Exclusive: Echo chambers – Fake news fact-checks hobbled by low reach, study shows

FILE PHOTO: A general view of Facebook's elections operation centre in Dublin, Ireland May 2, 2019. REUTERS/Lorraine O'Sullivan/File Photo

By Alissa de Carbonnel

BRUSSELS (Reuters) – The European Union has called on Facebook and other platforms to invest more in fact-checking, but a new study shows those efforts may rarely reach the communities worst affected by fake news.

The analysis by big-data firm Alto Data Analytics over a three-month period ahead of this year’s EU elections casts doubt on the effectiveness of fact-checking even though demand for it is growing.

Facebook has been under fire since Russia used it to influence the election that brought Donald Trump to power. The company quadrupled the number of fact-checking groups it works with worldwide over the last year and its subsidiary WhatsApp launched its first fact-checking service.

The EU, which has expanded its own fact-checking team, urged online platforms to take greater action or risk regulation.

Fact-checkers are often journalists who set up non-profits or work at mainstream media outlets to scour the web for viral falsehoods. Their rebuttals in the form of articles, blog posts and Tweets seek to explain how statements fail to hold up to scrutiny, images are doctored or videos are taken out of context.

But there is little independent research on their success in debunking fake news or prevent people from sharing it.

“The biggest problem is that we have very little data … on the efficacy of various fact-checking initiatives,” said Nahema Marchal, a researcher at the Oxford Internet Institute.

“We know from a research perspective that fact-checking isn’t always as efficient as we might think,” she said.

Alto looked at more than two dozen fact-checking groups in five EU nations and found they had a minimal online presence – making up between 0.1% and 0.3% of the total number of retweets, replies, and mentions analyzed on Twitter from December to March.

The Alto study points to a problem fact-checkers have long suspected: they are often preaching to the choir.

It found that online communities most likely to be exposed to junk news in Germany, France, Spain, Italy and Poland had little overlap with those sharing fact-checks.

PATCHWORK

The European Parliament election yielded a patchwork of results. The far-right made gains but so did liberal and green parties, leaving pro-European groups in control of the assembly.

The EU found no large-scale, cross-border attempts to sway voters but warned of hard-to-detect home-grown operations.

Alto analyzed abnormal, hyperactive users making dozens of posts per day to deduce which political communities were most tainted by suspect posts in each country.

Less than 1% of users – mostly sympathetic to populist and far-right parties – generated around 10% of the total posts related to politics.

They flooded networks with anti-immigration, anti-Islam and anti-establishment messages, Alto found in results that echoed separate studies by campaign group Avaaz and the Oxford Internet Institute on the run-up to the European election.

Fact-checkers, seeking to counter these messages, had little penetration in those same communities.

In Poland – where junk news made up 21% of traffic compared to an average of 4% circulating on Twitter in seven major European languages over one month before the vote, according to the Oxford study – content issued by fact-checkers was mainly shared among those opposed to the ruling Law and Justice party.

The most successful posts by six Polish fact-checkers scrutinized campaign finance, the murder of a prominent opposition politician and child abuse by the Catholic church.

Italy, where an anti-establishment government has been in power for a year, and Spain, where far-right newcomer Vox is challenging center parties, also saw content from fact-checkers unevenly spread across political communities.

More than half of the retweets, mentions or replies to posts shared by seven Italian fact-checking groups – mostly related to immigration – came from users sympathetic to the center-left Democratic Party (PD).

Only two of the seven groups had any relatively sizeable footprint among supporters of Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini’s far-right League party, which surged to become the third-biggest in the new EU legislature.

Italian fact-checker Open.Online, for example, had 4,594 retweets, mentions or replies among PD sympathizers compared to 387 among League ones.

French fact-checking groups, who are mostly embedded in mainstream media, fared better. Their content, which largely sought to debunk falsehoods about President Emmanuel Macron, was the most evenly distributed across different online communities.

In Germany, only 2.2% of Twitter users mapped in the study retweeted, replied or mentioned the content distributed by six fact-checking groups.

