UN’s Guterres Brings Climate Warning to EU Summit

U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres brought an urgent climate message to the European Union summit Thursday in Brussels, encouraging leaders of the bloc’s 27 member nations to take dramatic action.

Speaking to reporters alongside European Council President Charles Michel at EU headquarters, Guterres cited a report issued by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change earlier this week. 

That report called on nations to cut carbon emissions in half in the next 10 to 15 years if they want a chance at slowing global warming.

Guterres said dramatic action is needed because, “We are close to the tipping point that will make 1.5 degrees [Celsius] impossible to achieve,” referring to a target goal of limiting the global temperature increase established by the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate.

On the subject of climate, the EU’s ban on internal combustion engines by 2035 — initially approved last month by the European Parliament — was being discussed by leaders as they arrived at the summit. Germany has asked EU officials for an exception to the ban, allowing combustion engines that run on carbon-neutral synthetic “E” fuels.

Austrian Chancellor Karl Nehammer said he supports the German proposal and would like to see the issue on the agenda at the summit. Luxembourg’s prime minister, Xavier Bettel, on the other hand, said the issue was not intended to be discussed at this week’s meetings. 

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz told the Reuters news agency his country and EU officials are in discussions on the issue and “everything is on the right track” to resolving it.

Guterres — a guest at the summit — is also expected to discuss renewal of the deal brokered by the U.N. and Turkey to allow grain shipments out of Ukraine ports otherwise sealed by a Russian blockade.

The EU leaders are also expected to get updates on the war in Ukraine from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy via video link. EU leaders are expected to endorse a deal aimed at sending one million rounds of artillery shells to Ukraine within the next 12 months.

Some information for this report was provided by the Associated Press, Reuters and AFP.

US, Albania on ‘Hunt’ for Iranian Cyber Actors

The decision to launch a series of cyberattacks that crippled Albanian government websites and temporarily shut down government services may be backfiring on the alleged perpetrator.

Albania blamed the attacks in July and September of last year on Iran, claiming the evidence pointing to Tehran was “irrefutable,” and ordered all Iranian officials out of the country.

Now, a U.S. cyber team sent to Albania to help the country recover and “hunt” for more dangers says the efforts have turned up “new data and information about the tools, techniques, and procedures of malicious cyber actors, attempting to disrupt government networks and systems.”

“The hunt forward operation resulted in incredibly valuable insights for both our allied partner and U.S. cyber defenses,” the Cyber National Mission Force’s Major Katrina Cheesman told VOA, adding information was shared not only with the Albanian government but also some private companies with critical roles in the digital infrastructure of both countries.

Officials declined to share additional details, citing operational security, other than to say the networks they examined were of “significance” to Washington.

“These hunts bring us closer to adversary activity to better understand and then defend ourselves,” the commander of U.S. Cyber National Mission Force, Major General William Hartman, said in a statement Thursday, following a visit to Albania.

“When we are invited to hunt on a partner nation’s networks, we are able to find an adversary’s insidious activity,” Hartman said. “We can then impose costs on our adversaries by exposing their tools, tactics and procedures, and improve the cybersecurity posture of our partners and allies.”

Iran has consistently denied responsibility for the cyberattacks against Albania, calling the allegation “baseless.”

Albania’s claims were backed by the United States, which described the Iranian actions in cyberspace as “counter to international norms.”

This past September, the U.S. Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, CISA, and the FBI attributed the initial cyberattacks against Albania to Iranian state cyber actors calling themselves “HomeLand Justice.”

The joint advisory warned the group first gained access to Albania’s in May 2021 and maintained access to the Albanian networks for more than a year, stealing information, before launching the initial cyberattack in July 2022.

CISA and the FBI also concluded that Iran likely launched the second cyberattack in September 2022, using similar types of malware, in retaliation for Albania’s decision to attribute the first round of attacks to Tehran.

U.S. officials confirmed they had sent a team of experts to Albania shortly after the attacks, but information released Thursday sheds more light on the scope of the operation.

According to the U.S. officials, the so-called “hunt forward” team was deployed to Albania last September and worked alongside Albanian officials before returning home in late December.

Prior to the mission in Albania, other U.S. “hunt forward” teams had been deployed 43 times to 21 countries, including to Ukraine, Estonia, Lithuania, Montenegro and Croatia.


