HK’s Apple Daily to shut within days, says Jimmy Lai adviser

A supporter of Hong Kong's pro-democracy Apple Daily newspaper holds up a copy of the newspaper during a protest outside court in Hong Kong. (AFP)
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Updated 21 June 2021

HK’s Apple Daily to shut within days, says Jimmy Lai adviser

  • Two executives in Apple Daily who were charged under security law denied bail.
  • Pro-democracy newspaper could cease publication on Saturday, undermining Hong Kong's reputation as an open and free society.

HONG KONG: Hong Kong pro-democracy newspaper Apple Daily will be forced to shut “in a matter of days” after authorities froze the company’s assets under a national security law, an adviser to jailed owner Jimmy Lai told Reuters on Monday.
The closure of Apple Daily would undermine the former British colony’s reputation as an open and free society and send a warning to other companies that could be accused of colluding with a foreign country, media advocacy groups said.
Next Digital, publisher of the top-selling 26-year-old newspaper, would hold a board meeting on Monday to discuss how to move forward after its lines of credit were frozen, the adviser, Mark Simon, said.
“We thought we’d be able to make it to the end of the month. It’s just getting harder and harder. It’s essentially a matter of days,” he said by telephone from the United States.
Vendors had tried to put money into the company’s bank accounts but had been rejected, he said.
The newspaper would stop publication on June 26 if a board meeting on Friday decided to stop operations, an internal memo seen by Reuters showed.
Apple Daily management could not be reached for comment on Monday.
The newspaper said on Sunday the freezing of its assets had left it with cash for “a few weeks” for normal operations.
Chief Editor Ryan Law, 47, and Chief Executive Cheung Kim-hung, 59, were denied bail on Saturday after being charged with collusion with a foreign country.
Three other executives were arrested on Thursday when 500 police officers raided the newspaper’s offices, drawing condemnation from Western countries, global rights groups and the UN spokesperson for human rights.
Those three are still under investigation but were released from police detention.
Hong Kong officials have repeatedly said that media freedom and other rights will remain intact but national security is a red line.
Security Secretary John Lee told a news conference on Thursday the police operation against the Apple Daily was aimed at those who use reporting as a “tool” to endanger national security and did not target the media industry as a whole.
China’s Foreign Commissioner’s Office said in a statement on Thursday the national security law protected press freedom and warned “external forces” to “keep their hands off Hong Kong.” The office said press freedom cannot be used as a “shield” for those who commit crimes.
The office of the city’s chief executive did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Monday. Beijing’s chief representative in the city, the Liaison Office, and the city’s Security Bureau also did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

’WE CAN’T BANK’
In May, Reuters reported exclusively that Hong Kong’s security chief had sent letters to tycoon Lai and branches of HSBC and Citibank threatening up to seven years’ jail for any dealings with the billionaire’s accounts in the city.
A Hong Kong-based spokesperson for Citibank said at the time the bank did not comment on individual client accounts. HSBC declined to comment.
Authorities are also prosecuting three companies related to Apple Daily for alleged collusion with a foreign country and have frozen HK$18 million ($2.3 million) of their assets.
Simon told Reuters it had now become impossible to conduct banking operations in the global financial hub as authorities had “criminalized” any activities with the company’s accounts.
“We can’t bank. Some vendors tried to do that as a favor ... and it was rejected.”
Reuters could not determine the banks where Apple Daily vendors had tried to deposit funds only to have their transactions rejected.
Apple Daily said on Sunday it planned to ask the government’s Security Bureau to unfreeze the assets of the three companies. If that did not work, it may challenge the decision in court, it said.
The paper has come under increasing pressure since owner and Beijing critic Lai, who is now in jail, was arrested under the national security law last August and has since had some of his assets frozen.
A source with direct knowledge of the board’s discussions said an application had been made to the Security Bureau to ask Hong Kong security chief John Lee to unfreeze the assets to allow essential payments to staff and suppliers.
The company has about 600 journalists, according to Simon.
The US-based adviser said some reporters had received threatening phone calls from unknown sources.
“Our staff are now just worried about personal safety,” he said.
Police have said dozens of Apple Daily articles were suspected of violating the national security law, the first case in which authorities have cited media articles as potentially violating the legislation.
Simon and the source said their understanding was that about 100 articles were under scrutiny.
“After all this is said and done, the business community is going to look up and recognize that a man’s company was gutted and stolen by a communist regime in Hong Kong,” he said.
“That’s a big deal.”