Alto’s research faces constraints. The focus on publicly available Twitter data may not accurately reflect the whole online conversation across various platforms, the period of study stops short of the May elections, and there are areas of dispute over what constitutes disinformation.

It also lacks data from Facebook, which is not alone among internet platforms but whose dominance puts it in the spotlight.

FREE SPEECH

Facebook says once a post is flagged by fact-checkers, it is downgraded in users’ news feeds to limit its reach and if users try to share it, they will receive a warning. Repeat offenders will see a distribution of their entire page restricted resulting in a loss of advertising revenue.

“It should be seen less, shared less,” Richard Allen, Facebook’s vice president for global policy, told reporters visiting a “war room” in Dublin set up to safeguard the EU vote.

Facebook cites free speech concerns over deleting content. It will remove posts seeking to suppress voter turnout by advertising the wrong date for an election, for example, but says in many other cases it is difficult to differentiate between blatantly false information and partisan comment. 

“We don’t feel we should be removing contested claims even when we believe they may be false,” Allen said. “There are a lot of concepts being tested because we don’t know what is going to work.”

As the rapid spread of fake news on social media has raised the profile of fact-checking groups, it is forcing them to rethink how they work.

If they once focused on holding politicians to account, fact-checkers are now seeking to influence a wider audience.

Clara Jiménez, co-founder Maldita.es, a Spanish fact-checking group partnered with Facebook, mimics the methods used by those spreading false news. That means going viral with memes and videos.

Maldita.es focuses largely on WhatsApp and asks people to send fact-checks back to those in their networks who first spread the fake news.

“You need to try to reach real people,” said Jimenez, who also aims to promote better media literacy. “One of the things we have been asked several times is whether people can get pregnant from a mosquito bite. If people believe that, we have a bigger issue.”

(Additional reporting by Thomas Escritt in Berlin and Conor Humphries in Dublin; Writing by Alissa de Carbonnel; Editing by Giles Elgood)

Malaysia outlaws ‘fake news’; sets jail of up to six years

Commuters walk past an advertisement discouraging the dissemination of fake news at a train station in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia March 28, 2018. Picture taken March 28, 2018. REUTERS/Stringer

KUALA LUMPUR (Reuters) – Malaysia on Monday approved a law against “fake news” that would allow for prison of up to six years for offenders, shrugging off critics who say it was aimed at curbing dissent and free speech ahead of a general election.

Prime Minister Najib Razak’s government secured a simple majority in parliament to pass the Anti-Fake News 2018 bill, which sets out fines of up to 500,000 ringgit ($123,000) and a maximum six years in jail. The first draft of the bill had proposed jail of up to 10 years.

The government said the law would not impinge on freedom of speech and cases under it would be handled through an independent court process.

“This law aims to protect the public from the spread of fake news, while allowing freedom of speech as provided for under the constitution,” Law Minister Azalina Othman Said told parliament.

The law defines fake news as “news, information, data and reports which is or are wholly or partly false” and includes features, visuals and audio recordings.

It covers digital publications and social media and will apply to offenders who maliciously spread “fake news” inside and outside Malaysia, including foreigners, if Malaysia or a Malaysian citizen were affected.

Co-opted by U.S. President Donald Trump, the term “fake news” has quickly become part of the standard repertoire of leaders in authoritarian countries to describe media reports and organizations critical of them.

The U.N. Special Rapporteur on freedom of opinion and expression, David Kaye, had earlier on Monday urged the government not to rush the legislation through parliament.

“I urge the government to reconsider the bill and open it up to regular and genuine public scrutiny before taking any further steps,” David Kaye said in a Twitter post.

OTHERS CONSIDER LAWS

Other countries in Southeast Asia, including Singapore and the Philippines, are considering how to tackle “fake news” but human rights activists fear that laws against it could be used to stifle free speech.

Malaysia is among the first few countries to introduce a law against it. Germany approved a plan last year to fine social media networks if they fail to remove hateful postings.

Malaysia already has an arsenal of laws, including a colonial-era Sedition Act, that have been used to clamp down on unfavorable news and social media posts.

News reports and social media posts on a multi-billion dollar scandal at state fund 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) have hounded Prime Minister Najib, who faces arguably his toughest contest in a general election this year that could be called in days.

