Russian media watchdog blacklists outlets linked to Wagner mercenary chief

The "PMC Wagner Centre", associated with the founder of the Wagner Group, Yevgeny Prigozhin, is seen with its logo and sign removed, in Saint Petersburg, Russia July 1, 2023. (REUTERS)
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Updated 02 July 2023

Russian media watchdog blacklists outlets linked to Wagner mercenary chief

Russian media watchdog blacklists outlets linked to Wagner mercenary chief
  • Patriot, founded in 2019 to bring together Prigozhin’s media and Internet assets, included the Internet Research Agency, the so-called “troll farm” linked to Russian attempts to meddle in US elections

MOSCOW: Russia’s media watchdog blacklisted at least five media outlets affiliated with Wagner mercenary chief Yevgeny Prigozhin and blocked their websites in Russia. The move came after Wagner fighters took control of a Russian military headquarters and advanced on Moscow in what appears to have been an attempted insurrection.
As of Saturday, websites of the RIA FAN news agency and four online news portals controlled by Prigozhin’s Patriot media holding company “People’s News”, “Neva News”, “Politics Today” and “Economy Today” — were listed on a register of blacklisted sites maintained by the communications watchdog, Roskomnadzor.
Unconfirmed reports in Russian news outlets Friday claimed that Prigozhin himself had ordered a shut down of St. Petersburg-based Patriot. Prigozhin has not directly confirmed or denied the reports.
Patriot, founded in 2019 to bring together Prigozhin’s media and Internet assets, included the Internet Research Agency, the so-called “troll farm” linked to Russian attempts to meddle in US elections.
Patriot director Yevgeny Zubarev said this week that the Internet Research Agency, which was tasked with conducting online influence operations to advance Russian interests, had operated under Prigozhin’s control since 2009 before being brought under the Patriot umbrella. .
In the run-up to the 2016 US presidential election, IRA employees regularly posed as Americans to offer financial help to US protest movements tackling socially divisive topics, according to a 2017 investigation by Russian newspaper RBC.
The investigation, based on accounts from several IRA employees, identified more than 100 Facebook, Instagram and Twitter accounts it said were used to contact US-based activists offering help with organizing protests and events, focusing on race relations and gun rights among other front-page issues.
Prigozhin admitted in November that he had interfered in the 2016 election.
He and his fighters escaped prosecution and were offered refuge in Belarus last week after the president of Belarus helped broker a deal to end what appeared to be an armed insurrection by the mercenary group.
Prigozhin’s media group encompassed dozens of media outlets, including RIA FAN, the news agency whose US subsidiary USA Really pilloried “mainstream media” and praised then-President Donald Trump in its mission statement.


Step boss says AI regulation is critical but cautions against over-regulation

Step boss says AI regulation is critical but cautions against over-regulation
Updated 29 February 2024

Step boss says AI regulation is critical but cautions against over-regulation

Step boss says AI regulation is critical but cautions against over-regulation
  • Ray Dargham, the CEO of the tech-focused new media company, tells Arab News Saudi Arabia and the UAE are leading the way in AI advances and regulation
  • Annual Step Conference in Dubai last week added an AI track reflecting the growth of the technology globally and regionally

DUBAI: Tech-focused new media company Step held its 12th annual conference and exhibition in Dubai last week, which attracted about 350 startups, 150 venture capital firms and more than 8,000 delegates.

Ray Dargham, the co-founder and CEO of Step, said during the opening ceremony that the business, which has already expanded to include a conference in Saudi Arabia, now plans to go global through a partner-hosting model.

The event in Dubai featured six tracks: Start, covering startups, growth and venture capital; Fintech, covering ecommerce; Digital, devoted to media, adtech and creators; Wellness, covering health, lifestyle and femtech; Earth, for greentech and sustainability; and Artificial Intelligence, covering machine learning, data and automation.

The newly added AI track covered topics such as large-language models, advanced neural nets, and co-pilot systems, which were discussed by industry experts such as Brittany McDonough of the Abu Dhabi Investment Office; Maitha Alsuwaidi, chief operating officer of Microsoft UAE; Google Cloud’s Ahmad El-Sayed; and Google Deepmind’s head of product, Mehdi-Ghissassi.

Although AI has been around for a while, “it hadn’t actually reached a critical mass until about a year ago,” Dargham told Arab News. “For a long time, AGI or artificial general intelligence, was mostly limited to labs.”

More recently, ChatGPT has played a critical role in helping AI reach a mass audience, allowing everyone to “experience the power behind the technology,” he added.

The AI sessions at the Step Conference, which covered several topics, including regulatory frameworks and deep learning, were “designed to provide startups with invaluable insights into the ethical, regulatory and technological advancement of AI, equipping them to navigate and capitalize on the dynamic and fast-moving landscape of AI-driven innovation.”

