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Tornadoes Kill at Least 11 Across US Midwest and South

Unrelenting tornadoes that tore through parts of the South and Midwest killed at least 11 people, shredded homes and shopping centers, and collapsed a theater roof during a heavy metal concert in Illinois.

Emergency responders across the region counted the dead and surveyed the damage Saturday morning after tornadoes touched down into the night, part of a sprawling storm system that also brought wildfires to the southern Plains and blizzard conditions to the Upper Midwest.

The dead included four in the small town of Wynne, Arkansas, Cross County Coroner Eli Long told KAIT-TV. Other deaths were reported in Alabama, Illinois, Indiana and the Little Rock area.

Wynne City Councilmember Lisa Powell Carter said the town about 50 miles (80 kilometers) west of Memphis, Tennessee, was without power and roads were full of debris.

“I’m in a panic trying to get home, but we can’t get home,” she said Friday night. “Wynne is so demolished… There’s houses destroyed, trees down on streets.”

The storms also killed three people in Sullivan County, Indiana, Emergency Management Director Jim Pirtle said in an email. Some residents were missing in the county seat of Sullivan, near the Illinois line about 150 kilometers southwest of Indianapolis.

At least one person was killed, and more than two dozen were hurt, some critically, in the Little Rock area, authorities said.

In Belvidere, Illinois, the roof of the Apollo Theatre collapsed during a tornado, killing one person and injuring 28, five severely. Calls began coming from the theater, about 110 kilometers northwest of Chicago, shortly before 8 p.m., police said. The venue’s Facebook page said the bands scheduled to perform were Morbid Angel, Crypta, Skeletal Remains and Revocation.

Belvidere Fire Chief Shawn Schadle said 260 people were in the venue. Responders also rescued someone from an elevator and had to deal with downed power lines outside the theater.

Belvidere Police Chief Shane Woody described the scene after the collapse as “chaos, absolute chaos.”

Gabrielle Lewellyn had just entered the theater when a portion of the ceiling collapsed.

“I was there within a minute before it came down,” she told WTVO-TV. “The winds, when I was walking up to the building, it went like from zero to a thousand within five seconds.”

Some people rushed to lift the collapsed portion of the ceiling and pull people out of the rubble, said Lewellyn, who wasn’t hurt.

“They dragged someone out from the rubble, and I sat with him, and I held his hand, and I was [telling him] ‘It’s going to be okay.’ I didn’t really know much else what to do.”

A tornado also killed a woman and critically injured three other people in Madison County, Alabama, emergency services worker Don Webster told WAFF-TV.

The tornado in Little Rock tore first through neighborhoods in the western part of the Arkansas capital and shredded a small shopping center that included a Kroger grocery store. It then crossed the Arkansas River into North Little Rock and surrounding cities, where widespread damage was reported to homes, businesses and vehicles.

Little Rock resident Niki Scott took cover in the bathroom after her husband called to warn her of a tornado. She could hear glass shattering and emerged to find that her house was one of the few on her street that didn’t have a tree on it.

“It’s just like everyone says. It got really quiet, then it got really loud,” Scott said afterward, as chainsaws roared and sirens blared.

In the evening, officials in Pulaski County announced a confirmed fatality in North Little Rock.

Governor Sarah Huckabee Sanders activated 100 members of the National Guard to help local authorities respond throughout the state.

The unrelenting tornadoes continued to touch down in the region into the night.

The police department in Covington, Tennessee, said on Facebook that the west Tennessee city was impassable after power lines and trees fell on roads when the storm passed through Friday evening. Authorities in Tipton County, north of Memphis, said a tornado appeared to have touched down near the middle school in Covington and in other locations in the rural county.

Tipton County Sheriff Shannon Beasley said on Facebook that homes and structures were severely damaged.

Tornadoes also caused sporadic damage in eastern Iowa. One veered just west of Iowa City, home to the University of Iowa. Video from KCRG-TV showed toppled power poles and roofs ripped off an apartment building in the suburb of Coralville and significantly damaged homes in the city of Hills.

Nearly 90,000 customers in Arkansas lost power, according to, which tracks outages. Outages were also reported in Iowa, Missouri, Tennessee, Wisconsin, Indiana and Texas.

In Illinois, Ben Wagner, chief radar operator for the Woodford County Emergency Management Agency, said hail broke windows on cars and buildings in the area of Roanoke, northeast of Peoria. More than 109,000 customers had lost power in the state as of Friday night.

There were more confirmed twisters in Iowa, wind-whipped grass fires in Oklahoma, and blizzard conditions in the Upper Midwest as the storm system threatened a broad swath of the country home to some 85 million people.

Fire crews battled several blazes near El Dorado, Kansas, and some residents were asked to evacuate, including about 250 elementary school children who were relocated to a high school.

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 Hoax Dupes US City, Points to Evolving Scam Risks

An elaborate hoax that duped the U.S. city of Newark, New Jersey, into signing a sister-city agreement with a nonexistent island nation is but one example of a profusion of scams and frauds in the internet age, with hucksters constantly inventing new ways to dupe, trick and swindle.

In a case that drew headlines and made Newark a laughingstock in some people’s eyes, the city signed a cultural partnership, known as a sister-city agreement, with a fake country called the United States of Kailasa, named after a mountain in the Himalayas. There was even a signing ceremony featuring Newark’s mayor and a supposed representative of Kailasa.

Newark officials were led to believe that Kailasa was a Hindu island-nation off the coast of Ecuador. According to Kailasa’s website, “It is a nation without borders created by dispossessed Hindus from around the world who lost the right to practice Hinduism authentically in their own countries.” Although Kailasa does not have a formal government, it is supposedly led by a self-styled guru named Nithyananda, who calls himself “the divine holiness and supreme pontiff of Hinduism,” and claims he founded the new country in 2019.

However, it is supposedly led by a self-styled guru named Nithyananda, who calls himself “the divine holiness and supreme pontiff of Hinduism,” and claims he founded the new country in 2019. He fled India in 2019 after being charged with rape and sexual assault, which he denies committing.

Admitting that Newark got conned, the city council rescinded the sister-city agreement just days after it was signed.

“Although this was a regrettable incident, the city of Newark remains committed to partnering with people from diverse cultures in order to enrich each other with connectivity, support and mutual respect,” the Newark City Hall said in a statement.

Newark may not have been the only U.S. city that got duped. According to Kailasa’s website, some 30 municipalities have signed cultural partnership agreements, a claim VOA could neither verify nor disprove.

Nithyananda has not made public appearances since 2019, although video of his sermons can be seen on social media. The self-proclaimed Hindu leader has an extensive website and Facebook page with a grandiose list of supposed accomplishments.

“He appears to be misrepresenting himself at the very least,” said V.S. Subrahmanian, a cybersecurity expert and computer science professor at Northwestern University near Chicago.

“It’s possible Nithyananda has delusions of grandeur and wants people to admire him,” he told VOA. “When a lot of people look up to somebody, that person can take advantage of them in various ways.”

Subrahmanian added, “Organizations that show photos and videos of events they participated in can create an alternative reality other people may believe is real.”

While Newark’s experience was embarrassing for the city but ultimately caused no serious harm, the same cannot be said of many other scams. The internet, including social media, is giving scammers virtually limitless avenues to commit fraud.

“We’re seeing increasing phishing on emails and attachments that take them to sites that download malware on a computer,” Subrahmanian said, “and that means your passwords may be taken, including the one to your bank account.” He added, “another big risk is that they will lock your computer and demand a ransom.”

“The internet and the tools that come associated with it makes it easy to create false information,” said Cliff Lampe, professor of information at the University of Michigan’s School of Information. For example, “Someone may be able to hack an account, or create a false account, and pretend to be one of your network friends.”