Najib has denied any wrongdoing in connection with losses at the fund.

A deputy minister was quoted in media last month as saying any news on 1MDB not verified by the government was “fake”.

Lim Kit Siang, a senior opposition lawmaker with the Democratic Action Party, described the bill as a “Save Najib from 1MDB Scandal Bill” which would criminalize news on the affair.

(Reporting by Joseph Sipalan; Writing by Praveen Menon; Editing by Robert Birsel)

Turkey detains nearly 600 for opposing Syrian offensive

Turkish military armoured vehicles arrive at a border village near the town of Hassa in Hatay province, Turkey, January 21, 2018

By Tuvan Gumrukcu and Dominic Evans

ANKARA (Reuters) – Turkey has so far detained 573 people for social media posts and protests criticizing its military offensive in Syria, the government said on Monday.

The crackdown, which has extended to the national medical association, has deepened concerns about free speech under President Tayyip Erdogan, who has criticized opponents of the military intervention as “traitors”.

Turkey last month launched an air and ground offensive, dubbed Operation Olive Branch, against the Kurdish YPG militia in Syria’s northwestern Afrin region. Authorities have repeatedly warned they would prosecute those opposing, criticizing or misrepresenting the incursion.

“Since the start of Operation Olive Branch, 449 people have been detained for spreading terrorist propaganda on social media and 124 people detained for taking part in protest action,” the Interior Ministry said in a statement.

The operation has been widely supported by Turkey’s mainly pro-government media and by most political parties, with the exception of the pro-Kurdish opposition.

Last week, a prosecutor ordered the detention of 11 senior members of the Turkish Medical Association, including its chairman, after the organization criticized the incursion, saying: “No to war, peace immediately”.

Erdogan criticized the body as traitors. All of the doctors have since been released on probation, the association said on Twitter. Detention orders have been issued for another 13 people for supporting the medics.

“There are laws that prohibit the glorification of terrorism, support for terrorism through propaganda and media. The prosecutors are implementing the laws,” Erdogan’s spokesman, Ibrahim Kalin, told reporters in Istanbul at the weekend.

Ankara considers the U.S.-backed YPG, which controls Afrin, to be a terrorist group and an extension of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) which has fought an insurgency in Turkey’s largely Kurdish southeast since 1984.

Turkey is in the midst of a widening crackdown that began after a failed coup attempt in July 2016. Some 50,000 people have been jailed and 150,000 sacked or suspended from their jobs.

Critics, including rights groups and some Western allies, say Erdogan is using the coup as a pretext to muzzle dissent. The latest arrests have also drawn criticism from the European Union.

Turkey says its measures are necessary due to the gravity of the security threats it faces.

(Additional reporting by Ali Kucukgocmen; Editing by David Dolan and Janet Lawrence)

U.S. government creates health division for ‘religious freedom’

By Toni Clarke

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. government is seeking to further protect the “conscience and religious freedom” of health workers whose beliefs prevent them from carrying out abortions and other procedures, in an effort likely to please conservative Christian activists and other supporters of President Donald Trump.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services said on Thursday it will create a division within its Office of Civil Rights to give it “the focus it needs to more vigorously and effectively enforce existing laws protecting the rights of conscience and religious freedom.”

Healthcare workers, hospitals with religious affiliations, and medical students among others have been “bullied” by the federal government to provide these services despite existing laws on religious and conscience rights, the top HHS official said.

“The federal government has hounded religious hospitals…forcing them to provide services that violate their consciences,” Acting HHS Secretary Eric Hargan said. “Medical students too have learned to do procedures that violate their consciences.”

Politico reported on Wednesday that the department is aiming to give protections for workers who do not want to provide abortions, care for transgender patients seeking to transition, or perform other procedures because of moral or religious grounds.

The move is likely to upset reproductive rights advocates and some Democrats.

The division would enforce the legal protection and conduct compliance reviews, audits and other enforcement actions to ensure that health care providers are allowing workers with religious or moral objections to opt out.

