Nordic Unions to Quit Global Journalists’ Body IFJ, Citing ‘Corruptive Activity’

Finnish, Norwegian, Danish and Icelandic unions will quit a global media federation on Tuesday in protest at “corruptive activity,” including allowing Russian state media journalists in Ukraine to stay as members, the Finnish union said.

The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ), which represents 600,000 journalists in 146 countries, denounced the accusations as “false, defamatory and damaging.”

The Nordic members accused the IFJ of longstanding undemocratic practices, unethical finances and of allowing the Russian state media representatives to continue as members.

“We call this corruptive activity,” Hanne Aho, the chair of the Union of Journalists in Finland, told Reuters, adding the four Nordic unions would resign from the IFJ on Tuesday.

The leader of the Norwegian Union of Journalists, Dag Idar Tryggestad, said the unions had fought for years to put in place democratic rules on IFJ elections as well as transparency around decisions and spending.

“..we believe this (resignation) is the only thing that can save IFJ. Changes must be forced,” he said.

Both Aho and Tryggestad said the Nordic unions’ latest disappointment resulted from the IFJ not taking action against the Russian Union of Journalists for setting up regional journalists’ associations in Ukrainian territories invaded by Russia.

“They have been able to do so in all tranquility without the international federation expelling the Russian union,” Aho said.

The IFJ said its executive committee had triggered a formal process for suspending and expelling the Russian Union of Journalists. It said expenditure was formally audited every year, adding that it had sought to answer all questions posed by the Nordic unions.

“We entirely reject what are false, defamatory and damaging allegations,” IFJ Deputy General Secretary Jeremy Dear told Reuters in an emailed response.

The Nordic unions also complained about what they said was the IFJ’s non-transparent use of finances, including its decision to hold its world congress last year in Oman, which has limited press freedom, Aho said.

The congress in Oman was organized at the end of May, at a time when journalists were widely accusing FIFA, the world governing body of soccer, of corruption and criticizing it for taking the World Cup to Qatar despite its poor track record on human rights.

“Trappings at the congress were extremely flamboyant so we began to wonder where the money had come from to pay for them,” Aho said, asking if it was appropriate for journalist unions to accept such lavish sponsoring.

Aho said the Union of Journalists in Finland had requested and received IFJ’s budget for the congress, which showed that up to 745,000 euros ($811,000) of the total of 778,000 euros ($844,675) came from Omani ministries and private companies as well as the Oman Journalists’ Association, while IFJ itself paid only 33,000 euros ($35,818) of the expenses.

The IFJ said the amounts included subsidies negotiated by the Oman Journalists’ Association.

“This has been normal procedure used in the hosting of successive IFJ congresses over decades,” it wrote in a statement shared with Reuters.

The IFJ, on its website, says it promotes collective action to defend human rights, democracy and media pluralism.

“IFJ policy is decided democratically at a Congress which meets every three years and work is carried out by the Secretariat under the direction of an elected executive committee,” it says.

 

France Hit by New Wave of Strikes Against Macron’s Pension Reform

Striking workers disrupted French refinery deliveries, public transport and schools on Tuesday in a second day of nationwide protests over President Emmanuel Macron’s plan to make people work longer before retirement. 

Huge crowds marched through cities across France to denounce a reform that raises the retirement age by two years to 64 and poses a test of Macron’s ability to push through change now that he has lost his working majority in parliament. 

On the rail networks, only one in three high-speed TGV trains were operating and even fewer local and regional trains. Services on the Paris metro were thrown into disarray. 

Marching behind banners reading “No to the reform” or “We won’t give up,” many said they would take to the streets as often as needed for the government to back down. 

“We won’t drive until we’re 64!” bus driver Isabelle Texier said at a protest in Saint-Nazaire on the Atlantic coast. 

“For the president, it’s easy. He sits in a chair … he can work until he’s 70, even,” she said. “We can’t ask roof layers to work until 64, it’s not possible.”  

After January 19, when more than a million people took to the streets on the first nationwide strike day, unions said initial data from protests across the country showed a bigger turnout. 

“It’s better than on the 19th. … It’s a real message sent to the government, saying we don’t want the 64 years,” Laurent Berger, who leads CFDT, France’s largest union, said ahead of the Paris march. 

Opinion polls show a substantial majority of the French oppose the reform, but Macron intends to stand his ground. The reform is “vital” to ensuring the viability of the pension system, he said on Monday.  

Some felt resigned amid bargaining between Macron’s ruling alliance and conservative opponents who are more open to pension reform than the left.  

“There’s no point in going on strike. This bill will be adopted in any case,” said 34-year-old Matthieu Jacquot, who works in the luxury sector. 

For unions, who were likely to announce more industrial actions later in the day, the challenge will be maintaining walkouts at a time when high inflation is eroding salaries. 

Though protest numbers appeared to be up, some initial data showed strike participation down on Tuesday from January 19. 

A union source said some 36.5% of SNCF rail operator workers were on strike by midday — down nearly 10% from January 19 — even if disruption to train traffic was largely similar. 

Utility group EDF EDF.PA said 40.3% of workers were on strike, down from 44.5%.  

Unions and companies at times disagreed on whether this strike was more or less successful than the previous one. For TotalEnergies TTEF.PA, less workers at its refineries had downed tools, but the CGT said there were more. 

At a local level, some announced “Robin Hood” operations unauthorized by the government. In the southwestern Lot-et-Garonne area, the local CGT trade union branch cut power to several speed cameras and disabled smart power meters.  

“When there is such a massive opposition, it would be dangerous for the government not to listen,” said Mylene Jacquot, secretary general of CFDT’s civil servants branch.  