Lampe said he is particularly concerned about one increasingly common scam.

“People who think they are doing legitimate business over Facebook messages,” he said. “A real friend never contacts you for money over Facebook Messenger.”

“Another I’ve seen recently is that you will get a text message saying a particular account has been closed and you need to contact us. That’s just an interim move for a scam and they’re trying to get money from you.” Lampe said.

Both Lampe and Subrahmanian say educating people about protecting themselves is key.

“Don’t do business over Facebook Messenger and text message. And don’t send gift cards to people you don’t know who say they have a family emergency because that’s sure to be a scam,” said Lampe.

Subrahmanian said, “If you see something that sounds incredible, be cautious and verify that it’s true so you don’t get duped.”

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US To Open Embassy in Vanuatu

The United States has announced its intention to open an embassy in Vanuatu.

The State Department said in a statement Friday that the establishment of a Vanuatu embassy would “further strengthen the bilateral relationship.”

Washington’s opening of an embassy in the South Pacific nation is widely viewed as a means of countering the growing Chinese influence in the region.

The United States has also announced plans to open embassies in the Pacific Island nations of Kiribati and Tonga.

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New Orleans Embraces Its French Roots

“While [much of] the rest of the U.S. has its Anglo-Saxon heritage, New Orleans’ mother country is France – and that makes a big difference,” explained Alexandra Stafford, president of the Council of French Societies, an umbrella organization that promotes the many French nonprofit organizations in Louisiana’s most populous city.

“Our French connection brings a different flavor to our community,” she continued. “A different vocabulary, different traditions, different food and most importantly, a joie de vivre that other parts of America don’t have!”

That joie de vivre was on full display on March 25. The aroma of moules frites, crepes and raclette cheese with cornichons, as well as the longing lyrics of a French ballad all emanated from a side street. Children laughed and played while some ate colorful macarons, and a trio of women dressed as Marie Antoinette took a photo in front of an oversized sign that read, “Bonjour!”

One could be excused for thinking for a moment they were entering a Parisian street festival. In reality, this was taking place at Fête Française, the annual outdoor street fair hosted by Ecole Bilingue, one of a half-dozen French immersion schools in New Orleans.

Events like this make sense in a city originally called La Nouvelle-Orléans by its 18th century French founders. And though, according to a survey at the start of the current century, only about 1% of residents still speak French, this neighborhood festival serves as evidence that New Orleans continues to be influenced in countless ways by its Francophone past.

“Many residents can still recall a time when French was spoken widely in homes here,” Ecole Bilingue’s head of school, or chef d’établissement, Pierre-Loïc Denichou, told VOA. “Louisiana is a state whose identity relies on its historic ties to the French colonial period, and so our school and our festival are about embracing what makes living here unique from anywhere in the world.

“We are preserving a culture born from the influence of so many cultures,” he added, “an important one being that of the French.”

From croissants to street grids

On the other side of town, Dominique Rizzo and his small team prepare pastries in the morning at his shop, Celtica French Bakery. Rizzo said he moved to New Orleans from France decades ago to share his love for the food of his native country with his adopted hometown.

“I make my pastries with the kind of care and quality you’d find in France,” he explained. “The light and fluffy pastries, the flaky and buttery croissants, and the sweet and indulgent desserts — the French turned baking into an art, and I think people come to my Celtica to find a little corner of Paris in New Orleans.”

Food is one of the most celebrated examples of sustained French influence in New Orleans, but it’s far from the only example.

Joseph Mistrot is the former president of L’Union Française, a local nonprofit founded in 1872 to teach the French language and preserve Francophone culture. His great-grandfather emigrated to New Orleans from France in the late 19th century and his Cajun grandmother’s first language was French. Mistrot said Mardi Gras is another high-profile example of how historic Francophone influences endure in New Orleans today.

“Mardi Gras is our premier event of the year and is a direct reflection of our ties to France,” he said. “The season starts with a parade by the Krewe of Jeanne d’Arc, in honor of the French heroine and [an unofficial] patron saint of New Orleans. It ends with the Boeuf Gras, which is an old French tradition in which a cow was paraded through the street before being slaughtered for the final feast before Lent.”

“Today, in New Orleans, it’s not a real cow,” Mistrot was quick to add. “It’s made of paper-mache and part of a parade float, but it’s from the same tradition.”

French influence can even be seen in how the city was built.

Whereas most American cities have a street grid composed of perfect squares and right angles — Manhattan being a classic example — New Orleans, which was founded along the twisting, winding Mississippi River, benefits from a French-style street grid with an irregular geometry.

“French influence in New Orleans is traceable to the spring of 1682, when the French-Canadian explorer Robert La Salle first passed the future site of the city and claimed the entire Mississippi Valley for France,” explained Richard Campanella, an author and geographer with New Orleans’ Tulane University. “By the end of the 17th century, an outpost was established within that claim.”

As French surveyors laid out plantation parcels in the next decades, Campanella said, they had to be fair and give each landowner a piece of the fertile land beside the Mississippi River, as well as shipping access.

The solution was thin, “long-lot” plantations, known as the “arpent system.” As these lots were eventually divided up into neighborhoods in the 19th century, the street grid adhered to the earlier plantation boundaries. Some of today’s street names were derived from those plantations as well as the names of famous French historical figures and families.

“Look at any map or satellite image of New Orleans, and you will still readily see the imprint of this old, French surveying system from centuries ago.”

Francophone with local flair

In the centuries since New Orleans’ original settlement by the French, several elements of Francophone influence have waned. Fires in the city’s famous French Quarter destroyed much of its French architecture, which was replaced with a Spanish style after Spain took control of the city in the late 18th century.

The Louisiana Purchase of 1803 resulted in La Nouvelle-Orléans becoming part of the United States. As the Anglo “Américains” flooded into the new territory, the existing — and previously dominant — French Creole population slowly lost political control. Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, French-owned businesses closed, and the French language largely disappeared from homes in the city, though it can still be found in more rural parts of Louisiana.

“After the Civil War, and the destruction of Louisiana’s economy in the years after, ties between New Orleans and France weakened considerably,” explained Thomas Klingler, director of linguistics in the French and Italian department at Tulane University.

But lovers of Francophone culture are adamant that many aspects of French influence have survived over the years and are readily apparent to the eyes – and the tastebuds.

French restaurants abound in New Orleans, but this is a different type of French from what you’ll find in Paris.

“New Orleans cuisine is unparalleled in the world, and like the residents who live here, our food is a mix of French, Spanish, African, Caribbean and more recently Vietnamese influences,” Ryan Pearson, executive chef at New Orleans restaurant Couvant, told VOA.

As Pearson prepares Couvant’s most popular entree, he highlights the push and pull between the city’s unique identity and how French culture plays a major role in shaping it.

“We wrap veal in brioche and layer in a chicken mousse, which is served with a sauce diable — and this is all very French,” he explained, carefully painting the plate with the sauce. “But at the same time, we are adding locally sourced ingredients like cauliflower and mushrooms because that’s something we’re committed to alongside the French technique of our cooking.”

Commitment to the future

It’s a metaphor for life in New Orleans. An American city with a historic but enduring French connection shaped by cultures from across the globe.

The importance of the relationship between Louisiana and France was on full display in the final weeks of 2022. On a three-day visit to the United States, French President Emmanuel Macron made a memorable stopover in the city.

“Everywhere you looked in the French Quarter, people were in the streets by the hundreds to greet him,” remembered Nathalie Beras, the Consul General of France in Louisiana.

She spoke of a speech the president gave, announcing a new program to support bilingualism and access to French language — not just in New Orleans, but across the United States.

