Turkey free speech advocates pin hope on new app

Turkey free speech advocates pin hope on new app
Protesters take photos as Turkish police officers detain demonstrators during a rally in support of Bogazici University students in Istanbul, 4 February, 2021. (AFP)
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Updated 16 February 2021

Turkey free speech advocates pin hope on new app

Turkey free speech advocates pin hope on new app
  • Clubhouse is a San Francisco-based app that was launched last year – Turkish citizens, in particular, have been drawn to the medium for political expression
  • Clubhouse started to gain popularity when countrywide protests broke out after a new rector, Melih Bulu, was appointed at the country’s prestigious Bogazici University

ANKARA: A growing number of people in Turkey are turning to a new audio-only application for free speech and using it as a source of direct information.

Clubhouse is a San Francisco-based app that was launched last year and requires newcomers to be invited by existing users before they can join. It offers a selection of audio chat rooms that are divided by topic. Turkish citizens, in particular, have been drawn to the medium for political expression. 

“Political discussions generally receive the best ratings among all Turkish prime-time TV shows,” political strategist Fatih Guner said. “What we see on Turkish Clubhouse is no different. The most popular rooms are about politics.” 

About 125,000 people in Turkey have downloaded the app, according to Istanbul’s Kadir Has University. It is currently available in 154 countries and is No. 1 most-downloaded app in Germany, Japan, Slovakia, and Turkey.

The app has also attracted the interest of some of the world’s most powerful people. Elon Musk, the co-founder and CEO of Tesla, reportedly sent an invitation for Russian President Vladimir Putin to join him for a chat on the social networking platform.

“It would be a great honor to speak with you,” Musk, the world’s richest man, tweeted in Russian.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters on a conference call: “In general, this is of course a very interesting proposal, but we need to understand what is meant, what is being proposed. First we need to check, then we will react.”

In Turkey, Clubhouse started to gain popularity last month when countrywide protests broke out after a new rector, Melih Bulu, was appointed at the country’s most prestigious Bogazici University. 

Thousands of people in Turkey turned to Clubhouse chat rooms for accurate and real-time information that they were unable to find in the mainstream media. Some rooms quickly reached the 5,000-person limit.

Rooms consisted of students, alumni, journalists, lawyers, academics and politicians seeking their right to free speech and discussion. Ahmet Davutoglu, Turkey’s former prime minister and the founder of the breakaway Future Party, which is critical of the ruling government, was the first Turkish politician to speak on Clubhouse.

Several lawyers shared spontaneous information about the detained students during the protests to prevent disinformation. Meanwhile, several moderators in a Clubhouse room were detained for a couple of hours for hosting a discussion on the students’ protest. 

The lack of a visual component on the app gives people more freedom to interact with each other and focus on the content of the discussion. This new social media tool is also likely to trigger a new wave of citizen journalism and turn into a center of attraction for activism despite strict censorship in the country. 

Experts note that the accelerated polarization in Turkey — where journalists and politicians have been jailed for criticizing the government — as well as the lack of independent and objective mainstream media channels have contributed to the app’s new popularity in the country.

About 90 percent of Turkey’s traditional and politically “captured” media environment belongs to pro-government conglomerates. 

Guner is cautious about the immediate impact of Turkish Clubhouse.  

“The entry barrier is the first challenge,” he told Arab News. “Early adopters who have newer iPhone models, which are unreasonably high-priced because of extravagant taxes, seem to have moderate opinions on democratization and other matters about society.” 

Because of this entry barrier, not all political views have been expressed within the platform yet, Guner said.

“When Clubhouse becomes an Android-friendly platform, we can surely say that the deep polarization of the country will reach Turkish Clubhouse as well,” he said. 

The other challenge, for Guner, is the creator-consumer relationship. When rooms are created in Clubhouse, as many as 5,000 people can listen to the panels and the discussion, which could be about sensitive topics. But he said only 60-70 people will raise their hands to contribute to the discussion.

“Contrary to popular belief, not everyone wants to speak whatever comes to their mind,” Guner said. 

For Dr. Sarphan Uzunoglu, a digital communications expert from Bilgi University, an application that is only open to the iOS ecosystem is unlikely to be a solution for the country’s freedom of expression problem. 

“However, it does not mean that the rapid spread of this practice is coincidental,” he told Arab News. “In this narrow ecosystem, it is possible to say that there are creative and comfortable conversations in certain echo chambers for now. This also attracts people.” 

But Uzunoglu thinks that over time, as the number of users increases, people will lose their “speaking privilege.” He predicts this will lead to people being forced to listen to different voices, which most people avoid and then the medium will lose its momentum.


Egypt authorities hand documents on student murder to Italian envoy

Egypt authorities hand documents on student murder to Italian envoy
Updated 16 June 2021

Egypt authorities hand documents on student murder to Italian envoy

Egypt authorities hand documents on student murder to Italian envoy
  • Regeni was carrying out research on independent trade unions in Egypt when he disappeared in 2016
  • Regeni’s mutilated body was found on a roadside and bore signs of torture.

