Fake social media accounts spread pro-Iran messages during U.S. midterms: FireEye

FILE PHOTO: A staff member removes the Iranian flag from the stage after a group picture with foreign ministers and representatives of the U.S., Iran, China, Russia, Britain, Germany, France and the European Union during Iran nuclear talks at the Vienna International Center in Vienna, Austria, July 14, 2015. REUTERS/Carlos Barria

By Christopher Bing

(Reuters) – A network of fake social media accounts impersonated political candidates and journalists to spread messages in support of Iran and against U.S. President Donald Trump around the 2018 congressional elections, cybersecurity firm FireEye said on Tuesday.

The findings show how unidentified, possibly government-backed, groups could manipulate social media platforms to promote stories and other content that can influence the opinions of American voters, the researchers said.

This particular operation was largely focused on promoting “anti-Saudi, anti-Israeli, and pro-Palestinian themes,” according to the report by FireEye.

The campaign was organized through a series of fake personas that created various social media accounts, including on Twitter and Facebook. Most of these accounts were created last year and have since been taken down, the report said.

Spokespersons for Twitter and Facebook confirmed FireEye’s finding that the fake accounts were created on their platforms.

Lee Foster, a researcher with FireEye, said he found some of the fake personas – often masquerading as American journalists – had successfully convinced several U.S. news outlets to publish letters to the editor, guest columns and blog posts.

These writings displayed both progressive and conservative views, the report said, covering topics including the Trump administration’s designation of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) as a terrorist organization.

“We’re assessing with low confidence that this network was organized to support Iranian political interests,” said Foster. “However, we’re not at the point where we can say who was doing it or where it’s coming from. The investigation is ongoing.”

Before the 2018 midterms election, the nameless group created Twitter accounts that also impersonated both Republican and Democratic congressional candidates. It is unclear if the fake accounts had any effect on their campaigns.

The imposter Twitter accounts often plagiarized messages from the politicians’ legitimate accounts, but also mixed in posts voicing support for policies believed to be favorable to Tehran. Affected politicians included Jineea Butler, a Republican candidate for New York’s 13th District, and Marla Livengood, a Republican candidate for California’s 9th District. Both Livengood and Butler lost in the election.

Livengood’s campaign called the situation “clearly an attempt by bad actors” to hurt her campaign, and noted that Livengood was “a strident opponent of nuclear weapons in Iran.”

Butler could not be immediately reached for comment.

Twitter said in a statement that it had “removed this network of 2,800 inauthentic accounts originating in Iran at the beginning of May,” adding that its investigation was ongoing.

Facebook said it had removed 51 Facebook accounts, 36 Pages, seven Groups and three Instagram accounts connected to the influence operation. Instagram is owned by Facebook.

The activity on Facebook was less expansive than that on Twitter and it appeared to be more narrowly focused, said Facebook head of cybersecurity policy Nathaniel Gleicher. The inauthentic Facebook accounts instead often privately messaged high profile figures, including journalists, policy-makers and Iranian dissidents, to promote certain issues.

Facebook also concluded the activity had originated in Iran.

(Reporting by Christopher Bing; editing by Rosalba O’Brien and Susan Thomas)

Chicago police investigating leaks in ‘Empire’ actor case

FILE PHOTO: Jussie Smollett exits Cook County Department of Corrections after posting bail in Chicago, Illinois, U.S., February 21, 2019. REUTERS/Joshua Lott

By Gina Cherelus

(Reuters) – The Chicago Police Department has started an internal investigation into how information about an alleged hate crime attack against actor Jussie Smollett was anonymously leaked to journalists, police officials said.

Smollett, 36, a black, openly gay actor on the hip-hop TV drama “Empire,” was charged with lying to police last month after he said he was attacked in January by two masked men who shouted racist and homophobic slurs. Detectives investigated the incident as a hate crime but local news outlets cited police sources saying it was believed to be a hoax.

“I would like to point out that a lot of the information out there was inaccurate and there were numerous agencies involved in this investigation,” Police Sergeant Rocco Alioto said in a statement on Thursday.

He said an internal investigation had begun as part of standard procedure for allegations of information leaks.

Smollett ignited a media firestorm by telling police two apparent supporters of U.S. President Donald Trump had struck him, put a noose round his neck and poured bleach over him during an assault outside his apartment on Jan. 29.

The actor was arrested on Feb. 21 and charged with filing a false police report after detectives said he staged the hoax hate crime attack to boost his fame because he was unhappy with his salary on the show. He was later released on bail.

The makers of “Empire,” 20th Century Fox Television, cut Smollett’s character, Jamal Lyon, from the final two episodes of the current season after his arrest, saying it wanted to avoid “further disruption” on its production set.

Smollett, who pleaded not guilty, faces up to three years in prison if convicted. His next court hearing is scheduled for March 14.

A representative and lawyers for Smollett did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

(Reporting by Gina Cherelus in New York; Editing by Bill Trott)

Foreign media reporting conditions in China worsen, group says

Red flags flutter on the top of the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China September 30, 2018. Picture taken September 30, 2018. REUTERS/Jason Lee

BEIJING (Reuters) – Last year marked a “significant deterioration” in reporting conditions for foreign journalists in China, the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China said on Tuesday, with no reporter saying in a new survey that conditions had improved last year.

The group said 55 percent of respondents to its 2018 reporting conditions survey said they believed conditions deteriorated last year, the largest proportion since 2011.

“Not a single correspondent said conditions improved,” the group said, unveiling results of a survey of its 204 foreign correspondent members, 109 of whom responded to questions.

“Rapidly expanding surveillance and widespread government interference against reporting in the country’s far northwestern region of Xinjiang drove a significant deterioration in the work environment for foreign journalists in China in 2018.”

Foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang told a regular news briefing that the report was “not worth refuting” and could not represent the views of all foreign journalists.

The government has repeatedly said it is committed to ensuring foreign media can report easily, but that they must follow the rules and regulations.