“That he made that announcement here — it was a clear sign that the link between France and New Orleans is very strong,” she told VOA, “not only historically, but in the present and for the future.”

And that he was so well-received in this Francophone city?

“It’s a sign we share so much,” she added. “Perhaps most importantly, an appreciation for life.”

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IMF Approves $15.6 Billion Ukraine Loan Package

The International Monetary Fund has approved a $15.6 billion support package for Ukraine to assist with the conflict-hit country’s economic recovery, the fund said in a statement Friday.

Russia’s invasion has devastated Ukraine’s economy, causing activity to contract by about 30% last year, destroying much of its capital stock and spreading poverty, according to the IMF.

The outbreak of war has rippled through the global economy, fueling global inflation through rising wheat and oil prices.

The invasion has also highlighted Europe’s dependence on Russian natural gas for its energy security. Many countries were forced to seek out alternative sources of energy after the war began.

The two-step program will look to stabilize the country’s economic situation while the war continues, before turning to “more ambitious structural reforms” after the end of hostilities, IMF deputy managing director Gita Gopinath said in a statement.

The 48-month Extended Fund Facility approved by the fund’s board is worth roughly $15.6 billion.

It forms the IMF’s portion of a $115 billion overall support package comprised of debt relief, grants and loans by multilateral and bilateral institutions, the IMF’s Ukraine mission chief Gavin Gray told reporters on Friday.

“The goal of Ukraine’s new IMF-supported program is to provide an anchor for economic policies — policies that will sustain macroeconomic financial stability and support … economic recovery,” he said.

Of the total amount approved by the IMF, $2.7 billion is being made available to Ukraine immediately, with the rest of the funds due to be released over the next four years.

The program also includes additional guarantees from some IMF members in the event that active combat continues beyond its current estimate of mid-2024.

If the conflict were to extend into 2025, it would raise Ukraine’s financial needs from $115 billion to about $140 billion, Gray said.

“This program has been designed in such a way that it would work even if economic circumstances are considerably worse than … the current baseline,” he said.

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UN Food Chief: Billions Needed to Avert Unrest, Starvation

Without billions of dollars more to feed millions of hungry people, the world will see mass migration, destabilized countries, and starving children and adults in the next 12-18 months, the head of the Nobel prize-winning U.N. World Food Program warned Friday.

David Beasley praised increased funding from the United States and Germany last year, and urged China, Gulf nations, billionaires and other countries “to step up big time.”

In an interview before he hands the reins of the world’s largest humanitarian organization to U.S. ambassador Cindy McCain next week, the former South Carolina governor said he’s “extremely worried” that WFP won’t raise about $23 billion it needs this year to help an estimated 350 million people in 49 countries who desperately need food.

“Right at this stage, I’ll be surprised if we get 40% of it, quite frankly,” he said.

WFP was in a similar crisis last year, he said, but fortunately he was able to convince the United States to increase its funding from about $3.5 billion to $7.4 billion and Germany to raise its contribution from $350 million a few years ago to $1.7 billion, but he doesn’t think they’ll do it again this year.

Other countries need to step up now, he said, starting with China, the world’s second-largest economy which gave WFP just $11 million last year.

Beasley applauded China for its success in substantially reducing hunger and poverty at home, but said it gave less than one cent per person last year compared to the United States, the world’s leading economy, which gave about $22 per person.

China needs “to engage in the multilateral world” and be willing to provide help that is critical, he said. “They have a moral obligation to do so.”

Beasley said they’ve done “an incredible job of feeding their people,” and “now we need their help in other parts of the world” on how they did it, particularly in poorer countries including in Africa.

With high oil prices Gulf countries can also do more, especially Muslim nations that have relations with countries in east Africa, the Sahara and elsewhere in the Middle East, he said, expressing hope they will increase contributions.

Beasley said the wealthiest billionaires made unprecedented profits during the COVID-19 pandemic, and “it’s not too much to ask some of the multibillionaires to step up and help us in the short-term crisis,” even though charity isn’t a long-term solution to the food crisis.

In the long-term, he said what he’d really like to see is billionaires using their experience and success to engage “in the world’s greatest need – and that is food on the planet to feed 8 billion people.”

“The world has to understand that the next 12 to 18 months is critical, and if we back off the funding, you will have mass migration, and you will have destabilization nations and that will all be on top of starvation among children and people around the world,” he warned.

Beasley said WFP was just forced to cut rations by 50% to 4 million people in Afghanistan, and “these are people who are knocking on famine’s door now.”

“We don’t have enough money just to reach the most vulnerable people now,” he said. “So we are in a crisis over the cliff stage right now, where we literally could have hell on earth if we’re not very careful.”

Beasley said he’s been telling leaders in the West and Europe that while they’re focusing everything on Ukraine and Russia, “you better well not forget about what’s south and southeast of you because I can assure you it is coming your way if you don’t pay attention and get on top of it.”

With $400 trillion worth of wealth on the planet, he said, there’s no reason for any child to die of starvation.

The WFP executive director said leaders have to prioritize the humanitarian needs that are going to have the greatest impact on stability in societies around the world.

He singled out several priority places — Africa’s Sahel region as well as the east including Somalia, northern Kenya, South Sudan and Ethiopia; Syria which is having an impact on Jordan and Lebanon; and Central and South America where the number of people migrating to the United States is now five times what it was a year-and-a-half ago.

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UN Weekly Roundup: March 25-31, 2023

Editor’s note: Here is a fast take on what the international community has been up to this past week, as seen from the United Nations perch.

Vanuatu leads action on climate justice

The U.N. General Assembly adopted a landmark resolution Wednesday that will ask the International Court of Justice to issue an advisory opinion on the obligations of states under international law to protect the rights of present and future generations from the impact of climate change. The Pacific island nation of Vanuatu spearheaded the drafting and negotiations of the resolution, with a core group of 18 countries representing most corners of the world.

What Are State’s Obligations to Protect Citizens from Climate Change? World Court to Weigh In

General Assembly closer to creating new entity on missing Syrians

U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres urged the international community Tuesday to create an international body that would assist families of the estimated 100,000 missing persons in Syria to find out the fate and whereabouts of their loved ones.

UN Chief Urges Creation of Entity to Clarify Fate of 100,000 Missing Syrians

Disarmament chief: risk of nuclear weapon use now highest since Cold War

The United Nations disarmament chief warned Friday that the risk of a nuclear weapon being used is higher now than at any time since the Cold War. Izumi Nakamitsu told the Security Council that the war in Ukraine “represents the most acute example of that risk.”

Russia takes over Security Council’s April presidency

On April 1, in what some critics say sounds more like an April Fool’s joke than reality, Russia will take over the rotating presidency of the United Nations Security Council for the month — and no one can prevent it.

Cyclone raises risk of disease at Malawi sites for displaced people

The U.N. humanitarian agency says Malawi needs immediate help to deal with diseases spreading in displacement camps for Cyclone Freddy survivors. The Malawi health minister told reporters Tuesday that the government is beefing up its medical staff, but a local newspaper says the country needs more money to adequately deal with health care needs.

UN Concerned About Disease in Malawi’s Displacement Camps

Talking to Sudanese men about female genital mutilation

The World Health Organization says about 87% of Sudanese females between 15 and 49 have undergone female genital mutilation, one of the highest rates in the world. A project by the U.N. children’s agency, UNICEF, is targeting sports clubs to engage men and boys in the fight against the practice. Watch this report from Henry Wilkins in Khartoum, Sudan:

UNICEF Talking to Sudanese Men’s Clubs About Female Genital Mutilation

In brief

— A resolution put forward Monday by Russia at the United Nations calling for an international investigation into the apparent sabotage last year on the Nord Stream gas pipelines failed to win Security Council support. Russia’s draft received only three votes in favor — from itself, China and Brazil. The other 12 Security Council members abstained. Several council members said an additional investigation would not be beneficial right now and urged waiting for the results of the national ones. Others suggested that a deadline be imposed for the national investigations to conclude, saying they should not be open-ended.

