Instagram disrupted across Iran amid protests

The UN human rights office says the morality police have stepped up operations in recent months and resorted to more violent methods. (AFP/File)
The UN human rights office says the morality police have stepped up operations in recent months and resorted to more violent methods. (AFP/File)
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Updated 21 September 2022

Instagram disrupted across Iran amid protests

Instagram disrupted across Iran amid protests
  • Protests erupted after a woman who was detained by the country’s morality police for allegedly wearing her Islamic headscarf too loosely was reported dead last week
  • In a separate development, hackers took down the websites of several Iranian state agencies

DUBAI: Iranians saw their access to Instagram, one of the few Western social media platforms still available in the country, disrupted on Wednesday following days of mass protests over the death of a woman who was detained by the morality police.
NetBlocks, a London-based group that monitors Internet access, reported widespread disruptions. Witnesses inside Iran, who spoke on condition of anonymity out of security concerns, said they were unable to log on using mobile phones or home connections.
There was no immediate comment from Iranian authorities on the disruption to Instagram, which would limit the ability of protesters to organize and share information.
Iran already blocks Facebook, Telegram, Twitter and YouTube, even though top Iranian officials use public accounts on such platforms. Many Iranians get around the bans using virtual private networks, known as VPNs, and proxies.
In a separate development, the website of Iran’s Central Bank was briefly taken down on Wednesday as hackers claimed they had targeted the websites of several Iranian state agencies. Later, the official websites of Iran’s president and supreme leader were down.
The apparent cyberattack came amid days of protests over the death of a woman who was detained by the country’s morality police for allegedly wearing her Islamic headscarf too loosely. It also came hours before Iran’s President Ebrahim Raisi addressed the United Nations General Assembly.
Central Bank spokesman Mostafa Qamarivafa denied that the bank itself was hacked, saying only that the website was “inaccessible” because of an attack on a server that hosts it, in remarks carried by the official IRNA news agency. The website was later restored.
The Culture Ministry’s website was also unavailable as of Wednesday afternoon.
Hackers linked to the shadowy Anonymous movement said they targeted other Iranian state agencies, including state TV and the office of the presidential spokesman.
Iran has been the target of several cyberattacks in recent years.
In February, dissident hackers put up an anti-government message on a website that streams state television programming. Last year, an online group released video footage from inside Iran’s notorious Evin prison that it claimed to have acquired through hacking.
Later that year, a cyberattack crippled gas stations across the country, creating long lines of angry motorists unable to get subsidized fuel for days. Messages accompanying the attack appeared to refer to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Other attacks, which Iran has blamed on Israel, have targeted its nuclear program and industrial sites.
Iranians have been protesting for days over the death of Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old who was arrested by the morality police last week. The police say she died of a heart attack and was not mistreated, but her family has cast doubt on that account, saying she had no previous heart issues and that they were prevented from seeing her body.
The UN human rights office says the morality police have stepped up operations in recent months and resorted to more violent methods, including slapping women, beating them with batons and shoving them into police vehicles.
Amini’s funeral on Saturday sparked protests in the western Kurdish region, where she was from, which eventually spread across country and reached the capital, Tehran. The protesters have clashed with police and chanted against the Islamic Republic itself.
Raisi has called for an investigation into Amini’s death. Iranian officials have blamed the protests on unnamed foreign countries that they say are trying to foment unrest.
Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei made no reference to the protests in a meeting on Wednesday with veterans of the 1980s Iran-Iraq war.
Iran has seen waves of protests in recent years, mainly over a long-running economic crisis exacerbated by Western sanctions linked to its nuclear program.
The Biden administration and European allies have been working to revive the 2015 Iran nuclear accord, in which Iran curbed its nuclear activities in exchange for sanctions relief, but the talks have been deadlocked for months.
In his speech at the UN, Raisi said Iran is committed to reviving the nuclear agreement but questioned whether it could trust America’s commitment to any accord.
Iran insists its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes. It began ramping up its nuclear activities after then-President Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew from the 2015 agreement, and experts say it now likely has enough highly-enriched uranium to make a bomb if it chooses to do so.