According to rules issued just before the 2008 Beijing Olympics, foreign reporters can interview anyone as long as they have permission.

But the government often interprets the rules to suit its needs, rights groups say, especially when it comes to sensitive subjects. Tibet remains off limits for foreign journalists apart from government-organized visits.

While foreign journalists are occasionally harassed or temporarily detained, domestic media operate under strict government controls. Chinese reporters have been fired or jailed for writing stories that stray too far from the government line.

President Xi Jinping has overseen a sweeping crackdown on dissent since assuming office six years ago and his administration has tightened Communist Party controls on all levels of society, including in Xinjiang.

(Reporting by Ben Blanchard and Michael Martina; Editing by Neil Fullick)

Special Report: How Myanmar punished two reporters for uncovering an atrocity

Detained Reuters journalists Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo leave Insein court after listening to the verdict in Yangon, Myanmar September 3, 2018. REUTERS/Stringer

By John Chalmers

YANGON (Reuters) – Time and again, Myanmar’s government appeared at risk of blowing its prosecution of two young journalists who had exposed a massacre of 10 Muslim men and implicated security forces in the killings.

On April 20, a prosecution witness revealed in pre-trial hearings that police planted military documents on Reuters reporters Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo in order to frame them for violating the country’s Official Secrets Act. That admission drew gasps from the courtroom.

A police officer told the court that he burned notes he made at the time of the reporters’ arrest but didn’t explain why. Several prosecution witnesses contradicted the police account of where the arrests took place. A police major conceded the “secret” information allegedly found on the reporters wasn’t actually a secret.

And outside the courtroom, military officials even admitted that the killings had indeed taken place.

These bombshells bolstered central assertions of the defense: The arrests were a “pre-planned and staged” effort to silence the truthful reporting of Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo.

In the end, the holes in the case were not enough to stop the government from punishing the two reporters for revealing an ugly chapter in the history of Myanmar’s young democracy. On Monday, after 39 court appearances and 265 days of imprisonment, Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo were found guilty of breaching the Official Secrets Act and sentenced to seven years in prison.

Yangon northern district judge Ye Lwin ruled that the two reporters had breached the secrets act when they collected and obtained confidential documents. Delivering his verdict in the small courtroom, he said it had been found that “confidential documents” discovered on the two would have been useful “to enemies of the state and terrorist organizations.”

After the verdict was delivered, Wa Lone told a cluster of friends and reporters not to worry. “We know we did nothing wrong,” he said, addressing reporters outside the courtroom. “I have no fear. I believe in justice, democracy and freedom.”

The prosecution of Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo has become a landmark press freedom case in Myanmar and a test of the nation’s transition to democratic governance since decades of rule by a military junta ended in 2011. The military, though, still controls key government ministries and is guaranteed 25 percent of parliamentary seats, giving it much power in the fledgling democracy.

During the court hearings, U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres and leaders from several Western countries had called for the reporters’ release. After the verdict, Scot Marciel, the U.S. ambassador to Myanmar, said the ruling was “deeply troubling” for everybody who had struggled for media freedom in the country. “I’m sad for Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo and their families, but also for Myanmar,” he said.

Reuters Editor-in-Chief Stephen J. Adler said the two reporters had been convicted “without any evidence of wrongdoing and in the face of compelling evidence of a police set-up.” The verdict, he said, was “a major step backward in Myanmar’s transition to democracy.”

Myanmar government spokesman Zaw Htay did not respond to requests for comment about the verdict.

FILE PHOTO: Ten Rohingya Muslim men with their hands bound kneel as members of the Myanmar security forces stand guard in Inn Din village September 2, 2017. REUTERS/File Photo

FILE PHOTO: Ten Rohingya Muslim men with their hands bound kneel as members of the Myanmar security forces stand guard in Inn Din village September 2, 2017. REUTERS/File Photo

A week before the ruling, United Nations investigators said in a report that Myanmar’s military had carried out mass killings and gang rapes of Muslim Rohingya with “genocidal intent,” and that the commander-in-chief and five generals should be punished. The report also accused the government of Aung San Suu Kyi of contributing to “the commission of atrocity crimes” by failing to shield minorities from crimes against humanity and war crimes. Myanmar has rejected the findings.

Suu Kyi, the country’s de facto leader who spent some 15 years under house arrest during the junta era, has made few public statements about the case. In a rare comment in June, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate told Japanese broadcaster NHK that the reporters weren’t arrested for covering the violence in western Myanmar. “They were arrested because they broke the Official Secrets Act,” she said.

The act dates back to 1923, when Myanmar – then known as Burma – was under British rule. The charge against the reporters carried a maximum sentence of 14 years. Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo were found guilty under Section 3.1 (c) of the act, which covers obtaining secret official documentation that “might be or is intended to be, directly or indirectly, useful to an enemy.”

At the time of their arrest in December, Wa Lone, now 32, and Kyaw Soe Oo, now 28, were working on a Reuters investigation into the killing of 10 Rohingya Muslim villagers during an army crackdown in Rakhine State in the west of the country. The violence has sent more than 700,000 Rohingya fleeing to Bangladesh, where they now live in vast refugee camps.

The United States has accused the government of ethnic cleansing against the Rohingya, a Muslim minority who are widely reviled in this majority-Buddhist country. Myanmar says its operations in Rakhine were a legitimate response to attacks on security forces by Rohingya insurgents.

Reuters published its investigation into the massacre on Feb. 8. An account of the killing of eight men and two high school students in September in the village of Inn Din, the report prompted international demands for a credible probe into the wider bloodshed in Rakhine.

The story and its accompanying photographs provided the first independent confirmation of what took place at Inn Din. Two of the photos obtained by the reporters show the men kneeling, in one with their hands behind their necks and in a second with their hands tied behind their backs. A third picture shows their bodies, some apparently with bullet wounds, others with gashes, in a blood-stained, shallow grave.

