Home of another investigative journalist in Russia raided

Russian opposition supporters, independent journalists and human rights activists have faced increased government pressure. (File/AFP)
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Updated 28 July 2021

Home of another investigative journalist in Russia raided

  • Russian police raids the home of the chief editor of an investigative media outlet which was designated as a foreign agent.
  • The media outlet has investigated high-profile cases, such as the nerve agent poisonings of former Russian spy Sergei Sripal and Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny

MOSCOW: Police in Russia raided the home of the chief editor of an investigative media outlet that was recently designated as a “foreign agent,” the latest move by authorities to raise pressure on independent media before the country’s September parliamentary election.
The Insider news site chief editor Roman Dobrokhotov tweeted Wednesday morning that “police are knocking” on the door of his apartment, and his wife reported the raid to the OVD-Info legal aid group before her phone became unavailable.
A lawyer from another legal aid group, Pravozashchita Otkrytki, headed to Dobrokhotov’s apartment. The group said police seized cellphones, laptops and tablets during the raid, as well as Dobrokhotov’s international passport. Sergei Yezhov, a journalist with The Insider, said that Dobrokhotov was supposed to leave Russia on Wednesday.
Police also raided the home of Dobrokhotov’s parents, The Insider said.
Russian opposition supporters, independent journalists and human rights activists have faced increased government pressure ahead of September’s voting, which is widely seen as an important part of President Vladimir Putin’s efforts to cement his rule before a 2024 presidential election.
The 68-year-old Russian leader, who has been in power for more than two decades, pushed through constitutional changes last year that would potentially allow him to hold onto power until 2036.
In recent months, the government has designated several independent media outlets and journalists as “foreign agents” — a label that implies additional government scrutiny and carries strong pejorative connotations that could discredit the recipients.
The targeted outlets include VTimes and Meduza. VTimes subsequently shut down, citing the loss of advertisers, and Meduza launched a crowd-funding campaign after encountering the same problem.
The Insider was the latest addition to the list. The news outlet, which is registered in Latvia, has worked with the investigative group Bellingcat to investigate high-profile cases, such as the nerve agent poisonings of former Russian spy Sergei Sripal and Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny,
The Russian Justice Ministry acted under a law that is used to designate as foreign agents non-governmental organizations, media outlets and individuals who receive foreign funding and engage in activities loosely described as political.
In comments to the media, Dobrokhotov has said The Insider would continue to operate as usual, in accordance with Latvian laws, and would not comply with the requirements of the foreign agents law.
Russia used the law to levy heavy fines on US-funded broadcaster Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty for failing to identify its material as produced by foreign agents. The broadcaster has asked the European Court of Human Rights to intervene.
According to The Insider, the searches targeting Dobrokhotov may be related to a slander case launched in April following a complaint by a Dutch blogger.
The Insider accused Max van der Werff of working with Russian intelligence and military services to spread false information challenging the findings of the official investigation of the downing of the Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 over eastern Ukraine.
Pravozashchita Otkrytki said Dobrokhotov was a witness in a criminal case against “unidentified persons” on the charges of slander, launched over a tweet in Dobrokhotov’s account that contains “disinformation about the downed Boeing MH17.”
Earlier this week Russian authorities blocked about 50 websites linked to the imprisoned opposition leader Navalny. The move comes just a month after a court in Moscow outlawed Navalny’s political infrastructure — his Foundation for Fighting Corruption and a network of regional offices — as extremist in a ruling that prevents people associated with the organizations from seeking public office and exposes them to lengthy prison terms.
Navalny, Putin’s fiercest political foe, was arrested in January upon returning from Germany, where he spent five months recovering from a nerve agent poisoning that he blames on the Kremlin — an accusation rejected by Russian officials.
In February, the politician was ordered to serve 2½ years in prison for violating the terms of a suspended sentence from a 2014 embezzlement conviction that he dismissed as politically motivated.
His arrest and jailing sparked a wave of mass protests across Russia’s 11 time zones, in what appeared to be a major challenge to the Kremlin. The authorities responded with mass arrests of demonstrators and criminal probes against Navalny’s closest associates.
On Wednesday, Lyubov Sobol, a top ally of Navalny and one of the few in his team who hasn’t left Russia despite being prosecuted on a number of charges, said that Russia’s state communications watchdog Roskomnadzor demanded Twitter to take down her account.
Sobol tweeted screenshots of a letter she received from Twitter, notifying her of the authorities’ request to block her account as containing “propaganda of activities” of Navalny’s organizations that have been declared extremist.
“What is it, if not the Kremlin’s hysteria ahead of the election?” Sobol wrote. It wasn’t immediately clear whether the platform would comply with the request.

