Northern Ireland prepares for momentous abortion, same-sex marriage changes

Northern Ireland prepares for momentous abortion, same-sex marriage changes
By Amanda Ferguson

BELFAST (Reuters) – Campaigners who fought for decades to end Northern Ireland’s same sex-marriage ban and restrictions on abortion prepared on Monday for a momentous change to the laws on both at the stroke of midnight.

Northern Ireland is the only part of the United Kingdom that does not allow same-sex marriage. Also, unlike England, Scotland and Wales, laws in Northern Ireland forbid abortion except where a mother’s life is at risk, bans that have been upheld by the region’s block of conservative politicians.

But an overwhelming vote by British lawmakers in July to compel the government in London to overhaul the laws if Belfast’s devolved executive had not been restored by Oct. 21 is set to kick in with little or no hope of politicians ending the local parliament’s near three-year hiatus.

Advocacy groups have planned a number of events on Monday to usher in the changes.

“We are not going to stick with the guilt and the shame any longer. Tomorrow the law changes in this place, and for the first time in Northern Ireland, women will be free,” Pro-choice campaigner Dawn Purvis told a public meeting in Belfast

“Free to choose if, when and how many children they will have in the care of health-care professionals. This is a very emotional day for many here.”

Abortion rights were long opposed in Northern Ireland by religious conservatives in both the Protestant community that supports continued British rule and the Catholic community that favours union with the traditionally Catholic Irish Republic.

Pressure has mounted, however, to change the Victorian-era laws in recent years, particularly after the neighbouring Irish Republic voted overwhelmingly last year to repeal a similarly restrictive ban, demonstrating a stark change in attitudes on an island once known for its religious conservatism.

If a new devolved government is not formed by midnight, abortion will be decriminalised, beginning a consultation on what the framework for services should look like, which is due to be finalised and approved by March 2020.

“This is a bad law being implemented through a bad process leading to bad consequences for both women and unborn children,” said Dawn McAvoy from the anti-abortion Both Lives Matter group.

Opinion has also changed on same-sex marriage. But despite opinion polls showing most in the region in favour, previous attempts to follow the Irish Republic in legalising it have been blocked by the socially conservative Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), using a special veto intended to prevent discrimination towards one community over another.

It will take the British parliament until mid-January to bring in the new legislation, setting up Feb. 14, 2020 – Valentine’s Day – as the first opportunity for same-sex couples to marry once they give the required 28-days’ notice.

(Reporting by Amanda Ferguson; Editing by Padraic Halpin, Peter Cooney and Giles Elgood)

Special report – Hobbling Huawei: Inside the U.S. war on China’s tech giant

By Cassell Bryan-Low, Colin Packham, David Lague, Steve Stecklow and Jack Stubbs

CANBERRA (Reuters) – In early 2018, in a complex of low-rise buildings in the Australian capital, a team of government hackers was engaging in a destructive digital war game.

The operatives; agents of the Australian Signals Directorate, the nation’s top-secret eavesdropping agency. had been given a challenge. With all the offensive cyber tools at their disposal, what harm could they inflict if they had access to equipment installed in the 5G network, the next-generation mobile communications technology, of a target nation?

What the team found, say current and former government officials was sobering for Australian security and political leaders: The offensive potential of 5G was so great that if Australia were on the receiving end of such attacks, the country could be seriously exposed. The understanding of how 5G could be exploited for spying and to sabotage critical infrastructure changed everything for the Australians, according to people familiar with the deliberations.

Mike Burgess, the head of the signals directorate, recently explained why the security of fifth generation, or 5G, technology was so important: It will be integral to the communications at the heart of a country’s critical infrastructure – everything from electric power to water supplies to sewage, he said in a March speech at a Sydney research institute.

Washington is widely seen as having taken the initiative in the global campaign against Huawei Technologies Co Ltd, a tech juggernaut that in the three decades since its founding has become a pillar of Beijing’s bid to expand its global influence. Yet Reuters interviews with more than two dozen current and former Western officials show it was the Australians who led the way in pressing for action on 5G; that the United States was initially slow to act; and that Britain and other European countries are caught between security concerns and the competitive prices offered by Huawei.

The Australians had long harbored misgivings about Huawei in existing networks, but the 5G war game was a turning point. About six months after the simulation began, the Australian government effectively banned Huawei, the world’s largest maker of telecom networking gear, from any involvement in its 5G plans. An Australian government spokeswoman declined to comment on the war game.

After the Australians shared their findings with U.S. leaders, other countries, including the United States, moved to restrict Huawei.

The anti-Huawei campaign intensified last week, when President Donald Trump signed an executive order that effectively banned the use of Huawei equipment in U.S. telecom networks on national security grounds and the Commerce Department put limits on the firm’s purchasing of U.S. technology. Google’s parent, Alphabet, suspended some of its business with Huawei, Reuters reported.

