‘Disinformation efforts’ to discredit Belarus activist

Roman Protasevich’s arrest sparked a new round of anti-regime protests. (File/AFP)
Roman Protasevich’s arrest sparked a new round of anti-regime protests. (File/AFP)
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Updated 09 June 2021

‘Disinformation efforts’ to discredit Belarus activist

‘Disinformation efforts’ to discredit Belarus activist
  • Stories alleging that Protasevich had ties with neo-Nazis appeared initially in Russian-language media
  • Protasevich’s family, colleagues and even some Azov fighters insist that he was in Ukraine only as a journalist

Prague: Not long after Belarus diverted an international flight, forced it to land in Minsk and then arrested activist journalist Roman Protasevich on board, an online campaign to discredit him began.

Stories alleging that Protasevich had ties with neo-Nazis appeared initially in Russian-language media and quickly spread in dozens of languages.

Photos of young men doing Nazi salutes or wearing SS insignia began to pop up on social media, falsely claiming to show Protasevich in his younger years in what experts called a disinformation campaign similar to others against Kremlin critics.

AFP tracked down the man in the Nazi salute photo.

Konstantin Akhromenko, a young Belarusian, confirmed his identity and said the picture was taken “10-12 years ago.”

“We were never Nazis. We took such photos just for laughs, because the Belarusian state propaganda called us Nazis,” he told AFP.

Similarly, the man in the SS helmet turned out to be not Protasevich but Eduard Lobov, a former Belarusian political prisoner who became a volunteer fighter in eastern Ukraine.

Many posts focused on the fact that Protasevich, by his own admission, spent some time with Ukrainian paramilitary units in eastern Ukraine after Russia annexed the Crimean peninsula in 2014.

Labelling him a “terrorist” and “extremist,” they said that he fought with the Azov battalion, some of whose soldiers have been known to harbor white supremacist and neo-Nazi views.

Protasevich’s family, colleagues and even some Azov fighters insist that he was in Ukraine only as a journalist, albeit embedded with Ukrainian forces battling the Russia-backed separatists.

Some online claims about Protasevich contain photos of a young man in a military uniform and AFP has been unable to verify if it is in fact him.

In some of the pictures that bear a resemblance to him, the young man is wearing a military uniform; in others he is brandishing a Kalashnikov rifle and smiling for the camera.

Often he is surrounded by soldiers wearing the insignia of the Azov battalion, a volunteer unit formed in the wake of Russia’s annexation of Crimea.

Vladyslav Sobolevsky, the chief of staff of the Azov battalion in 2014-2017, said that Protasevich had joined as a journalist to “help Ukraine, and in the future to help his own country.”

“His views were: Lukashenko must leave. Belarus should be free,” Sobolevsky said, referring to President Alexander Lukashenko, who has ruled Belarus since 1994.

Likewise, Protasevich’s father Dmitry, who lives in Poland, has said that Roman never actively fought as a soldier.

“My son is and was a journalist. He was in Donbas as a journalist doing his job,” he said.

This was confirmed by both Azov commander Andriy Biletsky and by the battalion spokeswoman Anastasya Rymar, both of whom said that Protasevich followed the unit only to report on the action and did not take an active part in the fighting.

The 26-year-old often mentioned his time in Ukraine in interviews, and there is a video of him being treated for a battle wound.

But he always maintained he was there to document the fighting rather than fight himself.

Euvsdisinfo.eu, a project of the European Union’s foreign service set up to combat Russian disinformation, said there was a deliberate attempt at Protasevich’s online “denigration.”

An article on the project’s website compared these “disinformation efforts” to those seen against Kremlin critics such as anti-corruption campaigner Alexei Navalny.

Russia is a key ally for Lukashenko, who has jailed hundreds of opponents following mass protests that erupted after his disputed re-election last year.

Such mixing of facts, falsehoods and unfounded or unprovable allegations “bears all the signs of typical Kremlin propaganda,” said Jakub Kalensky, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, a Washington-based think tank.

“The goal is not to convince the public about one version of the event, but to present many different versions, muddy the waters and bury the facts under a thick layer of lies,” Kalensky told AFP.