Frankly Speaking: ‘The future of retail is both physical and digital – phygital’, says MAF CEO Alain Bejjani

Updated 29 November 2021

Frankly Speaking: ‘The future of retail is both physical and digital – phygital’, says MAF CEO Alain Bejjani

  • Head of conglomerate appears on Frankly Speaking, the series of video interviews with business people and policymakers
  • Bejjani gives his opinion on the economies of Saudi Arabia and UAE, whose resilience is being tested by the pandemic

DUBAI: Business in Saudi Arabia and the UAE is “buzzing,” Alain Bejjani, chief executive officer of the Majid Al Futtaim diversified conglomerate, told Arab News, even as the resilience of their economies is being tested by the pandemic’s unexpected twists and turns.

He gave his opinion on the state of recovery from last year’s coronavirus lockdowns on Frankly Speaking, the series of video interviews with leading business people and policymakers in the Middle East and the world.

“Saudi Arabia (has shown) great resilience during the pandemic, but actually Saudi Arabian measures (to halt the spread of the virus) were quite different from the ones that you have seen in the other markets. I’ve been there in the past few months more than three times and you (can) see that it’s buzzing. It’s coming back,” Bejjani said.

“The UAE had remarkable resilience in 2020 and now is buzzing across the board. We’ve had an excellent second half of the year, especially the third quarter and the fourth quarter that we are in, and basically things are off to a very good start in 2022.”

Business in Egypt is also on a recovery path, he said.

Bejjani has been at the helm of MAF since 2015, consolidating the group’s position as one of the leading retail, hospitality and leisure groups in the Middle East. MAF is well known by consumers throughout the region for its Carrefour supermarkets, its gigantic shopping malls and its Vox Cinemas chain.

Alain Bejjani, CEO of the Majid Al Futtaim group

In the course of a wide-ranging discussion, Bejjani also spoke about the way the pandemic had changed MAF, his plans to give cinema a big boost in the Middle East, and the sustainability of MAF’s businesses, which include a ski-slope in Dubai and another one — set to be the biggest in the world — in the under-construction Mall of Saudi in Riyadh.

On the pace of the post-pandemic economic recovery, Bejjani explained that there could be a financial “hit” to MAF this year, because consumption patterns had changed from online back to in-person retailing.

“So, 2021 was difficult and not 2020. Last year was a difficult year to be able to fulfill and to be able to serve the customers in the safety of their homes, and navigate through the very strict restrictions that we had to deal with because of the pandemic.

“But in 2021 when we had less restrictions or no restrictions, people could go back to stores, the actual consumption changed because people were consuming less. They were not at home anymore as much as they were,” he said.

He said that a full recovery across the board might not come until 2024, adding: “We are in multi-industries and some industries have recovered while others have not yet recovered. So, when you look at our overall results, they are affected by the ones that haven’t recovered yet.”


How Majid Al Futtaim is getting to grips with the coronavirus ‘tsunami’

Elaborating on the topic, Bejjani said: “For example, the cinema business and the L&E (leisure and entertainment) business — this is a business that’s recovering slower than others and is now actually affected by supply-chain issues.

“When you look at the cinema business, this is a business that was really affected in 2021 not only by the limitations on occupancy, but also by the fact of the unavailability of movies because of production delays and all the supply-chain issues that were triggered by the pandemic.”

In Saudi Arabia, where MAF has been expanding rapidly over the past five years, growth was being spurred by the reform strategy of the Vision 2030 plan to diversify the economy, according to Bejjani.

“What’s happened in Saudi Arabia in the past five years is a blessing. Everyone was dreaming to have Saudi Arabia open up; to have Saudi Arabia come back; to actually become a vibrant and even more vibrant economy, a more inclusive economy; to get women back into the workforce and also into a role in society; to get entertainment back into the Kingdom,” he said.

MAF’s most prestigious project to date in the Kingdom is the Mall of Saudi, a $4.3 billion retail and leisure complex under construction in north Riyadh, due to open in 2025. Bejjani is confident that “mall culture” will overcome the challenges thrown up by the pandemic, but that the lockdowns will change the nature of the business in significant ways.

Frank Kane hosts Frankly Speaking: Watch more episodes.

“This is, of course, for us a very important, substantial investment and a very strategic project. We’re doing it because we really believe in the future of retail and we really believe that the future of retail is both physical and digital. There is this new word now that’s coined, it’s called ‘phygital,’ and we are seeing that more and more.

“Malls are not only spaces where you actually transact, where you actually shop for something. It’s a place where people come together. It’s a place where people meet. It’s a place where friends and family spend time and create great moments together. Of course they shop, dine or consume entertainment, but also build bonds. This is what malls’ new roles are,” he said.

The Mall of Saudi will be home to the biggest ski-slope and snow dome in the world. Some environmentalists have questioned the building of gigantic indoor snow-park facilities in the Middle East, especially as concerns grow about climate change.