Facebook spent over $13 bln on safety, security since 2016

Updated 21 September 2021

Facebook spent over $13 bln on safety, security since 2016

  • The social media giant said it now has 40,000 people working on safety and security
  • Facebook played down the negative effects on young users of its Instagram app

DUBAI: Facebook Inc. said on Tuesday it has invested more than $13 billion in safety and security measures since 2016.
This comes days after a newspaper reported the company had failed to fix “the platform’s ill effects” researchers had identified.
The social media giant said it now has 40,000 people working on safety and security, compared with 10,000 five years ago.
Facebook played down the negative effects on young users of its Instagram app and had a weak response to alarms raised by employees over how the platform is used in developing countries by human traffickers, the Wall Street Journal reported last week, citing a review of internal company documents.
“In the past, we didn’t address safety and security challenges early enough in the product development process,” the company said in a blog post
“But we have fundamentally changed that approach.”
Facebook said its artificial intelligence technology has helped it block 3 billion fake accounts in the first half of this year. The company also removed more than 20 million pieces of false COVID-19 and vaccine content.
The company said it now removes 15 times more content that violates its standards on hate speech across Facebook and its image-sharing platform Instagram than when it first began reporting it in 2017.


Netflix offers free plan in Kenya to entice new subscribers

The free plan started on Monday and will roll out across Kenya in the coming days. (File/AFP)
Updated 21 September 2021

Netflix offers free plan in Kenya to entice new subscribers

  • Netflix offers free mobile plan with one-quarter of its TV shows and movies in Kenya to increase frowth
  • The free plan is available on Android mobile phones and will not have ads

LOS ANGELES: Netflix Inc. on Monday began offering a free mobile plan with about one-quarter of its TV shows and movies in Kenya, a strategy aimed at sparking growth in a key African market, the company told Reuters.
The free plan is available on Android mobile phones and will not have ads. It features Netflix movies and TV shows such as dramas “Money Heist” and “Bridgerton” and African series “Blood & Water,” plus some of the programming the company licenses from others. Netflix hopes the free plan will lead to users signing up for a paid option with more content.
The world’s largest streaming video service is looking to add customers outside of more saturated markets such as the United States, where new subscriber signups have slowed at a time when competition for online audiences has intensified.
Executives remain bullish on the long-term future, noting there are large markets where streaming television is just starting to take hold. To attract customers in Africa, Netflix is investing in locally made programming such as “Queen Sono” and “Jiva!” and has partnered with production studios in Nigeria.
“If you’ve never watched Netflix before — and many people in Kenya haven’t — this is a great way to experience our service,” Cathy Conk, director of product innovation at Netflix, said in a blog post. “And if you like what you see, it’s easy to upgrade to one of our paid plans so you can enjoy our full catalog on your TV or laptop as well.”
The free plan started on Monday and will roll out across Kenya in the coming days.
The non-paying Netflix subscribers in Kenya will not be counted in the paid total the company reports each quarter, a spokesperson said.
Netflix has experimented with free offers before. In 2020, it made some episodes of series such as “Stranger Things” and movies including “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before” available around the world for no charge via web browsers.
The free plan in Kenya is broader. It will look similar to paid Netflix profiles to give viewers a feel for the service, the spokesperson said. Shows that are not included in the free plan will be marked with a lock icon. Clicking on one of those titles will encourage the user sign up for a paid option.
Anyone 18 or older in Kenya can enroll in the free plan and create up to five profiles. No payment information will be required.
Some functions, such as the ability to download a show or movie, will not be available under the free plan.
Netflix, which streams in more than 190 countries, has taken other steps to boost usage in Africa, including creation of a paid mobile-only plan and partnerships with local telecom operators to ease payments.
The company reported 209 million paying customers worldwide at the end of June. New member pickups slowed in the first half of 2021 after a boom early in the COVID-19 pandemic.
Africa currently is a relatively small market for streaming TV subscriptions. Digital TV Research projects Netflix will lead subscription video on demand services on the continent with 6.26 million paying customers in 2026, followed by Walt Disney Co’s Disney+.


