hung Parliament, the incumbent PM continues to stay in office while it is decided who will form the next government. May has until June 13 to form a majority coalition to keep herself in power or resign. In 2010, the Tories and Lib Dems formed a coalition government after the elections failed to deliver a clear winner.

Jeremy Corbyn and Labour Party candidate Emily Thornberry gesture at a counting centre. Image by Reuters.

Amid increased political uncertainty, the British pound fell sharply. There are also increased fears over whether the UK will see Brexit through. Former UK Independence Party (Ukip) leader Nigel Farage has voiced alarm that the process is “in jeopardy”. The Ukip, once a leading voice in the push for Brexit, lost all its parliamentary seats in the election.

With chaos over the unexpected result, there’s a strong sense of deja vu. Like former PM David Cameron’s stunning Brexit loss, the election defeat was largely of May’s own making. The PM called for snap elections three years earlier than required, because opinion polls indicated that she outranked Corbyn. After Trump’s unexpected victory in the US elections, it seems like pre-election polls have once again blindsided politicians.

Now, May’s own party is turning against her. Anna Soubry, a senior Tory Member of Parliament, called May’s campaign “dreadful” and said that the PM should “reconsider her position”. Meanwhile, May has refused to resign, reiterating her pledge to bring “stability for the nation”.

 

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They say that the price of liberty is eternal vigilance. And recently, that statement played out all over the world, especially in Europe and Asia. At home, security at upcoming events has been ramped up amid fears of terror threats. Earlier this year, the terror threat in Singapore rose for the first time in over a decade – from negligible to low – due to the increase in “lone wolf” attacks worldwide.

Manchester’s incident gripped the front pages, but what about the rest of the world? We look at the other terror attacks that have happened in the past week:

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1. Cairo, Egypt: Gunmen open fire at a bus

Church of St George in Cairo’s Coptic sector. Image by Flickr user Edgardo W. Olivera. CC BY 2.0

Eight to ten gunmen fired indiscriminately at a bus carrying Coptic christians outside Minya, south of Cairo. At least 28 people were killed in the attack on Friday (May 26), children aged two and four were among the victims. The bus was travelling to the monastery of Saint Samuel, carrying worshipers to the holy site. ISIS claimed responsibility for the attacks. Coptic Christians have been targeted by ISIS several times in recent years.

In a broadcast on Friday, Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi said that: “Egypt will not hesitate at all to strike terrorist camps anywhere.” Shortly after the broadcast, Egypt responded to the attacks by launching airstrikes against camps where the terrorists responsible for the attack are believed to have been trained. Following the twin attacks on Coptic churches on Palm Sunday last month that killed at least 45 people, Egypt is still under a three month state of emergency. Pope Francis showed his support during a visit to Egypt last month, paying tribute to the victims of a church attack in Cairo last year. ISIS responded by vowing to escalate attacks against Christians.

People in Minya have taken to the streets in response to Friday’s attacks. Minya has one of the largest concentrations of Coptic Christians in Egypt, but the minority group has been a target of increasing violence since the toppling of Hosni Mubarak’s regime in 2011.

 

2. Bangkok, Thailand: Bomb in military hospital

Image by Wikimedia Commons user TakeawayCC BY-SA 3.0.

Over 20 were injured after a small bomb exploded in a military hospital in the Thai capital. Eight people were hospitalised due to injuries from the blast, which happened in a waiting room near a pharmacy.

The attack coincided with the third anniversary of the 2014 coup by the military. Investigations are still ongoing and no one has claimed responsibility. But there are suspicions that the act is in protest of the military rule. The week before, another bomb had gone off near the royal palace, amid preparations for the royal king’s birthday.

Thailand will go to the polls by the end of next year, albeit under a new Constitution drafted by the military, which only allows for a limited democracy.

 

3. Marawi City, Philippines: ISIS-linked militants turned city into warzone

Image from the Presidential Communications Operations Office by Wikimedia Commons user Pitpisit.

Clashes broke out on Tuesday (May 23) between security personnel and local terrorist groups in Marawi City, a predominantly Muslim city on the southern island of Mindanao.