Filipino president threatens arrest for COVID-19 vaccine dodgers

Filipino president threatens arrest for COVID-19 vaccine dodgers
Updated 28 September 2021

Filipino president threatens arrest for COVID-19 vaccine dodgers

Filipino president threatens arrest for COVID-19 vaccine dodgers
  • Philippines to begin vaccinating 12-17-year-olds, general public from October to help achieve herd immunity for population

MANILA: Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte has threatened to invoke police powers of arrest against members of the public refusing to receive coronavirus disease (COVID-19) vaccination jabs.

The leader’s warning came ahead of the government’s announcement on Tuesday that from October the Philippines would be stepping up its inoculation program to include the general public and children aged between 12 and 17 in a bid to achieve herd immunity and a gradual return to normal life.

The southeast Asian country of 110 million people has recorded one of the highest numbers of COVID-19 cases and deaths in Asia, prompting authorities to impose strict anti-virus measures in the worst-affected areas and relax curbs in other parts to spur economic activity.

However, vaccination measures have been slow, with only 20.3 million or 26 percent of the population fully vaccinated and 23.6 million receiving their first dose since March when the government launched its vaccination drive for priority groups including health workers, senior citizens, those with more than one medical condition, economic frontliners, and the needy.

In a recorded address aired on Monday night, Duterte urged the public to get immunized, specifically Filipinos residing in areas with plentiful supplies of COVID-19 vaccine.

He said: “Government has no power to compel any religion, faith, or church. We can only cooperate. But the police power of the state can be invoked if you pose a threat to others ... (because) then you are already a danger to society.”

Once the Philippines had achieved herd immunity through mass immunization, it would be “safe to gradually ease restrictions,” he added. “I now encourage you — those who have yet to receive the vaccines — to get inoculated. We are almost pleading on our knees.”

During a press conference on Tuesday, Duterte’s spokesman, Harry Roque, said: “The good news is, the president has approved the vaccination of the general population beginning October. We will also start inoculating children (between 12 to 17 years of age) in October. This has also been approved by the president.”

Roque also urged parents to register their children for vaccination.

Malacanang’s announcement came a day after Duterte’s threat to invoke police power of the state on those who refused to get vaccinated. The president also warned government employees to leave their office if they refused vaccination, especially those on the frontline or tasked with interacting with people.

Citing a report from the Food and Drug Administration, he said that unvaccinated people who got infected with COVID-19 were likely to get hospitalized with more severe or critical conditions compared to those who were already inoculated.

National Union of People’s Lawyers Secretary-General Edre Olalia on Tuesday told Arab News that it was a “tricky, debatable, and complicated” matter as to whether the president could implement police powers against those choosing not to receive a jab.

He said: “As a general rule, the state can invoke police power for the protection of life, public health, and for the public interest. But there are loose ends that need to be tied up. These include questions of liberty, necessity, privacy, proportionality, coverage, parameters, and even sanctions of specific measures to make it compulsory or mandatory.

“Yet resorting to the use of police power under the circumstances in the country dodges or ignores questions on availability and access to the vaccines as well as to the who, when, and where,” he added.

Meanwhile, in his report to the president, National Task Force Against COVID-19 chief implementer secretary, Carlito Galvez Jr., said that the Philippines was expecting the delivery of COVID-19 jabs to reach 100 million by the end of October.

He added that economic centers such as Metro Manila, and the cities of Baguio, Cebu, Iloilo, and Davao had surpassed the 50 percent vaccination targets in their areas.

On the government’s announcement, Mariel San Diego, a fully vaccinated government employee based in Luzon island’s Pampanga province, said it would be better for the president to allow local government units to act on the matter. “If he really wants to do it, maybe he should start in his home city, Davao.”

Virginia Pasalo, a resident of Pangasinan province, said: “The virus does not come from the unvaccinated. Both vaccinated, and unvaccinated can be carriers or transmitters. My choice of not getting the vaccine is from my family’s history of allergic reactions. I could die with just a shot.”


Bangladesh to vaccinate over 8 million in a day as birthday gift for PM Hasina

Bangladesh to vaccinate over 8 million in a day as birthday gift for PM Hasina
Updated 28 September 2021

Bangladesh to vaccinate over 8 million in a day as birthday gift for PM Hasina

Bangladesh to vaccinate over 8 million in a day as birthday gift for PM Hasina
  • Nearly 10 percent of its population of 170 million people have received both doses as experts urge authorities to ramp up vaccination measures

DHAKA: Bangladeshi health authorities launched a nationwide campaign to vaccinate a record 8 million people in a single day on Tuesday as part of a special inoculation drive to mark Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s birthday.