Lawyer says US journalist in Myanmar jail seems disheartened

Updated 20 September 2021

Lawyer says US journalist in Myanmar jail seems disheartened

  • US journalist Danny Fenster appeared disheartened during a court hearing Monday, his lawyer said
  • Fenster was detained at Yangon International Airport on May 24 as he was trying to board a flight to go to the US
BANGKOK: US journalist Danny Fenster, imprisoned in Myanmar for almost four months while awaiting trial, appeared disheartened during a court hearing Monday, his lawyer said.
Fenster has been charged with incitement — spreading inflammatory information — an offense for which he could be sentenced to up to three years’ imprisonment. The charge does not specify what he is accused of doing.
The military-installed government that took power in February has sought to curb independent news media by canceling their licenses and arresting dozens of journalists.
Fenster is being detained in Yangon’s Insein Prison, an overcrowded facility which for decades has housed political prisoners.
Lawyer Than Zaw Aung said Fenster seemed demoralized when he spoke with him in a video conference during Monday’s court hearing, his first opportunity to do so in more than a month. Hearings are conducted by video at a township court instead of in a special courtroom at the prison because of the coronavirus, which in the past few months has severely impacted Yangon, Myanmar’s largest city.
“His hair grew longer. He seemed disappointed and he told me in a frustrated tone that ‘I have nothing to say,’” the lawyer said. “I asked him if he had been vaccinated by the prison authorities, and he said no. His words showed that he is not feeling well. He didn’t request anything.”
Fenster said in mid-July that he believed he had contracted COVID-19 and was not given medicine he had requested. Prison authorities denied he was infected.
Fenster was detained at Yangon International Airport on May 24 as he was trying to board a flight to go to the Detroit area in the United States to see his family. He is the managing editor of Frontier Myanmar, an independent online news outlet based in Yangon, Myanmar’s biggest city.
“We are very concerned about Danny’s physical and mental health, particularly given his demeanor at today’s hearing,” said Thomas Kean, editor-in-chief of Frontier. “It’s totally understandable that he would be frustrated and disappointed -– he should never have been detained in the first place. Danny is now approaching four months in Insein Prison and there is no reason for the authorities to hold him a single day longer. He should be released immediately so he can go home to his family.”
Monday’s hearing was held to extend Fenster’s pre-trial detention, and set Oct. 4 for his next appearance. It was not clear if it could include allowing an application for release on bail.
Press associations and free speech organizations around the world have called for Fenster’s release, as has the US government.
“We remain deeply concerned over the continued detention of US citizen Danny Fenster who was working as a journalist in Burma,” State Department spokesman Ned Price said earlier this month after Fenster marked his 100th day in detention. The United States refers to Myanmar as Burma, its name before a military government changed it in 1989.
“Journalism is not a crime. The detention of Daniel Fenster and other journalists constitutes an unacceptable attack on freedom of expression in Burma,” Price said. “We continue to press Burma’s military regime to release Danny immediately. We will do so until he safely returns home to his family.”

Navalny allies accuse YouTube, Telegram of censorship in Russian election

Navalny’s camp said YouTube had also taken down one of their videos that contained the names of 225 candidates they had endorsed. (File/AFP)
Updated 19 September 2021

Navalny allies accuse YouTube, Telegram of censorship in Russian election

  • Navalny’s allies already accused Alphabet’s Google and Apple of buckling under Kremlin pressure
  • Russia has for years sought sovereignty over its part of the Internet

MOSCOW: Jailed Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny’s allies accused YouTube and Telegram of censorship on Saturday after the video platform and messaging app restricted access to their anti-government voting recommendations for Russia’s parliamentary election.
Navalny’s allies already accused Alphabet’s Google and Apple of buckling under Kremlin pressure on Friday after the companies removed an app from their stores that the activists had hoped to use against the ruling party at the election.
Voting began on Friday and runs until late on Sunday.
The app gives detailed recommendations on who to vote for in an effort to challenge the party that backs President Vladimir Putin. It is one of the few levers Navalny’s allies have left after a sweeping crackdown this year.
Telegram’s founder Pavel Durov, who has carved out a libertarian image and resisted past censorship, said the platform would block election campaign services, including one used by Navalny’s allies to give voter recommendations.
He said the decision had been taken because of a Russian ban on campaigning once polls are open, which he considered legitimate and is similar to bans in many other countries.
Navalny’s spokeswoman Kira Yarmysh condemned the move.
“It’s a real disgrace when the censorship is imposed by private companies that allegedly defend the ideas of freedom,” she wrote on Twitter.
Ivan Zhdanov, a political ally of Navalny, said he did not believe Telegram’s justification and that the move looked to have been agreed somehow with Russia’s authorities.
Late on Saturday, Navalny’s camp said YouTube had also taken down one of their videos that contained the names of 225 candidates they had endorsed.
“The video presentation of the smart voting recommendations for the constituencies with the nastiest (United Russia candidates) has also been removed,” they wrote.
Navalny’s camp said it was not a knockout blow as their voting recommendations were available elsewhere on social media.
But it is seen as a possible milestone in Russia’s crackdown on the Internet and its standoff with US tech firms.
Russia has for years sought sovereignty over its part of the Internet, where anti-Kremlin politicians have followings and media critical of Putin operate.
Navalny’s team uses Google’s YouTube widely to air anti-corruption videos and to stream coverage and commentary of anti-Kremlin protests they have staged.
’Dangerous precedent’
The ruling United Russia Party is widely expected to win the election despite a ratings slump. The voting, which opened on Friday and runs through Sunday, follows the biggest crackdown on the Kremlin’s domestic opponents in years.
The Navalny team’s Telegram feed continued to function normally on Saturday, and included links to voter recommendations available in Russia via Google Docs.
On a separate Telegram feed also used by the team, activists said Russia had told Google to remove the recommendations in Google Docs and that the US company had in turn asked Navalny’s team to take them down.
Google did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
In his statement, Durov said Google and Apple’s restrictions of the Navalny app had set a dangerous precedent and meant Telegram, which is widely used in Russia, was more vulnerable to government pressure.
He said Telegram depends on Apple and Google to operate because of their dominant position in the mobile operating system market and his platform would not have been able to resist a Russian ban from 2018 to 2020 without them.
Russia tried to block Telegram in April 2018 but lifted the ban more than two years later after ostensibly failing to block it.
“The app block by Apple and Google creates a dangerous precedent that will affect freedom of expression in Russia and the whole world,” Durov said in a post on Telegram.