The pension system reform would yield an additional 17.7 billion euros ($19.18 billion) in annual pension contributions, according to Labour Ministry estimates. Unions say there are other ways to raise revenue, such as taxing the super rich or asking employers or well-off pensioners to contribute more.  

“This reform is unfair and brutal,” said Luc Farre, the secretary general of the civil servants’ UNSA union. French power supply was down by about 5% or 3.3 gigawatts (GW) as workers at nuclear reactors and thermal plants joined the strike, EDF data showed. 

TotalEnergies said deliveries of petroleum products from its French sites had been halted, but customers’ needs were met. 

The government made some concessions while drafting the legislation. Macron had originally wanted the retirement age to be set at 65, while the government is also promising a minimum pension of 1,200 euros a month. 

New Round of Strikes as French Workers Protest Pension Reforms

Tuesday brought a new round of strikes in France as citizens protest proposed pension reforms. 

Worker strikes severely limited Paris metro and other rail services, while Air France canceled some of its short and medium flights. 

Half of the primary school teachers planned to strike, their union said, while power supplies were down with workers in the electrical sector also going on strike. 

Tuesday’s round of protests follows an initial round on January 19 in which more than a million people participated. 

President Emmanuel Macron’s government is proposing raising the retirement age in France from 62 to 64 years of age. 

Macron said Monday the change is necessary to keep the pension system working. 

Unions have said the government could instead tax the super rich. 

Some information for this report came from Agence France-Presse and Reuters. 

Australia and France to Supply Artillery Shells to Ukraine  

France and Australia have agreed to join forces to produce thousands of artillery shells to help Ukraine push Russian forces out of its country. Australian Defense Minister Richard Marles and Foreign Affairs Minister Penny Wong are in Europe for talks with key allies.

French and Australian officials say several thousand 155 millimeter artillery shells will be manufactured jointly by French arms supplier Nexter, while Australia will supply the gunpowder. The first supplies are expected to be delivered to Ukraine by the end of April.

The announcement was made Monday at a joint news conference in Paris by French Defense Minister Sebastien Lecornu and his Australian counterpart, Richard Marles.

Australia is the largest non-NATO contributor to Ukraine’s war effort.

It has supplied missiles and Bushmaster armored personnel carriers. A group of up to 70 Australian defense force personnel has also been stationed in Britain to help train Ukrainian troops.

Australia also has sweeping sanctions on Russia — the most severe Canberra has ever imposed on a foreign government.

Marles told reporters Paris and Canberra are standing in solidarity with Ukraine.

“We wanted to act together as a statement about how importantly Australia and France regard the support of Ukraine in the current conflict,” he said. “Both of us have supported Ukraine separately in other ways, but we wanted to make it really clear that Australia and France do stand together in support of Ukraine in the face of this Russian aggression.”

Also attending the media briefing in Paris were French Foreign Minister Catherine Colonna and Australian Foreign Affairs Minister Penny Wong.

While support for Ukraine’s effort to repel the Russian invasion have dominated bilateral talks, Paris and Canberra have also sought to ease diplomatic tensions.

Ties between the countries took a serious hit in 2021 when Canberra abandoned a French submarine contract in favor of American nuclear submarines, as well as joining the trilateral security alliance with the United States and Britain known as AUKUS.

Marles and Wong are also due to hold talks this week with British government ministers.

‘Laverne & Shirley’ Actor Cindy Williams Dies at 75

Cindy Williams, who played Shirley opposite Penny Marshall’s Laverne on the popular sitcom “Laverne & Shirley,” has died, her family said Monday.

Williams died Wednesday in Los Angeles at age 75 after a brief illness, her children, Zak and Emily Hudson, said in a statement released through family spokeswoman Liza Cranis.

“The passing of our kind, hilarious mother, Cindy Williams, has brought us insurmountable sadness that could never truly be expressed,” the statement said.

“Knowing and loving her has been our joy and privilege. She was one of a kind, beautiful, generous and possessed a brilliant sense of humor and a glittering spirit that everyone loved.”

Williams also starred in director George Lucas’ 1973 film “American Graffiti” and director Francis Ford Coppola’s “The Conversation” from 1974.

But she was by far best known for “Laverne & Shirley,” the “Happy Days” spinoff that ran on ABC from 1976 to 1983 that in its prime was among the most popular shows on TV.

Williams played the straitlaced Shirley to Marshall’s more libertine Laverne on the show about a pair of roommates who worked at a Milwaukee bottling factory in the 1950s and ’60s.

Marshall, whose brother, Garry Marshall, co-created the series, died in 2018.

“Laverne & Shirley” was known almost as much for its opening theme as the show itself. Williams’ and Marshall’s chant of “schlemiel, schlimazel” as they skipped together became a cultural phenomenon and oft-invoked piece of nostalgia.

New Czech President Vows to Boost Ties with Taiwan

Czech President-elect Petr Pavel vowed Monday to boost his country’s ties with Taiwan after holding a phone call with the island’s president and foreign minister. 

President Tsai Ing-wen congratulated Pavel on his win in Saturday’s presidential run-off over the populist billionaire Andrej Babis. 

“I thanked her for her congratulations, and I assured her that Taiwan and the Czech Republic share the values of freedom, democracy, and human rights,” Pavel said on Twitter. 

“We agreed on strengthening our partnership,” added the former general, who served as head of NATO’s military committee in 2015-2018. 

He said he “expressed hope to have the opportunity to meet President Tsai in person in the future.” 

The call is likely to anger China, which is trying to keep Taipei isolated on the world stage and prevents any sign of international legitimacy for the island. 

Beijing claims self-ruled, democratic Taiwan as part of its territory to be seized one day, by force if necessary. 

The Taiwanese presidential office said the call, which Taiwan’s Foreign Minister Joseph Wu also joined, lasted almost 15 minutes. 