The South Asian nation’s previous vaccination peak was 2.7 million doses administered in a single day last month, with a daily average of 500,000 shots, according to official data.

“The mass vaccination campaign will cover an additional 7.5 million people to mark this special day, while .5 million will be vaccinated as part of a regular drive,” Dr A.S.M. Alamgir, principal scientific officer at the Institute of Epidemiology, Disease Control and Research, told Arab News.

“The campaign began at 9 a.m. and will continue until we meet targets. It’s a record number of shots for a single day in the country. Earlier, 2.7 million people received their first jab in a single day in August.”

He added that the vaccine milestone drive was a gift for PM Hasina, who turned 74 on Tuesday, amid a surge in coronavirus disease (COVID-19) infections despite tight controls and anti-virus health measures imposed by the government.

More than 32,000 health workers and 48,000 volunteers have been deployed for Tuesday’s initiative, with plans to inoculate 6.9 million people from rural areas of the country, many of whom have yet to receive their first jab.

“Currently, there are around 25 million people in the queue. We want to vaccinate as many as possible during this mass vaccination campaign,” Alamgir said.

Bangladesh began its vaccination drive in February this year with the Covishield shots produced by the Serum Institute of India and, later, with vaccines from China.

So far, it has given at least one dose to 24.88 million adults and two doses to 9.93 percent of its total population of 170 million people, with plans to inoculate 80 percent by February next year.

Locals welcomed the initiative, with some saying it was long overdue.

“It’s been three weeks since I registered for the vaccine. My waiting period is over,” Sitara Begum, a 48-year-old resident of Rajshahi who received her first shot today, told Arab News.

Saiful Islam, a 23-year-old student at Dhaka University, said he was “relieved” to get his first shot before resuming studies in October.

“My university classes will resume next month. I was desperately waiting to receive the first jab before my classes. Otherwise, it would have been risky to attend in-person classes where chances of getting infected are high,” Islam told Arab News at a vaccination center in the capital, Dhaka.

Experts, for their part, said the government has taken a “timely decision” to curb the outbreak but pressed for improved mechanisms to avoid a surge in cases.

“We will be able to contain the infection rate if the government continues this mass vaccination drive,” Prof. Muzaherul Huq, former adviser, South-East Asia region, World Health Organization, told Arab News.

However, he added that it was imperative to develop contact tracing and isolation measures at the sub-district level for individuals testing positive.

“If we can ensure early treatment at the grassroots level, it will reduce the death rate,” Huq added.

As of Tuesday, the infection rate stood at nearly 4.5 percent, with 25 deaths reported, adding to the total tally of 27,500 fatalities recorded since March last year.


Italy gives COVID green light to six non-EU tourist destinations

Italy gives COVID green light to six non-EU tourist destinations
Updated 28 September 2021

Italy gives COVID green light to six non-EU tourist destinations

Italy gives COVID green light to six non-EU tourist destinations
  • Italians will be allowed to travel on what the health ministry called controlled tourist itineraries
  • Everyone leaving for the selected countries must have a 'Green Pass' showing COVID immunity

MILAN: Italy’s health ministry said on Tuesday it had given the go-ahead for travel to six non-European tourist spots without the need for quarantine as a COVID-19 precaution either on arrival or return.
Italians will be allowed to travel to the Maldives, Seychelles, Mauritius, Egypt (but only Sharm El Sheikh and Marsa Alam), Dominican Republic and Aruba on what the ministry called controlled tourist itineraries.
These popular destinations for Italians seeking winter sunshine mark an exception from other places outside the European Union, which require quarantine on return to Italy.
Everyone leaving for the selected countries must have a ‘Green Pass’ showing COVID immunity — either due to vaccination or previous infection — and must also present a negative swab at least 48 hours before departure, according to the order signed by Health Minister Roberto Speranza.
Once back in Italy, people will not be required to undergo quarantine if they have presented another negative test, conducted not more than 48 hours before boarding their plane.
These so-called COVID-free tourist corridors have been set up on an experimental basis, the health ministry said.