— International Atomic Energy Agency chief Rafael Mariano Grossi made a mission to Ukraine this week. He has been trying for months to negotiate a weapons-free zone around the Zaporizhzhya Nuclear Power Plant, which has come under repeated shelling and blackouts during the war and is currently occupied by Russian troops. A team of IAEA experts is also based at the facility. Grossi met with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in the city of Zaporizhzhya on Monday and indicated he may soon go to Russia for further talks. He warned that a nuclear accident with radiological consequences “will spare no one.”

— Thursday was the first ever International Day of Zero Waste. U.N. Secretary-General Guterres warned during a General Assembly meeting on the issue that the planet is turning into a “garbage dump” and by 2050 municipal solid waste will double to 4 billion tons a year. He called for more sustainable consumption and production patterns with the goal of a zero-waste future. Guterres also announced that he is establishing an Advisory Board of Eminent Persons on Zero Waste to be chaired by the first lady of Turkey, Emine Erdoğan.

Did you know?

The U.N. flag was designed in 1945 when the organization was founded. It is a map of the world resting inside two olive branches. The blue background was chosen to represent peace, and this shade of blue has become known as “U.N. blue.” American architect Oliver Lincoln Lundquist led the design team that created it.

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Italy Temporarily Blocks ChatGPT Over Privacy Concerns

Italy is temporarily blocking the artificial intelligence software ChatGPT in the wake of a data breach as it investigates a possible violation of stringent European Union data protection rules, the government’s privacy watchdog said Friday.

The Italian Data Protection Authority said it was taking provisional action “until ChatGPT respects privacy,” including temporarily limiting the company from processing Italian users’ data.

U.S.-based OpenAI, which developed the chatbot, said late Friday night it has disabled ChatGPT for Italian users at the government’s request. The company said it believes its practices comply with European privacy laws and hopes to make ChatGPT available again soon.

While some public schools and universities around the world have blocked ChatGPT from their local networks over student plagiarism concerns, Italy’s action is “the first nation-scale restriction of a mainstream AI platform by a democracy,” said Alp Toker, director of the advocacy group NetBlocks, which monitors internet access worldwide.

The restriction affects the web version of ChatGPT, popularly used as a writing assistant, but is unlikely to affect software applications from companies that already have licenses with OpenAI to use the same technology driving the chatbot, such as Microsoft’s Bing search engine.

The AI systems that power such chatbots, known as large language models, are able to mimic human writing styles based on the huge trove of digital books and online writings they have ingested.

The Italian watchdog said OpenAI must report within 20 days what measures it has taken to ensure the privacy of users’ data or face a fine of up to either 20 million euros (nearly $22 million) or 4% of annual global revenue.

The agency’s statement cites the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation and pointed to a recent data breach involving ChatGPT “users’ conversations” and information about subscriber payments.

OpenAI earlier announced that it had to take ChatGPT offline on March 20 to fix a bug that allowed some people to see the titles, or subject lines, of other users’ chat history.

“Our investigation has also found that 1.2% of ChatGPT Plus users might have had personal data revealed to another user,” the company had said. “We believe the number of users whose data was actually revealed to someone else is extremely low and we have contacted those who might be impacted.”

Italy’s privacy watchdog, known as the Garante, also questioned whether OpenAI had legal justification for its “massive collection and processing of personal data” used to train the platform’s algorithms. And it said ChatGPT can sometimes generate — and store — false information about individuals.

Finally, it noted there’s no system to verify users’ ages, exposing children to responses “absolutely inappropriate to their age and awareness.”

OpenAI said in response that it works “to reduce personal data in training our AI systems like ChatGPT because we want our AI to learn about the world, not about private individuals.”

“We also believe that AI regulation is necessary — so we look forward to working closely with the Garante and educating them on how our systems are built and used,” the company said.

The Italian watchdog’s move comes as concerns grow about the artificial intelligence boom. A group of scientists and tech industry leaders published a letter Wednesday calling for companies such as OpenAI to pause the development of more powerful AI models until the fall to give time for society to weigh the risks.

The president of Italy’s privacy watchdog agency told Italian state TV Friday evening he was one of those who signed the appeal. Pasquale Stanzione said he did so because “it’s not clear what aims are being pursued” ultimately by those developing AI.

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Blinken Heads to NATO Meeting as Finland Moves Closer to Joining

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken is heading to Brussels on Monday for a meeting of NATO foreign ministers expected to focus on sustaining support for Ukraine. VOA’s Senior Diplomatic Correspondent Cindy Saine reports.

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‘Let Him Go,’ Biden Says as Russia Orders American Journalist Held Until May  

President Joe Biden on Friday urged Russia to release American journalist Evan Gershkovich from custody.

Gershkovich, a reporter for The Wall Street Journal, was detained in Yekaterinburg, a city about 800 miles from the Russian capital, on accusations of espionage. His media outlet has denied those allegations.

A Moscow court on Friday ordered Gershkovich to be held in pre-trial detention until May 29.

When Biden was asked by reporters if he had a message for Russia on Gershkovich’s case, the president responded, “Let him go.”

Vice President Kamala Harris also spoke about the case during her visit to Zambia, telling reporters the administration was “deeply concerned.”

“We will not tolerate – and condemn, in fact – repression of journalists,” Harris said.

The Journal’s editorial board said Thursday in an op-ed piece that neither the paper nor U.S. government officials had been allowed contact with Gershkovich since his arrest.

In the column, the Journal said that FSB agents “snatched” the 31-year-old while he was on assignment in Yekaterinburg.

The media outlet questioned whether the arrest was made in response to the U.S. Justice Department’s filing of charges in March against Sergey Vladimirovich Cherkasov, a Russian accused of operating in the U.S. as an illegal agent for Kremlin intelligence services.

A criminal complaint said Cherkasov pretended to be a student from Brazil to fraudulently gain a visa to enter the U.S.

VOA emailed the Russian Embassy in Washington for comment but as of the publication of this story had not received a response.

The U.S. said Thursday that it had been in direct contact with the Russian government about Gershkovich’s arrest.

The Journal on Thursday said it thought the U.S. should respond to Gershkovich’s arrest by expelling the Russian ambassador and any Russian journalists working in the U.S.

Biden told reporters on Friday, “That’s not the plan right now.”

In 2020, then-U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the U.S. would limit the number of visas open to staff at Chinese media outlets. In announcing the move, he cited the increased surveillance and harassment of American reporters in China.

The statement came after Beijing expelled three Journal correspondents.

Media rights groups at the time, including the Committee to Protect Journalists, warned against a “tit for tat” response and called for the U.S. to not adopt “authoritarian tactics.”

Increased tensions

Andrey Kolesnikov, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told VOA that Gershkovich’s arrest reflected a “general deterioration of relations with the West.”

“This is a signal both to [international] reporters who are still working in Russia with three-month accreditations from the Foreign Ministry and to local dissidents,” Kolesnikov told VOA’s Russian Service. “It also aims to increase the general atmosphere of fear and suspicion, to create an ‘exchange fund’ with the West.”

Kolesnikov said it appeared that Gershkovich “was in the wrong place at the wrong time,” adding that Moscow is always in need of individuals that it can exchange for Russians who are detained overseas.

More than 30 international and U.S. news outlets and advocacy groups on Friday issued a letter to Russia’s ambassador to the U.S., Anatoly Antonov, demanding Gershkovich’s release.