Facebook to target harmful coordination by real accounts using playbook against fake networks

Facebook is under increasing pressure from global regulators, lawmakers and employees to combat wide-ranging abuses on its services. (File/AFP)
Updated 17 September 2021

Facebook to target harmful coordination by real accounts using playbook against fake networks

  • Facebook is taking a more aggressive approach to shut down coordinated groups of real-user accounts engaging in certain harmful activities
  • The move could have major implications for how the social media giant handles political and other coordinated movements

LONDON: Facebook is taking a more aggressive approach to shut down coordinated groups of real-user accounts engaging in certain harmful activities on its platform, using the same strategy its security teams take against campaigns using fake accounts, the company told Reuters.
The new approach, reported here for the first time, uses the tactics usually taken by Facebook’s security teams for wholesale shutdowns of networks engaged in influence operations that use false accounts to manipulate public debate, such as Russian troll farms.
It could have major implications for how the social media giant handles political and other coordinated movements breaking its rules, at a time when Facebook’s approach to abuses on its platforms is under heavy scrutiny from global lawmakers and civil society groups.
Facebook said it now plans to take this same network-level approach with groups of coordinated real accounts that systemically break its rules, through mass reporting, where many users falsely report a target’s content or account to get it shut down, or brigading, a type of online harassment where users might coordinate to target an individual through mass posts or comments.
The expansion, which a spokeswoman said was in its early stages, means Facebook’s security teams could identify core movements driving such behavior and take more sweeping actions than the company removing posts or individual accounts as it otherwise might.
In April, BuzzFeed News published a leaked Facebook internal report about the company’s role in the Jan. 6 riot on the US Capitol and its challenges in curbing the fast-growing ‘Stop the Steal’ movement, where one of the findings was Facebook had “little policy around coordinated authentic harm.”
Facebook’s security experts, who are separate from the company’s content moderators and handle threats from adversaries trying to evade its rules, started cracking down on influence operations using fake accounts in 2017, following the 2016 US election in which US intelligence officials concluded Russia had used social media platforms as part of a cyber-influence campaign — a claim Moscow has denied.
Facebook dubbed this banned activity by the groups of fake accounts “coordinated inauthentic behavior” (CIB), and its security teams started announcing sweeping takedowns in monthly reports. The security teams also handle some specific threats that may not use fake accounts, such as fraud or cyber-espionage networks or overt influence operations like some state media campaigns.
Sources said teams at the company had long debated how it should intervene at a network level for large movements of real user accounts systemically breaking its rules.
In July, Reuters reported on the Vietnam army’s online information warfare unit, who engaged in actions including mass reporting of accounts to Facebook but also often used their real names.
Facebook is under increasing pressure from global regulators, lawmakers and employees to combat wide-ranging abuses on its services. Others have criticized the company over allegations of censorship, anti-conservative bias or inconsistent enforcement.
An expansion of Facebook’s network disruption models to affect authentic accounts raises further questions about how changes might impact types of public debate, online movements and campaign tactics across the political spectrum.
High-profile instances of coordinated activity around last year’s US election, from teens and K-pop fans claiming they used TikTok to sabotage a rally for former President Donald Trump in Tulsa, Oklahoma, to political campaigns paying online meme-makers, have also sparked debates on how platforms should define and approach coordinated campaigns.