The company is adapting to become an “AI conference” because, Dargham said, “most of what we consider ‘tech’ today will become AI-powered or have an AI component to it over the next few years.”

All of the other tracks during Step events will be affected by the development and utilization of AI to such a significant degree that Dargham believes the technology “will become bigger than software and the internet itself. Hence, theoretically speaking, our conference will become an AI conference instead of being a tech conference.”

Much of the innovation and development in AI has been global but Dargham said that in particular, Step was “noticing a significant shift in the Middle East region toward a growing interest and adoption of generative AI technologies.”

As evidence of this he cited the UAE’s strategy on AI, which aims to ensure the country is at the forefront of innovation in the technology by 2031, and Saudi Arabia’s national agenda for data and AI, which aims to position the Kingdom as a global leader in data-driven economies, allowing it to leverage the power of AI for economic and social development.

The region is already receiving greater international attention and investment related to AI. OpenAI CEO Sam Altman, for example, is reportedly in talks with investors, including in the UAE, to raise funding — said to be as much as between $5 trillion and $7 trillion — for a tech initiative to boost international chip-building capacity and expand its ability to power AI, among other things.

Saudi Arabia and the UAE “are leading a groundbreaking wave of AI investment, spearheaded by entities like (AI development company) G42,” said Dargham.

“The adoption rates are skyrocketing across sectors, from healthcare to finance, highlighting a strategic shift towards AI-driven innovation” but it isn’t “just about numbers,” he added.

“It’s about crafting a narrative of ambition and progress that’s reshaping the region’s technological landscape.”

The national strategies of the countries and their investments are encouraging interest from private entities that “are increasingly investing in AI research and development, with a particular focus on generative AI,” which includes “endeavors to pioneer advanced algorithms, models, and applications customized to address regional needs and challenges,” said Dargham.

AI innovation is particularly evident in the startup landscape, with businesses “exploring diverse applications of generative AI in areas such as natural language processing, computer vision and creative AI.”

The advancement of AI is not without its challenges as global concerns grow about data privacy and security.

“Ensuring the protection of sensitive information and compliance with data-protection regulations are imperative for instilling trust and confidence in GenAI technologies among stakeholders,” said Dargham.

He added that “a significant hurdle” is the shortage of skilled AI professionals.

“Without an adequate talent pool equipped with the necessary expertise, organizations struggle to effectively implement GenAI solutions” resulting in a “pressing need to invest in AI education and training programs,” he said.

The rapid development of AI also brings with it ethical considerations.

“From deepfakes to misinformation, the ethical implications of GenAI demand robust guidelines and frameworks for responsible use,” Dargham said.

Step is committed to playing its part in this space, he added, through sessions designed to address the ethics, safety and societal impacts of AI. It is also exploring collaborations between governments and international organizations “to develop policies that foster innovation while addressing concerns related to data privacy, bias, transparency and responsibility.”

While regulation is critical, Dargham cautioned against over-regulation.

“Collaboration with policymakers, industry leaders, and ethical experts is essential in establishing clear guidelines that promote the ethical deployment of GenAI technologies, fostering trust and accountability within the ecosystem,” he said.

Both Saudi Arabia and the UAE have “made significant progress in crafting frameworks for AI governance and ethics,” accompanied by national strategies and programs “aimed at advancing AI technologies while addressing pertinent regulatory concerns,” Dargham added.

“I think regulation for AI is crucial, but I’m also concerned about over-regulation globally; the EU tends to overregulate.”

NATO appoints Farah Dakhlallah as new spokesperson

NATO appoints Farah Dakhlallah as new spokesperson
Updated 29 February 2024

NATO appoints Farah Dakhlallah as new spokesperson

NATO appoints Farah Dakhlallah as new spokesperson
  • Dakhlallah, a Lebanese-British citizen, has wide-ranging experience in both the public and private sectors

LONDON: NATO has appointed Farah Dakhlallah as its new spokesperson.

In a statement announcing the news, the organization’s secretary general, Jens Stoltenberg, said: “In a more dangerous world, clear and timely communication, and engagement with the media, are more important than ever.” 

Dakhlallah, a Lebanese-British citizen, has wide-ranging experience in both the public and private sectors, including with the UN, the UK government and AstraZeneca, as well as several media organizations.

Posting on her LinkedIn account, she wrote: “It is an honor and a privilege to be appointed NATO spokesperson, leading press and media for the alliance during this critical time.”

She added the alliance currently protected more than one billion people, “safeguarding their freedom and democracy, and contributing to a more peaceful world.” 

Dakhlallah previously served as media relations director for the Middle East and Africa at AstraZeneca, communications manager at the World Health Organization, and Arabic spokeswoman for the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

She has a master’s degree in international relations from the University of Cambridge and another in media and communications from the London School of Economics. She also studied audiovisual arts at Beirut’s Universite Saint Joseph.

