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Watchdogs raise concern over attacks, pressure on Pakistani journalists

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(Last Updated On: June 3, 2021)

A recent series of attacks and growing pressure on journalists who criticize the Pakistan government is a cause for serious concern, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and the International Commission of Jurists said on Thursday.

In a statement issued by Human Rights Watch, the trio stated that those suspected of criminal responsibility should be promptly and fairly prosecuted.

“The Pakistan government should conduct prompt, impartial, and effective investigations into the recent number of attacks on journalists .

“The government should rescind official policies that protect the authorities from criticism and instead promote space for public debate and free expression, in the face of threats from extremist groups and government officials.

“The frequency and audacity with which journalists are being attacked in Pakistan is appalling,” said Brad Adams, Asia director for HRW.

“The Pakistani authorities should bring those responsible for these attacks to justice and ensure that all journalists can do their jobs without fear of intimidation or reprisals.”

On May 25, 2021, Asad Ali Toor, a journalist, was assaulted by three unidentified men who forcibly entered his apartment in Islamabad. They bound and gagged Toor and severely beat him.

Toor said that they identified themselves as being from a security agency, interrogated him about the “source of his funds,” and took away his cell phone and other electronic devices.

The government ordered an investigation into the incident. In September 2020, the authorities charged Toor with sedition for comments made on social media “maligning state institutions.” A court later dismissed the charges.

On April 20, an unidentified assailant shot and wounded Absar Alam, a television journalist, outside his house in Islamabad. Alam has been a prominent critic of the government. In September 2020, the authorities charged Alam with sedition and “high treason” for using “derogatory language” about the government on social media.

On July 21, 2020, an unidentified assailant abducted another journalist, Matiullah Jan, in Islamabad the day before he was to appear before the Supreme Court for allegedly “using derogatory/contemptuous language and maligning the institution of judiciary.”

Jan was released after a few hours. He alleged the abduction was an attempt to intimidate him. A criminal case was registered for Jan’s abduction, but no suspects have been arrested.

“It is disturbing to see the space for dissent and providing information of public importance rapidly shrink in Pakistan, with journalists as well as human rights defenders particularly at risk of censorship, physical violence, and arbitrary detention,” said Sam Zarifi, secretary general of the International Commission of Jurists.

Pakistani journalists have long faced serious obstacles to their work, including harassment, intimidation, assault, arbitrary arrest and detention, abduction, and death. As these threats have escalated, Pakistani authorities have also increasingly pressured editors and media owners to shut down critical voices.

On May 29, the news channel, Geo, “suspended” Hamid Mir, one of Pakistan’s best-known television talk show hosts, after he spoke at a protest in solidarity with Asad Toor.

Other media outlets have come under pressure from authorities not to criticize government institutions or the judiciary. In several cases in recent years, government regulatory agencies blocked cable operators and television channels that had aired critical programs.

In 2020, Pakistan ranked ninth on the Committee to Protect Journalists annual Global Impunity Index, with at least 15 unsolved killings of journalists since 2010.

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Erdogan says after Biden talks no Turkey-U.S. problems unsolvable

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(Last Updated On: June 15, 2021)

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan sounded upbeat after his first face-to-face talks with Joe Biden, though he announced no major breakthroughs in the awkward relationship between the two allies, at odds over Russian weapons, Syria, Libya and other issues.

Erdogan characterised his talks with the new U.S. president on the sidelines of a NATO summit in Brussels as “productive and sincere”.

“We think that there are no issues within U.S.-Turkey ties, and that areas of cooperation for us are richer and larger than problems,” he said.

Turkey, with the alliance’s second-largest military, has angered its allies in the Western military alliance by buying Russian surface-to-air missiles and intervening in wars in Syria and Libya. It is also in a stand-off with Greece and Cyprus over territory in the Eastern Mediterranean.

As president, Biden has adopted a cooler tone than predecessor Donald Trump towards Erdogan. Biden quickly recognised the 1915 massacre of Armenians as genocide — a position that angers Turkey — and stepped up criticism of Turkey’s human rights record.

Washington has already removed Ankara from the F-35 fighter jet program and imposed sanctions over Turkey’s purchase of the Russian S-400 surface-to-air missiles.

One area where Erdogan hoped to showcase a central Turkish role in NATO is Afghanistan, where Ankara has offered to guard and operate Kabul airport after U.S. and NATO forces withdraw in coming weeks. NATO head Jens Stoltenberg said Turkey would play a key role but no decision was made at the Monday summit.

At the start of the main leaders’ session at NATO, Biden spoke to Erdogan at length in a small group before they took their seats.

Later in the day, the two leaders and their top aides sat mostly silently on opposite sides of a conference table, ignoring questions shouted to them by journalists briefly invited into the room.