“The president… acknowledged that President-elect Pavel carries on the spirit of former Czech President (Vaclav) Havel who respected democracy, freedom and human rights, under which the republic was founded, and is like-minded with Taiwan,” Tsai’s office said in a statement. 

Havel was the Czech Republic’s first president in 1993-2003. 

Before Havel became head of state, the anti-communist dissident playwright had in 1989 led the so-called Velvet Revolution, which toppled communism in former Czechoslovakia. 

As the Czech Republic’s fourth president, Pavel will replace pro-Chinese and pro-Russian incumbent Milos Zeman, whose final term expires in March.  

Zeman is currently visiting Aleksandar Vucic, the president of Serbia, which has not joined Western sanctions against Moscow following its invasion of Ukraine. 

In a sign that his foreign policy would vastly differ from Zeman’s, Pavel spoke with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy on the phone Sunday.  

Belarusian President Arrives in Zimbabwe

Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko arrived in Zimbabwe on Monday for talks with his counterpart, Emmerson Mnangagwa, aimed at boosting “strong cooperation” in several areas between the two countries.    

Lukashenko landed in Zimbabwe’s capital city, Harare, for a two-day visit and was greeted by Mnangagwa and thousands of ruling party supporters.    

The two countries are close allies of Russia. Belarus has backed Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, a former Soviet republic, while Zimbabwe has claimed neutrality and refused to condemn Moscow. 

The two leaders plan to meet on Tuesday. The talks are aimed at strengthening “existing excellent relations” in areas such as politics, mining and agriculture, Zimbabwe’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement. 

“The visit is historic, as it is the first such undertaking to a sub-Saharan African nation, by President Lukashenko,” the ministry said, according to Agence France-Presse.    

Lukashenko has been in power since 1994. He was reelected in 2020 in a highly contested vote that was widely denounced as a sham, resulting in mass protests. Lukashenko’s government cracked down violently on demonstrators, arresting more than 35,000 people and brutally beating thousands, according to The Associated Press.    

Mnangagwa’s reign has been shorter, coming into power in 2017 after the leader of the previous 37 years, Robert Mugabe, was forced to resign because of numerous human rights violations. Mnangagwa has faced similar controversies.    

Both leaders have been accused by rivals and the West of being corrupt and limiting free speech by stifling dissent, accusations that Lukashenko and Mnangagwa have denied.    

Some information from this report came from Agence France-Presse and The Associated Press. 

Turkish Migrant Death in Greece Prompts Accusations of Torture

The death of a Turkish migrant after he traveled to a Greek island has prompted demands for Ankara to take up the case with Athens, amid accusations of torture and the illegal “push-back” of migrant boats.

Barış Büyüksu

Despite graduating from university, 30-year-old Barış Büyüksu was struggling to find a well-paid job. At the end of September, he left his home in the Turkish city of Izmir for what he hoped would be a new life in western Europe. It was the last time his family would see him alive.

Büyüksu paid people smugglers for a place on a migrant boat, which took him from the Turkish coastline around Bodrum to the Greek island of Kos, a journey of just a few kilometers.

The smuggling gang gave him a fake Bulgarian identity card. Büyüksu planned to reach Athens and then travel to France, a journey several of his friends had already successfully made. He hoped to find a job and save money before returning to Turkey.

Detention

On October 21, as he was waiting on the dockside in Kos to board a ferry to Athens, a friend told the family he witnessed Büyüksu being detained by police and then bundled into an unmarked black van. VOA has not been able to verify this account.

The following day, back in Büyüksu’s hometown of Izmir, his family received a call from Turkish police, who told them their son was dead – and that his body bore signs of torture.

The Turkish coast guard says it found Büyüksu, badly injured but still alive, in an inflatable boat that had been pushed back into Turkish waters by Greece. The police report says 15 Palestinian asylum-seekers were also on board, including three women and three children. Turkish authorities say Büyüksu died before a medical team could reach him.

Baris’ father, Reyis Büyüksu, spoke to VOA at the family home in Izmir.

“A policeman from Bodrum central police station … said your son has been killed by Greeks and said that I need to be at the police station at 8:00 in the morning. We picked up the body from the forensic medicine institute and brought it here and buried him,” he said.

“My son being killed is not only a problem of Turkey, but it is also a problem for humanity, this is a crime against humanity. We don’t want any other family to experience this,” Reyis Büyüksu told VOA.

Baris’ mother, Saime Büyüksu, said her son’s death has devastated the family.

“He wanted to marry, he had a girlfriend, he had dreams, and he was saying ‘Mother, we should build a house, I will buy gold and I will have a wedding when I come back.’ He went with his dreams to work there. But his dead body came back to me,” she said.

Torture

A full autopsy is being carried out in Istanbul and the family is yet to receive the results. The initial autopsy, carried out immediately after Büyüksu’s death and seen by VOA, recorded injuries consistent with torture: cuts and bruises covering his face and body, and internal bleeding.

Büyüksu’s injuries included cuts across his face and neck, together with bruising (ecchymosis) around his eyes and mouth; large bruises across his chest some 25 centimeters wide; and several cuts across his back, including some half-a-meter across.

VOA also obtained copies of statements given to Turkish police by some of the other refugees on the boat, who say they were detained in Greece alongside Büyüksu. The refugees say they were stripped naked and beaten. They claim they heard Büyüksu being tortured in an adjacent room, including by what they believed to be electrocution. It is impossible for VOA to verify these claims.

Witnesses

Abdurrahman Zekud, a Palestinian asylum-seeker, gave the following account to Turkish police:

“We could hear the sound of that person in pain. As we could understand they were torturing him with electricity. I could hear sound of a machine that I thought it was electrical torture machine. The torture took all night long, and at around 5:00 a.m. they took us out of the room. They took that Turkish citizen out too and brought him next to us. They put all of us in a vehicle and took us next to the sea. First, they opened the handcuffs on our hands and then the blindfolds on our eyes,” Zekud said.