The organizations said Russia should ensure that the journalist has “immediate access to an attorney provided by his employer” and asked for confirmation of his well-being.

“Gershkovich’s unwarranted and unjust arrest is a significant escalation in your government’s anti-press actions,” the letter read. “Russia is sending the message that journalism within your borders is criminalized and that foreign correspondents seeking to report from Russia do not enjoy the benefits of the rule of law.”

The Kremlin said Friday that journalists with official media accreditation could still work in Russia.

“All journalists who have valid accreditation here — I mean foreign journalists — can and do continue their journalistic activity in the country. They do not face any restrictions and are working fine,” said spokesperson Dmitry Peskov.

Gershkovich, who has worked in Russia as a journalist since 2017, had official accreditation.

No published evidence

Moscow has said that Gershkovich was carrying out espionage “under the cover” of journalism. It has not published evidence to back up that claim, Reuters reported.

David Satter, a former Moscow correspondent for the Financial Times and contributor to the Journal, said he thought Russia could have several motives for the arrest.

“They may want to use [Gershkovich] as some type of future trade or, on the contrary, they may want to harass the United States,” said Satter.

Satter in 2014 became the first U.S. correspondent to be barred from Russia since the Cold War. At the time, he was working as an adviser to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.

Another reason for the Journal reporter’s arrest, Satter told VOA, could be to deter newsgathering.

“I think that the core reason here is to make sure that the Russian population doesn’t start providing truthful information to Western journalists about losses, about the collapse of the economy, about demoralization,” he said.

Conditions for journalists in Russia declined swiftly after the country invaded Ukraine, with Moscow issuing new laws and regulations on how they could cover the war. The increased pressure resulted in many local journalists moving their operations into exile.

Foreign correspondents have previously reported being followed while on assignment in Russia, especially when reporting outside the main cities. And data from the Committee to Protect Journalists showed at least 19 local journalists detained for their work in the country as of late 2022.

‘Direct threat’

The U.S.-based James W. Foley Legacy Foundation, which advocates for American hostages, issued a statement saying that Gershkovich’s “unjust detention … is a direct threat to media freedom in Russia and beyond.”

The founder’s president, Diane Foley, told VOA the arrest was “a new low for diplomatic relations between Russia and our country.”

“What’s frightening is it’s going to create more and more black holes around the world where journalists are not going to go and dare report,” she added.

The foundation, created in memory of Foley’s son Jim — an American journalist killed by Islamic State militants in Syria — said that at least four U.S. nationals were currently being held in Russia, including former Marine Paul Whelan, who has been detained for 1,553 days.

Whelan is serving a 16-year sentence at a Russian penal colony after being convicted of espionage.

VOA’s Russian Service and Lori Lundin contributed to this report. Some information came from Reuters.

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Funerals Set for 6 Victims of Nashville School Shootings

Funeral arrangements were disclosed Thursday for the six people killed in this week’s school shooting in Nashville, as the grieving city mourns the victims of the horrific attack that transformed what should have been a normal day of school on a bright, sunny morning into wrenching tragedy.

Heartbreaking new details continued to emerge about the lives of the three adults and three 9-year-old students who police say were killed during the shooting Monday at The Covenant School. The children have been identified as Evelyn Dieckhaus, Hallie Scruggs and William Kinney. Also killed were Katherine Koonce, 60, the head of the school; Mike Hill, 61, a custodian; and Cynthia Peak, 61, a substitute teacher.

A funeral service for Evelyn was scheduled for Friday at Woodmont Christian Church in Nashville, with a private reception to follow, according to an obituary provided to The Associated Press by a family friend. Funeral guests are invited to wear pink or other joyful colors “in tribute to Evelyn’s light and love of color,” according to the obituary. She will be laid to rest on Saturday at a private family burial.

Hallie’s family planned a private funeral for her Saturday at Covenant Presbyterian Church, where her father is the lead pastor. On Thursday, members of Our Lady of the Lake Catholic Church, including the girl’s grandparents, were planning to pray the rosary for Hallie and for all those affected by the shooting, according to a Facebook post from the church.

The funeral for Hill has been set for Tuesday morning at 11 a.m. at Stephens Valley Church in Nashville, with visitation beginning at 10 a.m., pastor Jim Bachmann said.

A visitation for Koonce was scheduled for Tuesday from 5-8 p.m. at Christ Presbyterian Church, with a service the following day at 1 p.m.

The service for Kinney was set for 2:30 p.m. Sunday at Christ Presbyterian.

Peak’s visitation was scheduled for Saturday at 10:30 a.m., also at Christ Presbyterian, with a service at noon.

The funeral plans were announced as new information about Evelyn and some of the others was released.

In the obituary given to the AP by a family friend, Evelyn was described as “a constant beacon of joy” who loved art, music, animals and snuggling with her older sister on the couch.

“With an unwavering faith in the goodness of others, Evelyn made people feel known, seen, but never judged,” the obituary said. “Her adoring family members agree that ‘she was everyone’s safe space.'”

In preschool, Evelyn “would often position herself between two younger babies, intuitively offering comfort by patting their backs.” She would greet people with open arms and an infectious laugh, the obituary said.

Evelyn enjoyed crafting and drawing, and her teachers “would observe Evelyn studying the world around her with curiosity, eagerness, and clarity,” according to the obituary.

She also liked to sing along to tunes by Taylor Swift and from the Broadway show “Hamilton.” She also loved her dogs, Mable and Birdie, and wanted a rat for her 10th birthday present.

“Strong but never pushy, she had self-composure and poise beyond her years,” the obituary said. “This girl ‘could read a room.'”

As Evelyn’s loved ones prepared for her funeral, William Kinney’s youth baseball league was taking steps to remember a teammate and friend.

The night after the shooting, a coach at the Crieve Hall Baseball Park led a prayer and a moment of silence for the boy. The tribute was posted on the park’s Facebook page.

William had played baseball at the park in the past and his team this season was the Reds, said Steve Cherrico, director of Crieve Hall youth athletics. Players and their families have been encouraged to wear red in the field and in the stands, and red ribbons have been placed at the field where William played.

“We’ve covered everything in red,” Cherrico said. “We have put plenty of memory pieces on the ballpark itself.”

Cherrico said league members were heartbroken at the loss of William and the others who were killed. Cherrico said it was not the first time that Crieve Hall has lost a player.

“The league has always stepped up and come together as a family,” he said.

In response to the park’s tribute, Major League Baseball’s Cincinnati Reds posted the following on Instagram: “Sending all of our love from Cincinnati,” with a heart emoji at the end.

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Biden Heads to Mississippi Town Ravaged by Deadly Tornado

President Joe Biden on Friday will visit a Mississippi town ravaged by a deadly tornado even as a new series of severe storms threatens to rip across the Midwest and the South.

Last week’s twister destroyed roughly 300 homes and businesses in Rolling Fork and the nearby town of Silver City, leaving mounds of wreckage full of lumber, bricks and twisted metal. Hundreds of additional structures were badly damaged. The death toll in Mississippi stood at 21, based on deaths confirmed by coroners. One person died in Alabama, as well.

Biden is expected to announce that the federal government will cover the total cost of the state’s emergency measures for the next 30 days, including overtime for first responders and debris cleanup. The president and first lady Jill Biden will survey the damage, meet with homeowners impacted by the storms and first responders and get an operational briefing from federal and state officials. They’re expected to be joined by Gov. Tate Reeves, Mississippi Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith and Rep. Bennie Thompson.

In a statement after the tornado, Biden pledged that the federal government would “do everything we can to help.”

“We will be there as long as it takes,” he said. “We will work together to deliver the support you need to recover.”