The creation of the division is in accordance with an executive order signed by Trump last May called “Promoting Free Speech and Religious Liberty.” The order was followed by new rules aimed at removing a legal mandate that health insurance provide contraception.

(Additional reporting by Caroline Humer; Editing by Alistair Bell)

China makes disrespect of national anthem a crime

China's President Xi Jinping arrives at a welcoming ceremony for Brazil's President Michel Temer (not pictured) at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China September 1, 2017.

By Christian Shepherd and Venus Wu

BEIJING/HONG KONG (Reuters) – Anyone who mocks China’s national anthem faces up to 15 days in police detention after parliament criminalized such acts in a new law on Friday that covers Hong Kong and Macau.

Since taking over as president, Chinese leader Xi Jinping has ushered in new legislation aimed at securing the country from threats both within and outside its borders, besides presiding over a sweeping crackdown on dissent and free speech.

Protecting “the dignity of the national anthem” will help “promote patriotism and nurture socialist core values”, says the new law passed by the National People’s Congress (NPC).

It governs when, where and how the anthem, the “March of the Volunteers”, can be played.

The law bans its use as background music and in advertisements, rules out playing it at funerals and on other “inappropriate occasions” and prescribes administrative detention for any “distorted” or “mocking” renditions.

Those attending public events must stand to attention and sing in a solemn manner when the anthem is played.

The new law brings treatment of the anthem into line with desecration of China’s national flag, or its emblem, which has been a criminal offense punishable by up to 15 days’ detention since the 1990s. Those laws also apply in Hong Kong and Macau.

Wu Zeng, the office head of the NPC’s national laws panel, confirmed that lawmakers had agreed the law should also apply to Hong Kong and Macau by being written into their constitutional provisions, the Basic Laws.

The law has fueled concern in Hong Kong, whose residents have grown nervous over China’s perceived encroachment of the city’s autonomy following such events as the disappearance of booksellers who later emerged in mainland Chinese custody.

Hong Kong lawyer and pro-democracy lawmaker Tanya Chan said she expected “a series of obstacles” when the former British colony, which returned to Chinese rule in 1997, adopts the law.

“The rights and freedoms protected under Hong Kong laws have come under challenge in recent years,” she said. “So it is right for people to be concerned.”

The city’s Justice Secretary, Rimsky Yuen, said he hoped “the intention of the national law would be upheld without affecting Hong Kong people’s basic rights and freedoms”.

In 2015, Hong Kong football fans booed the Chinese anthem during a World Cup qualifier, prompting a fine for the territory’s football association from world body FIFA.

Last month, Shanghai police detained three men for having “hurt patriotic feelings” by dressing up as Japanese soldiers and posing for photographs outside a memorial to China’s war with Japan, state media said.

 

(Reporting by Christian Shepherd in Beijing and Venus Wu in Hong Kong; Additional reporting by Philip Wen; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)

 

Controversial free speech rally canceled in San Francisco

A worker installs a fence at Crissy Field in anticipation of Saturday's Patriot Prayer rally and counter demonstration in San Francisco, California, U.S. August 25, 2017. REUTERS/Stephen Lam

By Dan Whitcomb

SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) – A free-speech rally planned for San Francisco this weekend that local leaders had urged residents to boycott as dangerous and “white supremacist” was canceled on Friday by organizers who said that those comments had drawn extremists and made it unsafe.

The planned gathering by Patriot Prayer had been the centerpiece of a weekend of protests in the Bay Area that had raised concern among San Francisco police and elected officials two weeks after right-wing activists, including neo-Nazis and the Ku Klux Klan, fought with anti-racism protesters in the streets of Charlottesville, Virginia.

A woman was killed at that “Unite the Right” rally when a man thought to have neo-Nazi sympathies drove his car into a crowd of counter-protesters. Nineteen other people were injured.

Last weekend, 33 people were arrested in Boston as tens of thousands of demonstrators took to the streets to protest a “free speech” rally featuring far-right speakers.

Patriot Prayer founder Joey Gibson has vehemently denied that his group is extremist or white nationalist, saying that he is not even white and does not align himself with any party or cause.