“The Turkish citizen was half unconscious because of the torture. They laid him face down by the sea. Then they put us in a Greek coast guard boat, and they did not return anything they took from us,” he said “After travelling out to sea for a while, they threw a life raft into the ocean from the coast guard boat and they threw us into that raft one by one, and they threw the Turkish citizen too into that raft. Because the Turkish citizen was half unconscious, he was almost falling into the sea, and I held him and made him sleep on the floor.”

“After around 30 minutes, the Turkish coast guards rescued us. I helped the Turkish citizen to get into the Turkish coast guard boat. As I remember he asked the coast guard for water, but he could hardly talk, and he hardly could drink the water. And later on, we realized he had died,” Zekud told Turkish police.

Investigation

Turkish authorities told VOA that they are still investigating Büyüksu’s death and did not confirm whether the issue had been raised with Greece.

An official statement from the Turkish Interior Ministry, dated October 22, states that: “Fifteen irregular migrants in the life raft, which were detected by the assigned coast guard boat, were rescued alive. There was one unconscious person among the migrants. It was determined that there were signs of assault on the body of the person… Autopsy studies are continuing in order to determine the cause of death of the person in question. An investigation has been initiated by the Bodrum Chief Public Prosecutor’s Office regarding the incident.”

Opposition lawmakers and human rights groups are calling on Turkey and Greece to launch wider investigations into Büyüksu’s death. Ömer Faruk Gergerlioğlu, an MP from the opposition HDP party, raised the incident in parliament last November.

“The Greek authorities committed murder. [The family] want this matter to be considered and followed up by the foreign ministry,” Gergerlioğlu said.

Greek response

Greek police have not responded to repeated VOA requests for comment.

VOA asked the Greek Ministry of Migration and Asylum what happened to Barış Büyüksu. The ministry gave the following statement to VOA:

“The ministry… and the Asylum Service has no such name recorded in their database. As a consequence, there can’t be any comment from our side. It is also noted again that there is no such name in the Police list either, although we are not fully competent to respond on behalf of the Hellenic Police… Therefore, we can make no further comment on the case,” the statement said.

Büyüksu’s family say he did not register for asylum as he wanted to leave Greece to reach France.

U.N. response

Stella Nanou, a spokesperson for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Greece, told VOA it was “another worrying example not just of the fact that pushbacks, an illegal practice, were continuing, but that the violence and brutality linked to them is rising dramatically.”

“It is not the first death we have documented linked to pushbacks,” Nanou said. “But the brutality of the abuse, from beatings to chucking refugees into the sea without many of them knowing how to swim, is terribly concerning.”

The Greek coast guard denies pushing migrant boats back into Turkish waters, despite widespread evidence documented by non-governmental organizations and the United Nations. In the past, Greek authorities have told VOA that while they do not engage in pushbacks, they will continue to do whatever it takes to shield Greece’s frontiers, and the rest of Europe, from illegal entries of migrants.

Justice

Barış Büyüksu was the eldest of four children. His younger brother Umut Büyüksu told VOA he would not rest until he had discovered the truth.

“I want my brother’s killers prosecuted. I want to find out who they are. I don’t want this case to be covered up like this,” he said.

The Büyüksu family is left searching for answers: Who killed a beloved son and brother? Who will deliver justice?

His death also raises questions over the policing of Europe’s frontiers and the human rights of those seeking a better life.

Boris Johnson Says Putin Threatened Missile Strike in Call 

In a new BBC documentary, former British Prime Minister Boris Johnson says Russian President Vladimir Putin threatened Britain with a missile strike. Johnson says the conversation took place during a phone call in the run up to Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine in February of last year.

Johnson recalled the Russian leader saying, “It would only take a minute… Jolly.”

Johnson, however, said he did not take the threat seriously in their “extraordinary” call. “He was just playing along with my attempts to get him to negotiate,” Johnson said of Putin.

“It’s a lie,” a Kremlin spokesman told reporters about Johnson’s interpretation of the telephone conversation. “There were no threats of missiles.”

Johnson also told the BBC he tried to dissuade Putin from war, telling him Ukraine would not be joining NATO for the “foreseeable future.” Johnson also said he told the Russian leader that an invasion of Ukraine would lead to Western sanctions.

Johnson, who stepped down last year in the wake of a series of scandals, sought to position London as Ukraine’s top ally in the West.

While in office he visited Kyiv several times and called Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy frequently.

‘Avatar 2’ Tops Box Office for 7th Weekend

“Avatar: The Way of Water” claimed the No. 1 spot on the domestic box office charts for the seventh weekend in a row with an additional $15.7 million, according to studio estimates on Sunday. 

It was a quiet weekend overall, notable mostly for the Hindi language blockbuster “Pathaan” that broke into the top five and the post-Oscar nominations rereleases of films like “Everything Everywhere All At Once” and “The Fabelmans.” 

“Avatar 2’s” first-place North American run has only been matched by the first “Avatar,” and, in the past 25 years, bested by “Titanic” (which stayed in first place for 15 weeks). All three were directed by James Cameron. 

Globally, “The Way of Water” has now grossed an estimated $2.1 billion, passing “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” to become the fourth-highest grossing film of all time (of which Cameron has directed three). 

“James Cameron just keeps ticking off all the records and milestones,” said Paul Dergarabedian, the senior media analyst for Comscore. “And it’s still got a wide-open marketplace.” 

Second place went to Universal and DreamWorks’ family-oriented offering “Puss In Boots: The Last Wish,” which made $10.6 million in its sixth weekend. The animated spinoff has earned over $140.8 million in North America and was recently made available to stream at home, too. 