SLEEP DEPRIVED

The prosecution of the reporters put Aung San Suu Kyi, winner of the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize, in the glare of an uncomfortable global spotlight. Hailed as a champion of democracy for standing up to the junta, Suu Kyi was released from house arrest in 2010. Her party won a general election in 2015 and formed Myanmar’s first civilian government in more than half a century in early 2016. Her cabinet includes three generals, however; in a speech last month, she called these military men “all rather sweet.”

Earlier this year, veteran U.S. politician Bill Richardson said Suu Kyi was “furious” with him when he raised the case of the Reuters journalists with her. Richardson, a former Clinton administration cabinet member, resigned in January from an international panel set up by Myanmar to advise on the Rohingya crisis, saying the body was conducting a “whitewash” and accusing Suu Kyi of lacking “moral leadership.” Suu Kyi’s office said at the time that Richardson was “pursuing his own agenda” and had been asked to step down.

As leader of the opposition, Suu Kyi had criticized the junta’s treatment of journalists. In 2014, she reportedly described as “very excessive” a prison sentence of 10 years with hard labor handed down to four local journalists and their boss. They were found guilty of trespassing and violating the Official Secrets Act, the same law used to prosecute the Reuters reporters. “While there are claims of democratic reform, this is questionable when the rights of journalists are being controlled,” the local Irrawaddy newspaper quoted her as telling reporters in July 2014.

A government spokesman did not answer calls by Reuters seeking comment on Suu Kyi’s statement.

Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo were arrested on the evening of Dec. 12. During hours of testimony in July, they described that night and the interrogations that followed. They told the court that their heads were covered with black hoods when they were transported to a police interrogation site. They testified they were deprived of sleep for three days during their grillings. At one point, Kyaw Soe Oo said, he was punished and made to kneel on the floor for at least three hours. A police witness denied that the reporters were deprived of sleep and that Kyaw Soe Oo was forced to kneel.

Describing the night of their arrest, Wa Lone said he and Kyaw Soe Oo were detained almost immediately after being handed some documents at a restaurant by a police lance corporal he had been trying to interview for the massacre story. The policeman had invited Wa Lone to meet and Kyaw Soe Oo accompanied him, Wa Lone testified.

When the two reporters exited the restaurant, they were grabbed by men in plain clothes, handcuffed and shoved into separate vehicles, they both testified. As they were driven to a police station, Wa Lone recalled in court, a man who appeared to be in charge called a senior officer and told him: “We’ve got them, sir.”

The interrogation centered on the journalists’ reporting and their discovery of the massacre, not on the allegedly secret state documents, Wa Lone told the court. One officer, he said, offered “possible negotiations” if the massacre story wasn’t published. Wa Lone said he rejected the overture.

At one point, Wa Lone testified, the police chastised him for reporting on the Rohingya. “You are both Buddhists. Why are you writing about ‘kalars’ at a time like this? They aren’t citizens,” Wa Lone recalled being told. ‘Kalar’ is a slur widely used in Myanmar to describe Muslims, especially Rohingya and people of South Asian origin.

It was two weeks from the time of their arrest before Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo were allowed contact with their families and lawyers.

In late December, they were sent to Yangon’s Insein Prison, a colonial-era building that became an emblem of the former military junta’s repressive rule. For decades, dissidents were held alongside murderers, thieves and drug dealers. Suu Kyi spent a brief period there.

“I found out my cell was built in 1865. It was used for the prisoners before they were killed,” Wa Lone told a colleague before one court hearing, amused to have discovered he was living on a Victorian-era death row.

THUMBS-UP SIGN

The first hearing came on Dec. 27, which was overcast with a few specks of drizzle. Some reporters had gathered outside the courthouse before dawn in case police tried to rush through the proceedings. Many from local media wore black T-shirts in solidarity with the Reuters reporters.

Wa Lone’s wife, Pan Ei Mon, mouthed quiet prayers between interviews with journalists. Kyaw Soe Oo’s sister, Nyo Nyo Aye, kept near her side, barely speaking.

When a white Toyota police van swung into the yard, Pan Ei Mon and Nyo Nyo Aye pushed through scrambling photographers and hugged the two men as they were led into the courthouse. Within minutes, the court extended their remand for 14 days. An application for bail was refused on Feb. 1.

After that, the two reporters were put in a pick-up truck almost weekly to make the roughly half-kilometer journey to Yangon’s Northern District Court, a dilapidated two storey red-brick building. Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo would arrive at court handcuffed. Holding his hands clenched and at chest-level, Wa Lone looked like a boxer entering a ring, smiling and giving a thumbs-up sign for the cameras.

If there was a break in proceedings, the men were allowed to join their families in a side room, where they were fed and hugged. Kyaw Soe Oo’s daughter, Moe Thin Wai Zan, now three, would cling to her father. From time to time, he carefully lowered his handcuffs over her head and peppered her face with kisses.

Wa Lone’s wife, Pan Ei Mon, sat as close to her husband as she could during the hearings. She gave birth to a girl, the couple’s first child, on Aug. 10.

The courtroom could hold around 40 people and was invariably packed with family, friends, reporters and foreign diplomats. Sparrows flitted through gaps above the saloon-style doors and nested in the rafters; a cat sometimes wandered through the court. From a nearby room sounded the clacking of an old-fashioned typewriter. Power cuts were routine, and during the humid summer, the room warmed quickly as the single ceiling fan slowed to a halt. In a familiar drill, a court official would hustle spectators aside to fetch a generator and lug it into a hallway, where it chugged until the session was over.

Flanked by policemen, Wa Lone would often make an impassioned statement to the media outside court after hearings. On the day the court charged the reporters, he raised his voice and spoke quickly: “For us, no matter what, we won’t retreat, give up or be shaken by this. I would like to say that injustice will never defeat us.”

Police said Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo were caught in Yangon with secret information about the operations of security forces in Rakhine, the state where the Inn Din massacre took place. The reporters, they said, were detained after being searched at a traffic checkpoint by officers who didn’t know they were journalists.