East London’s streets become canvas for pro-Palestine art 

East London’s streets become canvas for pro-Palestine art 
Updated 29 February 2024

East London’s streets become canvas for pro-Palestine art 

East London’s streets become canvas for pro-Palestine art 
  • Nine graffiti murals spotlight Palestinian journalists and doctors in Gaza with their Instagram handle
  • 'History will judge us all,' Creative Debuts founder says

LONDON: When exploring East London, a vibrant display of creativity and dissent is evident.

Amid the backdrop of coffee shops spinning vinyl records and speakeasies tucked away in butcher shops, the streets have become a canvas for an array of art voicing solidarity with the Palestinian people.

The latest addition has been the “Heroes of Palestine” project, a collection of nine graffiti murals celebrating the resilience of frontline workers in Gaza.

A mural of Palestinian journalist Bisan Owda in London by Lours. (Creative Debuts)

First launched by the art platform Creative Debuts in January, each mural spotlighted a civilian journalist along with their Instagram handle. They include Motaz Azaiza, Wael Dahdouh, Plestia Al-Aqad, Bisan Owda, Hind Khoudary, and Doaa Al-Baz.

Citizen journalists, who are risking their lives to document Israel’s bombardment and military invasion of Gaza, have played a crucial role in humanizing Palestinians.

Through platforms like Instagram, they have forged deep emotional bonds with a global audience, drawing attention to the death and destruction brought on by the war. 

“The murals bring it back to the human beings on the ground and the fact that there’s a huge, tremendous loss of life,” Creative Debuts founder Calum Hall told Arab News. 

“There’s a horrendous amount of casualties, with 90 percent of the population displaced. There’s obviously the situation happening in Rafah at the moment, which is devastating,” he added.

The community-driven project has captured the attention of both the local community and a global audience, with Hall noting that “as far as social media goes, the murals are by far the most engaged pieces we’ve ever done.”

A mural of Palestinian doctor Ahmed Moghrabi spray painted in Peckham, London. (Creative Debuts)

Following the campaign’s initial success, Creative Debuts expanded their project in February to include a tribute to Gaza’s doctors.

Hall says the murals, which have all been seen by their subjects in Gaza via social media, also serve to boost morale.

“Particularly, with the medical professionals, they’re dealing with such harrowing circumstances all the time. So, if we can even provide a 1 percent bit of hope, encouragement, and love, that has a knock-on effect for the people around them.

“We want the people out there to know they’re being seen, know they’re being heard, and know they’re being loved.”

Meanwhile, Hall advocated for the use of street art as a form of activism, a conduit for dialogue, and a tool to connect communities.

“Street art is for the people. It’s the most accessible art form, so it very much should be depicting what’s going on in society.

“Everyone loves it, taking photos, engaging with it. But it is a form of rebellion, it is a form of activism in itself and it’s the perfect way for us to get this campaign out.”

A mural of Palestinian journalist Plestia Alaqad in London painted by  Ed Hicks. (Creative Debuts)

Israel’s brutal war on Gaza, now in its sixth month, has killed nearly 30,000 people, the majority of whom are women and children.

As of Feb. 15, a YouGov poll indicates that 66 percent of Britons want Israel’s war to stop. However, the UK government has not called for an immediate ceasefire, nor has it halted the transfer of arms to Israel amid concerns that they might be used to commit “war crimes” against Palestinians.

London has witnessed some of Europe’s largest pro-Palestine protests since October, with regular marches on Saturdays, drawing hundreds of thousands.

“What seems to be really apparent is there’s a disconnect between how serious the issue is, how the politicians are handling it, and what the public thinks,” Hall said.

“I think that’s creating a bigger fissure between the public and the people in charge in this country,” he added.

The founder concluded: “The murals are an important legacy for all of us, to rally behind the people in Gaza but to also let our politicians know that we’re not happy about it.

“We’re not happy seeing this destruction and devastation in real time on our social media; it’s unavoidable. History will judge us all.”

Creative Debuts has launched a GoFundMe to continue the creation and documentation of the “Heroes of Palestine” murals, with funds directly allocated to the artists, materials, and the photographer.