Presidents regularly visit parts of the U.S. that have been ravaged by natural disasters or suffered major loss of life from shootings or another disaster. Republicans have criticized Biden for not yet making a trip to the site of a toxic chemical spill in a small Ohio town. He also has to decide whether to visit Nashville after three children and three adults were shot and killed at Covenant School.

Last week’s severe weather makes life even more difficult in an area already struggling economically. Mississippi is one of the poorest states, and the majority-Black Delta has long been one of the poorest parts of the state — a place where many people live paycheck to paycheck, often in jobs connected to agriculture.

Two of the counties walloped by the tornado, Sharkey and Humphreys, are among the most sparsely populated in the state, with only a few thousand residents in communities scattered across wide expanses of cotton, corn and soybean fields. Sharkey’s poverty rate is 35%, and Humphreys’ is 33%, compared with about 19% for Mississippi overall and less than 12% for the entire United States.

Biden approved a disaster declaration for the state, which frees up federal funds for temporary housing, home repairs and loans to cover uninsured property losses. But there’s concern that inflation and economic troubles may blunt the impact of federal assistance.

Biden has spoken in separate phone calls with Reeves, Sen. Roger Wicker, Hyde-Smith and Thompson.

An unusual weather pattern has set in, and meteorologists fear that Friday will be one of the worst days, with much more to come. The National Weather Service said 16.8 million people live in the highest-risk zone, and more than 66 million people overall should be on alert Friday.

According to a new study, the U.S. will see more of these massive storms as the world warms. The storms are likely to strike more frequently in more populous Southern states including Alabama, Mississippi and Tennessee.

The study in the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society predicts a nationwide 6.6% increase in tornado- and hail-spawning supercell storms and a 25.8% jump in the area and time the strongest storms will strike, under a scenario of moderate levels of future warming by the end of the century.

But in certain areas in the South the increase is much higher. That includes Rolling Fork, where study authors project an increase of one supercell a year by 2100.

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Russia Sends Bombs as Ukraine Marks Grim Bucha Anniversary

Russia used its long-range arsenal to bombard anew several areas of Ukraine on Friday, killing at least two civilians and damaging homes as Ukrainians commemorated the anniversary of the liberation of Bucha from a brutal occupation by the Kremlin’s forces.

President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said that Bucha, a town near Kyiv, stands as a symbol of the atrocities the Russian military has committed since its full-scale invasion of Ukraine began in February 2022.

“We will not let it be forgotten,” Zelenskyy said at a formal ceremony in Bucha, vowing to punish those who committed outrages in the town. “Human dignity will not let it be forgotten. On the streets of Bucha, the world has seen Russian evil. Evil unmasked.”

At the same time as the Bucha commemorations, the Kremlin-allied president of Belarus raised the stakes in the 13-month war when he said that Russian strategic nuclear weapons might be deployed in his country, along with part of Moscow’s tactical nuclear arsenal.

Moscow said earlier this week it planned to place in neighboring Belarus tactical nuclear weapons that are comparatively short-range and low-yield. Strategic nuclear weapons such as missile-borne warheads would bring a greater threat.

Zelenskyy dedicated his attention to an official ceremony in Bucha, where he was joined by the president of the Republic of Moldova and the prime ministers of Croatia, Slovakia and Slovenia.

The Kremlin’s forces occupied Bucha weeks after they invaded Ukraine and stayed for about a month. When Ukrainian troops retook the town, they encountered horrific scenes: bodies of women, young and old men, in civilian clothing, lying in the street where they had fallen or in yards and homes.

Other bodies were found in a mass grave. Over weeks and months, hundreds of bodies were uncovered, including some of children.

Russian soldiers on intercepted phone conversations called it “zachistka” — cleansing, according to an investigation by The Associated Press and the PBS series “Frontline.”

Such organized cruelty — used by Russian troops in past conflicts as well, notably in Chechnya — was later repeated in Russia-occupied territories across Ukraine.

Zelenskyy handed out medals to soldiers, police, doctors, teachers and emergency services in Bucha, as well as to families of two soldiers killed during the defense of the Kyiv region.

“Ukrainian people, you have stopped the biggest anti-human force of our times,” he said. “You have stopped the force which has no respect and wants to destroy everything that gives meaning to human life.”

More than 1,400 civilian deaths, including 37 children, were documented by Ukrainian authorities, Zelenskyy said.

More than 175 people were found in mass graves and alleged torture chambers, according to Zelenskyy. Ukraine and other countries, including the U.S., have demanded that Russia answer for war crimes.

Prosecutor General Andriy Kostin alleged Friday that many of the dead civilians were tortured. Almost 100 Russian soldiers are suspected of war crimes, he said on his Telegram channel, and indictments have been issued for 35 of them.

Two Russian servicemen have already been sentenced by a Ukrainian court to 12 years in prison for illegal deprivation of liberty of civilians and looting.

“I am convinced that all these crimes are not a coincidence. This is part of Russia’s planned strategy aimed at destroying Ukraine as a state and Ukrainians as a nation,” Kostin said.

In Geneva, the U.N. human rights chief said his office has so far verified the deaths of more than 8,400 civilians in Ukraine since Russia’s invasion — a count believed to be far short of the true toll.

Volker Türk told the U.N. Human Rights Council that “severe violations of human rights and international humanitarian law have become shockingly routine” amid Russia’s invasion.

As well as making an announcement about possibly having Russian strategic nuclear weapons on his country’s soil, the Belarusian president also unexpectedly called for a cease-fire in Ukraine without making any reference about how the two developments might be connected.

A truce, Lukashenko said in his state-of-the-nation address in Minsk on Friday, must be announced without any preconditions and all movement of troops and weapons must be halted.

“It’s necessary to stop now until an escalation begins,” Lukashenko said, adding that an anticipated Ukrainian counteroffensive using Western-supplied weapons would bring “an irreversible escalation of the conflict.”

But Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov responded that Russia has to keep fighting, claiming Ukraine has rejected any talks under pressure from its Western allies.

Peskov also dismissed Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s remarks about the European Union mulling the deployment of sending peacekeeping troops to Ukraine as “extremely dangerous.”

Russia has maintained its bombardment of Ukraine with the war already into its second year.

As well as killing at least two civilians in Ukraine, 14 other civilians were wounded early Friday as Russia launched missiles, shells, exploding drones and gliding bombs, the Ukraine presidential office said.

Two Russian missiles hit the city of Kramatorsk in the eastern Donetsk region, damaging eight residential buildings. Throughout the Donetsk region, one civilian was killed and five others wounded by the strikes, the office said.

Nine Russian missiles struck Kharkiv, damaging residential buildings, roads, gas stations and a prison. The Russians also used exploding drones to attack the Kharkiv region.

Russian forces also shelled the southern city of Kherson, killing one resident and wounding two others. The village of Lviv in the Kherson region was struck by gliding bombs that damaged about 10 houses.

The barrage also hit the city of Zaporizhzhia, and its outskirts, causing major fires.

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Finland’s NATO Membership: What’s Next?

Finland received the green light to join NATO when Turkey ratified the Nordic country’s membership late Thursday, becoming the last country in the 30-member Western military alliance to sign off.

All NATO members must vote unanimously to admit a new country. into the alliance. The decision by the Turkish parliament followed Hungary’s ratification of Finland’s bid earlier in the week.

The addition of Finland, which shares a 1,340-kilometer border with Russia, will more than double the size of NATO’s border with Russia.

However, a few more steps and procedures are required before the northern European nation becomes the 31st full NATO member:

Acceptance letters

Turkey and Hungary dispatch acceptance letters to the United States which is the depositary, or safekeeper, of NATO under the alliance’s 1949 founding treaty. The letters will be filed in the archives of the U.S. State Department, which will notify NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg that the conditions for inviting Finland to become a member were met.


