CNN rules for first US presidential debate: no props, muted microphones

US Republican presidential hopeful and former US President Donald Trump in Concord, New Hampshire, on January 19, 2024; and US President Joe Biden in Culver City, California, on February 21, 2024. (AFP)
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Updated 16 June 2024

CNN rules for first US presidential debate: no props, muted microphones

  • CNN said candidates eligible to participate must appear on a sufficient number of state ballots to reach the 270 electoral vote threshold needed to win and receive at least 15 percent in four separate national polls

WASHINGTON: The first US presidential debate between incumbent Joe Biden and Republican rival Donald Trump on June 27 will include two commercial breaks, no props and muted microphones except when recognized to speak, CNN said Saturday. In May, the candidates agreed to face off in two debates including one this month that will be moderated by CNN anchors Jake Tapper and Dana Bash in Atlanta, while the other on Sept. 10 will be hosted by ABC.
CNN said Saturday both candidates will appear at a uniform podium during the 90-minute debate, podium positions will be determined by a coin flip and candidates will be given a pen, a pad of paper and a bottle of water but cannot use props.
“Microphones will be muted throughout the debate except for the candidate whose turn it is to speak,” CNN said.
CNN, a division of Warner Bros Discovery, said the moderators “will use all tools at their disposal to enforce timing and ensure a civilized discussion.”
During the two commercial breaks, campaign staff may not interact with their candidate, and there will be no studio audience.
CNN said candidates eligible to participate must appear on a sufficient number of state ballots to reach the 270 electoral vote threshold needed to win and receive at least 15 percent in four separate national polls. CNN said it is “not impossible” Robert F. Kennedy Jr., who is running as an independent, could qualify, saying he has received at least 15 percent in three qualifying polls to date and has qualified for the ballot in six states, making him eligible for 89 electoral college votes.
Debates, which will draw a US live television audience in the tens of millions, are fraught with risks for both candidates, who face a close race. Biden has three preferred debate topics, according to a campaign memo viewed by Reuters: abortion rights, the state of democracy and the economy.
Trump refused to debate his rivals during the Republican nominating race. His team has pointed to immigration, public safety and inflation as key issues ahead of the debate.


US-Russian journalist convicted in a rapid, secret trial, gets 6 1/2 years in prison, court says

Updated 23 July 2024

US-Russian journalist convicted in a rapid, secret trial, gets 6 1/2 years in prison, court says

  • The swift and secretive trials of Kurmasheva and Gershkovich in Russia’s highly politicized legal system raised hopes for a possible prisoner swap between Moscow and Washington