It all started when a joint force between the military and the police raided a house that was believed to be the hideout of Isnilon Hapilon of the Abu Sayyaf jihadist group, which is notoriously known for ransom kidnapping. Hapilon has reportedly been designated the leader of ISIS in Southeast Asia. Another terrorist group that is involved is Maute, formerly known as Moro Islamic Liberation Front.

The shootout prompted President Rodrigo Duterte to cut short his trip to Russia upon declaring martial law in Mindanao.

The situation continued to worsen as the terrorists torched a church, a jail, a hospital and several schools. They also took hostage of teachers, a priest, and about a dozen parishioners. The following day, residents fled the city in droves, while the military sent in reinforcements. On Thursday (May 25), surgical airstrikes were launched to flush out remaining militants.

The military reported on Friday (May 26) that they were gaining headway, having rescued more than 150 civilians trapped in houses and buildings, and recovered many villages previously occupied by terrorists.

As of Friday, 31 militants and 13 government troopers have been killed.

 

4. Homs, Syria: Car bombs in Homs city

Image by Flickr user Taras Kalapun.

Just two days after the Syrian government regained control over Homs, the city was attacked by a car bomb on Tuesday (May 23). According to the city’s health authority, four were killed and 32 were injured. Police also found another vehicle that was rigged with explosives near a Shi’ite mosque south of the capital Damascus.

The Islamic State claimed responsibility for the attack, which comes on the heels of recent victories of President Bashar al-Assad’s regime. Last Sunday (May 20), hundreds of Syrian rebels and their families evacuated Homs, bringing it back to government control for the first time since 2011.

Meanwhile the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a British-based war monitor, reported that US-led coalition strikes in eastern Syria have killed at least 35 civilians in the same week.

 

5. Jakarta, Indonesia: Suicide bombings at bus station

Image by Wikimedia Commons user Uwe Aranas.

A pair of suicide bombers attacked a bus station in Jakarta, Indonesia on May 24 this year. According to the police, at least three police officers were killed and six other officers and five civilians were injured. Aluminium, nails, buckshot and receipts were also discovered at the scene of the explosion. ISIS involvement in the bombing is suspected.

ISIS has been claiming responsibility for terror attacks in Indonesia. Last year, ISIS said it carried out a suicide bombing and shooting near a Starbucks in Jakarta which killed two people and wounded another 24.

Indonesia is the world’s most populous Muslim country. In light of alarming ISIS attempts to recruit members within the country, Indonesia has been actively fighting against radical extremism.


Featured image by Flickr user Erlend Schei. CC BY-ND 2.0

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AT LEAST 22 people are dead, and over 50 injured after a blast at a concert in the English city of Manchester, where US singer Ariana Grande was performing. British police said that the incident is being treated as a terrorist incident.

According to Reuters, two US government security sources revealed that the incident is strongly suspected to be a suicide bombing. The Islamic State is known to encourage suicide bombers to choose soft targets, including concert venues.

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Chaos ensued at the Manchester Arena, as people scrambled out for safety. One concert-goer told Reuters: “It was a huge explosion — you could feel it in your chest. It was chaotic. Everybody was running and screaming and just trying to get out.”

A spokesperson for Ms Grande’s record label said that the singer is “okay”. Ms Grande later tweeted that she was “broken” and did not “have words”.

The blast is reminiscent of the Paris attacks in Nov 2015, where a concert at the Bataclan theatre was one of several targets. Three armed gunmen shot and killed over 90 people at the venue itself.

Britain is now on its second-highest security alert level of “severe”.

-Reuters

 

Featured image is a screen grab from YouTube

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Cyber attack

by Bertha Henson

I’M WRITING to you now because you’re the only one whose physical address I have. I only have email addresses for all my other friends. I’m sorry if you find it difficult to read my handwriting. I am so used to typing that I am not sure how to hold a pen. So I am using a pencil, so that I can erase ugly writing easily and, thank goodness, I still have a rubber from my Primary School days.

First, I hope that things are fine on your farm. Rearing chickens and growing vegetables don’t require the Internet right? Or are you logged in to that giant brain which is now in a coma? I feel envious of you. At least, you deal with real worms and not those which make you WannaCry. You know what I’m talking about right? Some NSA fellow in the US lost some spying software and now some jokers are holding a lot of people to ransom.