NATO sends a letter signed by Stoltenberg inviting Finland to join the military alliance.


Finland sends its own acceptance document, signed by Foreign Minister Pekka Haavisto, to the U.S. State Department. Finnish President Sauli Väinämö Niinistö authorized Haavisto to sign the document. Either the Finnish Embassy in Washington or a Finnish government official will deliver the document.

Full membership

Once Finland’s membership acceptance document reaches the State Department in Washington, the country officially becomes a NATO member.


Finland and neighboring Sweden jointly applied for NATO membership in May 2022. The countries, which have close cultural, economic and political ties, planned to enter the alliance simultaneously.

Sweden’s bid, however, has stalled due to opposition from Turkey, whose president has said his country wouldn’t ratify membership before disputes between Ankara and Stockholm were resolved. The Turkish government has accused Sweden of being too soft on groups that it deems to be terror organizations.

Hungary’s parliament also has yet to ratify Sweden’s accession to NATO, and it remains unclear when it will do so.

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Britain Claims Post-Brexit Win by Sealing Trans-Pacific Trade Pact Membership

Britain will join 11 other countries in a major Asia-Pacific trade partnership, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak announced Friday, in the country’s biggest post-Brexit trade deal following nearly two years of talks.

Britain will be the first new member since the creation of the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) in 2018, and the first European country in the bloc.

The trade grouping will include more than 500 million people and account for 15% of global GDP once Britain becomes its 12th member, according to Sunak’s office.

It said Britain’s admission — after 21 months of “intense negotiations” — puts the country “at the heart of a dynamic group of economies” and was evidence of “seizing the opportunities of our new post-Brexit trade freedoms.”

The development fulfils a key pledge of Brexit supporters that, outside the European Union, Britain could capitalize on joining other trade blocs with faster-growing economies than those closer to home.

Critics have argued that such ventures will struggle to compensate for the economic damage sustained by leaving the European Union, the world’s largest trading bloc and collective economy.

“We are at our heart an open and free-trading nation, and this deal demonstrates the real economic benefits of our post-Brexit freedoms,” Sunak said in a statement announcing the deal.

“As part of CPTPP, the UK is now in a prime position in the global economy to seize opportunities for new jobs, growth and innovation.”

The CPTPP is the successor to a previous trans-Pacific trade pact that the United States withdrew from under former President Donald Trump in 2017.

Its members include fellow G7 members Canada and Japan, and historic British allies Australia and New Zealand.

The remaining members are Mexico, Chile and Peru, along with Malaysia, Singapore, Vietnam and Brunei.

In Tokyo, Japanese government spokesperson Hirokazu Matsuno welcomed the announcement.

“The UK is a global strategic partner and also an important trading and investment partner,” he told reporters.

Its accession “will have great meaning for forming a free and fair economic order,” he added.


Despite rising geopolitical tensions, in particular with Canberra, China formally applied to join the bloc in 2021.

All existing members must reach a consensus for a new country to enter the CPTPP.

Matsuno said Japan would need to examine whether China and other nations hoping to join can meet the required conditions, and would also consider the “strategic viewpoint” and Japanese public opinion.

Since Britain quit the EU’s single market in 2021, it has been trying to strike bilateral deals to boost its international trade — and flagging economy.

London has so far inked agreements with far-flung allies including Australia, New Zealand and Singapore, and is in talks with India and Canada.

However, a prized pact with the United States remains stalled.

Britain applied to join the CPTPP in February 2021, kicking off talks later that year in June.

London and the other existing members are poised to take the “final legal and administrative steps required” before Britain will formally sign later this year, Sunak’s Downing Street office said.

It will boost the British economy by $2.2 billion over the long term, it added, citing estimates.

More than 99% of British goods exported to member countries will now be eligible for zero tariffs, including key British exports such as cars, chocolate, machinery and whisky, it added.

British exports to them were already worth $75 billion in the year to the end of September 2022, and are expected to grow once inside the CPTPP, according to Downing Street.

Britain’s dominant services industry will also benefit from “reduced red tape and greater access to growing Pacific markets with an appetite for high-quality UK products and services,” it said.

Matthew Fell, interim head of Britain’s CBI business lobby, called the deal “a real milestone for the UK and for British industry”

“Membership reinforces the UK’s commitment to building partnerships in an increasingly fragmented world,” he said.

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Is Banning TikTok Constitutional?

U.S. lawmakers and officials are ratcheting up threats to ban TikTok, saying the Chinese-owned video-sharing app used by millions of Americans poses a threat to privacy and U.S. national security.

But free speech advocates and legal experts say an outright ban would likely face a constitutional hurdle: the First Amendment right to free speech.

“If passed by Congress and enacted into law, a nationwide ban on TikTok would have serious ramifications for free expression in the digital sphere, infringing on Americans’ First Amendment rights and setting a potent and worrying precedent in a time of increased censorship of internet users around the world,” a coalition of free speech advocacy organizations wrote in a letter to Congress last week, urging a solution short of an outright ban.

The plea came as U.S. lawmakers grilled TikTok CEO Shou Chew over concerns the Chinese government could exploit the platform’s user data for espionage and influence operations in the United States.

TikTok, which bills itself as a “platform for free expression” and a “modern-day version of the town square,” says it has more than 150 million users in the United States.

But the platform is owned by ByteDance, a Beijing-based company, and U.S. officials have raised concerns that the Chinese government could utilize the app’s user data to influence and spy on Americans.

Aaron Terr, director of public advocacy at the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, said while there are legitimate privacy and national security concerns about TikTok, the First Amendment implications of a ban so far have received little public attention.

“If nothing else, it’s important for that to be a significant part of the conversation,” Terr said in an interview. “It’s important for people to consider alongside national security concerns.”

To be sure, the First Amendment is not absolute. There are types of speech that are not protected by the amendment. Among them: obscenity, defamation and incitement.

But the Supreme Court has also made it clear there are limits on how far the government can go to regulate speech, even when it involves a foreign adversary or when the government argues that national security is at stake.

In a landmark 1965 case, the Supreme Court invalidated a law that prevented Americans from receiving foreign mail that the government deemed was “communist political propaganda.”

In another consequential case involving a defamation lawsuit brought against The New York Times, the court ruled that even an “erroneous statement” enjoyed some constitutional protection.

“And that’s relevant because here, one of the reasons that Congress is concerned about TikTok is the potential that the Chinese government could use it to spread disinformation,” said Caitlin Vogus, deputy director of the Free Expression Project at the Center for Democracy and Technology, one of the signatories of the letter to Congress.

Proponents of a ban deny a prohibition would run afoul of the First Amendment.

“This is not a First Amendment issue, because we’re not trying to ban booty videos,” Republican Senator Marco Rubio, a longtime critic of TikTok, said on the Senate floor on Monday.

ByteDance, TikTok’s parent company, is beholden to the Chinese Communist Party, Rubio said.

“So, if the Communist Party goes to ByteDance and says, ‘We want you to use that algorithm to push these videos on Americans to convince them of whatever,’ they have to do it. They don’t have an option,” Rubio said.

The Biden administration has reportedly demanded that ByteDance divest itself from TikTok or face a possible ban.

TikTok denies the allegations and says it has taken measures to protect the privacy and security of its U.S. user data.

Rubio is sponsoring one of several competing bills that envision different pathways to a TikTok ban.

A House bill called the Deterring America’s Technological Adversaries Act would empower the president to shut down TikTok.

A Senate bill called the RESTRICT Act would authorize the Commerce Department to investigate information and communications technologies to determine whether they pose national security risks.

This would not be the first time the U.S. government has attempted to ban TikTok.