Third place went to Sony’s “A Man Called Otto” with $6.8 million from 3,957 locations. The meme-able horror “M3GAN,” a Universal release, snuck into fourth place with $6.4 million in its fourth weekend, bringing its domestic total to $82.3 million. 

The Indian film “Pathaan,” starring Shah Rukh Kha in his first role in five years, settled in fifth place with $5.9 million from only 695 screens. 

“A top five appearance is really impressive,” Dergarabedian said, noting that the marketplace over the past several years has presented opportunities for Indian films to break into the domestic top 10. 

Neon also launched the horror movie “Infinity Pool,” written and directed by Brandon Cronenberg and starring Mia Goth and Alexander Skarsgård, in 1,853 locations following its Sundance debut. It made an estimated $2.7 million. The romantic comedy “Maybe I Do,” with Diane Keaton, Richard Gere and Susan Sarandan, made $562,000 from 465 screens. And Lukas Dhont’s Cannes-winning boyhood drama “Close” opened on four screens in New York and Los Angeles, earning $68,143. 

Many studios boasting best picture nominees also chose to capitalize on the buzz of Tuesday’s Oscar nominations with sizable re-releases. “Everything Everywhere All At Once,” which got a leading 11 nominations, came back to theaters in force playing on 1,400 screens where it earned another $1 million. The A24 release has made $71 million domestically to date. Steven Spielberg’s “The Fabelmans,” nominated for seven Oscars, also expanded to 1,962 screens in North America and took in an additional $760,000, bringing its domestic total to $16 million. And Sarah Polley’s “Women Talking” also added a few hundred screens, earning $1 million over the weekend. It’s made $2.4 million to date. The Oscar boosts could continue over the coming weeks, too — the show isn’t until March 12. 

“We are seeing in real time the halo effect of the Oscar nominations on these best picture nominees,” Dergarbedian said. “The Oscar bounce is back, something we haven’t seen over the past couple of years.” 

Several of the highest profile releases of the weekend were both star-driven comedies that went straight to streaming: Netflix had “You People,” with Eddie Murphy, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Jonah Hill and Lauren London and Amazon Prime Video offered “Shotgun Wedding,” with Jennifer Lopez, Josh Duhamel and Jennifer Coolidge. 

Seven weekends into “Avatar 2,” theater owners are also likely looking for the next big blockbuster, which is still a ways off. “Ant-Man and The Wasp: Quantumania” doesn’t arrive in theaters until Feb. 17. 

But, as Dergarabedian said, “2023 is already looking more like 2019 rather than the last three years.” 

“This is great news for theaters,” he said. “You have the Oscar bounce in play, an Indian film in the top 5 and ‘Avatar’ breaking records left and right.” 

Estimated ticket sales for Friday through Sunday at U.S. and Canadian theaters, according to Comscore, with Wednesday through Sunday in parentheses. Final domestic figures will be released Monday. 

  1. “Avatar: The Way of Water,” $15.7 million. 

  2. “Puss in Boots: The Last Wish,” $10.6 million. 

  3. “A Man Called Otto,” $6.8 million, 

  4. “M3GAN,” $6.4 million. 

  5. “Pathaan,” $5.9 million. 

  6. “Missing,” $3.8 million. 

  7. “Plane,” $3.8 million. 

  8. “Infinity Pool,” $2.7 million. 

  9. “Left Behind: Rise of the Antichrist,” $2.4 million. 

  10. “The Wandering Earth 2,” $1.4 million. 

Barrett Strong, Motown Artist Known for ‘Money,’ Dies at 81

Barrett Strong, one of Motown’s founding artists and most gifted songwriters who sang lead on the company’s breakthrough single “Money (That’s What I Want)” and later collaborated with Norman Whitfield on such classics as “I Heard It Through the Grapevine,” “War” and “Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone,” has died. He was 81.     

His death was announced Sunday on social media by the Motown Museum, which did not immediately provide further details.     

“Barrett was not only a great singer and piano player, but he, along with his writing partner Norman Whitfield, created an incredible body of work,” Motown founder Berry Gordy said in a statement.     

Strong had yet to turn 20 when he agreed to let his friend Gordy, in the early days of building a recording empire in Detroit, manage him and release his music. Within a year, he was a part of history as the piano player and vocalist for “Money,” a million-seller released early in 1960 and Motown’s first major hit. Strong never again approached the success of “Money” on his own, and decades later fought for acknowledgement that he helped write it. But, with Whitfield, he formed a productive and eclectic songwriting team.     

While Gordy’s “Sound of Young America” was criticized for being too slick and repetitive, the Whitfield-Strong team turned out hard-hitting and topical works, along with such timeless ballads as “I Wish It Would Rain” and “Just My Imagination (Running Away with Me).” With “I Heard it Through the Grapevine,” they provided an up-tempo, call-and-response hit for Gladys Knight and the Pips and a dark, hypnotic ballad for Marvin Gaye, his 1968 version one of Motown’s all-time sellers.      

As Motown became more politically conscious late in the decade, Barrett-Whitfield turned out “Cloud Nine” and “Psychedelic Shack” for the Temptations and for Edwin Starr the protest anthem “War” and its widely quoted refrain, “War! What is it good for? Absolutely … nothing!”     

“With `War,’ I had a cousin who was a paratrooper that got hurt pretty bad in Vietnam,” Strong told LA Weekly in 1999. “I also knew a guy who used to sing with (Motown songwriter) Lamont Dozier that got hit by shrapnel and was crippled for life. You talk about these things with your families when you’re sitting at home, and it inspires you to say something about it.”     