But early in the proceedings, the police version of events began to fray. At a hearing on Feb. 1, a police major, who led the team of arresting officers, conceded that the information in the documents had already been published in newspaper reports. It was one of many inconsistencies to surface during testimony from the 22 witnesses called by the prosecution.

The precise location and circumstances surrounding the arrests emerged as a key point of contention in court. The police said the reporters were stopped and searched at a traffic checkpoint at the junction of Main Road No. 3 and Nilar Road by officers who were unaware they were journalists – not at a restaurant, as Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo testified.

One prosecution witness, civilian official Kyaw Shein, supported the police on the location of the arrests. Then, in a moment of courtroom drama, defense lawyer Than Zaw Aung reached through the wooden bars of the witness stand and turned over Kyaw Shein’s left hand, which the witness had been glancing at while giving testimony. On it were written the words “Thet Oo Maung” – the official name of Wa Lone – and below it, “No. 3 Road and Nilar Road junction.” (It is common for people in Myanmar to use more than one name, as Wa Lone does.)

Asked if someone had told him to write down the address where police say the arrest took place, Kyaw Shein said no. He wrote on his hand because he was “forgetful,” he said.

‘ENTRAP HIM AND ARREST HIM’

On April 10, in a move that acknowledged the truth of the Reuters report on the Inn Din massacre, the army announced that seven soldiers had been sentenced to “10 years in prison with hard labor in a remote area” for participating in the killings.

Ten days later, the state’s case against Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo appeared to suffer a setback when the court heard the reporters’ version of events – astonishingly, from a prosecution witness. They had in fact been arrested as they left a restaurant still holding in their hands documents they had just been given by police officers as part of a plan to ensnare them, said Captain Moe Yan Naing of the paramilitary 8th Security Police Battalion.

Before the reporters were arrested, Wa Lone had interviewed several members of Battalion 8 about the army crackdown in Rakhine. At least three police officers told him that the unit supported military operations there.

Moe Yan Naing testified that he was interviewed by Wa Lone in November, and had himself been under arrest since the night of Dec. 12. Earlier that day, he said, he had been taken to Battalion 8’s headquarters on the northern edges of Yangon. When he arrived, he said, he found himself among a group of several policemen who were believed to have given interviews to Wa Lone. They were interrogated about their interactions with the Reuters reporter.

Moe Yan Naing told the court that police Brigadier General Tin Ko Ko, who led an internal probe into what the reporters had been told, ordered an officer to arrange a meeting with Wa Lone that night and hand over “secret documents from Battalion 8.”

Brigadier General Tin Ko Ko gave the documents to a police lance corporal “and told him to give them to Wa Lone,” Moe Yan Naing testified. When Wa Lone left the restaurant, the general continued, the local police were to “entrap him and arrest him,” according to Moe Yan Naing. He told the court he witnessed Tin Ko Ko giving these orders.

“Police Brigadier General Tin Ko Ko told the police members, ‘If you don’t get Wa Lone, you will go to jail’,” Moe Yan Naing said.

“This officer spoke based on his own feelings,” police spokesman Colonel Myo Thu Soe told Reuters, referring to Moe Yan Naing.

In the days following his testimony, Moe Yan Naing’s wife and three children were evicted from police housing in the capital city of Naypyitaw, and he was sentenced to one year in prison for violating the Police Disciplinary Act by having contact with Wa Lone. The prosecution sought to have Moe Yan Naing declared an unreliable witness. Nevertheless, Judge Ye Lwin declared he was credible. The captain returned to court two weeks later – this time in shackles and wearing a dark blue prison uniform – to give further testimony.

A police lance corporal, who met the reporters in the restaurant moments before they were arrested, contradicted Moe Yan Naing’s account of a set-up operation. Naing Lin, the lance corporal, denied giving the Reuters reporters secret documents to incriminate them. He also denied calling Wa Lone to invite him to a meeting on Dec. 12. During cross-examination, though, defense lawyer Than Zaw Aung said phone records showed that Naing Lin had called the journalist three times on that day.

In the end, the defense’s ability to punch holes in the prosecution’s case proved to be insufficient ammunition. Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo’s exposure of atrocities against a despised minority had put them on a collision course with Aung San Suu Kyi, the generals and their nation’s Buddhist majority.

(Edited by Peter Hirschberg and Michael Williams.)

Venezuela’s last anti-Maduro paper clings on as media intimidation grows

A journalist works at his desk in the newsroom of Ultimas Noticias newspaper in Caracas, Venezuela June 19, 2018. REUTERS/Marco Bello

By Vivian Sequera and Angus Berwick

CARACAS (Reuters) – Three hours before Venezuela’s El Nacional newspaper goes to print, a bare-bones staff of 20 journalists toils in its vast newsroom, surrounded by empty desks.

A poster on a wall warns employees not to steal toilet paper while another asks for medicine for a reporter’s mother, as the scarcity of basic goods that has forced over a million people to leave Venezuela also takes its toll on the country’s last independent national newspaper.

Printing the paper has become a daily struggle, its editors say. Currency controls imposed by the Venezuelan government are strangling imports, meaning newsprint, ink and printing equipment are scarce.

Now, however, El Nacional finds itself at a potentially perilous juncture after President Nicolas Maduro’s top lieutenant successfully sued for defamation in a Venezuelan court.

Diosdado Cabello, head of Venezuela’s powerful Constituent Assembly, sued El Nacional in 2015 after it re-published an article from Spanish newspaper ABC reporting he was under investigation by U.S. authorities for drug trafficking.

Cabello has denied any involvement in the drug trade. He says there is no proof against him and the accusations are aimed at tarnishing his reputation.

While pro-government newspapers like Ultimas Noticias operate freely in Venezuela, El Nacional often finds itself in the crosshairs of Maduro’s ruling Socialist party.

El Nacional’s independent reporting and headlines documenting power cuts, allegations of electoral fraud and strikes by desperate workers have prompted senior government leaders to regularly single out El Nacional’s coverage for public criticism.