Albanian officials have indicated they hope to continue working with U.S. cyber teams to further strengthen Albania’s cyber defenses.

“The cooperation with U.S. Cyber Command was very effective,” said Mirlinda Karcanaj, the general director of Albania’s National Agency for Information Society, in a statement released by the U.S. 

“We hope that this cooperation will continue,” she added.

EU Leaders Expected to Approve Ukraine Ammunition Plan

European Union leaders are expected to give their approval Thursday for a plan to speed ammunition deliveries to Ukrainian forces fighting a Russian invasion.

The $2 billion plan was endorsed earlier this week by EU foreign and defense ministers. It calls for both sending ammunition from existing stocks and for EU countries to work together to place new orders for more rounds.

Ukrainian leaders have told Western allies that Ukraine’s military has an urgent need for more ammunition, especially 155-millimeter shells.

U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres is due to join the EU leaders for a lunch meeting Thursday, with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy scheduled to give a later video address.

Thursday’s session comes a day after Ukrainian authorities said new Russian drone and missile attacks killed at least seven people in two cities.

EU foreign policy chief Joseph Borrell used a Thursday tweet to highlight Russian President Vladimir Putin’s expression of support for a Chinese-drafted peace plan in Ukraine, placing Putin’s hosting of Chinese President Xi Jinping this week alongside the Russian attacks.

“Ukraine has been attacked again by Russia with Iranian drones, targeting educational facilities & a missile attack on a residential building in Zaporizhzhia,” Borrell said. “Just when Putin expressed need for ‘peaceful settlement’ to President Xi, Russian again commits war crimes.”


Putin on Tuesday praised Xi’s peace plan to end the Ukraine war, although it does not call for withdrawal of Russian troops as Zelenskyy has demanded before peace talks can start.

The United States, Ukraine’s chief arms supplier, has rejected China’s peace plan because it would leave Russian territorial gains in eastern Ukraine in place.

“A cease-fire right now, freezing the lines where they are, basically gives [Putin] the time and space he needs to try to re-equip, to re-man, to make up for that resource expenditure,” White House national security spokesman John Kirby said.

Some material in this report came from The Associated Press, Agence France-Presse and Reuters.

Nationwide Protests in France after Macron Doubles Down On Pension Bill

French workers angry with a rise in the pension age blocked access to a terminal at Paris’ Roissy-Charles De Gaulle airport on Thursday as part of a nationwide day of protests, forcing some travelers to get there on foot.

Train services were disrupted and some schools shut while garbage piled up on the streets, and electricity output was cut as unions raised pressure on the government to withdraw the law which delays retirement by two years to 64.

Plumes of smoke were seen rising from burning piles of debris blocking traffic on a highway near Toulouse, in southwestern France, and wildcat strikes briefly blocked roads in other cities as well.

The spontaneous protest near Roissy’s terminal one would not impact flights, a spokesperson for Aeroports de Paris said.

Protest rallies were scheduled across the country later in the day, while protests also targeted oil depots and blocked an LNG terminal in the northern city of Dunkirk.

President Emmanuel Macron on Wednesday said the legislation – which his government pushed through parliament without a vote last week – would come into force by year-end despite escalating anger across the country.

“The best response we can give the president is that there are millions of people on strike and in the streets,” said Philippe Martinez, who leads the hardline CGT union. 

Protests of the the policy changes, which also accelerate a planned increase of the number of years one must work to draw a full pension, have drawn huge crowds in rallies organized by unions since January.


Most protests have been peaceful, but anger has mounted since the government pushed the bill through parliament without a vote last week.

The past seven nights have seen spontaneous demonstrations in Paris and other cities with rubbish bins set ablaze and scuffles with police.

Laurent Berger, the head of France’s biggest union, the moderate CFDT, told BFM TV the government must withdraw the pension law. Macron’s comments “increased the anger,” he said.

The latest wave of protests represents the most serious challenge to the president’s authority since the “Yellow Vest” revolt four years ago. Polls show a wide majority of French opposed to the pension legislation as well as the government’s decision to push it through parliament without a vote.

“It’s a good thing that people are still mobilizing, and that people stand up for their beliefs,” 26-year-old engineer Jean Walter said at the Paris Saint-Lazare train station, where many trains were cancelled.