Whitfield-Strong’s other hits, mostly for the Temptations, included “I Can’t Get Next to You,” “That’s the Way Love Is” and the Grammy-winning chart-topper “Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone” (Sometimes spelled “Papa Was a Rolling Stone”). Artists covering their songs ranged from the Rolling Stones (“Just My Imagination”) and Aretha Franklin (“I Wish It Would Rain”) to Bruce Springsteen (“War”) and Al Green (“I Can’t Get Next to You”).    

Strong spent part of the 1960s recording for other labels, left Motown again in the early 1970s and made a handful of solo albums, including “Stronghold” and “Love is You.” In 2004, he was voted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame, which cited him as “a pivotal figure in Motown’s formative years.”      

Whitfield died in 2008.     

The music of Strong and other Motown writers was later featured in the Broadway hit “Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of the Temptations.”    

Strong was born in West Point, Mississippi and moved to Detroit a few years later. He was a self-taught musician who learned piano without needing lessons and, with his sisters, formed a local gospel group, the Strong Singers. In his teens, he got to know such artists as Franklin, Smokey Robinson and Gordy, who was impressed with his writing and piano playing. “Money”’ with its opening shout, “The best things in life are free/But you can give them to the birds and bees,” would, ironically, lead to a fight — over money.      

Strong was initially listed among the writers and he often spoke of coming up with the pounding piano riff while jamming on Ray Charles’ “What’d I Say” in the studio. But only decades later would he learn that Motown had since removed his name from the credits, costing him royalties for a popular standard covered by the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and many others and a keepsake on John Lennon’s home jukebox. Strong’s legal argument was weakened because he had taken so long to ask for his name to be reinstated. (Gordy is one of the song’s credited writers, and his lawyers contended Strong’s name only appeared because of a clerical error).      

“Songs outlive people,” Strong told The New York Times in 2013. “The real reason Motown worked was the publishing. The records were just a vehicle to get the songs out there to the public. The real money is in the publishing, and if you have publishing, then hang on to it. That’s what it’s all about. If you give it away, you’re giving away your life, your legacy. Once you’re gone, those songs will still be playing.” 

Russians Gone From Ukraine Village, Fear and Hardship Remain

When night falls in Tatiana Trofimenko’s village in southern Ukraine, she pours sunflower oil that aid groups gave her into a jar and seals it with a wick-fitted lid. A flick of a match, and the make-do candle is lit.

“This is our electricity,” Trofimenko, 68, says.

It has been over 11 weeks since Ukrainian forces wrested back her village in Kherson province from Russian occupation. But liberation has not diminished the hardship for residents of Kalynivske, both those returning home and the ones who never left. In the peak of winter, the remote area not far from an active front line has no power or water. The sounds of war are never far.

Russian forces withdrew from the western side of the Dnieper River, which bisects the province, but remain in control of the eastern side. A near constant barrage of fire from only a few kilometers away, and the danger of leftover mines leaving many Ukrainians too scared to venture out, has rendered normalcy an elusive dream and cast a pall over their military’s strategic victory.

Still, residents have slowly trickled back to Kalynivske, preferring to live without basic services, dependent on humanitarian aid and under the constant threat of bombardment than as displaced people elsewhere in their country. Staying is an act of defiance against the relentless Russian attacks intended to make the area unlivable, they say.

“This territory is liberated. I feel it,” Trofimenko says. “Before, there were no people on the streets. They were empty. Some people evacuated, some people hid in their houses.”

“When you go out on the street now, you see happy people walking around,” she says.

The Associated Press followed a United Nations humanitarian aid convoy into the village on Saturday, when blankets, solar lamps, jerrycans, bed linens and warm clothes were delivered to the local warehouse of a distribution center.

Russian forces captured Kherson province in the early days of the war. The majority of the nearly 1,000 residents in Kalynivske remained in their homes throughout the occupation. Most were too fragile or ill to leave, others did not have the means to escape.

Gennadiy Shaposhnikov lies on the sofa in a dark room, plates piled up beside him.

The 83-year old’s advanced cancer is so painful it is hard for him to speak. When a mortar destroyed the back of his house, neighbors rushed to his rescue and patched it up with tarps. They still come by every day, to make sure he is fed and taken care of.

“Visit again, soon,” is all he can muster to say to them.

Oleksandra Hryhoryna, 75, moved in with a neighbor when the missiles devastated her small house near the village center. Her frail figure steps over the spent shells and shrapnel that cover her front yard. She struggles up the pile of bricks, what remains of the stairs, leading to her front door.

She came to the aid distribution center pulling her bicycle and left with a bag full of tinned food, her main source of sustenance these days.

But it’s the lack of electricity that is the major problem, Hryhoryna explains. “We are using handmade candles with oil and survive that way,” she says.

The main road that leads to her home is littered with the remnants of the war, an eerie museum of what was and what everyone here hopes will never return. Destroyed Russian tanks rust away in the fields. Cylindrical anti-tank missiles gleam, embedded in grassy patches. Occasionally, there is the tail end of a cluster munition lodged into the earth.

Bright red signs emblazoned with a skull warn passersby not to get too close.

The Russians left empty ammunition boxes, trenches and tarp-covered tents during their rapid retreat. A jacket and, some kilometers away, men’s underwear hangs on the bare branches. And with the Russians waging ongoing attacks to win back the lost ground in Kherson, it is sometimes hard for terrorized residents to feel as if the occupying forces ever left.

“I’m very afraid,” says Trofimenko. “Even sometimes I’m screaming. I’m very, very scared. And I’m worried about us getting shelled again and for (the fighting) to start again. This is the most terrible thing that exists.”