Maduro’s supporters have assailed the paper as biased and accuse it of trying to precipitate his ouster. El Nacional denies this and says it accurately covers the current crisis.

The paper says the report it published in January 2015 was correct. In May, the U.S. Treasury sanctioned Cabello, freezing his assets and imposing a travel ban, and said in a statement he had organized drug shipments from Venezuela to Europe and shared the profits with Maduro, who is also under U.S. sanctions.

A suit brought by Cabello against the Wall Street Journal in 2015 for reporting his alleged links to drug trafficking was dismissed by U.S. courts. A spokeswoman for Dow Jones, which publishes the Journal, said the newspaper did not face any legal action in Venezuela related to that reporting.

In June, a tribunal in Caracas ordered El Nacional to pay Cabello the 1 billion bolivars he demanded in 2015 for libel for publishing the ABC story. Due to hyperinflation, that is worth just $300 today but the court said it should be adjusted for price rises.

As the central bank has not published inflation data for three years, it is unclear how high the final award might be but according to Cabello it could potentially amount to hundreds of millions of dollars.

“I swear to you I will make you pay,” Cabello said on his weekly state TV show in June, referring by name to El Nacional’s owner Miguel Henrique Otero, who recently emigrated to Spain.

Cabello showed a mocked-up front page of El Nacional entitled “The Wall Street Furrial”, named after his hometown of El Furrial, fuelling speculation by pro-government legislators that he would seize the newspaper if it could not pay the fine.

Asked by Reuters about his plans, Cabello said his lawyer had asked the court to update the fine using the expected 2018 inflation rate the newspaper published in June of 300,000 percent – based on a calculation by Venezuela’s opposition-controlled National Assembly.

“As El Nacional never lies, the figure should be what they put on their front page,” Cabello said, adding that inflation for the previous two years should also be taken into account.

The court said in its ruling it would assign an independent expert to calculate how to update the fine but did not say who that would be.

“DISRUPT” THE PAPER

El Nacional’s lawyer Juan Garanton said the newspaper had appealed the ruling. The court’s decision makes no mention of what would happen if it is unable to pay but Garanton said Cabello would have no right to seize the paper.

Under Venezuelan commercial law, if a company does not pay a court-imposed fine, the tribunal can seize its assets for auction.

“I don’t think he wants the paper…What he wants is to disrupt it,” Garanton said.

Otero, whose grandfather founded the paper 75 years ago, declined to comment on the fine or the possibility of a takeover.

In a phone interview from Madrid, he said advertising on El Nacional’s foreign-hosted website was earning it valuable hard currency to keep the publication going.

“We’re going to try to maintain the print edition until the end, even if it’s just a page because it’s politically symbolic,” he said.

In addition to the prospect of a punishing fine, El Nacional faces other challenges. Staffing at the newspaper is one-fifth of the 2,000 employees it had over a decade ago. More staff join the exodus of Venezuelans emigrating each week, editor-in-chief Patricia Spadaro said.

“They can’t endure the crisis,” Spadaro said, surrounded by dozens of empty cubicles. The United Nations estimates that 1 million Venezuelans left the country between 2015 and 2017, from a population of around 32 million.

Due to lack of paper, El Nacional says its circulation has dwindled to 20,000 copies, just one-tenth of what it was a decade ago.

Spadaro said a nationalized company that controls paper distribution, the Alfredo Maneiro Editorial Corporation, did not sell to El Nacional. Instead, the newspaper buys from a joint-venture of major Latin American newspapers, importing supplies by ship.

“There has been a policy to suffocate the independent media in Venezuela,” Spadaro said.

Neither the Information Ministry nor the Maneiro Corporation, controlled by the ministry, responded to multiple requests for comment.

(Editing by Daniel Flynn and Alistair Bell)

Maryland man denied bail in newsroom rampage that killed five

A police car blocks the road in front of the Capital Gazette a day after a gunman opened fire at the newspaper, killing five people and injuring several others in Annapolis, Maryland, U.S., June 29, 2018. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts

By Warren Strobel

ANNAPOLIS, Md. (Reuters) – A Maryland man charged with rampaging through a newsroom in Annapolis with a pump-action shotgun and killing five people was denied bail on Friday after one of the deadliest attacks on journalists in U.S. history.

Jarrod Ramos, suspected of killing five people at the offices of the Capital Gazette newspaper office in Annapolis, Maryland, U.S., June 28, 2018 is seen in this Anne Arundel Police Department booking photo provided June 29, 2018. Anne Arundel Police/Handout via REUTERS

Jarrod Ramos, suspected of killing five people at the offices of the Capital Gazette newspaper office in Annapolis, Maryland, U.S., June 28, 2018 is seen in this Anne Arundel Police Department booking photo provided June 29, 2018. Anne Arundel Police/Handout via REUTERS

Jarrod Ramos, 38, from Laurel, 25 miles (40 km) west of Annapolis, is not cooperating with investigators, authorities said, and did not speak as he appeared by video link from a detention facility for a brief court hearing at Anne Arundel County criminal court.

Ramos had a longstanding grudge against the newspaper that was targeted and unsuccessfully sued it for defamation in 2012 over an article that reported how he harassed a former high school classmate, court records showed.

He is accused of entering the Capital Gazette office on Thursday afternoon and opening fire through a glass door, hunting for victims and spraying the newsroom with gunfire as reporters hid under their desks and begged for help on social media. Prosecutors said he barricaded a back door to stop people from fleeing.

“The fellow was there to kill as many people as he could,” Anne Arundel County Police Chief Timothy Altomare told a news conference, adding that the suspect was identified using facial-recognition technology.

Altomare said evidence found at the suspect’s home showed he planned the attack, and that the pump-action 12 gauge shotgun used by the shooter was legally purchased about a year ago.