A court has convicted Alsu Kurmasheva, a Russian-American journalist for the US government-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, of spreading false information about the Russian army and sentenced her to 6½ years in prison after a secret trial, court records and officials said Monday.
Kurmasheva’s family, her employer and the US government have rejected the charges against her and have called for her release.
The conviction in Kazan, the capital of Russia’s central region of Tatarstan, came on Friday, the same day a court in the Russian city of Yekaterinburg convicted Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich of espionage and sentenced him to 16 years in prison in a case that the US called politically motivated.
Kurmasheva, a 47-year-old editor for RFE/RL’s Tatar-Bashkir language service, was convicted of “spreading false information” about the military after a trial that lasted just two days, according to the website of the Supreme Court of Tatarstan. Court spokesperson Natalya Loseva confirmed Kurmasheva’s conviction and revealed the sentence to The Associated Press by phone in the case classified as secret.
Kurmasheva was ordered to serve the sentence in a medium-security penal colony, Loseva said.
“My daughters and I know Alsu has done nothing wrong. And the world knows it too. We need her home,” Kurmasheva’s husband, Pavel Butorin, said in a post Monday on X.
He had said last year the charges stemmed from a book the Tatar-Bashkir service released in 2022 called “No to War” — “a collection of short stories of Russians who don’t want their country to be at war with Ukraine.” Butorin had said the book doesn’t contain any “false information.”
Matthew Miller, the US State Department spokesman, said Kurmasheva is being “targeted by Russian authorities for her uncompromising commitment to speaking the truth and her principled reporting.”
“We continue to make very clear that she should be released,” Miller added.
Asked about the case, RFE/RL President and CEO Stephen Capus denounced the trial and conviction of Kurmasheva as “a mockery of justice.” “The only just outcome is for Alsu to be immediately released from prison by her Russian captors,” he said in a statement to the AP.
“It’s beyond time for this American citizen, our dear colleague, to be reunited with her loving family,” Capus said.
Kurmasheva, who holds US and Russian citizenship and lives in Prague with her husband and two daughters, was taken into custody in October 2023 and charged with failing to register as a foreign agent while collecting information about the Russian military.
Later, she was also charged with spreading “false information” about the Russian military under legislation that effectively criminalized any public expression about the war in Ukraine that deviates from the Kremlin line. The legislation was adopted in March 2022, just days after the Kremlin sent troops into Ukraine, and has since been used to target Kremlin critics at home and abroad, implicating scores of people in criminal cases and sending dozens to prison.
Kurmasheva was initially stopped in June 2023 at Kazan International Airport after traveling to Russia the previous month to visit her ailing elderly mother. Officials confiscated her US and Russian passports and fined her for failing to register her US passport. She was waiting for her passports to be returned when she was arrested on new charges in October that year. RFE/RL has repeatedly called for her release.
RFE/RL was told by Russian authorities in 2017 to register as a foreign agent, but it has challenged Moscow’s use of foreign agent laws in the European Court of Human Rights. The organization has been fined millions of dollars by Russia.
The organization Reporters Without Borders said Kurmasheva’s conviction “illustrates the unprecedented level of despotism permeating a Russian judiciary that takes orders from the Kremlin.”
It called for Kurmasheva’s immediate release and said the purpose of the sentence was to dissuade journalists from traveling to Russia and put pressure on the United States.
In February, RFE/RL was outlawed in Russia as an undesirable organization. Its Tatar-Bashkir service is the only major international news provider reporting in those languages, in addition to Russian, to audiences in the multi-ethnic, Muslim-majority Volga-Urals region.
The swift and secretive trials of Kurmasheva and Gershkovich in Russia’s highly politicized legal system raised hopes for a possible prisoner swap between Moscow and Washington. Russia has previously signaled a possible exchange involving Gershkovich, but said a verdict in his case must come first.
Arrests of Americans are increasingly common in Russia, with nine US citizens known to be detained there as tensions between the two countries have escalated over fighting in Ukraine.
Gershkovich, 32, was arrested March 29, 2023, while on a reporting trip to the Ural Mountains city of Yekaterinburg. Authorities claimed, without offering any evidence, that he was gathering secret information for the US
He has been behind bars since his arrest, time that will be counted as part of his sentence. Most of that was in Moscow’s notorious Lefortovo Prison — a czarist-era lockup used during Josef Stalin’s purges, when executions were carried out in its basement. He was transferred to Yekaterinburg for the trial.
Gershkovich was the first US journalist arrested on espionage charges since Nicholas Daniloff in 1986, at the height of the Cold War. Foreign journalists in Russia were shocked by Gershkovich’s arrest, even though the country has enacted increasingly repressive laws on freedom of speech after sending troops into Ukraine.
US President Joe Biden said after his conviction that Gershkovich “was targeted by the Russian government because he is a journalist and an American.”
US Ambassador to the UN Linda Thomas-Greenfield accused Moscow last week of treating “human beings as bargaining chips.” She singled out Gershkovich and ex-Marine Paul Whelan, 53, a corporate security director from Michigan, who is serving a 16-year sentence after being convicted on spying charges that he and the US denied.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Friday that when it comes to Gershkovich, Whelan and other Americans wrongfully detained in Russia and elsewhere, the US is working on the cases “quite literally every day.”
Sam Greene of the Center for European Policy Analysis said the conviction and sentencing of Kurmasheva and Gershkovich on the same day “suggests — but does not prove — that the Kremlin is preparing a deal. More likely, they are preparing to offer up a negotiating table that Washington will find it difficult to ignore.”
In a series of posts on X, Greene stressed that “the availability of a negotiating table shouldn’t be confused with the availability of a deal,” and that Moscow has no interest in releasing its prisoners — but it is likely to “seek the highest possible price for its bargaining chips, and to seek additional concessions along the way just to keep the talks going.”
Washington “should obviously do what it can” to get Gershkovich, Kurmasheva, imprisoned opposition politician Vladimir Kara-Murza and other political prisoners out, he said, adding: “But if Moscow demands what it really wants — the abandonment of Ukraine — what then?”