Erdogan also met French President Emmanuel Macron. Ankara and Paris have been at odds over Syria, Libya, and Turkish criticism of the fight against what Macron calls Islamist separatism, among other issues.

“President Erdogan confirmed during our meeting his wish that the foreign mercenaries, the foreign militias, operating on Libyan soil leave as soon as possible,” Macron told a news conference afterwards.

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Israel’s new government begins, Netanyahu era ends

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(Last Updated On: June 14, 2021)

The first Israeli government in 12 years not led by Benjamin Netanyahu got down to business on Monday, with the former prime minister shying away from a handover ceremony with successor Naftali Bennett.

The right-wing leader’s record run in office ended on Sunday with parliament approving, by a razor-thin majority of 60-59, a new administration led by Bennett, a nationalist whose views mirror Netanyahu’s on many issues.

In Tel Aviv, thousands turned out to welcome the result, after four inconclusive elections in two years.

“I am here celebrating the end of an era in Israel,” said Erez Biezuner in Rabin Square.

“We want them to succeed and to unite us again,” he added, as flag-waving supporters of the new government sang and danced around him.

A combative Netanyahu, 71, said he would be back sooner than expected.

“If we are destined to go into the opposition, we will do so with our heads held high until we can topple it,” he told parliament before Bennett was sworn in.

The traditional handover ceremony was not scheduled at the prime minister’s office, where Netanyahu was expected to meet Bennett later on Monday to brief him on state matters.

The last time Netanyahu was unseated as Israel‘s leader, in 1999, he ended his first term in office with a glass of wine in his hand and affable words of welcome to then-Labour party leader Ehud Barak, who defeated him at the polls.

 

“Sour, grumpy, not stately – Trump-like until the final moment,” Yossi Verter, a political affairs commentator, wrote in the left-leaning Haaretz newspaper.

Asked why there would be no such scene now, Topaz Luk, a senior aide to Netanyahu, told Army Radio: “That’s just what happens.”

Netanyahu, he said, was “filled with motivation to topple this dangerous government as quickly as possible”. Luk declined to disclose Netanyahu’s comeback strategy, pointing only to the new administration’s slim margin of support in parliament.

Luk said the incoming government was receiving briefings from Netanyahu’s diplomatic and security advisers to ensure an orderly handover.

After holding its first meeting late on Sunday, Bennett’s new cabinet was invited for a traditional group photograph, showcasing incoming governments, at the official residence of President Reuven Rivlin.

With little in common other than a desire to unseat Netanyahu, the patchwork coalition of right-wing, centrist, left-wing and Arab parties largely plans to avoid sweeping moves on hot-button issues such as policy towards the Palestinians, and to focus instead on domestic reforms.

Palestinians were unmoved by the change of administration, predicting that Bennett, a former defence chief who advocates annexing parts of the occupied West Bank, would pursue the same right-wing agenda as Netanyahu.

Under the coalition deal, Bennett, a 49-year-old Orthodox Jew and high-tech millionaire, will be replaced as prime minister in 2023 by centrist Yair Lapid, 57, a popular former television host.

U.S. President Joe Biden congratulated Bennett and Lapid, saying he looked forward to strengthening the “close and enduring” relationship between the two countries.

Addressing parliament on Sunday, Bennett put Biden on notice that he would follow in Netanyahu’s footsteps in opposing any U.S. return to the 2015 Iran nuclear deal abrogated by former President Donald Trump.

Netanyahu was Israel‘s longest-serving leader, and had served consecutive terms as prime minister since 2009.

He used his global stature to resist calls for Palestinian statehood, describing it as a danger to Israel‘s security. He sought to bypass the Palestinian issue by forging diplomatic deals with regional Arab states, on the back of shared fears of Iran and its nuclear programme.

But he was a divisive figure at home and abroad, weakened by repeated failure to clinch a decisive election victory, and by a corruption trial in which he has denied any wrongdoing.

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Gas pipe explosion kills 12 in China

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(Last Updated On: June 13, 2021)

A gas pipe explosion in a residential community in a central Chinese city killed 12 people and injured 138, state media CCTV reported Sunday.

One hundred-fifty people were evacuated following the deadly accident in the city of Shiyan in Hubei province, it said, of which 37 are critically injured.

The explosion caused a food market building to collapse at 6:30 a.m., local media reported. Footage from CCTV shows wreckage and shattered glass covering the first floor of the collapsed building, where people were having breakfast and buying groceries when explosion happened.

People can be seen walking in a rubble-strewn street between damaged buildings.

Hospitals in Shiyan are asking residents to donate blood, as the injured are still under emergency treatment, CCTV said.

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