Rob Hiaasen, 59, Wendi Winters, 65, Rebecca Smith, 34, Gerald Fischman, 61, and John McNamara were shot and killed. All were journalists except for Smith who was a sales assistant, police said. Hiaasen was the brother of best-selling author Carl Hiaasen.

The Capital newspaper, part of the Gazette group, published an edition on Friday with photographs of each of the victims and a headline “5 shot dead at The Capital” on its front page.

The newspaper’s editors left the editorial page blank with a note saying that they were speechless.

Photographs that were widely shared on social media showed newspaper staffers working on laptops in a parking garage to produce Friday’s edition while they waited to learn the fate of colleagues after the shooting.

‘LIKE A WAR ZONE’

Annapolis Mayor Gavin Buckley said he was so proud of the journalists who had “soldiered on.”

“These guys, they don’t make a lot of money. They do journalism because they love what they do. And they got a newspaper out today,” Buckley told Fox News.

A vigil for the victims was planned for 8:00 p.m. EDT on Friday. Maryland Governor Larry Hogan ordered state flags to be lowered to half-staff.

Ramos brought a defamation lawsuit in 2012 against Eric Hartley, a former staff writer and columnist with Capital Gazette, and Thomas Marquardt, then its editor and publisher, a court filing showed.

Neither Hartley nor Marquardt is still employed by the paper or were at its office on Thursday.

An article by Hartley had contended that Ramos had harassed a woman on Facebook and that he had pleaded guilty to criminal harassment, according to a legal document.

The court agreed the article was accurate and based on public records, the document showed. In 2015 Maryland’s second-highest court upheld the ruling, rejecting Ramos’s suit.

Ramos tweeted at the time that he had set up a Twitter account to defend himself, and wrote in his biographical notes that he was suing people in Anne Arundel County and “making corpses of corrupt careers and corporate entities.”

According to a WBAL-TV reporter who said she spoke with the woman who was harassed, Ramos became “fixated” with her for no apparent reason, causing her to move three times, change her name, and sleep with a gun.

Phil Davis, a Capital Gazette crime reporter, recounted how he was hiding under his desk along with other newspaper employees when the shooter stopped firing, the Capital Gazette reported on its website.

The newsroom looked “like a war zone,” he told the Baltimore Sun. “I don’t know why he stopped.”

Authorities responded to the scene within a minute of the shooting, and Ramos was arrested while also hiding under a desk with the shotgun on the floor nearby, police said.

He will face either a preliminary court hearing or grand jury indictment within the next 30 days.

Capital Gazette runs several newspapers out of its Annapolis office. They include one of the oldest newspapers in the United States, The Gazette, which traces its origins back to 1727.

(Additional reporting by Brendan O’Brien in Milwaukee, Doina Chiacu in Washington, and Gina Cherelus in New York; Writing by Daniel Wallis; Editing by Richard Balmforth and Jeffrey Benkoe)

Gunman angry at Maryland newspaper kills five in targeted attack

Law enforcement officials survey the scene after a gunman fired through a glass door at the Capital Gazette newspaper and sprayed the newsroom with gunfire, killing at least five people and injuring several others, in Annapolis, Maryland, U.S., June 28, 2018. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts

By Warren Strobel

ANNAPOLIS, Md. (Reuters) – A man who had a long-running feud with an Annapolis newspaper blasted his way through its newsroom with a shotgun on Thursday, killing at least five people in one of the deadliest attacks recorded on a U.S. media outlet, authorities said.

The suspect fired through a glass door, looked for victims and then sprayed the newsroom of the Capital Gazette newspaper group in Annapolis with gunfire, police and a witness said.

Acting police chief of the Anne Arundel County Police Department William Krampf told a news conference that Capital Gazette assistant editor Rob Hiaasen, 59, was among the victims.

Wendi Winters, 65, Rebecca Smith, 34, Gerald Fischman, 61, and John McNamara were also killed, he said. Smith was a sales assistant and the others were journalists.

“This was a targeted attack on the Capital Gazette,” Krampf said. “This person was prepared to shoot people. His intent was to cause harm.”

The suspect is Jarrod Ramos, 38, of Laurel, the Capital Gazette and Baltimore Sun reported, citing law enforcement.

Anne Arundel County police said on Twitter that due to investigative reasons, they have not released the name of the suspect in custody, adding that as of Thursday evening, the suspect has not been booked.

Jarrod Ramos, suspected of killing five people at the offices of the Capital Gazette newspaper office in Annapolis, Maryland, U.S., June 28, 2018 is seen in this 2013 Anne Arundel Police Department booking photo obtained from social media. Social media via REUTERS

Jarrod Ramos, suspected of killing five people at the offices of the Capital Gazette newspaper office in Annapolis, Maryland, U.S., June 28, 2018 is seen in this 2013 Anne Arundel Police Department booking photo obtained from social media. Social media via REUTERS

In 2012, Ramos brought a defamation lawsuit against Eric Hartley, formerly a staff writer and columnist with publication The Capital, and Thomas Marquardt, then editor and publisher of The Capital, according to a court filing.

In 2015, Maryland’s second-highest court upheld a ruling in favor of the Capital Gazette and a former reporter who were accused by Ramos of defamation.

According to a legal document, the article contended that Ramos had harassed a woman on Facebook and that he had pleaded guilty to criminal harassment. The court agreed that the contents of the article were accurate and based on public records, the document showed.

Ramos said on Twitter that he had set up an account to defend himself, and wrote in his bio that he was suing people in Anne Arundel County and “making corpses of corrupt careers and corporate entities.”

‘A WAR ZONE’

Phil Davis, a Capital Gazette crime reporter, said he was hiding under his desk along with other newspaper employees when the shooter stopped firing, the Capital Gazette reported on its website.

The newsroom looked “like a war zone,” he told the Baltimore Sun, adding, “I don’t know why he stopped.”

“As much as I’m going to try to articulate how traumatizing it is to be hiding under your desk, you don’t know until you’re there and you feel helpless,” Davis said.