“I’m supporting the strike, even if it will take more time to go to work today.”

Labour Minister Olivier Dussopt said the government was not in denial about the tensions but wanted to move on.

“There is a disagreement that will persist on the retirement age. On the other hand, there are many subjects which make it possible to renew a dialogue,” he said, including how companies share their profits with workers.

“Things will be done gradually,” he said.

China Watching World’s Response to War in Ukraine, Blinken Says

China is very carefully watching how Washington and the world respond to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine but has not yet crossed the line of providing lethal aid to Moscow, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on Wednesday.

Speaking on the heels of a visit to Moscow by Chinese President Xi Jinping, Blinken told a Senate hearing that if Russia was allowed to attack its neighbor with impunity, it would “open a Pandora’s box” for would-be aggressors and lead to a “world of conflict.”

“The stakes in Ukraine go well beyond Ukraine. … I think it has a profound impact in Asia, for example,” Blinken said, noting that Japan and South Korea had been major supporters of Ukraine in the conflict.

However, he said he did not believe that China has been providing lethal aid to Moscow.

“As we speak today, we have not seen them cross that line,” Blinken told a Senate Appropriations subcommittee hearing, the first of four times he will testify to congressional committees this week.

Blinken testified later on Wednesday to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Russia’s invasion has led to debates over how the war will affect China’s military thinking regarding Taiwan, the self-governing island that Beijing sees as sovereign Chinese territory.

“I think if China’s looking at this — and they are looking at it very carefully — they will draw lessons for how the world comes together, or doesn’t, to stand up to this aggression,” Blinken said.

Xi and Russian President Vladimir Putin greeted each another as “dear friend” when they met in the Kremlin and discussed China’s proposals for a resolution to the Ukraine conflict.

“They have a marriage of convenience — I’m not sure if it’s conviction. Russia is very much a junior partner in this relationship,” Blinken said.

He said China’s political and material support for Russia goes against Washington’s interests.

Blinken told lawmakers that the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development needs President Joe Biden’s entire budget request, an 11% increase from last year, to face threats posed by Russia and China.

“The post-Cold War world is over, and there is an intense competition under way to determine what comes next,” Blinken said.

The secretary of state urged every member of the International Criminal Court to comply with an arrest warrant issued for Russian President Vladimir Putin.

The United States is not a party to the ICC.

Ukraine, IMF Agree on $15.6 Billion Loan Package

Ukraine and the International Monetary Fund have agreed on a $15.6 billion loan package aimed at shoring up government finances severely strained by Russia’s invasion and leveraging more support by assuring other donors that Ukraine is pursuing strong economic policies and fighting corruption.

Ukraine’s finance ministry said Wednesday that the program will “help to mobilize financing from Ukraine’s international partners, as well as to maintain macro-financial stability and ensure the path to post-war reconstruction after Ukrainian victory in the war against the aggressor.”

The loan program will run for four years, with the first 12 to 18 months focusing on helping Ukraine close its massive budget deficit and easing the pressure to print money to use for spending, the IMF said in a statement Tuesday. Printing money to fund people’s pensions, state salaries and basic services can make things worse by fueling inflation and destabilizing the currency.

The remainder of the program will focus on supporting Ukraine’s bid for European Union membership and postwar reconstruction.

Deal still needs board approval

The IMF deal is expected to leverage even more money for Ukraine because it provides evidence to potential donor governments, including in the Group of Seven major democracies and the European Union, that Ukraine’s government is following sound economic policies.

The agreement, which still needs approval from the IMF’s executive board, “is expected to help mobilize large-scale concessional financing from Ukraine’s international donors and partners over the duration of the program,” Gavin Gray, the IMF’s mission chief for Ukraine, said in a statement.

The Washington-based IMF said Ukrainian authorities demonstrated their commitment to healthy economic policy and met all agreed-upon goals during a preliminary consultation. The loan program goes beyond previous IMF practice by lending to a country at war, under new rules that allowed assistance because of circumstances of “exceptionally high uncertainty.”

Ukraine massively increased military spending while the economy shrank by around 30% in 2022, hitting tax revenue.