Philippine media groups demand protection after journalist’s murder

Philippine media groups demand protection after journalist’s murder
Updated 04 October 2022

Philippine media groups demand protection after journalist’s murder

Philippine media groups demand protection after journalist’s murder
  • Radio journalist Percival Mabasa killed by two assailants on Monday night

MANILA: A Philippine journalist has been shot dead while driving in the country’s capital, police said on Tuesday, prompting condemnation from media groups and activists, who described his assassination as a blow to press freedom.
Radio journalist Percival Mabasa, 63, was killed by two assailants at the gate of a residential compound in the Las Pinas area of Manila on Monday night, police said.
“That the incident took place in Metro Manila indicates how brazen the perpetrators were, and how authorities have failed to protect journalists as well as ordinary citizens from harm,” said the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines.
The national police vowed to bring justice over the attack. The government had no immediate comment.
It followed the fatal stabbing last month of radio journalist Rey Blanco in central Philippines.
At least 187 have been killed in the past 35 years in the Philippines, according to international watchdog Reporters Without Borders, including 32 killed in a single incident in 2009.
Mabasa’s family called his killing a “deplorable crime” and demanded “his cowardly assassins be brought to justice.”
Rights group Karapatan described him as “one of the country’s fiercest truth-tellers.”
Videos on Mabasa’s YouTube channel, which has 216,000 subscribers, showed he had been critical of the previous president and some policies and officials in incumbent Ferdinand Marcos Jr.’s administration.
“We are not discounting the possibility that the shooting could be related to the victim’s work in media,” local police chief Jaime Santos said in a statement.


Trump files $475 million defamation lawsuit against CNN

Trump files $475 million defamation lawsuit against CNN
Updated 04 October 2022

Trump files $475 million defamation lawsuit against CNN

Trump files $475 million defamation lawsuit against CNN

NEW YORK: Former US President Donald Trump on Monday sued CNN, seeking $475 million in damages, saying the network had defamed him in an effort to short-circuit any future political campaign.
The lawsuit, filed in US District Court in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, focuses primarily on the term “The Big Lie” about Trump’s false claims of widespread fraud that he says cost him the 2020 presidential election to Joe Biden.
CNN said it had no comment on the lawsuit.
Trump repeatedly attacked CNN as president, which resonated with his conservative followers. He has similarly filed lawsuits against big tech companies with little success. His case against Twitter for knocking him off its platform following the Jan. 6, 2021, US Capitol insurrection was thrown out by a California judge earlier this year.
Numerous federal and local election officials in both parties, a long list of courts, top former campaign staffers and even Trump’s own attorney general have all said there is no evidence of the election fraud he alleges.
Trump’s lawsuit claims “The Big Lie,” a phrase with Nazi connotations, has been used in reference to him more than 7,700 times on CNN since January 2021.
“It is intended to aggravate, scare and trigger people,” he said.
In a statement Monday, Trump suggested that similar lawsuits would be filed against other news organizations. And he said he may also bring “appropriate action” against the House committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol by his supporters. The lawsuit comes as he is weighing a potential bid for the presidency in 2024.
New CNN chief Chris Licht privately urged his news personnel in a meeting more than three months ago to refrain from using the phrase because it is too close to Democratic efforts to brand the former president, according to several published reports.


Duolingo in talks to offer ‘cheap and secure’ English-language tests for UK visa applicants

Duolingo in talks to offer ‘cheap and secure’ English-language tests for UK visa applicants
Updated 04 October 2022

Duolingo in talks to offer ‘cheap and secure’ English-language tests for UK visa applicants

Duolingo in talks to offer ‘cheap and secure’ English-language tests for UK visa applicants
  • The online tests would help applicants from 67 countries that do not have any accredited testing centers save time and money, CEO says

LONDON: Duolingo has confirmed it is discussing with the UK government plans that would allow visa applicants around the world to take an online English-language test through the company’s popular language-learning app for less than $50.

Duolingo’s CEO and founder, Luis von Ahn, said during an interview on Sunday that the business is ready to offer “cheap and secure English-language tests” to people who are required to pass one to work or study in the UK.

“Harvard, Stanford, MIT … and I believe there are 75 universities in the UK that accept the test,” he said. “But we’re not yet accepted by the UK government. I think they’re coming around to agreeing that online tests are good.

“We’ve been talking to them. I don’t know how fast the UK government moves. My experience is that all governments move very slowly. So I don’t know how long it will take but I think that will be really good for the world if it happens.”

Duolingo has been offering English-language tests to students seeking admission to universities since 2016. Von Ahn said that initially, some universities were reluctant about the company’s proposal over concerns that the tests would not be fair or secure. But the increased use of online technology during the COVID-19 pandemic helped overcome much of the skepticism and accelerate the adoption of online tests as an alternative to expensive in-person examinations.

“I applied to come to the US to study,” said Von Ahn, who is originally from Guatemala. “In my country, they ran out of these tests so I had to fly to a neighboring country, El Salvador, which in the late 1990s was a war zone. It cost me $1,000 just to fly there and take the test. It was ridiculous.”

Currently, people who apply for visas to work or study in the UK are required to demonstrate their English proficiency by taking a “secure English language test” at an accredited center in one of 134 countries and territories worldwide.

This means that people in 67 countries — including Mali, Niger, Uruguay, Paraguay and Guatemala, as well as many Caribbean and Pacific islands — have to travel abroad to take the test.