Police officers in the Maryland capital of Annapolis responded within a minute to a 911 call about a shooting in progress and apprehended the suspect who was hiding under a desk, authorities said.

Police are treating the shooting as a local incident, with no links to terrorism, a law enforcement source told Reuters. Krampf did not say why the gunman may have targeted the newspaper or its employees.

Special tactical police gather after a gunman opened fire at the Capital Gazette newspaper, killing at least five people and injuring several others in Annapolis, Maryland, U.S., June 28, 2018. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts

Special tactical police gather after a gunman opened fire at the Capital Gazette newspaper, killing at least five people and injuring several others in Annapolis, Maryland, U.S., June 28, 2018. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts

When police found the suspect, his weapon was on the ground and “not in his immediate proximity,” Steve Schuh, Anne Arundel county executive, told cable news station CNN.

Police said they recovered what they thought might have been an explosive device but Krampf later said the suspect had smoke grenades. Investigators were in the process of securing his Maryland residence and obtaining search warrants, he said.

The suspect appeared to have damaged his fingertips to try to avoid detection and was refusing to cooperate with law enforcement, Baltimore TV station WJZ and other local media reported. Krampf did not comment on those reports.

Capital Gazette runs multiple newspapers out of its Annapolis office and the group includes one of the oldest newspapers in the United States, The Gazette, which traces its origins back to 1727.

The company, part of the Tronc Inc <TRNC.O> media group, publishes newspapers in and around Annapolis, home of the U.S. Naval Academy. The papers have thrived by focusing on local news in the shadows of two much larger competitors, the Washington Post and Baltimore Sun.

‘WE’RE PUTTING OUT A PAPER’

Law enforcement in Baltimore and New York City deployed extra officers to the offices of the New York Times and other major media outlets as a precaution, authorities said.

The shooting drew the attention of media groups, including Reporters Without Borders, which said it was deeply disturbed by the events in Annapolis.

White House spokeswoman Lindsay Walters said that U.S. President Donald Trump had been briefed on the shooting.

“My thoughts and prayers are with the victims and their families. Thank you to all of the First Responders who are currently on the scene,” Trump said in a tweet.

White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders said on Twitter, “A violent attack on innocent journalists doing their job is an attack on every American.”

Jimmy DeButts, an editor at the Capital Gazette, tweeted that he was devastated, heartbroken and numb.

“I’m in no position to speak, just know @capgaznews reporters & editors give all they have every day. There are no 40 hour weeks, no big paydays – just a passion for telling stories from our community,” he wrote.

One of the group’s flagship papers, The Capital, plans to publish a Friday edition, several reporters with the group said. “I can tell you this: We are putting out a damn paper tomorrow,” reporter Chase Cook wrote on Twitter a few hours after the shooting.

(Reporting by Warren Strobel; additional reporting by Mark Hosenball and Jeff Mason in Washington, Colleen Jenkins in North Carolina, Diana Kruzman, Tea Kvetenadze, Frank McGurty and Peter Szekely in New York, Bernie Woodall in Fort Lauderdale, Florida and Andrew Hay in New Mexico; Writing by Jon Herskovitz; Editing by Richard Chang, Grant McCool, Toni Reinhold)

Foreign media start marathon journey to North Korea nuclear test site

By Hyonhee Shin

SEOUL (Reuters) – International journalists left on a marathon journey to a North Korean nuclear test site on Wednesday, after Pyongyang belatedly cleared a number of South Korean media to witness what it says will be the dismantling of its only nuclear test facility.

Travel will involve an 11-hour train ride, a four-hour bus journey and then a hike of another hour, a reporter with Russia’s RT said on Twitter.

North Korea has suspended talks with the South and threatened to pull out of an upcoming summit between North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and U.S. President Donald Trump, but the invitation to media was seen as an indication that its unexpected offer to end its nuclear tests still held.

North Korea invited international media to observe the destruction with explosives of the Punggye-ri site, but not experts as initially promised, casting doubt over how verifiable the plan is and whether it will be safe.

It had also declined to take the South Korean reporters after calling off planned inter-Korean talks in protest against U.S.-South Korean “Max Thunder” air combat drills. North Korea has always justified its nuclear program as a deterrent against perceived U.S. hostility.

Reporters from news outlets from the other countries said on Twitter they arrived in the North Korean port city of Wonsan on Tuesday. The eight South Koreans arrived in Wonsan on Wednesday, where they were forced to leave their radiation detectors, satellite phones and Bluetooth mouses before they all set off for the test site, according to South Korean media pool reports.

North Korea had announced it would use explosives to close test tunnels, expected on Thursday or Friday.

Seoul’s unification ministry welcomed Pyongyang’s decision to accept the South Koreans.

“We hope for an early realization of complete denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula through a North Korea-U.S. summit and dialogue of various levels, starting with the abolition of the nuclear test site,” ministry spokesman Baik Tae-hyun told a news briefing.

SUMMIT IN DOUBT

North Korea’s last-minute acceptance of South Korean reporters came amid concerns that Kim was starting to back away from his promise to scrap the nuclear program, which it has pursued in defiance of years of U.N. Security Council resolutions.

International journalists left on a marathon journey to a North Korean nuclear test site on Wednesday, after Pyongyang belatedly cleared a number of South Korean media to witness what it says will be the dismantling of its only nuclear test facility.

International journalists left on a marathon journey to a North Korean nuclear test site on Wednesday, after Pyongyang belatedly cleared a number of South Korean media to witness what it says will be the dismantling of its only nuclear test facility.

The North has threatened to pull out of the summit with Trump in Singapore on June 12 if Washington demands it unilaterally abandons its nuclear arsenal. It has also criticized the Max Thunder drills.

Trump said on Tuesday there was a “substantial chance” the summit would not take place.

China said that both the United States and North Korea were still making preparations for the summit and Beijing hoped both sides can “clear away distractions.”