Lava from Spanish island volcano rolls slowly toward the sea

Lava from Spanish island volcano rolls slowly toward the sea
Updated 28 September 2021

Lava from Spanish island volcano rolls slowly toward the sea

Lava from Spanish island volcano rolls slowly toward the sea
  • Scientists said it was impossible to estimate when the black-and-red stream of molten rock would reach the shore.
  • Authorities said the lava had moved on the island of La Palma to within 800 meters (875 yards) of the Atlantic Ocean as of Tuesday morning

LOS LLANOS DE ARIDANE, Canary Islands: Lava flowing from a volcano in Spain’s Canary Islands picked up its pace on its way to the sea Tuesday.
Scientists said it was impossible to estimate when the black-and-red stream of molten rock would reach the shore.
Authorities said the lava had moved on the island of La Palma to within 800 meters (875 yards) of the Atlantic Ocean as of Tuesday morning, nine days after the volcano’s eruption. When it eventually meets sea water, the lava could trigger explosions and the release of toxic gas.
By the afternoon, officials said various factors dictated the unpredictable speed of the lava flow, including its departure from a path over an earlier flow that had hardened. The river of cooled lava had helped the moving flow slide along.
“The lava cools down as time passes and it meets uneven ground, which slows it down,” said Miguel Ángel Morcuende, technical director of the Canary Islands emergency volcano response department. “And if it comes off the highway it was going along, that slows it even more because it spreads out wider.”
A small hill and a built-up area also stood in the lava’s way, and the shore area is flatter than the hills the lava has been flowing down.
For days, officials have nervously awaited the time when lava from the Sept. 19 eruption reaches the Atlantic, but the volcano has been erratic. After calming down on Monday, the volcano became more explosive again overnight.
Authorities said they don’t expect the slow-moving lava to create a large disruption on the coast. But Eugenio Fraile, a researcher at the Spanish Oceanography Institute, told Cadena Ser radio that only scientists wearing protective gear will be inside a security perimeter when the flow hits the ocean.
The National Geographic Institute detected six earthquakes Tuesday in the area of the eruption, with the strongest measured at magnitude 3.3.
La Palma, home to about 85,000 people, is part of the volcanic Canary Islands, an archipelago off northwest Africa. The island is roughly 35 kilometers (22 miles) long and 20 kilometers (12 miles) wide at its broadest point.
Lava from the eruption has devoured everything in its path, destroying 589 buildings and 21 kilometers (13 miles) of roads on La Palma. The lava now covers 258 hectares (637 acres), mostly farmland, according to a European Union satellite monitoring agency.
No deaths or serious injuries have been reported, thanks to the prompt evacuations of over 6,000 people.
But local people have lost their homes and their livelihoods at the same time. Farming is one of the island’s economic mainstays, along with tourism, and the lava and ash has ruined crops and irrigation systems, endangered aviation and poses a significant health risk to those nearby.
No flights went in or out of La Palma’s airport for a fourth straight day because of a huge ash cloud. Volcanic ash is hazardous for aircraft engines.
The Spanish government announced after its weekly Cabinet meeting Tuesday it’s providing an immediate grant of 10.5 million euros ($12.3 million) to buy 107 properties to rehouse local people and also provide them with income aid.
More aid, including for the rebuilding of public infrastructure, will be sent once the current emergency is over, government spokeswoman Isabel Rodríguez said.
The volcano has so far spewed out more than 46 million cubic meters (1.6 billion cubic feet) of molten rock, according to the Canary Island Volcanology Institute.


Greece: Afghan refugees fly to Portugal for resettlement

Greece: Afghan refugees fly to Portugal for resettlement
Updated 28 September 2021

Greece: Afghan refugees fly to Portugal for resettlement

Greece: Afghan refugees fly to Portugal for resettlement
  • The Afghans traveled to Greece before the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan in August
  • Another 43 are expected to fly to Portugal in the coming weeks, Greek officials said

ATHENS, Greece:
Authorities in Greece said that 41 Afghan refugees flew from Athens to Portugal on Tuesday, as part of a bilateral agreement to resettle 1,000 people who have been granted asylum.
The Afghans traveled to Greece before the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan in August. Another 43 are expected to fly to Portugal in the coming weeks, Greek officials said.
Athens is seeking to reduce the number of refugees living in the country through bilateral agreements with other European Union members.
Greece has the fifth-highest number of pending asylum applications among EU countries, following Germany, France, Spain and Italy, according to figures from the bloc reported for the end of June.
Athens has toughened its policy on illegal migration in recent years, stepping up controls at its land and sea borders with Turkey.
Earlier Tuesday, 11 unattended migrant minors flew to Paris as part of a separate relocation program.