The result was a huge budget deficit that has been covered by outside financing from the U.S., the EU and other allies. The aid has helped the country end its excessive reliance on money printed by the central bank and loaned to the government, an emergency step considered necessary early in the war but that could fuel inflation and send the currency plunging if prolonged.

IMF noted Ukraine’s progress

Before the war, Ukraine had made progress in reforming its banking system and making government contracts more transparent. But it still ranked 122 out of 180 countries on Transparency International’s corruption perceptions index.

Its prewar economy was characterized by political involvement from wealthy individuals known as oligarchs and by slow progress on improving the legal system perceived as too open to political influence.

The IMF, however, said that after the preliminary consultations, the government has “made progress in reforms to strengthen governance, anti-corruption and rule of law, and lay the foundations for postwar growth, although the agenda of reforms in these areas remains significant.”

Several senior officials, including deputy ministers and governors of front-line regions, were fired in January after allegations of corruption, some related to military spending, embarrassed the government. President Volodymyr Zelenskyy was elected in 2019 on an anti-establishment, anti-corruption platform.

Report Finds 119,000 Hurt Worldwide by Riot-Control Weapons Since 2015

More than 119,000 people have been injured by tear gas and other chemical irritants around the world since 2015 and about 2,000 suffered injuries from less lethal impact projectiles, according to a report released Wednesday.

The study by Physicians for Human Rights and the International Network of Civil Liberties Organizations, in collaboration with the Omega Research Foundation, took 2½ years to research. It provides a rare, partial count of casualties, compiled from medical literature, from these devices used by police around the world, including in Colombia, Chile, Hong Kong, Turkey and at Black Lives Matter protests in the United States.

Most of the data comes from cases in which a person came to an emergency room with injuries from crowd control weapons and the attending doctor or hospital staff made the effort to document it, said the report’s lead author, Rohini Haar, an emergency room physician and researcher at the University of California School of Public Health in Berkeley.

Crowd control tools become more powerful

The report on casualties from a largely unregulated industry cites an alarming evolution of crowd control devices into more powerful and indiscriminate designs and deployment, including dropping tear gas from drones.

It calls for bans on rubber bullets and on multiprojectile devices in all crowd control settings and tighter restrictions on weapons that may be used indiscriminately, such as tear gas, acoustic weapons and water cannons, which in some cases have been loaded with dyes and chemical irritants. Governments also should ensure these weapons are subject to rigorous independent testing, with testing, evaluation and approval involving law enforcement, technical specialists and health professionals, among others, the report said.

U.S. Senator Ron Wyden, a Democrat from Oregon, said the report underscores serious issues.

“These troubling global numbers echo the concerns I raised locally when Donald Trump first dispatched armed troops to Portland in 2020 with no guidance on their use of chemical munitions near schools and against protesters when most were peacefully exercising their First Amendment rights,” Wyden said. “The report’s recommendations are very worthy of consideration by the Department of Homeland Security.”

Portland, Oregon, was an epicenter of racial justice protests after George Floyd was murdered by Minneapolis police in May 2020. Police and protesters clashed, with officers firing tear gas, pepper spray and other devices, turning parts of the city into battle grounds.

Then-President Trump sent militarized federal agents to protect federal property and the violence escalated, with agents dousing the crowds with tear gas and other irritants. Bystanders and nearby residents choked on the fumes, their eyes watering and burning. Some protesters launched fireworks at agents and shined lasers in their eyes.

Portland Police Bureau spokesperson Terri Wallo Strauss noted that the department’s updated policy emphasizes “the goal of avoiding the use of force, when feasible.”

Devices can help restore order, say police

Police say crowd control devices are, if used properly, an effective tool for dispersing rioters.

“Rallies basically spin out of control when they’ve been hijacked by individuals that have come in with a nefarious purpose to create the riots, the looting, those type of things. And then, obviously, law enforcement has to come in and try their best to create a safe resolution and try to restore order,” Park City, Utah, Police Chief Wade Carpenter said during the height of the Black Lives Matter protests.

Carpenter is also an official with the International Association of Chiefs of Police, which has more than 32,000 members in more than 170 countries. The group declined to comment on the new report. But in 2019, it recommended guidelines on crowd management.

Pepper spray, or oleoresin capsicum, may be used against “specific individuals engaged in unlawful conduct or actively resisting arrest, or as necessary in a defensive capacity,” the guidelines state. It “shall not be used indiscriminately against groups of people where bystanders would be unreasonably affected, or against passively resistant individuals.”