The deprivation suffered in the village is mirrored all over Kherson, from the provincial capital of the same name to the constellation of villages divided by tracts of farmland that surround it. Ukrainian troops reclaimed the territory west of the Dnieper River in November after a major counteroffensive led to a Russian troop withdrawal, hailed as one of the greatest Ukrainian victories of the war that’s now in its 12th month..

The U.N. ramped up assistance, supporting 133,000 individuals in Kherson with cash assistance, and 150,000 with food. Many villagers in Kalynivske say the food aid is the only reason they have something to eat.

“One of the biggest challenges is that the people who are there are the most vulnerable. It’s mainly the elderly, many who have a certain kind of disability, people who could not leave the area, and are really reliant on aid organizations and local authorities who are working around the clock,” says Saviano Abreu, a spokesperson for the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

The shelling is constant.

Ukraine’s Defense Ministry reports near daily incidents of shelling in Kherson city and surrounding villages, including rocket, artillery and mortar attacks. Most fall closer to the river banks nearer to the front line, but, that doesn’t mean those living further away feel any safer. On Friday, a missile fell in the village of Kochubeivka, north of Kalynivske, killing one person.

“Kherson managed to resume most of the essential services, but the problem is the hostilities keep creating challenges to ensure they are sustained,” Abreu says. “Since December, it’s getting worse and worse. The number of attacks and hostilities there is only increasing.”

Without electricity, there is no means to pump piped drinking water. Many line up to fetch well water, but a lot is needed to perform daily functions, residents complain.

To keep warm, many forage around the village for firewood, a task that presents danger post-occupation.

Everyone in Kalynivske knows the story of Nina Zvarech. She went looking for firewood in the nearby forest and was killed when she stepped on a mine.

Her body lay there for over a month because her relatives were too afraid to go and find her.

Friends Mourn Foreign Volunteers Killed Helping Civilians in Ukraine

Friends and volunteers gathered Sunday at Kyiv’s St. Sophia’s Cathedral to say goodbye to Andrew Bagshaw, a New Zealand scientist who was killed in Ukraine with another volunteer while they were trying to evacuate people from a front-line town.

Bagshaw, 48, a dual New Zealand-British citizen, and British volunteer Christopher Parry, 28, went missing this month while heading to the town of Soledar, in the eastern Donetsk region, where heavy fighting was taking place.

Volunteers spoke of their memories of Bagshaw and read tributes from his family.

Nikolletta Stoyanova, a friend in Ukraine, shared memories of his bravery.

“Even if no one wanted to go to Soledar, they can do that. Because if he understood that someone needs help, they need to do this help for these people,” Stoyanova said, speaking in English.

Bagshaw’s father, Phil, told reporters in New Zealand that his son wanted to do something to help.

“He was a very intelligent man, and a very independent thinker,” he said. “And he thought a long time about the situation in Ukraine, and he believed it to be immoral. He felt the only thing he could do of a constructive nature was to go there and help people.”

Ukrainian police said Jan. 9 that they lost contact with Bagshaw and Parry after the two headed for Soledar. Their bodies were later recovered. A Ukrainian official reported Wednesday that the defending forces made an organized retreat from the salt-mining town.

In a Jan. 24 statement, Parry’s family said he was “drawn to Ukraine in March in its darkest hour.” They said he’d “helped those most in need, saving over 400 lives plus many abandoned animals.”

Friends said the men’s bodies would be handed over to relatives in the U.K.

In the south of Ukraine, Russian forces Sunday heavily shelled the city of Kherson, killing three people and wounding six others, the regional administration said. It said the shelling damaged a hospital, school, bus station, post office, bank and residential buildings.

Among those reported injured were two women in the hospital at the time: a nurse and a cafeteria worker. Russian forces retreated across the Dnieper River from Kherson in November, but still hold much of the province of the same name.

On Sunday, Russia’s Foreign Ministry accused Ukraine and its Western allies of war crimes in connection with the shelling of two hospitals in Russian-held parts of Ukraine.

Russian officials said 14 people died Saturday when a hospital in the eastern Luhansk province settlement of Novoaidar was struck. They said shells also fell on the territory of a hospital in Nova Kakhovka, a Russian-occupied city in Kherson province where a strategically vital bridge across the lower reaches of the Dnieper is located.

“The deliberate shelling of active civilian medical facilities and the targeted killing of civilians are grave war crimes of the Kyiv regime and its Western masters,” the Foreign Ministry said. “The lack of reaction from the United States and other NATO countries to this, yet another monstrous trampling of international humanitarian law by Kyiv, once again confirms their direct involvement in the conflict and involvement in the crimes being committed.”

Russian forces have shelled hundreds of hospitals and other medical facilities in Ukraine since the war began, reducing more than 100 of them to rubble, according to the Ukrainian Health Ministry.

Russian state TV aired footage of what it said was the damaged hospital in Novoaidar. It said rockets hit the pediatric department of the two-story building.

“There are no military factories here. There are no military vehicles, no tanks. Who did you shoot at?” Olga Ryasnaya said in an interview on Russian TV, which identified her as a pediatric nurse.

Luhansk province, where Novoaidar is located, is almost entirely under the control of Russian forces or Russian-backed separatists. Russian and separatist officials alleged the hospital was deliberately targeted. The movements of journalists are restricted in areas of Ukraine under Russian control.

The Institute for the Study of War, a Washington-based think tank, said Ukrainian forces were likely increasing strikes on Russian positions deep inside Luhansk province, closer to the Russian border, in an effort “to disrupt Russian logistics and ground lines of communication.” It said the strikes could be part of preparations for a future counteroffensive.

In another development, the British Defense Ministry said Sunday that Ukrainian tank crews have arrived in the U.K. to begin training on the Challenger 2 battle tank. The U.K. government has said it would send 14 of the tanks to Ukraine, which also was promised advanced battle tanks from the U.S., Germany and other European allies.