“The rhetoric from Nancy Pelosi, Mayor Lee, the media, all these people are saying we’re white supremacists and its bringing in tons of extremists and it just seems like a huge set up,” Gibson said in a Facebook Live broadcast. “So we’re going to take the opportunity not to fall into that trap.”

Gibson said he would hold a press conference in San Francisco on Saturday afternoon to further explain his decision.

San Francisco city officials including Mayor Ed Lee had lobbied the National Park Service to deny a permit for Patriot Prayer to hold its event at Crissy Field, which is under federal control as part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area.

When that permit was granted on Wednesday, Lee told residents of San Francisco to essentially boycott the rally.

“I ask our public and our residents of the San Francisco Bay Area to honor our request to not dignify people who are coming in here under the guise of patriot and prayer words to really preach violence and hatred,” Lee told a press conference.

The mayor urged locals to instead attend city-hosted events on Friday and Saturday that he said would focus on “inclusion, compassion and love rather than hate.”

U.S. House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi, in a written statement, slammed the Patriot Prayer gathering as a dangerous “white supremacist rally.”

Left-wing counter-protesters, meanwhile, were planning a march to Crissy Field, where police were concerned a confrontation could erupt. San Francisco-based artist and designer Terrence Ryan, known professionally as Tuffy Tuffington, put out a call on Facebook for canine owners to litter the field beginning on Friday with dog poop ahead of the Patriot Prayer event.

The nonprofit Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks hate groups, does not classify Patriot Prayer as a hate group and reported on its website that Gibson denounced white supremacists and “neo-Nazis” at a rally in Seattle earlier this month.

On Sunday, conservative activists planned a so-called “No to Marxism” rally in nearby Berkeley, an event that left-wing groups were also expected to protest. However, city of Berkeley officials on Thursday denied that group’s request for a rally permit.

(Reporting by Dan Whitcomb; Additional reporting by Alex Dobuzinskis; editing by Diane Craft and Cynthia Osterman)

Roadblocks, weapons bans as Boston braces for ‘Free Speech’ rally

Roadblocks, weapons bans as Boston braces for 'Free Speech' rally

By Scott Malone

BOSTON (Reuters) – Boston officials are planning road blockades and even banning food vendors from the historic Boston Common as they step up security around a “Free Speech” rally on Saturday featuring right-wing speakers, aiming to avoid a repeat of last weekend’s violence at a white supremacist rally in Virginia.

Some 500 police officers will be on the streets around the popular tourist destination. They are planning to close some roadways to vehicles, mindful of the car attacks that killed a woman in Charlottesville and 13 in an attack in Barcelona on Thursday.

“We all know the tragedy that happened in Barcelona. That only makes us more vigilant,” said Boston Police Commissioner William Evans, who was the department’s second-in-command during the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing.

Saturday’s rally has drawn intense concern from city and state officials following the violence in Charlottesville, when white supremacists at a “Unite the Right” rally fought in the streets with anti-racism protesters. A woman was killed at that event when a man said to have neo-Nazi sympathies crashed his car into a crowd of counter-protesters, injuring another 19 people.

U.S. President Donald Trump’s response to that event, including his statement on Tuesday that there were “very fine people” on both sides of last weekend’s conflict, has drawn wide-spread condemnation from both Democrats and Trump’s own Republican party.

Boston Mayor Marty Walsh said the city had granted a permit for Saturday’s event but would not tolerate violence. Sticks, bats and weapons of all kinds would be banned, he said.

“We are going to respect their right to free speech. In return they have to respect the safety of our city,” Walsh said. “If anything gets out of hand, we are going to shut it down.”

The rally could be dwarfed by a “Fight White Supremacy” march starting in the city’s historically black Roxbury neighborhood an ending at the Common, which organizers expect to draw thousands.

“Our job is to make sure that as the peace rally enters into Boston Common that the folks that come in there feel safe, that we don’t have an incident that happened like last week in Virginia,” Walsh said.

A few hundred people are expected to attend the “Free Speech” rally on Boston Common, the nation’s oldest public park. Speakers include Kyle Chapman, a California activist who was arrested at a Berkeley rally earlier this year that turned violent and Joe Biggs, formerly of the right-wing conspiracy site Infowars.