But Bejjani is adamant that the new ski center in Riyadh will comply with the strictest environmental and energy regulations, like Ski Dubai in the UAE does. “There is a lot of misconception around indoor ski slopes,” he said.

“If you look at Mall of the Emirates’ Ski Dubai or the one that you’re going to be having in our Riyadh project, these are actually LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certified assets.

“It actually has been improving quite a lot. We’ve been putting a lot of technology and investment in order to make it as sustainable as possible. So, when you look at the actual slope, it is within a fridge that preserves heat and preserves cold, so minimizes the heat going out and preserves cold inside. And we have a lot of technology to make sure that we actually use the least electricity possible and generate and have the lowest possible carbon footprint.”


Majid Al-Futtaim chief kicks off “humungous” Mall of Saudi project

One part of the business set for big growth is the Vox Cinemas chain, which pursued an aggressive roll-out of new venues after the ban on cinemas in Saudi Arabia was lifted in 2018, only to be shut later by the pandemic. Bejjani says he is confident Vox can win business back from the at-home streaming services like Netflix that did so well during the lockdowns.

“People love the experience. Cinema is an experience that you share with others and there is nothing like the magic of being in a theater and people laughing together and living those emotions together,” he said.

Consumers had “maxxed out” on Netflix during the lockdown phase, he added.

One challenge MAF is planning to confront head on is the lack of new content, and specifically regional content, in the Middle East movie industry. Shutdowns in Hollywood and Bollywood studios during the pandemic meant a shortage of new material for movie-goers.

“Saudi Arabia is a fantastic market for local content, whether it’s Arabic content, whether it’s Khaliji or Egyptian content, and this is where we need and we are driving a lot of effort to make sure that we enable that local content much more,” he said.

Vox is sponsoring the forthcoming Red Sea Film Festival as a way to demonstrate its commitment to creating a regional production and distribution network to raise the level of local content in cinema.

“We have a huge market with a lot of young and not-so-young cultural-product consumers that want local content,” Bejjani said. “This is how we can contribute to the rebirth of our civilization, and the rebirth of the cultural life in our part of the world.”

New Zealand PM says Facebook, others must do more against online hate

Ardern and French President Emmanuel Macron launched a global initiative to end online hate in 2019. (File/AFP)
Updated 26 November 2021

New Zealand PM says Facebook, others must do more against online hate

  • New Zealand PM said tech giants and world leaders needed to do “much more” to stamp out violent extremism and radicalization online

LONDON: Tech giants like Meta’s Facebook and world leaders needed to do “much more” to stamp out violent extremism and radicalization online, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said on Friday.
Ardern and French President Emmanuel Macron launched a global initiative to end online hate in 2019 after a white supremacist killed 51 people at two mosques in the New Zealand city of Christchurch while live-streaming his rampage on Facebook.
This Christchurch Call initiative has been supported by more than 50 countries, international organizations and tech firms, including Facebook, Google, Twitter and Microsoft.
Ardern said on Friday the initiative had been successful in its first aim of establishing a crisis protocol, including a 24/7 network between platforms to quickly remove content, in response to events like those in Christchurch.
“We have had real world stress-testing of those systems and they have worked very effectively,” Ardern said in an interview for the upcoming Reuters Next conference.
“I am confident that we are operating more effectively than we have before,” she added. “The next challenge though, is to go further again.”
Asked what tech companies should be doing, Ardern replied: “much more.”
Ardern said the next step was to focus on prevention, looking at how people are finding or coming across hateful or terror-motivating content online and perhaps becoming radicalized.
“That’s where we are really interested in the ongoing work around algorithms and the role that we can all play to ensure that online platforms don’t become a place of radicalization,” she said.
A Christchurch Call conference earlier this year was attended by the United States and Britain.

Tunisia court frees TV host held over comments on president

Updated 25 November 2021

Tunisia court frees TV host held over comments on president

  • Zitouna TV presenter Amer Ayad had been arrested in October along with MP Abdellatif al-Alaoui, who appeared on his show
  • Both criticised the president's Sept. 29 appointment of Najla Bouden as Tunisia's first female prime minister

TUNIS: A Tunisian military court on Thursday ordered the release of a television journalist arrested last month after strongly criticizing President Kais Saied, his lawyer said.
Zitouna TV presenter Amer Ayad had been arrested in October along with MP Abdellatif Al-Alaoui, who appeared on his show.
The pair were held on charges of “plotting against state security,” Ayad’s lawyer Samir Ben Omar said at the time.
In the show, they both criticized the president’s Sept. 29 appointment of Najla Bouden as Tunisia’s first female prime minister.
Ayad was released on parole Thursday, Ben Omar said.
His trial continues, however, and the next hearing has been scheduled for Jan. 20, the lawyer added.
Alaoui, a MP for the Al-Karama party, had been released a few days after his arrest.
Al-Karama is an ally of the Ennahdha movement which had the largest number of seats in the parliament that Saied suspended in July.
On July 25, citing an “imminent threat,” Saied also sacked the government and put himself in charge of the prosecution.
On Sept. 22, he suspended parts of the constitution and installed rule by decree.
Alaoui had branded Saied’s measures a “coup” in the show hosted by Ayad.
Zitouna TV is considered close to Ennahdha and its ally Al-Karama.