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I’ve been somewhat paralysed over the past few weeks and hopefully, by the time you read this (if nothing goes wrong with flight controls and air traffic), this time of stasis is over. In any case, I am using carbon paper while writing so that I can post a duplicate letter by sea-mail.

Right now, I’m re-learning everything, like what to do with my hands and fingers now that my cell phone is useless. I have taken to pen twirling and using one of those Fidget gadgets that’s become so popular.

Do you know how terrible it is to live without Google? I can’t answer queries in class as quickly as before or finish my assignments on time. I actually had to go to the library to do research. You should see us there…like monks in medieval times copying out notes. Lectures were even almost cancelled because the passes that get us into the lecture halls couldn’t work. We had to call the firefighters to break down the door. It was the first time I saw someone wield an axe in front of me.

Everything has changed.

My grandmother got sick and decided to see the sinseh instead of going to hospital. She’s worried that the hospital will prescribe the wrong medicines now that its system is down. So she had some needles poked into her and we managed to find a traditional Chinese medicine shop to buy the herbs and whatnots to brew her medicine at home.

My father says things are crazy in his office because he can’t get access to his files on the computer. He stopped storing hard copy versions a long time ago. All his old paper documents had been shredded to comply with the Personal Data Protection Act.

The good thing is that the worm hasn’t burrowed itself into the train system so we’re all still travelling from Point A to Point B. Except that sometimes, the doors at Point B can’t open. Our train operator made it clear it was a signalling problem and had nothing to with the malware although those of us stuck on board really wanna cry.

I can still reach my friends through the landline and watch free-to-air TV. My father bought a transistor radio as well because he said that’s the most reliable communication system we have. I think he’s paranoid.

He doesn’t want us to touch anything electronic or technological because he’s afraid of cross-infection. He wants to buy patches but they’re only available via the Internet, which of course, has died here. By patches, I mean a software that upgrades the computer system, defending it from cyber attacks. Think of it as a band-aid for a cut wound. He wants to buy plenty because the wound is still bleeding. I told him to also get bandages, in case he gets into an accident in his driverless car.

My mother says hi and wants to know how you keep uncooked food fresh when you have no refrigerator. I told her you kill your food or harvest your food every other day. She didn’t know, because she never went on a school exchange programme like I have.

The good thing is that I am getting more sunshine – and rain. I meet my friends more often and visit relatives in their home even though it’s not Chinese New Year. That because I can’t stay cooped up in my room staring at my blank computer. I am actually getting used to talking again. Having face-to-face conversations is such an exciting experience, especially when there’s no ring tone to disturb the flow.

I have to stop here because I have to recite the anthem of the Smart Nation. I think you are wise to stick with Mother Nature, even though we’re slowly killing her. But, at least, she can’t die overnight.

Sincerely,

Your Internet-savvy friend

 

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HACKERS are having a great weekend, with the recent spate of cyber attacks. At home, concerns over internet security hit a new high when the the Ministry of Education revealed that the National University of Singapore and Nanyang Technological University were targets in a “sophisticated” cyber attack last month.

And in the rest of the world, a major cyberattack on Friday (May 12) hit schools, companies and even hospitals in over 70 countries. The choice of weapon? A ransomware tool called “WannaCry”, that locks people out of their computers unless they pay up.

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More worryingly, experts suspect that the hacker group behind the attacks, the sinister-sounding “Shadow Brokers”, was using software stolen from the National Security Agency (NSA) in the US. We look at some of the countries affected, alongside other developments in the hacking world:

1. London, UK: Healthcare calls in sick

NHS Ambulance, United Kingdom. Image by Flickr user Lee Haywood.

British hospitals affected by “Wannacry” were forced to divert patients needing emergency treatment to other neighbouring hospitals. Britain’s prime minister, Theresa May said this was not a targeted attack at the National Health Service. “It’s an international attack and a number of countries and organisations have been affected,” she said in response to the cyber attacks. More than 40 hospitals and health facilities reported that they had been hit by the virus on Friday.