Germany Won’t Send Fighter Jets to Ukraine, Says Scholz

Chancellor Olaf Scholz reiterated Sunday that Germany will not send fighter jets to Ukraine, as Kyiv steps up calls for more advanced weapons from the West to help repel Russia’s invasion.

Scholz only just agreed on Wednesday to send 14 Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine and to allow other European countries to send theirs, after weeks of intense debate and mounting pressure from allies.

“I can only advise against entering into a constant bidding war when it comes to weapons systems,” Scholz said in an interview with the Tagesspiegel newspaper.

“If, as soon as a decision (on tanks) has been made, the next debate starts in Germany, that doesn’t come across as serious and undermines citizens’ confidence in government decisions.”

Scholz’s decision to green-light the tanks was accompanied by a U.S. announcement that it would send 31 of its Abrams tanks.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy thanked Berlin and Washington for the move, seen as a breakthrough in efforts to support the war-torn country.

But Zelenskyy immediately stressed that Ukraine needed more heavy weapons from NATO allies to fend off Russian troops, including fighter jets and long-range missiles.

Scholz in the interview warned against raising “the risk of escalation,” with Moscow already sharply condemning the tank pledges.

“There is no war between NATO and Russia. We will not allow such an escalation,” he said.

The chancellor added that it was “necessary” to continue speaking with Russian President Vladimir Putin. The last phone call between the leaders was in early December.

“I will talk to Putin by phone again,” Scholz said. “But, of course, it’s also clear that as long as Russia continues to wage war with unabated aggression, the current situation will not change.”

Gregory Allen Howard Who Wrote ‘Remember the Titans’ Dies 

Screenwriter Gregory Allen Howard, who skillfully adapted stories of historical Black figures in “Remember the Titans” starring Denzel Washington, “Ali” with Will Smith and “Harriet” with Cynthia Erivo, has died. He was 70.

Howard died Friday at his home in Miami after a brief illness, according to a statement from publicist Jeff Sanderson.

Howard was the first Black screenwriter to write a drama that made $100 million at the box office when “Titans” crossed that milestone in 2000. It was about a real-life Black coach coming into a newly integrated Virginia school and helping lead their football team to victory. It had the iconic line: “I don’t care if you like each other or not. But you will respect each other.”

Howard said he shopped the story around Hollywood with no success. So he took a chance and wrote the screenplay himself. ″They didn’t expect it to make much money, but it became a monster, making $100 million,” he said. “It made my career,” he told the Times-Herald of Vallejo, California, in 2009. The film made the Associated Press’ list of the best 25 sports movies ever made.

Howard followed up “Remember the Titans” with “Ali,” the 2002 Michael Mann-directed biopic of Muhammad Ali. Smith famously bulked up to play Ali and was nominated for a best actor Oscar.

Howard also produced and co-wrote 2019′s “Harriet,” about abolitionist Harriet Tubman. Erivo lead a cast that included Leslie Odom Jr., Clarke Peters and Joe Alwyn.

“I got into this business to write about the complexity of the Black man. I wanted to write about Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Muhammad Ali, Marcus Garvey. I think it takes a Black man to write about Black men,” he told the Times-Herald.

Born in Virginia, his family moved often due to his stepfather’s career in the Navy. After attending Princeton University, graduating with a degree in American history, Howard briefly worked at Merrill Lynch on Wall Street before moving to Los Angeles in his mid-20s to pursue a writing career.

He wrote for TV and penned the play “Tinseltown Trilogy,” which focused on three men in Los Angeles over Christmastime as their stories interconnect and inform each other.

Howard also wrote “The Harlem Renaissance,” a limited series for HBO, “Misty,” the story of prima ballerina Misty Copeland and “This Little Light,” the Fannie Lou Hamer story. Most recently, he wrote the civil rights project “Power to the People” for producer Ben Affleck and Paramount Pictures.

He is survived by a sister, Lynette Henley; a brother, Michael Henley; two nieces and a nephew.

Environmentalists Protest Airport Project Near Albanian Bird Sanctuary

Environmentalists protested over the weekend at the building site of a new airport in Albania’s south meant to boost tourism but which they say will endanger sanctuaries for some 200 bird species including flamingos and pelicans.

The picturesque Vjose-Narte lagoon close to Albania’s Adriatic seaside is a crucial stop for flocks of birds in their annual migration between Europe and Africa.

The government is building the airport just 5 kilometres (3 miles) from the Adriatic coast with pristine sandy beaches which the poor Balkan nation hopes will attract more foreign tourists.

“For those who think this airport will bring development, in reality this airport will bring only destruction,” tourist guide Alben Kola told Reuters on Saturday as he and more than 100 environmentalists and ornithologists held their protest.

The European Union, which Albania aims to join one day, has said the airport project, launched in December 2021 and due for completion at the end of 2024, was undertaken in contradiction with national and international laws on protecting biodiversity.

The committee of the Bern Convention that works to protect European wildlife and natural habitats has said Albania should suspend the construction of the airport.

“This shows that this nature wealth belongs not only to us but to the whole of Europe and foreign governments are doing more to protect it than we do,” said Joni Vorpsi, from the NGO Protection and Preservation of Natural Environment in Albania (PPNEA) that has been fighting for years to protect the lagoon.

In November an Albanian court rejected a lawsuit filed by local NGOs against the construction of the airport but they plan to appeal.

Vorpsi said the airport, which would serve the southern coastal city of Vlore, not only would destroy avian habitats but raise the risk of aircraft collisions with big birds.

The Swiss firm leading the project, Mabetex, has said the take-off and landing paths of planes there would not affect bird routes. It said the runway would be 3.5 kilometres from the bird sanctuary and 5 km away from major bird migration routes.