CAIRO: Egypt’s Public Prosecutor, Hamada El-Sawy, on Wednesday handed two official copies of the public prosecution’s report — in Arabic and Italian — on the murder of Italian student Giulio Regeni to the Italian envoy in Cairo, Giampaolo Cantini.
The report said there was currently no basis for filing a criminal case because the perpetrator of the crime is unknown, but search authorities have been told to step up their investigation.
Regeni, 28, a Ph.D. student from Cambridge, was carrying out research on independent trade unions in Egypt when he disappeared on Jan. 24, 2016 in central Cairo.
At the time large numbers of police were in the area because of expected protests.
Regeni’s mutilated body was found on a roadside on Feb. 6, 2016. It bore signs of torture.
Police initially said that the student had died in a road accident. But an Italian autopsy showed that his body had cuts, broken bones and other injuries indicating he had been severely beaten.  
Egyptian authorities have denied that police were involved in Regeni’s torture or death.
The case has strained relations between the two countries, with Italy recalling its ambassador in protest. Diplomatic ties were restored in August 2017 after the Italian government said that it would return its envoy and continue the search for the killers.
Also present at the meeting on Wednesday were Giulia Mantini, first secretary at the Italian Embassy, and Badr Abdel Atti, Egyptian assistant foreign minister for European affairs.
The Italian ambassador also received the Kenyan judicial authorities’ response to a request for legal assistance sent by the Egyptian public prosecution.
The request was in response to a Kenyan police officer’s claim that during a security meeting in Nairobi an Egyptian police officer had admitted taking part in Regeni’s abduction. 


Lebanese army in crisis mode ahead of donor conference

Lebanese army in crisis mode ahead of donor conference
Updated 16 June 2021

Lebanese army in crisis mode ahead of donor conference

Lebanese army in crisis mode ahead of donor conference
BEIRUT: The Lebanese army is in desperate need of donor assistance to survive one of the world’s worst financial crashes, it said Wednesday ahead of a UN-backed fundraising conference.
Unlike previous donor conferences designed to provide training, weapons or equipment, the virtual meeting France hosts Thursday aims to offer the kind of humanitarian assistance usually reserved for countries grappling with conflict or natural disaster.
“We are in need of food parcels, health care assistance, and support with soldiers’ pay,” a military source told AFP on condition of anonymity.
“The devaluation of the Lebanese pound is affecting soldiers and they are in need of support. Their salaries are not enough any more.”
Lebanon’s economic crisis, which the World Bank has labelled as one of the world’s worst since the 1850s, has eaten away at soldiers’ pay and slashed the military’s budget for maintenance and equipment, further threatening the country’s stability.
Already in July 2020, the army said it scrapped meat from the meals it gives for soldiers on duty, due to rising food prices.
“We are doing the impossible to ease the suffering and the economic woes of our soldiers,” army chief Joseph Aoun said in a speech on Tuesday.
“We are forced to turn to allied states to secure aid, and I am ready to go to the end of the world to procure assistance so that the army can stay on its feet.”
Thursday’s conference will see participation from Lebanon’s International Support Group, which includes Gulf states, European countries, the US, Russia and China.
It follows a visit by Aoun last month to Paris,where he warned that the army could face even darker days without emergency support.
“The Lebanese army is going through a major crisis, which could get worse due to the deteriorating economic and social situation in Lebanon, which may worsen when subsidies are lifted,” he said.
He was referring to a government plan to scrap subsidies on essential goods such as fuel, food and flour to shore up dwindling foreign currency reserves.
The army has been relying heavily on food donations from allied states since last summer’s monster port explosion in Beirut that killed more than 200 people and damaged swathes of the capital.
France, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Turkey are among the army’s main food donors.
Iraq and Spain have offered medical assistance.
The United States remains the biggest financial backer of the Lebanese military.
It has bumped up funding for the army by $15 million for this year to $120 million.

Palestinian woman shot dead by Israelis in West Bank after attempted attack

Palestinian woman shot dead by Israelis in West Bank after attempted attack
Updated 16 June 2021

Palestinian woman shot dead by Israelis in West Bank after attempted attack

Palestinian woman shot dead by Israelis in West Bank after attempted attack
  • Palestinian health ministry said the soldiers responded with fire toward the assailant and neutralized her

RAMALLAH: A Palestinian woman was shot dead in the West Bank on Wednesday after attempting to ram Israeli soldiers with her car and attack them with a knife, the army and Palestinian health ministry said.
The Israeli army said “an assailant arrived in her car and attempted to ram into a number of IDF soldiers” near Hizma, south of Ramallah, before she “exited her vehicle with a knife drawn.”
“The soldiers responded with fire toward the assailant and neutralized her,” it said, with the Palestinian health ministry pronouncing her dead.