In 2020, then-President Donald Trump issued an executive order declaring a national emergency that would have effectively shut down the app.

In response, TikTok sued the Trump administration, arguing that the executive order violated its due process and First Amendment rights.

While courts did not weigh in on the question of free speech, they blocked the ban on the grounds that Trump’s order exceeded statutory authority by targeting “informational materials” and “personal communication.”

Allowing the ban would “have the effect of shutting down, within the United States, a platform for expressive activity used by about 700 million individuals globally,” including more than 100 million Americans, federal judge Wendy Beetlestone wrote in response to a lawsuit brought by a group of TikTok users.

A fresh attempt to ban TikTok, whether through legislation or executive action, would likely trigger a First Amendment challenge from the platform, as well as its content creators and users, according to free speech advocates. And the case could end up before the Supreme Court.

In determining the constitutionality of a ban, courts would likely apply a judicial review test known as an “intermediate scrutiny standard,” Vogus said.

“It would still mean that any ban would have to be justified by an important governmental interest and that a ban would have to be narrowly tailored to address that interest,” Vogus said. “And I think that those are two significant barriers to a TikTok ban.”

But others say a “content-neutral” ban would pass Supreme Court muster.

“To pass content-neutral laws, the government would need to show that the restraint on speech, if any, is narrowly tailored to serve a ‘significant government interest’ and leaves open reasonable alternative avenues for expression,” Joel Thayer, president of the Digital Progress Institute, wrote in a recent column in The Hill online newspaper.

In Congress, even as the push to ban TikTok gathers steam, there are lone voices of dissent.

One is progressive Democrat Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Another is Democratic Representative Jamal Bowman, himself a prolific TikTok user.

Opposition to TikTok, Bowman said, stems from “hysteria” whipped up by a “Red scare around China.”

“Our First Amendment gives us the right to speak freely and to communicate freely, and TikTok as a platform has created a community and a space for free speech for 150 million Americans and counting,” Bowman, who has more than 180,000 TikTok followers, said recently at a rally held by TikTok content creators.

Instead of singling out TikTok, Bowman said, Congress should enact new legislation to ensure social media users are safe and their data secure.

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Trump Faces Criminal Indictment

A grand jury in New York has voted to indict former US President Donald Trump on criminal charges related to a payoff to a former adult film star. Mike O’Sullivan reports on reaction to the unprecedented move against a former president.

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Russia Using TikTok to Push Pro-Moscow Narrative on Ukraine

New data is suggesting at least some U.S. adversaries are taking advantage of the hugely popular TikTok video-sharing app for influence operations.

A report Thursday by the Alliance for Securing Democracy (ASD) finds Russia “has been using the app to push its own narrative” in its effort to undermine Western support for Ukraine.

“Based on our analysis, some users are engaging more with Russian state media than other, more reputable independent news outlets on the platform,” according to the report by the U.S.-based election security advocate that tracks official state actors and state-backed media.

“More TikTok users follow RT than The New York Times,” it said.

The ASD report found that as of March 22, there were 78 Russian-funded news outlets on TikTok with a total of more than 14 million followers.

It also found that despite a commitment from TikTok to label the accounts as belonging to state-controlled media, 31 of the accounts were not labeled.

Yet even labeling the accounts seemed to have little impact on their ability to gain an audience.

“By some measures, including the performance of top posts, labeled Russian state media accounts are reaching larger audiences on TikTok than other platforms,” the report said. “RIA Novosti’s top TikTok post so far in 2023 has more than 5.6 million views. On Twitter, its top post has fewer than 20,000 views.”

The report on Russian state media’s use of TikTok comes as U.S. officials are again voicing concern about the potential for TikTok to be used for disinformation campaigns and foreign influence operations.

“Just a tremendous number of people in the United States use TikTok,” John Plumb, the principal cyber adviser to the U.S. secretary of defense, told members of a House Armed Services subcommittee, warning of “the control China may have to direct information through it” and use it as a “misinformation platform.”

“This provides a foreign nation a platform for information operations,” U.S. Cyber Command’s General Paul Nakasone added, noting that TikTok has 150 million users in the United States.

“One-third of the adult population receives their news from this app,” he said. “One-sixth of our children are saying they’re constantly on this app.”

TikTok, owned by China-based ByteDance, has sought to push back against the concerns.

“Let me state this unequivocally: ByteDance is not an agent of China or any other country,” TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew told U.S. lawmakers during a hearing last week.

“We do not promote or remove content at the request of the Chinese government,” he said, trying to downplay fears about the company’s data collection practices and Chinese laws that would require the company to share that information with the Chinese government if asked.U.S. lawmakers, intelligence and security officials, however, have their doubts.

The top Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee, Marco Rubio, earlier this month warned that TikTok is “probably one of the most valuable surveillance tools on the planet.”

A day later, Cyber Command’s Nakasone told members of the House Intelligence Committee that TikTok is like a “loaded gun,” while FBI Director Christopher Wray warned that TikTok’s recommendation algorithm “could be used to conduct influence operations.”

“That’s not something that would be easily detected,” he added.


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Taiwan’s President Emphasizes Regional Stability in New York Visit

Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen is on a sensitive trip to the United States, where she wrapped up a second day of events closed to the media in New York City on Thursday. In a speech Wednesday, she vowed to protect regional stability in exchange for continued support from the United States. Yao Yu has the story.

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Republicans Assail Trump Indictment; Democrats Say He Will Get His Day in Court

Reaction to the indictment of Donald Trump, the first of a former U.S. president, was predictable in the hothouse of divisive American politics. His fellow Republicans assailed the prosecutor for what they claimed was a purely partisan attack, while Democrats contended that no one should be allowed to stand above the law.

Even Republicans eyeing a 2024 run against Trump for the party’s presidential nomination came to his defense after a New York grand jury indicted Trump on charges linked to his $130,000 hush money payment in 2016 to an adult film actress to silence her about an alleged affair she claimed to have had with Trump a decade earlier. Trump has long denied the claim by the porn star, Stormy Daniels.

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, who has not announced a 2024 presidential bid but nationally polls second behind Trump for the nomination, on Twitter accused New York prosecutor Alvin Bragg, a Democrat, of deploying the legal system “to advance a political agenda” that he said “turns the rule of law on its head.”

DeSantis said he would not work with New York officials to extradite Trump from Florida to face the charges, although it may not be an issue in any event. Trump’s lawyer has said the former president would fly to New York to turn himself in.

Nikki Haley, Trump’s former ambassador to the United Nations who has announced her 2024 run for the presidency, said of the indictment, “This is more about revenge than it is justice.”

Mike Pompeo, a secretary of state during Trump’s administration and another possible presidential contender, accused the prosecutor of “playing politics.”

South Carolina Republican Senator Tim Scott, yet another possible candidate, said in a statement, “This pro-criminal New York DA has failed to uphold the law for violent criminals, yet weaponized the law against political enemies. This is a travesty, and it should not be happening in the greatest country on Earth.”

Longtime Democratic foes of Trump took a different tack, saying no one should be able to escape prosecution if wrongdoing was alleged but should have their day in court to answer the charges.

Nancy Pelosi, the former speaker of the House of Representatives, wrote on Twitter, “The Grand Jury has acted upon the facts and the law. No one is above the law, and everyone has the right to a trial to prove innocence.”

“Hopefully, the former President will peacefully respect the system, which grants him that right,” she added.

The Democratic Senate majority leader, Chuck Schumer, said in a statement: “Mr. Trump is subject to the same laws as every American. He will be able to avail himself of the legal system and a jury, not politics, to determine his fate according to the facts and the law. There should be no outside political influence, intimidation or interference in the case. I encourage both Mr. Trump’s critics and supporters to let the process proceed peacefully and according to the law.”