“We really hope that all sides, especially the United States and North Korea, can seize the opportunity, meet each other halfway, and resolve in a balanced way each other’s concerns,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang told a regular news briefing.

“We still look forward to the meeting between the U.S. and North Korean leaders proceeding smoothly and achieving positive results.”

Lu said China had played a positive role on the Korean peninsula, after Trump reiterated his suggestion that Kim’s recent meetings with Chinese President Xi Jinping had influenced Kim to harden his stance ahead of the summit.

Seoul is seeking to mediate between the United States and North Korea, with South Korean President Moon Jae-in visiting Washington on Tuesday to urge Trump to seize the rare opportunity to meet Kim.

High-level intra-Korea talks will likely resume after Friday, once Max Thunder finishes, Moon’s media secretary Yoon Young-chan said.

A senior South Korean official told reporters on condition of anonymity: “Given the North’s thinking and statements alike, we would be able to turn around the mood after the Max Thunder drills from the current standoff and restart dialogue.”

North Korea has rejected unilateral disarmament and given no indication that it is willing to go beyond statements of broad support for the concept of universal denuclearisation.

It has said in previous, failed talks that it could consider giving up its arsenal if the United States provided security guarantees by removing its troops from South Korea and withdrew its so-called nuclear umbrella of deterrence from South Korea and Japan.

The United States stations 28,500 troops in South Korea, a legacy of the 1950-53 Korean War, which ended in a truce, not a peace treaty.

(Additional reporting by Joori Roh and Josh Smith in SEOUL, and Ben Blanchard in BEIJING; Editing by Nick Macfie)

Witnessing blast in Kabul: ‘You can still see the smoke in the pictures’

fghan security forces are seen at the site of a second blast in Kabul, Afghanistan April 30, 2018. REUTERS/Omar Sobhani

KABUL (Reuters) – The pictures show journalists killed in the second of two explosions that rocked Kabul during the morning rush hour. They were taken by Reuters photographer Omar Sobhani, 10 or 15 seconds after a suicide bomber, apparently targeting members of the media, detonated his explosives.

In one image, a cameraman from Al Jazeera can be seen kneeling wounded against the kerb, while nearby a journalist from Afghanistan’s Radio Azadi is being helped by an old man who was passing by when the blast went off.

Sobhani, who began working for Reuters as a driver and fixer in 2002 and has been a photographer since 2007, was among the journalists who had raced to cover the initial explosion on Monday morning in the Shashdarak area of central Kabul, not far from the U.S. embassy.

“I had been waiting with other journalists to cover an earlier blast. It was a normal scene. It was about 8:30 in the morning, there were security forces guarding the site of the first blast and quite a few people going to work and we were just waiting with other journalists,” he says.

“Then we heard a huge bang just behind me. I survived because I was standing in front of a concrete pillar that shielded me from the force of the explosion, but I saw all my friends and colleagues on the ground and a lot of them were dead with a few wounded – you can still see the smoke from the explosion in the pictures.”

Afghanistan’s interior ministry said the suicide bomber who detonated the second blast had posed as a media worker, showing a press card to security forces and standing among the gathered journalists before blowing himself up.

Sobhani was slightly wounded, but was able to quickly capture some images of the scene before withdrawing to seek help.

“I was shocked but I could see there was nothing to be done and I shot some pictures immediately before leaving,” he said. “I could feel some pain and there was some shrapnel in my shoulder, which was taken out at the hospital.”

Eight of the journalists were from Afghan outlets: two reporters from the Mashal TV, a cameraman and a reporter working for 1TV, three reporters from Radio Azadi and one from Tolo News, according to the Afghan Journalists Safety Committee.

The French news agency Agence France-Presse said its chief photographer in Afghanistan, Shah Marai, was killed.

For Sobhani and the other journalists at the scene, many of the victims of the attack were people they had worked alongside, covering the bloodshed in Afghanistan, for years.

“The people killed were all innocent people, people just going about their business or journalists just doing their job. They’re showing the truth of what’s happening, it’s not politics, it’s very important so that people can know what’s happening,” he said.

“It’s a challenging job with a lot of problems, you see war and violence all the time, but it’s important to make sure people know. I was very shocked, these were colleagues of mine, and one was a very good friend.”

(Reporting by Omar Sobhani and James Mackenzie; Editing by Alex Richardson)

India drops plan to punish journalists for “fake news” following outcry

FILE PHOTO: Television journalists report from the premises of India's Parliament in New Delhi, India, February 13, 2014. REUTERS/Adnan Abidi/File Photo

By Manoj Kumar

NEW DELHI (Reuters) – Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Tuesday ordered the withdrawal of rules punishing journalists held responsible for distributing “fake news”, giving no reason for the change, less than 24 hours after the original announcement.

The move followed an outcry by journalists and opposition politicians that the rules represented an attack on the freedom of the press and an effort by Modi’s government to rein in free speech ahead of a general election due by next year.

Late on Monday, the Information and Broadcasting Ministry had said the government would cancel its accreditation of journalists who peddled “fake news”.

After Modi’s intervention, the ministry announced the withdrawal in a one-line statement.

Journalists said they welcomed the withdrawal but could not rule out the possibility that it was a “trial balloon” to test the waters for putting more restrictions on the press.

“A government fiat restraining the fourth pillar of our democracy is not the solution,” a statement issued by the Press Club said.

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 organisations critical of them.

Welcoming the change of heart, media groups in India nevertheless cautioned the government against changing its mind.

“The government has no mandate to control the press,” Gautam Lahiri, president of the Press Club of India, told journalists.

The events in India followed Malaysia’s approval this week of a law carrying jail terms of up to six years for spreading “fake news”.

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

India slipped three places last year to rank 136 among 180 countries rated in the world press freedom index of the watchdog Reporters Without Borders.

The non-profit body said Hindu nationalists, on the rise since Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party swept to power in 2014, were “trying to purge all manifestations of anti-national thought”.

(Reporting by Manoj Kumar; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan and Nick Macfie)