Semafor to launch Gulf edition as third instalment in global expansion

Updated 22 July 2024

Semafor to launch Gulf edition as third instalment in global expansion

  • Former Dow Jones reporter Mohammed Sergie set to lead platform
  • Transformation of Saudi Arabia one of the world’s biggest and most exciting stories right now, co-founder and Editor-in-Chief Ben Smith tells Arab News

LONDON: News platform Semafor will launch in the Middle East on Sept. 16 with former Dow Jones reporter Mohammed Sergie as editor, marking the firm’s third edition in addition to the US and Sub-Saharan Africa.

Semafor Gulf will feature original reporting and a thrice-weekly newsletter that will analyze the region’s financial, business and geopolitical scenarios and their impact around the world.

“The core of our editorial idea and model around the international news opportunity is this notion that most of the existing dominant English-language news media was created and designed in the 19th century by American and British newspapers, to a large extent, that were domestic news brands,” said Justin Smith, co-founder and CEO of Semafor.

These news brands would then “re-export their content to the rest of the world” almost as an afterthought and send their correspondents around the world to report back for their home country, he told Arab News.

As the world has changed and the number of English-language readers has multiplied, he continued, there is a need for a new model where international reporting “is not done exclusively to report back news for the home country, but rather is created for people around the world — news consumers in the regions where those journalists are, in addition to people who are interested in that region.

“This notion of a foreign correspondent in 2024 is outdated and not as relevant.”

Semafor Gulf, led by Sergie, will launch with a team of staff reporters as well as columnists covering Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Qatar, and will continue to expand through 2025.

Sergie, who began his career in the UAE, previously established the Saudi Arabia bureau for Dow Jones in 2008 and served as an editor at Bloomberg News.

Semafor is, in some ways, different from other news brands in that it is “source-agnostic” and is “trying to tell the story a little bit differently, engaging with a sophisticated audience,” said Sergie.

Being a “multi-source media platform,” Semafor features “expert distillation and curation of the best content out there” along with its original content in order to provide a holistic understanding of a particular story, explained Justin Smith.

And currently, Sergie added, “there is a gap in the market of a smart read that brings in information from all sources.”

For example, in Saudi Arabia, officials often share information through podcasts, which does not necessarily feature in “the traditional media diet people have,” he explained.

There is also a different “scene” in each country across the Gulf — a “renaissance” of sorts across different industries — that Semafor wants to capture and bring to the audience, Sergie told Arab News.

Veteran journalist Mohammed Sergie will lead Semafor Gulf. (Semafor)

In addition to culture and business, the Middle East is a geopolitically charged region posing both challenges and opportunities to news platforms.

“The Gulf is this incredibly important site for politics, and these things (politics and other topics like economy and business) are intertwined,” said Ben Smith, co-founder and editor-in-chief of Semafor (of no relation to Justin).

There will “definitely be a geopolitical aspect” to Semafor Gulf’s coverage, Sergie added.

The firm will hire “at least half a dozen journalists across the region,” Justin Smith said, and roughly half of them will be based in Saudi Arabia owing to it possessing the largest share in the Gulf market.

In line with catering to the region, Sergie said the company would “probably experiment with some other channels” such as WhatsApp to reach a broader audience, specifically in the Gulf Cooperation Council area.

Based on his non-journalistic experience, he believes that most corporate and political leaders are “glued to their email,” so will “always consume that way.” And while he agreed that the average reader does not consume news through email, they are not Semafor’s target audience, he said.

The news brand’s coverage is carefully curated for a specific type of reader. “We see the audience as everybody who is obsessed with this story, which certainly includes lots of people in the region, but also includes lots of people outside the region,” said Ben Smith.

Moreover, Justin Smith asserted: “We are not a mass news brand. We’re not interested in reaching every single person.”

Semafor is for the leadership class and for those people who are based in the region as well as those based outside it, but still “deeply interested” in it, he explained.

And that is a key factor differentiating Semafor Gulf from other English-language news companies in the region.

“My understanding is that some of the big global English-language news brands have not necessarily invested as aggressively into the Gulf region, commensurate with the growth of the Gulf story,” said Justin Smith.