But the internet is full of instances in which pepper spray was used against non-resisting people, including against Tyre Nichols, who was beaten to death by Memphis police in January.

Tear gas “may be deployed defensively to prevent injury when lesser force options are either not available or would likely be ineffective,” the IACP guidance states. Projectiles that are supposed to hit a surface like a street before impacting a person “may be used in civil disturbances where life is in immediate jeopardy or the need to use the devices outweighs the potential risks involved.”

Direct-fired impact munitions, including beanbag rounds, “may be used during civil disturbances against specific individuals who are engaged in conduct that poses an immediate threat of death or serious injury,” the guidance says. Protesters have been blinded and suffered brain damage from beanbag rounds.

Claims against police

Numerous lawsuits have been filed over the use of force by police during protests.

In November, the city of Portland reached a $250,000 settlement with five demonstrators in a federal lawsuit over police use of tear gas and other crowd control devices during racial justice protests.

But last month, a federal judge threw out an excessive force claim against an unnamed federal agent who fired an impact munition at the forehead of protester Donavan La Bella, fracturing his skull, as he held up a music speaker during a racial justice demonstration in Portland in 2020. La Bella continues to struggle with a severe head injury.

Haar, who is a medical adviser for Physicians for Human Rights, said the number of injured is far greater than what she compiled from medical reports.

“Basically, we knew we’re capturing sort of the tip of the iceberg,” she said. “This is just a tiny fraction of what the world is experiencing on a daily basis. The vast majority of injuries — even significant severe injuries — go unreported.”

Macron Says Unpopular Pension Reform Necessary, Will Enter Into Force by Year-End 

President Emmanuel Macron on Wednesday said a deeply unpopular new law that raises the retirement age was necessary and would enter into force by the end of the year.

“Do you think I enjoy doing this reform? No,” Macron said in a rare TV interview. “But there is not a hundred ways to balance the accounts … this reform is necessary.”

Until the government pushed the pension bill through without a vote, the protests against a bill that will push the retirement age by two years to 64 had gathered huge, peaceful crowds in rallies organized by unions.

But since the government’s decision to skip a vote in parliament last week, spontaneous protests in Paris and elsewhere have seen rubbish bins and barricades set ablaze every night amid scuffles with police.

Protesters on Wednesday also blocked train stations in the southern cities of Nice and Toulouse.

This, alongside with rolling strikes that affect oil depots, public transport and garbage collection, represent the most serious challenge to the centrist president’s authority since the “Yellow Vest” revolt four years ago.

Macron said what he called “extreme violence” was not acceptable.

Neither a government reshuffle nor snap elections are on the cards, but rather an attempt to regain the initiative with measures to better involve citizens and unions in decision-making, political leaders in Macron’s camp said ahead of the interview.

Polls show a wide majority of French are opposed to the pension legislation, as well as the government’s decision to push the bill through parliament last week without a vote.

Labor unions have announced another nationwide day of strikes and demonstrations on Thursday.

“I don’t expect much from Macron’s speech,” pensioner Jacques Borensztejn said at a rally on Tuesday in Paris. “We don’t want this law and we’ll fight until it is withdrawn.”

Ukraine Says Russian Drone Attack Kills 3 in Kyiv Region

Ukrainian authorities said Wednesday an overnight Russian drone attack killed at least three people in the Kyiv region. 

The state emergency service said the strike hit a school facility in Rzhyshchiv, about 60 kilometers south of the capital, damaging two student residences and an educational building. 

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy tweeted Wednesday that Russia’s overnight attacks included “20 Iranian murderous drones, plus missiles, numerous shelling occasions.” 

“Every time someone tries to hear the word ‘peace’ in Moscow, another order is given there for such criminal strikes,” Zelenskyy said. 

The Ukrainian leader said the success of his forces “brings peace closer” as he called for global unity and compliance with sanctions targeting Russia. 

Russian President Vladimir Putin on Tuesday praised a Chinese-drafted peace plan as he hosted Chinese leader Xi Jinping, while reiterating his stance that Ukraine and its Western partners are unwilling to engage in peace talks. 

Zelenskyy has said peace talks can only occur once Russia has withdrawn all its troops from Ukrainian territory. 