UN urged to probe deadly Israel strikes against journalists in Lebanon

UN urged to probe deadly Israel strikes against journalists in Lebanon
Updated 28 February 2024

UN urged to probe deadly Israel strikes against journalists in Lebanon

UN urged to probe deadly Israel strikes against journalists in Lebanon
  • More than 120 individuals and groups signed the letter calling for an investigation into the death of three media workers last year
  • Israel has been accused on several occasions of deliberately targeting journalists

BEIRUT: More than 120 individuals and groups on Wednesday called for a United Nations probe into Israeli attacks on journalists in south Lebanon, where three were killed last year.
An appeal addressed to UN rights chief Volker Turk expressed concern over “the Israeli forces’ apparent deliberate targeting of journalists and media workers in Lebanon.”
An AFP investigation into strikes on October 13 that killed Reuters journalist Issam Abdallah and wounded six others, including AFP photographer Christina Assi critically and AFP video journalist Dylan Collins, pointed to a tank shell only used by the Israeli army in the border region.
On November 21, Farah Omar and Rabih Maamari from the pro-Iranian channel Al Mayadeen were killed in Israeli strikes on southern Lebanon, the broadcaster and official media said.
The letter to Turk urged “an investigation to establish the facts and circumstances” around the attacks and for the findings to be published “with a view to holding those responsible accountable.”
Signatories included the Committee to Protect Journalists, local and regional rights groups, Lebanese lawmakers and media outlets including Al Jazeera, as well as AFP’s Collins and Assi.
A separate letter, sent to UNESCO chief Audrey Azoulay, urged her office to “advocate for accountability for the apparent war crimes committed by Israel in south Lebanon.”
In December, Israel’s army said the October strikes occurred in an “active combat zone” and were under review.
Following the November strike, the Israeli military said it was “aware of a claim regarding journalists in the area who were killed as a result of IDF (army) fire.”
It added that there were “active hostilities” in the area and that the incident was under review.
The AFP investigation into the October strikes, jointly conducted with Airwars, an NGO that investigates attacks on civilians in conflict situations, found the attack involved a 120-mm tank shell only used by the Israeli army in this region.
A Reuters investigation found that two Israeli tank rounds fired from the same position across the border were used in the attack.
Human Rights Watch concluded that the October strikes were “apparently deliberate attacks on civilians, which is a war crime” and which “should be prosecuted or may be prosecuted for war crimes.”
France’s foreign ministry in December said “all light” must be shed on the October 13 strikes, while US top diplomat Antony Blinken welcomed an Israeli investigation into the strike as “important and appropriate.”

News outlets call for free access to Gaza for foreign media

News outlets call for free access to Gaza for foreign media
Updated 28 February 2024

News outlets call for free access to Gaza for foreign media

News outlets call for free access to Gaza for foreign media
  • After 5 months of war, journalists are still denied the freedom to enter the territory without direct supervision by the Israeli army, which is accused of ‘limiting insights’
  • In an open letter to Israel and Egypt, the organizations also called for greater efforts to ensure the safety of local reporters in the territory

LONDON: More than 50 broadcast journalists from major outlets have signed an open letter sent to the Israeli and Egyptian embassies in which they call for foreign media outlets to be granted unrestricted access to Gaza.

The letter, signed by representatives of British media organizations BBC News, Sky News, ITV News and Channel 4 News, and US broadcasters CNN, NBC, CBS and ABC, expressed frustration about the limited coverage they are able to provide because of the obstacles faced by international news crews.

“Almost five months into the war in Gaza, foreign reporters are still being denied access to the territory, outside of the rare and escorted trips with the Israeli military,” they wrote.

“We urge the governments of Israel and Egypt to allow free and unfettered access to Gaza for all foreign media. We call on the government of Israel to openly state its permission for international journalists to operate in Gaza and for the Egyptian authorities to allow international journalists access to the Rafah Crossing.”

The letter also calls for improved safety measures to protect local reporters on the ground in the territory.

“There is intense global interest in the events in Gaza and for now the only reporting has come from journalists who were already based there,” it said.

“It’s vital that local journalists’ safety is respected and that their efforts are bolstered by the journalism of members of the international media.

“The risks of conflict reporting are well understood by our organizations, who have decades of experience of reporting in war-zones around the world and in previous wars in Gaza.”

The signatories of the letter include noted correspondents including Alex Crawford of Sky News, Jeremy Bowen from the BBC, and Christiane Amanpour from CNN.

It is all but impossible for journalists to enter the Gaza Strip except under the direct supervision of the Israeli military, which has been accused of “offering only limited insight” by controlling the movement of journalists and their access to information.

Instead, news organizations are largely forced to rely on local journalists in Gaza to report the latest events and developments at a time when their lives, and those of their families, are at risk every day.

Crawford, the Sky News special correspondent, said that like many other journalists, she and her crew have “spent the bulk of the past nearly five months trying to get into Gaza” but have yet to pass through the Rafah border crossing from Egypt.

In one report, she said about 90 journalists are believed to have been killed since the war began on Oct. 7, an average of about 20 a month or one every other day.

“Can you take that in? Because I am finding that hard to,” she said.

Clarissa Ward, CNN’s chief international correspondent, who also signed the letter, is believed to be the only journalist not resident in Gaza who has managed to enter the territory since Oct. 7 without being embedded with Israeli troops. She traveled there with a medical team from the UAE.

Ward said the trip “provided a window into the war zone but only a small one.”