Global legacy news media brands usually report for their home country, but we are going to “flip that on its head and actually report for the region and the world interested in the region,” he continued.

Semafor Gulf’s approach is to tailor its content for readers who are sophisticated and passionate about the region while removing the filter that the US or UK might apply to a regional story to make it more relevant for readers in their home base, explained Ben Smith.

Global news outlets often contextualize stories of and about the region in ways that make them more “exotic” or relevant to readers in their home country, he said.

These global media outlets are in a phase where they are “constantly rediscovering the shifts in Saudi Arabia” as if it is a new story; but Semafor Gulf would like to “write with the assumption that people (readers) actually know what’s going on,” Ben Smith explained.

In terms of distinguishing itself from regional media outlets, Justin Smith said, Semafor Gulf will add a “global lens” and “connect the dots” between global and regional stories resulting in a more international “macro sensibility” that is less “Western-centric.”

He continued: “Semafor is a mosaic of multiple sources put together very carefully and very intentionally to bring ideological balance, and so you will see us looking to bring that kind of geographic and ideological balance together, even in the Gulf.”

And so, Justin Smith added, Semafor describes itself as an “intelligent service, as much as a news brand” because as “readers try to triangulate this incredibly complicated news landscape,” Semafor offers a multitude of expert content for readers to consume “quickly and get a much deeper, more insightful, more balanced understanding of any given news story.”

Kremlin says French failure to accredit some Russian journalists for Paris Games is unacceptable

Updated 22 July 2024

Kremlin says French failure to accredit some Russian journalists for Paris Games is unacceptable

  • France’s caretaker interior minister says that security services had rejected more than 4,000 applications for Olympics accreditations

MOSCOW: The Kremlin said on Monday that a decision by France to refuse to accredit some Russian journalists for the Paris 2024 Olympics over security fears was unacceptable and accused the French authorities of undermining media freedom.
France’s caretaker interior minister said on Sunday that French security services had rejected more than 4,000 applications for Olympics accreditations, including over espionage and cyberattack concerns.
Gerald Darmanin, who said close to one hundred applications had been rejected over espionage fears, said some of those turned down were from Russia and Belarus, a staunch ally of Moscow’s.
When asked about the refusal to accredit some Russian journalists for the Olympics, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters on a conference call:
“We consider such decisions unacceptable. We believe such decisions undermine the freedom of the media. And they certainly violate all of France’s commitments to the OSCE (The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe) and to other organizations,” he said.
“And of course we would like to see a reaction to such decisions from relevant human rights organizations, from organizations focused on ensuring all the foundations and rules of media freedom.”
The West on Friday accused Russia of riding roughshod over media freedom after a court found US reporter Evan Gershkovich guilty of espionage and sentenced him to 16 years in a maximum security penal colony.
His employer, the Wall Street Journal, called the ruling “a disgraceful sham conviction.” saying he had merely been doing his job as a reporter accredited by the Foreign Ministry to work in Russia.
The Kremlin said the case and the trial arrangements were a matter for the court, but stated before the verdict and without publishing evidence that Gershkovich had been caught spying “red-handed.”
Relations between Russia and France have sharply deteriorated over the war in Ukraine.
France has supplied military equipment to Kyiv and President Emmanuel Macron had called President Vladimir Putin’s Russia an adversary, warning that Europe’s credibility would be reduced to zero if Moscow won the war.

Lebanese photojournalist, wounded in Israeli strike, carries Olympic torch to honor journalists

Updated 21 July 2024

Lebanese photojournalist, wounded in Israeli strike, carries Olympic torch to honor journalists

  • Christina Assi, of Agence France-Presse, was among six journalists struck by Israeli shelling on Oct. 13 2023