Organizers of the rally on Facebook denounced the violence and white supremacist chants of the Charlottesville event.

(Reporting by Scott Malone; Editing by Dan Grebler)

Turkish court remands four opposition newspaper staff in custody, releases seven

Press freedom activists shout slogans during a demonstration in solidarity with the jailed members of the opposition newspaper Cumhuriyet outside a courthouse, in Istanbul, Turkey, July 28, 2017. The banner reads: "To hell with despotism. Long live freedom".REUTERS/Murad Sezer

By Can Sezer

ISTANBUL (Reuters) – A Turkish court ruled on Friday that four prominent members of an opposition newspaper must remain in detention but freed seven others for the duration of the trial, in a case seen by critics of President Tayyip Erdogan as an attack on free speech.

Since the first hearing in the case on Monday, hundreds of people have protested outside the central Istanbul court against the prosecution of 17 writers, executives and lawyers of the secularist Cumhuriyet newspaper.

The court remanded in custody the chairman of Cumhuriyet’s executive committee Akin Atalay, its chief editor Murat Sabuncu, and reporters Kadri Gursel and Ahmet Sik until the next hearing on Sept. 11, citing the gravity of the charges they face.

Chief judge Abdurrahman Orkun Dag freed seven others until the next hearing on “judicial probation” – meaning they cannot leave the country and must report regularly to a police station.

Turkish prosecutors are seeking up to 43 years in jail for the newspaper staff, who stand accused of targeting Erdogan through “asymmetric war methods”.

The 324-page indictment alleges Cumhuriyet was effectively taken over by the network of U.S.-based cleric Fethullah Gulen, who is blamed for a failed coup last July, and used to “veil the actions of terrorist groups”.

Cumhuriyet says the charges are “imaginary accusations and slander”.

“THEY’RE TELLING US TO KNEEL”

Gursel, along with Sabuncu and other senior staff, has been in pre-trial detention for more than 260 days.

“They’re telling us to kneel. Members of this rotten entity, with its gunmen and tyrants who lack honor, should know very well that until today I’ve only kneeled before my mother and father, and will never ever kneel before anybody else,” Sik told the crowded courtroom.

The court ordered an investigation into Sik, who once wrote a book critical of Gulen’s movement, for comments he made during his defense.

Social media posts comprised the bulk of evidence in the indictment, along with allegations that staff had been in contact with users of Bylock, an encrypted messaging app the government says was used by Gulen’s followers.

Following Friday’s ruling, lawyers marched outside the courthouse, chanting “right, law, justice”, as armored police vehicles and officers stood with tear gas and automatic weapons.

Former chief editor Can Dundar, who is living in Germany, is being tried in absentia, and the court said an arrest warrant for him remained in force.

Rights groups and Turkey’s Western allies have complained of deteriorating human rights under Erdogan. In the crackdown since last July’s failed coup, 50,000 people have been jailed pending trial and some 150,000 detained or dismissed from their jobs.

In a joint statement, several international observers, including Reporters without Borders, called for the release of all 17 defendants, saying the case amounted to a “politically motivated effort to criminalize journalism”.

During Turkey’s crackdown, some 150 media outlets have been shut and around 160 journalists jailed, the Turkish Journalists’ Association says.

Authorities say the crackdown is justified by the gravity of the coup attempt, in which rogue soldiers tried to overthrow the government, killing 250 people, mostly civilians.

(Writing by Tuvan Gumrukcu; Editing by Gareth Jones)

Turkish journalists go on trial accused of supporting terrorism

Journalists and press freedom activists release balloons during a demonstration in solidarity with the members of the opposition newspaper Cumhuriyet who were accused of supporting a terrorist group outside a courthouse, in Istanbul, Turkey, July 24, 2017.

By Can Sezer

ISTANBUL (Reuters) – Prominent journalists and other staff at a Turkish opposition newspaper went on trial on Monday accused of supporting a terrorist group, in a case that critics of President Tayyip Erdogan consider attack on free speech.