Kishida visit 

Zelenskyy hosted Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida for talks Tuesday in Kyiv in the latest show of support from a world leader making a wartime stop in Ukraine. 

“Paid a visit to Ukraine to show firm resolution of G-7 as Chair and saw the situation with my own eyes,” Kishida tweeted Wednesday. “Having in-depth discussions with President Zelenskyy, I renewed commitment to take the lead in the efforts to uphold the international order based on the rule of law.” 

Japan is due to host a G-7 summit of the leaders of some of the world’s largest economies in Kishida’s hometown of Hiroshima in May. Tokyo has continually voiced support for Ukraine and joined rounds of sanctions against Russia. Kishida has said that the summit should demonstrate a strong will against Russia’s invasion and to uphold international order and rule of law.    

Kishida’s trip was kept secret until the last minute for security reasons. It is rare for a Japanese leader to make an unannounced visit to another country.   

Zelenskyy posted footage of him greeting Kishida, whom Zelenskyy called “a truly powerful defender of the international order and a longtime friend of Ukraine.”    

Kishida also toured the town of Bucha, where Ukraine says more than 400 civilians were killed last year by Russian forces, and which has since become synonymous with the brutality of Moscow’s troops.    

He laid a wreath outside a church before observing a moment of silence and bowing. 

The world was astonished to see innocent civilians in Bucha killed one year ago. I really feel great anger at the atrocity upon visiting that very place here,” Kishida said.  

“I would like to give condolences to all the victims and the wounded on behalf of the Japanese nationals,” he added. “Japan will keep aiding Ukraine with the greatest effort to regain peace.”     

In an apparent response to Kishida’s trip, Russia’s defense ministry said Tuesday that two of its strategic bomber planes flew over the Sea of Japan for more than seven hours.     

Some material in this report came from The Associated Press, Agence France-Presse and Reuters. 

Biden Honors Springsteen, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Mindy Kaling

U.S. President Joe Biden made an observation when conferring the National Medal of Arts on rocker Bruce Springsteen on Tuesday:

“Bruce, some people are just born to run, man.”

Springsteen and a host of actors, authors, singers and other artists joined Biden in the White House East Room where they received either a National Medal of Arts or National Humanities Medal for their contributions to American society.

Comedian Julia Louis-Dreyfus, whose “Veep” show made light of the vice presidency — an office Biden once held — was also honored.

“She embraces life’s absurdity with absolute wit, and handles real life turns with absolute grace. A mom, a cancer survivor, a pioneer for women in comedy, she is an American original,” Biden said.

Actress Mindy Kaling, a main character on the long-running television show, “The Office,” set in Biden’s hometown of Scranton, Pennsylvania, received a medal as well.

When Biden introduced author Colson Whitehead to the crowd, he noted that Whitehead had won back-to-back Pulitzer Prizes for his books and gave a hint of his own ambitions.

“I’m trying to go back to back myself,” said Biden, who has said he intends to run for reelection in 2024.

Singer Gladys Knight, the “empress of soul,” was an honoree, along with clothing designer Vera Wang, historian Walter Isaacson and authors Amy Tan, Ann Patchett and Tara Westover, among others.

Analysts Say Sentencing of Belarus Journalists is Retaliation for Coverage

The verdicts handed down last week to two senior members of the independent Belarusian news website TUT.by were condemned by media as retaliation for truthful reporting.

In a closed hearing in Minsk on Friday, a court convicted the website’s editor-in-chief, Maryna Zolatava, of incitement and distributing material aimed at harming national security. The site’s director, Lyudmila Chekina, was convicted of tax evasion, incitement and organizing the distribution of material aimed at harming national security.

The journalists, who have both spent nearly two years in pre-trial detention, were each sentenced to 12 years in prison.

Three other journalists from the website also faced trial but had left the country earlier.

The news website reported extensively on the contested 2020 presidential election when President Alexander Lukashenko claimed victory and opposition candidates were detained or forced to flee.

Since 2020, TUT.by and its staff have been harassed, the newsroom raided, and access to its website blocked as part of what analysts say is Lukashenko’s wider crackdown on opposition voices. Authorities labeled the TUT.by site an “extremist organization” and many of its journalists have gone into exile.