US envoy for Yemen heading to Saudi Arabia for ceasefire talks

 US envoy for Yemen heading to Saudi Arabia for ceasefire talks
Updated 16 June 2021

US envoy for Yemen heading to Saudi Arabia for ceasefire talks

 US envoy for Yemen heading to Saudi Arabia for ceasefire talks
  • Tim Lenderking will aim to reach a “comprehensive, nationwide ceasefire” in Yemen
  • He has visited the region six times since being appointed by Biden

DUBAI: US President Joe Biden’s special envoy for Yemen will meet with Saudi officials this week in the latest round of diplomatic talks to resolve the years-long war, the State Department said Tuesday.

Tim Lenderking, who has visited the region six times since being appointed by Biden, will aim to reach a “comprehensive, nationwide ceasefire” in Yemen.

In a statement, the State Department said that “Lenderking will travel to Saudi Arabia on June 15-17 where he will meet with senior officials from the Governments of the Republic of Yemen and Saudi Arabia, as well as UN Special Envoy Martin Griffiths. Throughout the trip, Special Envoy Lenderking will discuss the latest efforts to achieve a comprehensive, nationwide ceasefire, which is the only way to bring Yemenis the relief they so urgently need,” the statement added.

Since Biden took office, the US administration has increased mediation efforts between both countries while easing sanctions on the Iran-backed Houthis. Despite his efforts, the Houthis have maintained their attacks on Saudi Arabia, undermining peace talks.

On Sunday, a Houthi explosive drone destroyed part of a school in the kingdom’s southwestern region of Asir.

“The United States also recognizes Saudi Arabia’s efforts to advance implementation of the Riyadh Agreement, which is essential to stability, security, and prosperity in the south of Yemen,” Washington said.
“Additionally, Special Envoy Lenderking will continue to press for the free flow of essential commodities and humanitarian aid into and throughout Yemen.”


Reformist drops out of Iran election on last day of campaign

Reformist drops out of Iran election on last day of campaign
Updated 16 June 2021

Reformist drops out of Iran election on last day of campaign

Reformist drops out of Iran election on last day of campaign
  • Mohsen Mehralizadeh resigned in a letter to Iran’s Interior Ministry
  • Mehralizadeh’s departure likely will boost former Central Bank chief Abdolnasser Hemmati
TEHRAN: The only reformist candidate in Iran’s upcoming presidential election dropped out of the race Wednesday on the last day of campaigning, state media reported, likely trying to boost the chances of a moderate candidate.
Mohsen Mehralizadeh, 64, resigned in a letter to Iran’s Interior Ministry, which runs elections in the Islamic Republic, the state-run IRNA news agency reported. Such dropouts are common in Iranian presidential elections in order to boost the chances of similar candidates.
Mehralizadeh’s departure likely will boost former Central Bank chief Abdolnasser Hemmati, who has been running as a moderate and as a stand-in for President Hassan Rouhani, who is term limited from running again.
Hemmati on Wednesday said that he would select Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif to join his administration as either his vice president or foreign minister, embracing the top diplomat who was an architect of Tehran’s now-tattered 2015 nuclear deal with world powers.
“The economic development of Iran is not possible without strong diplomatic engagement abroad,” Hemmati wrote on Twitter to explain his choice of Zarif. “My administration is after the removal of sanctions and use of foreign policy to achieve political development.”
The move appeared aimed at consolidating the pro-reform vote just ahead of the poll. Zarif, among the best-known political figures in the Rouhani administration, has come under fire from the political establishment in recent weeks after the leak of a contentious audiotape in which he offered a blunt appraisal of power struggles in the Islamic Republic.
There was no immediate word from Zarif on Hemmati’s announcement, but the minister has previously indicated a willingness to join the incoming administration.
Mehralizadeh’s withdrawal Wednesday leaves six candidates in the race. Polling and analysts indicate Hemmati lags behind the country’s hard-line judiciary chief, Ebrahim Raisi, the campaign’s front-runner long cultivated by Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Other hard-line candidates may drop out Wednesday to lend their support to Raisi.
Mehralizadeh served as governor in two Iranian provinces, as the vice president in charge of physical education under reformist President Mohammad Khatami and as a deputy in the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, which runs the country’s civilian nuclear program. He came in last place in Iran’s 2005 election, but found himself barred from running in 2015.
Within Iran, candidates exist on a political spectrum that broadly includes hard-liners who want to expand Iran’s nuclear program and confront the world, moderates who hold onto the status quo and reformists who want to change the theocracy from within.
Although a range of prominent reformists and key Rouhani allies registered to run for president, Iran’s clerical vetting body allowed just several low-profile candidates, mostly hard-liners, to run against Raisi. Owing in part to the disqualifications as well as the raging coronavirus pandemic, voter apathy runs deep. The state-linked Iranian Student Polling Agency has most recently projected a 42 percent turnout from the country’s 59 million eligible voters, which would be a historic low amid mounting calls for a boycott.
In his weekly Cabinet meeting on Wednesday, Rouhani urged the public to vote, state TV reported.
“It does not do us any good if the election is cold, lacks people, and its ballots are sparsely populated,” said Rouhani.