Coe calls Olympics social media survey results ‘disturbing’

Updated 25 November 2021

Coe calls Olympics social media survey results ‘disturbing’

  • The survey to gain an understanding of the level of online abuse in athletics drew its findings from a sample of 161 Twitter handles current and former athletes
  • Female athletes received 87% of all abuse

PARIS: World Athletics president Sebastian Coe described as “disturbing” the results of a study conducted during the Tokyo Olympics to identify and address targeted, abusive messages sent to athletes via social media.
The survey to gain an understanding of the level of online abuse in athletics drew its findings from a sample of 161 Twitter handles of current and former athletes involved in the Games (derived from a list of 200 athletes selected by World Athletics).
They were tracked during the study period, starting one week prior to the Olympic opening ceremony and concluding the day after the Olympic closing ceremony (July 15 — August 9).
The survey found 23 of the athletes received targeted abuse with 16 of those women — 115 of the 132 identified abusive posts were directed at female athletes.
Female athletes received 87 percent of all abuse.
Two athletes — both black and female — received 63 percent of identified abuse.
Unfounded doping accusations made up 25 percent of abusive messages, while 10 percent consisted of transphobic (9 percent) and homophobic (1 percent) posts.
89 percent of racist abuse was targeted at US athletes, despite them representing only 23 percent of the study set.
The two most common categories of abuse were of a sexist (29 percent) and/or racist (26 percent) nature, accounting for 55 percent of all identified abuse.
“This research is disturbing in so many ways,” said Coe in a statement.
“What strikes me the most is that the abuse is targeted at individuals who are celebrating and sharing their performances and talent as a way to inspire and motivate people.
“To face the kinds of abuse they have is unfathomable and we all need to do more to stop this.
“Shining a light on the issue is just the first step.”
In the study timeframe, 240,707 tweets including 23,521 images, GIFs and videos were captured for analysis.
This included text analysis through searches for slurs, offensive images and emojis and other phrases that could indicate abuse.
It also used AI-powered Natural Language Processing to detect threats by understanding the relationship between words (allowing it to determine the difference between “I’ll kill you” and “you killed it,” for example).


Vaughan dropped by BBC over involvement in Yorkshire crisis

Updated 25 November 2021

Vaughan dropped by BBC over involvement in Yorkshire crisis

SALFORD, England: Former England cricket captain Michael Vaughan was dropped by the BBC on Wednesday because of his involvement in the racism controversy enveloping county club Yorkshire.
Vaughan has been accused of using racially insensitive comments toward a group of players of Asian ethnicity in 2009 while they were at Yorkshire.
Vaughan has denied the allegations and said his reputation has been “trashed unfairly,” calling it “the worst thing I have ever experienced.”
The BBC, which uses Vaughan as a pundit, said it wasn’t currently appropriate for him to have a role in coverage of the upcoming Ashes series against Australia and for wider elements of the sport “while he is involved in a significant story in cricket.”
“We require our contributors to talk about relevant topics,” the broadcaster said in a statement, “and his involvement in the Yorkshire story represents a conflict of interest.”
Azeem Rafiq, the whistleblower whose revelations about the racism and bullying he suffered at Yorkshire has sparked a crisis in the English game, was the first to make the allegation that Vaughan said in 2009 of the four players of Asian heritage: “There are too many of you lot; we need to do something about it.”
Rafiq was one of the four players in question. Two more — Adil Rashid and Pakistan international Rana Naved-ul-Hasan — have also said they overheard Vaughan’s alleged remarks.
Vaughan might still be heard in Britain during the Ashes through his scheduled work for Australian rights-holder Fox Sports, which will provide the audio for BT Sport’s coverage of the series.
“Very disappointed not to be commentating for TMS (Test Match Special) on the Ashes and will miss working with great colleagues & friends,” Vaughan wrote on his Instagram account, referring to the BBC radio program, “but looking forward to being behind the mic for @foxcricket in Australia.”
Vaughan said the issues facing cricket “are bigger than any individual case.”
“I want to be part of the solution, listening, educating myself and helping to make it a more welcoming sport for all,” he wrote.
The England and Wales Cricket Board has suspended Yorkshire from hosting international matches over its “wholly unacceptable” response to the racism faced by Rafiq, while some of the club’s sponsors are ending deals.
Last week, British sports minister Nigel Huddleston called for cricket to “get its house in order” and raised the possibility of independent regulation if it did not.