“Journalism is not a crime,” chanted several hundred people gathered outside the central Istanbul court to protest against the prosecution of 17 writers, executives and lawyers of the secularist Cumhuriyet newspaper.

The trial coincides with an escalating dispute with Germany over the arrest in Turkey of 10 rights activists, including one German, as part of a crackdown since last year’s attempted coup against Erdogan.

Turkish prosecutors are seeking up to 43 years in jail for newspaper staff accused of targeting Erdogan through “asymmetric war methods”.

“I am not here because I knowingly and willingly helped a terrorist organisation, but because I am an independent, questioning and critical journalist,” one of the defendants, columnist Kadri Gursel, told the court.

Gursel, who, along with editor Murat Sabuncu and other senior staff, has been in pre-trial detention for 267 days, was prevented from hugging his son in the courtroom by security guards, the newspaper said on its website.

The 324-page indictment alleges Cumhuriyet was effectively taken over by the network of U.S.-based cleric Fethullah Gulen, blamed for the failed putsch last July, and used to “veil the actions of terrorist groups”.

Gulen has denied any involvement in the coup.

The newspaper is also accused of writing stories that serve “separatist manipulation”.

Other defendants include Ahmet Sik, who once wrote a book critical of Gulen’s movement. Former editor Can Dundar, who is living in Germany, is being tried in absentia.

The newspaper has called the charges “imaginary accusations and slander”. Social media posts comprised the bulk of evidence in the indictment, along with allegations that staff had been in contact with users of Bylock, an encrypted messaging app the government says was used by Gulen’s followers.

 

‘DE FACTO COALITION’

“According to the government, everyone in opposition is a terrorist, the only non-terrorists are themselves,” Filiz Kerestecioglu, a member of parliament from the pro-Kurdish HDP opposition party, told reporters ahead of the trial.

Gursel, the columnist, denied he had links to Gulen’s movement, saying he had in the past revealed ties between Erdogan’s AK Party and the Gulen movement.

Erdogan has his roots in political Islam and was an ally of the cleric until a public falling-out in 2013.

“I exposed the current government’s de facto coalition with this group and I foresaw the harm that this sinister cooperation would do to the country,” he told the court.

Rights groups and Turkey’s Western allies have complained of deteriorating human rights under Erdogan. In the crackdown since last July’s failed coup, 50,000 people have been jailed pending trial and some 150,000 detained or dismissed from their jobs.

As part of the purge some 150 media outlets have been shut down and around 160 journalists are in jail, according to the Turkish Journalists’ Association.

The crackdown has strained Turkey’s ties with the European Union, but reaction from the bloc has been restrained because it depends on Turkey to curb the flow of migrants into Europe.

Europe’s leading power, Germany, has stepped up pressure in recent days, threatening measures that could hinder German investment in Turkey and reviewing Turkish applications for arms deals.

Turkish authorities say the crackdown is justified by the gravity of the coup attempt, in which rogue soldiers tried to overthrow the government and Erdogan, killing 250 people, most of them civilians.

 

(Writing by Daren Butler; Editing by Robin Pomeroy)

 

President Trump signs Religious Liberty Executive Order on National Day of Prayer

U.S. President Donald Trump signs an Executive Order on Promoting Free Speech and Religious Liberty during the National Day of Prayer event at the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington D.C., U.S., May 4, 2017.

By Kami Klein

On the National Day of Prayer, President Donald Trump and Vice President Pence signed a new executive order focusing on Religious Liberty.  White House officials declared “it is the policy of the administration to protect and vigorously promote religious liberty.”  Today, President Trump made good on his promise to ease a ban on political activity by churches and other tax-exempt institutions.

Many friends of Morningside were already in Washington D.C. for the National Day of Prayer. Prophetic and influential leaders such as Paula White, Jentezen Franklin, Samuel Rodriguez, Pastor Ramiro Pena, Franklin Graham and Anne Graham were there for this historic moment.  Also in attendance were Alveda King, Ravi Zachariah, Rev. Maldonado, Dr. David Jeremiah, Dr. Jim Garlow and Pastor Frank Amedia.