The Belarus Embassy in Washington referred VOA to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Belarus. The ministry did not respond to VOA’s email requesting comment.

Lukashenko has said in interviews that reports on media jailings in Belarus are “misinformed.” He told The Associated Press in 2022, “the law is one and it must be observed. 

Media condemn verdict

TUT.by was one of the most popular independent news websites in Belarus.

“It really was the largest media in the country, covering up to 70% of the internet audience,” the site’s co-founder Kirill Voloshin told VOA. “It was a real power, a real potential tool of influence and a real threat to Belarusian authorities.”

In general, Voloshin said, “The courts [in Belarus] treat journalists very harshly and are doubly harsh toward journalists and TUT.BY managers.”

Voloshin is among the estimated 400 Belarusian journalists who have left the country since 2020. Many now live or work from Lithuania and Poland.

The co-founder said he believes Friday’s hearing was conducted behind closed doors “because none of the allegations are true.”

He said he doesn’t believe his colleagues will be released any time soon, adding, “The number of political prisoners will soon exceed 1,500, or has already exceeded. There is even a Nobel laureate there, there are well-known human rights activists.”

Barys Haretski, the deputy chair of the Belarusian Association of Journalists (BAJ), said he believes the verdict is retaliation for TUT.by’s journalism.

“Dictators are always afraid of the light, and when some events take place in the country, and journalists cover them honestly, dictators really don’t like it,” he told VOA.

Haretski said that many journalists had dreamed of working for TUT.by before it was forced out.

“Lukashenko is fighting any dissent, especially with such large and influential media as TUT.by,” he said.

Persecution spreads

Zolatava and Chekina are among dozens of journalists to be detained in Belarus since 2020.

The BAJ at the start of 2023 estimated that more than 30 journalists remained imprisoned for their work inside Belarus. 

Political analyst Alexander Klaskovsky described the sentences as “cruel” even when compared to the wider situation for Belarus media.

“Under Lukashenko, the independent press was simply denied the right to exist,” the political observer said.

Lukashenko and his government “considers the uncontrolled media as one of its main enemies … and therefore there is no mercy here,” Klaskovsky said. “There is also a cold calculation in this, because the authorities are methodically clearing the field of independent media.”

He noted the harassment of the few remaining publications. In March, at least seven journalists have been detained, and authorities have raided reporters’ homes as well as the office of a local newspaper, Infa-Kurjer.

Media analyst Galina Sidorova said that Lukashenko and Russian President Vladimir Putin are both involved in the persecution of independent journalists and the suppression of freedom of speech.

Sidorova is the co-founder of 19-29 Foundation, a community of investigative journalists.

“We must not forget that the Putin regime is waging an aggressive war, and the intensified repressions against journalists in Russia are connected precisely with this,” she told VOA.

She also believes the harsh response to TUT.by is linked to its popularity, especially during the contested 2020 presidential election in Belarus.

The website had millions of visits, Sidorova said, adding that it “was among the first media outlets that the authorities wanted to crack down on.”

She dismissed the charges against the website’s journalists, saying, “The reason for all these accusations was the same: their highly professional journalistic activity.”

Despite a difficult environment, Sidorova noted that journalists still report, adding that the media community is “looking for ways to somehow work and convey independent information to our audience in this terrible and unbearable situation.”

This story originated in VOA’s Russian Service 

‘Winnie the Pooh’ Slasher Film Pulled from Hong Kong Cinemas

Public screenings of a slasher film that features Winnie the Pooh were scrapped abruptly in Hong Kong on Tuesday, sparking discussions over increasing censorship in the city.

Film distributor VII Pillars Entertainment announced on Facebook that the release of “Winnie the Pooh: Blood and Honey” on Thursday had been canceled with “great regret” in Hong Kong and neighboring Macao.

In an email reply to The Associated Press, the distributor said it was notified by cinemas that it could not show the film as scheduled, but didn’t know why. The cinema chains involved did not immediately reply to a request for comment.

For many residents, the Winnie the Pooh character is a playful taunt of China’s President Xi Jinping and Chinese censors in the past had briefly banned social media searches for the bear in the country. In 2018, the film “Christopher Robin,” also featuring Winnie the Pooh, was reportedly denied a release in China.

The film being pulled in Hong Kong has prompted concern on social media over the territory’s shrinking freedoms.