The attack had affected X-ray imaging systems, pathology test results, phone systems and patient administration systems. Doctors warned that this attack, the biggest in The National Health Service (NHS) history, could cost lives. Important information, medical records, and patient details could be lost if hackers delete the files. On Friday, doctors and nurses were left to treat patients without access to their medical files. Some patients had their operations cancelled. However in a statement, the NHS said, “At this stage we do not have any evidence that patient data has been accessed. We will continue to work with affected organisations to confirm this.”

The scale of the attacks on NHS raised questions about the security of its systems. Cyber experts said that this was because some health care organisations were using obsolete systems, while others failed to update their software.

2. Madrid, Spain: Phone companies stay on hold

Telefonica building, Madrid, Spain, Image by Federico Jorda.

Victims of the “Wannacry” virus in Spain included Telefonica, the nation’s biggest telecommunications firm, power company Iberdrola and utility Gas Natural. Spain’s government warned organisations of a possible cyber attack on Friday. Some organisations took precautionary measures as a result.

It is not clear how many Spanish organisations were affected by the attack. Telefonica said that the attack was limited to some of its employee’s computers on an internal network and did not affect its clients or services. After the attack on Friday, Telefonica switched off all the computers in its Madrid headquarters, and staff were told to shut down their workstations.

The Spanish government said in a statement that, “The cyber attack had not affected the provision of the companies’ services or the operation of their networks and the national cybersecurity institute was working to resolve it as soon as possible.”

3. Moscow, Russia: “We’re victims too!”

Palace Square, Hermitage, Saint Petersburg, Russia. Image by Flickr user Ninara.

When news of the cyberattacks broke, heads immediately turned to the Kremlin, which is facing allegations of using hackers to influence elections in the US and France. Russia was quick to assert that it wasn’t the criminal here, but a fellow victim.

Experts assessing the damage so far have concluded that Russia is the worst hit, followed by Ukraine and Taiwan. The Russian Interior Ministry confirmed that 1000 of its computers were hit, although its servers were unharmed.

But suspicions still abound, with pundits pointing out the possible links between the Shadow Brokers and Russia. Last year, NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden tweeted out suspicions that the hacker group is backed by the Kremlin. Guess it all adds to the palace intrigue.

Edward Snowden tweets on links between the cyberattack and the Kremlin. Image from twitter.

4. Washington, DC, US: The Russian plot thickens

Former FBI Director James Comey and Former Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates at a briefing in 2016. Image by Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). Public Domain Mark 1.0.

Other than the PR disaster that the NSA now faces, the US has emerged relatively unscathed from the cyber attacks. International courier FedEx reported that it is “experiencing interference” due to the attacks, but did not provide any further assessment.

The Americans, meanwhile, are preoccupied with the allegations of Russian hacking into the presidential elections. While President Trump has ousted FBI director James Comey off his back for now, he faces even more pressure to find a new FBI director – will the new head continue the investigations?

And a fresh set of revelations suggest that there is precedent for Russian meddling in US elections. A new report alleges that the Russians attempted to hack the US election as far back as 2007, targeting Barack Obama’s campaign managers. Maybe the Russian hackers were there all along, just that no one noticed them?

5. Paris, France: What doesn’t kill you

Ensemble la France! Emmanuel Macron campaign poster, Paris, Image by Lorie Shuall.

Hackers prey on flaws in cyber security, but they can’t attack your psychological defences, as the French have proven. Right before the end of campaigning, hackers dumped frontrunner Mr Emmanuel Macron’s emails and financing documents online – in a eerie echo of the cyber attack on Mrs Hillary Clinton’s campaign. Once again, fingers pointed at Russia.

But unlike the US, France acted quickly the control the fallout. The election commission warned the press against republishing the information during the “quiet” period when candidates are not allowed to campaign. Some commentators think the US should emulate the French system of having a cool-off period.

And as satirist Andy Borowitz put it, the “French annoyingly retain (the) right to claim intellectual superiority over Americans.”

 

Featured image by Flickr user World’s Direction.

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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

 

Featured image is a screen grab from Youtube

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