VINCENNES, France: A Lebanese photojournalist who was severely wounded during an Israeli strike on south Lebanon carried Sunday the Olympic torch in Paris to honor journalists wounded and killed in the field.
The torch relay, which started in May, is part of celebrations in which about 10,000 people from various walks of life were chosen to carry the flame across France before the Games opening ceremony on July 26.
Christina Assi, of Agence France-Presse, was among six journalists struck by Israeli shelling on Oct. 13 2023 while reporting on fire exchange along the border between Israeli troops and members of Lebanon’s militant Hezbollah group. The attack killed Reuters videographer Issam Abdallah. Assi was severely wounded and had part of her right leg amputated.
AFP videographer Dylan Collins, also wounded in the Israeli attack, pushed Assi’s wheelchair as she carried the torch across the suburb of Vincennes Sunday. Their colleagues from the press agency and hundreds of spectators cheered them on.
“I wish Issam was here to see this. And I wish what happened today was not because we were struck by two rockets,” Assi told The Associated Press, struggling to hold back her tears. “I wish I could have honored journalists this way while walking and in my best health.”
AFP, Reuters and Al Jazeera accused Israel of targeting their journalists who maintained they were positioned far from where the clashes with vehicles clearly marked as press, while international human rights organizations, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, said the attack was a deliberate attack on civilians and should be investigated as a war crime.
“This is a chance to continue talking about justice, and the targeted attack on Oct. 13 that needs to be investigated as a war crime,” said Collins.
The Israeli military at the time said that the incident was under review, maintaining that it didn’t target journalists.
While holding the torch, Assi said participating in the relay “is to send a message that journalists should be protected and be able to work without fearing that they could die at any moment.”
In late November 2023, Rabih Al-Maamari and Farah Omar of the pan-Arab television network Al-Mayadeen were also killed in an apparent Israeli drone strike in southern Lebanon while covering the conflict.
Assi doesn’t believe there will be retribution for the events of that fateful October day but hopes her participation in the Olympic torch relay can bring attention to the importance of protecting journalists. “For me, justice comes the day I can stand up again, hold my camera, and get back to work,” she said.
The watchdog group Committee to Protect Journalists, in a preliminary count, said at least 108 journalists have been killed since the start of the Israel-Hamas war on Oct. 7, the majority in the Gaza Strip.
The war was triggered by the Palestinian militant group Hamas’ sudden attack on southern Israel, killing some 1,200 people and abducting 250 others. Israel says Hamas is still holding about 120 hostages — about a third of them thought to be dead. Israel retaliated with an offensive that has killed more than 38,000 people in Gaza, according to the territory’s Health Ministry, which does not distinguish between combatants and civilians.
Hezbollah militants have traded near-daily strikes with the Israeli military along their border over the past nine months.

Israeli Channel 13 News ‘axed show for PM Netanyahu,’ UK protesters say

Updated 21 July 2024

Israeli Channel 13 News ‘axed show for PM Netanyahu,’ UK protesters say

  • Group plans protests on Sunday at 2 locations in UK  

LONDON: The second wealthiest man in the UK is facing protests following claims that his TV network is undermining press freedom in Israel.

Leonard Blavatnik has a majority stake in Channel 13 News in Israel and owns most of Warner Music Group.

Channel 13 News, which is known for its criticism of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government and its onslaught on the Gaza Strip, canceled its popular program “Warzone” last week.

The decision came after a leadership shake-up in June, which saw Yulia Shamalov-Berkovich, reportedly an ally of the prime minister, appointed as chief executive, The Guardian reported.

The popular investigative news program “Warzone” was hosted by the journalist Raviv Drucker, who had exposed a series of scandals about Netanyahu.

The channel’s staff slammed the move as “political meddling,” and the Israeli newspaper Haaretz described it as “purely a political decision, contravening all financial and journalistic logic.”

Britons claiming the show was axed for the Israeli prime minister announced plans to protest on Sunday at the Tate Modern’s Blavatnik wing and the University of Oxford’s Blavatnik School of Government.

WeDemocracy, the group organizing the protest, said in a post on the social platform X that it was staging the event as a “solidarity move with News 13 journalists and (the) defense of press freedom in Israel.”

The protest also aims to put pressure on Blavatnik to “change the improper appointment of Yulia Shamalov-Berkovic as chairman of the channel,” the group added.

Netanyahu’s government, in retaliation for a deadly Hamas attack on Oct. 7, launched a deadly bombing campaign on Palestine’s Gaza Strip, killing over 38,800 people, according to the health authority in Gaza.

Ukraine-born Blavatnik is worth £29.24 billion. He was brought up in the US, where his parents emigrated when he was a child.

He has received a knighthood in recognition of donations to British institutions such as the Victoria and Albert Museum, the Courtauld Institute of Art, and the National Portrait Gallery.