The movie was initially set to be shown in about 30 cinemas in Hong Kong, VII Pillars Entertainment wrote last week.

The Office for Film, Newspaper and Article Administration said it had approved the film and arrangements by local cinemas to screen approved films “are the commercial decisions of the cinemas concerned.” It refused to comment on such arrangements.

A screening initially scheduled for Tuesday night in one cinema was canceled due to “technical reasons,” the organizer said on Instagram.

Kenny Ng, a professor at Hong Kong Baptist University’s academy of film, refused to speculate on the reason behind the cancellation, but suggested the mechanism of silencing criticism appeared to be resorting to commercial decisions.

Hong Kong is a former British colony that returned to China’s rule in 1997, promising to retain its Western-style freedoms. But China imposed a national security law following massive pro-democracy protests in 2019, silencing or jailing many dissidents.

In 2021, the government tightened guidelines and authorized censors to ban films believed to have breached the sweeping law.

Ng said the city saw more cases of censorship over the last two years, mostly targeting non-commercial movies, such as independent short films.

“When there is a red line, then there are more taboos,” he said.

Putin, Xi Call for Ukraine Peace Talks as Russian Leader Says West Not Ready

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping on Tuesday signed a new strategic partnership between their countries and called for a diplomatic solution to Moscow’s war against Ukraine, but Putin said he sees no indication that the Kyiv government and its Western allies are ready for peace talks.

After two days of talks with Xi at the Kremlin, Putin accused the United States and Western countries of fighting “to the last Ukrainian,” but praised what he said was China’s “neutral position” on the war.

China’s foreign ministry said in a statement that Beijing and Moscow believe that the United Nations Charter “must be observed and international law must be respected,” but made no demand that Russia withdraw its troops from Ukraine or honor Ukraine’s internationally recognized borders.

Putin called his talks with Xi “open and friendly,” discussions aimed at cementing their “no limits” partnership agreed to in early 2022, less than three weeks before Russia invaded Ukraine.

China recently proposed a 12-point plan calling for a de-escalation and eventual cease-fire in Ukraine, which the West has rejected because it would lock in place Russian territorial gains its illegal annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula in 2014 and more land seized by Russia in eastern Ukraine during its 13-month invasion.

Putin said, “We believe that many of the provisions of the peace plan put forward by China are consonant with Russian approaches and can be taken as the basis for a peaceful settlement when they are ready for that in the West and in Kyiv. However, so far, we see no such readiness from their side.”

Kyiv has welcomed Beijing’s diplomatic overture but says that Russia must first withdraw its troops from Ukraine. Fighting has mostly stalemated in eastern Ukraine along the main battlefront line.

The series of documents Putin and Xi signed called for “strategic cooperation” between the two countries, including a planned pipeline shipping Russian natural gas to China.

“I am convinced that our multi-faceted cooperation will continue to develop for the good of the peoples of our countries,” Putin said in televised remarks. He said Moscow was ready to help Chinese businesses replace Western firms that have left Russia in protest over the invasion of Ukraine.

Xi said he invited Putin to visit China later this year.

In opening remarks before their closed-door talks Monday, Putin said Russia was “slightly envious” of the rapid development of China in recent decades that has boosted it to become the world’s second-largest economy behind the United States.

Russian news agencies later reported that the two leaders talked for nearly four-and-a-half hours before breaking for dinner, where Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov had said Putin would likely give Xi a “detailed explanation” of Moscow’s actions in Ukraine.

The Chinese leader’s three-day visit to Moscow gives both Xi and Putin a public show of partnership in opposing what both see as American domination of global affairs. Their growing alliance also facilitates economic deals, such as shipment of Russian oil and natural gas to China at a time when the U.S. and its Western allies have imposed widespread sanctions to curb Russia’s foreign business transactions in retaliation for the invasion of Ukraine.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken told reporters in Washington Monday that any proposal for Ukraine that allows Russian forces to remain in the country would merely let Moscow regain its strength to continue its offensive.

“Calling for a cease-fire that does not include the removal of Russian forces from Ukrainian territory would effectively be supporting the ratification of Russian conquest,” he said.

White House National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby called on Xi “to press President Putin directly on the need to respect Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.”

Some material in this report came from Reuters.