Von Ah said that in addition to its mission to “make language education accessible to everybody,” Duolingo wants, through its online English-language test, to address this inequality among countries by making it easier and cheaper for all visa applicants to take the test.

According to market and consumer data company Statista, 239,987 work visas and 432,279 student visas were issued in 2021 to people applying to enter the UK. Of the latter, 27,520 went to students from the MENA region.

Von Ahn founded Duolingo with business partner Severin Hacker in 2012, quickly establishing himself as one of Silicon Valley’s leading entrepreneurs.

The California-based education-technology firm is now valued at $4 billion and offers tuition in more than 40 languages. In the past few years the company has expanded the services it offers beyond traditional language-learning courses. As well as the Duolingo English Test it now offers Duolingo ABC, which helps children learn to read, and is preparing to launch a math app next year.


Snapchat launches Family Center parental-control feature in Saudi Arabia

Snapchat launches Family Center parental-control feature in Saudi Arabia
Updated 04 October 2022

Snapchat launches Family Center parental-control feature in Saudi Arabia

Snapchat launches Family Center parental-control feature in Saudi Arabia
  • It allows parents to monitor the online safety of their children by providing details about people with whom youngsters are communicating through the app

DUBAI: Instant messaging service Snapchat, in cooperation with Saudi Arabia’s General Commission for Audiovisual Media, has launched in the Kingdom its Family Center parental-control feature.

The new feature was introduced to the app in August in the US, UK, Australia, New Zealand and Canada. It was launched last month in the UAE at an event attended by Deputy Prime Minister Sheikh Saif bin Zayed Al-Nahyan and other government officials.

Family Center is designed to give parents and guardians more control over children’s Snapchat habits. It allows them to view details of the people with whom a child is communicating without seeing the content of the conversations, to protect the privacy of the young person. Any suspicious accounts can be easily reported to Snapchat.

Family Center is designed to be used both by parents and children. Parents and guardians are required to install Snapchat on their own devices and then link their accounts to those of their children to access the feature. They can also invite other family members, age 25 or over, to use the feature.

According to a study by data analytics and brand consulting company Kantar, 71 percent of parents in the Kingdom use Snapchat.


Journalists lament proposed closure of BBC foreign-language services

Journalists lament proposed closure of BBC foreign-language services
Updated 03 October 2022

Journalists lament proposed closure of BBC foreign-language services

Journalists lament proposed closure of BBC foreign-language services
  • BBC Arabic radio, others face ax as broadcaster moves to digital-first
  • 382 jobs also set to go in $31m cost-cutting exercise

DUBAI: The BBC’s announcement that it is set to end several of its foreign-language services, including BBC Arabic radio station, has been met with disappointment around the world.

Channel 4 News’ international editor Lindsey Hilsum said on Twitter that “people rely on these radio language services for fair and balanced news they can’t get elsewhere.”

This was especially critical in countries where governments restricted internet services, she added.

Yaser Atrash, a journalist at Syria TV, said on Twitter that “the memory of generations is extinguished.”

The reactions follow an announcement from the corporation last week that it is planning to close its BBC Arabic station after 84 years as part of a cost-cutting exercise and move to digital-first broadcasting that will also see the demise of several other foreign-language services.

A total of 382 workers at the BBC World Service are set to lose their jobs amid rising costs, a freeze in license fees and the move to digital platforms, the company said.

The corporation’s international services needed to make savings of £28.5 million ($31 million) as part of wider reductions of £500 million, it added.

Ali Al-Ahmed, a Saudi political affairs expert and founder and director of the Institute for Gulf Affairs, said on Twitter: “In May 2000 I visited #BBCArabicRadio for the 1st time & told its manager then Gamon McLellan to plan to shutter radio service & focus on TV.”

Liliane Landor, director of BBC World Service, said the cuts and closures would not mean a reduction in the quality of service.

“We will continue to bring the best journalism to audiences in English and more than 40 languages, as well as increasing the impact and influence of our journalism by making our stories go further,” she said.

The World Service currently operates in over 40 languages around the world and has a weekly audience of about 364 million people. But the corporation said audience habits were changing and more people were accessing news online.

The company said it was proposing to stop its radio services in Arabic, Persian, Kyrgyz, Uzbek, Hindi, Bengali, Chinese, Indonesian, Tamil and Urdu.

The language services it is proposing to move to digital-only are: Chinese, Gujarati, Igbo, Indonesian, Pidgin, Urdu and Yoruba.

Eleven language services — Azerbaijani, Brazil, Marathi, Mundo, Punjabi, Russian, Serbian, Sinhala, Thai, Turkish and Vietnamese — are already digital-only.