In a signing ceremony at the White House, President Trump said: “We will not allow people of faith to be targeted, bullied or silenced any more.”  The President continued by saying, “ No one should be censoring sermons or targeting pastors.”

This executive order will allow non-profit organizations, hospitals, educational institutions and businesses to deny certain health coverage for religious reasons.  An example of this would be Christian Groups like Little Sisters of the Poor from being forced to pay for abortion or contraception services.

Under the Johnson Amendment, a 1954 law sponsored by Lyndon Johnson, organizations that are non-profit, tax exempt status are not allowed to participate in political campaigning or supporting any one candidate for elective office.   Trump’s order guides the IRS to “alleviate the burden of the Johnson Amendment.”

A White House official told Fox News, “I think how the President feels about the Johnson amendment is that politicians and unelected bureaucrats shouldn’t have the power to shut up their critics just because they are church leaders or charities.”

“We don’t have any plans to discriminate, we’re about not discriminating against religious organizations!”

The following is the full text of Trump’s Executive Order :  

 

PROMOTING FREE SPEECH AND RELIGIOUS LIBERTY

By the authority vested in me as President by the Constitution and the laws of the United States of America, in order to guide the executive branch in formulating and implementing policies with implications for the religious liberty of persons and organizations in America, and to further compliance with the Constitution and with applicable statutes and Presidential Directives, it is hereby ordered as follows:

Section 1. Policy. It shall be the policy of the executive branch to vigorously enforce Federal law’s robust protections for religious freedom. The Founders envisioned a Nation in which religious voices and views were integral to a vibrant public square, and in which religious people and institutions were free to practice their faith without fear of discrimination or retaliation by the Federal Government. For that reason, the United States Constitution enshrines and protects the fundamental right to religious liberty as Americans’ first freedom. Federal law protects the freedom of Americans and their organizations to exercise religion and participate fully in civic life without undue interference by the Federal Government. The executive branch will honor and enforce those protections.

Sec. 2. Respecting Religious and Political Speech. All executive departments and agencies (agencies) shall, to the greatest extent practicable and to the extent permitted by law, respect and protect the freedom of persons and organizations to engage in religious and political speech. In particular, the Secretary of the Treasury shall ensure, to the extent permitted by law, that the Department of the Treasury does not take any adverse action against any individual, house of worship, or other religious organization on the basis that such individual or organization speaks or has spoken about moral or political issues from a religious perspective, where speech of similar character has, consistent with law, not ordinarily been treated as participation or intervention in a political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) a candidate for public office by the Department of the Treasury. As used in this section, the term “adverse action” means the imposition of any tax or tax penalty; the delay or denial of tax-exempt status; the disallowance of tax deductions for contributions made to entities exempted from taxation under section 501(c)(3) of title 26, United States Code; or any other action that makes unavailable or denies any tax deduction, exemption, credit, or benefit.

Sec. 3. Conscience Protections with Respect to Preventive-Care Mandate. The Secretary of the Treasury, the Secretary of Labor, and the Secretary of Health and Human Services shall consider issuing amended regulations, consistent with applicable law, to address conscience-based objections to the preventive-care mandate promulgated under section 300gg-13(a)(4) of title 42, United States Code.

Sec. 4. Religious Liberty Guidance. In order to guide all agencies in complying with relevant Federal law, the Attorney General shall, as appropriate, issue guidance interpreting religious liberty protections in Federal law.

Sec. 5. Severability. If any provision of this order, or the application of any provision to any individual or circumstance, is held to be invalid, the remainder of this order and the application of its other provisions to any other individuals or circumstances shall not be affected thereby.

Sec. 6. General Provisions. (a) Nothing in this order shall be construed to impair or otherwise affect:

(i) the authority granted by law to an executive department or agency, or the head thereof; or

(ii) the functions of the Director of the Office of Management and Budget relating to budgetary, administrative, or legislative proposals.

(b) This order shall be implemented consistent with applicable law and subject to the availability of appropriations.

(c) This order is not intended to, and does not, create any right or benefit, substantive or procedural, enforceable at law or in equity by any party against the United States, its departments, agencies, or entities, its officers, employees, or agents, or any other person.

 

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