Until the middle of last year, the U.S. government largely “wasn’t paying attention,” said retired U.S. Marine Corps General James Jones, who served as national security adviser to President Barack Obama. What spurred senior U.S. officials into action? A sudden dawning of what 5G will bring, according to Jones.

“This has been a very, very fast-moving realization” in terms of understanding the technology, he said. “I think most people were treating it as a kind of evolutionary step as opposed to a revolutionary step. And now that light has come on.”

The Americans are now campaigning aggressively to contain Huawei as part of a much broader effort to check Beijing’s growing military might under President Xi Jinping. Strengthening cyber operations is a key element in the sweeping military overhaul that Xi launched soon after taking power in 2012, according to official U.S. and Chinese military documents. The United States has accused China of widespread, state-sponsored hacking for strategic and commercial gain.

A THREAT TO CRITICAL INFRASTRUCTURE

If Huawei gains a foothold in global 5G networks, Washington fears this will give Beijing an unprecedented opportunity to attack critical infrastructure and compromise intelligence sharing with key allies. Senior Western security officials say this could involve cyber attacks on public utilities, communication networks and key financial centers.

In any military clash, such attacks would amount to a dramatic change in the nature of war, inflicting economic harm and disrupting civilian life far from the conflict without bullets, bombs or blockades. To be sure, China would also be vulnerable to attacks from the U.S. and its allies. Beijing complained in a 2015 defense document, “China’s Military Strategy,” that it has already been a victim of cyber-espionage, without identifying suspects. Documents from the National Security Agency leaked by American whistleblower Edward Snowden showed that the United States hacked into Huawei’s systems, according to media reports. Reuters couldn’t independently verify that such intrusions took place.

However, blocking Huawei is a huge challenge for Washington and its closest allies, particularly the other members of the so-called Five Eyes intelligence-sharing group; Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. From humble beginnings in the 1980s in the southern Chinese boomtown of Shenzhen, Huawei has grown to become a technology giant that is deeply embedded in global communications networks and poised to dominate 5G infrastructure. There are few global alternatives to Huawei, which has financial muscle – the company reported revenue for 2018 jumped almost 20 percent to more than $100 billion – as well as competitive technology and the political backing of Beijing.

“Restricting Huawei from doing business in the U.S. will not make the U.S. more secure or stronger,” the company said in a statement in response to questions from Reuters. Such moves, it said, would only limit “customers in the U.S. to inferior and more expensive alternatives.”

For countries that exclude Huawei there is a risk of retaliation from Beijing. Since Australia banned the company from its 5G networks last year, it has experienced disruption to its coal exports to China, including customs delays on the Chinese side. In a statement, China’s foreign ministry said it treated “all foreign coal equally” and that to assert “China has banned the import of Australian coal does not accord with the facts.”

Tension over Huawei is also exposing divisions in the Five Eyes group, which has been a foundation of the post-Second World War Western security architecture. During a trip to London on May 8, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo issued a stark warning to Britain, which has not ruled out using Huawei in its 5G networks. “Insufficient security will impede the United States’ ability to share certain information within trusted networks,” he said. “This is exactly what China wants; they want to divide Western alliances through bits and bytes, not bullets and bombs.”

Huawei’s 74-year old founder, Ren Zhengfei, is a former officer in China’s military, the People’s Liberation Army. “Mr. Ren has always maintained the integrity and independence of Huawei,” the company said. “We have never been asked to cooperate with spying and we would refuse to do so under any circumstance.”

In an interview with Reuters at the company’s headquarters in Shenzhen, Eric Xu, a deputy chairman, said Huawei had not allowed any government to install so-called backdoors in its equipment – illicit access that could enable espionage or sabotage – and would never do so. He said 5G was more secure than earlier systems.

“China has not and will not demand companies or individuals use methods that run counter to local laws or via installing ‘backdoors’ to collect or provide the Chinese government with data, information or intelligence from home or abroad,” the Chinese foreign ministry said in a statement in response to questions from Reuters.

Washington argues that surreptitious backdoors aren’t necessarily needed to wreak havoc in 5G systems. The systems will rely heavily on software updates pushed out by equipment suppliers – and that access to the 5G network, says the United States, potentially could be used to deploy malicious code.

So far, America hasn’t publicly produced hard evidence that Huawei equipment has been used for spying.

Asked whether the United States was slow to react to potential threats posed by 5G, Robert Strayer, the State Department’s lead cyber policy diplomat, told Reuters that America had long been concerned about Chinese telecom companies, but that over the past year, as 5G loomed closer, “we were starting to talk more and more with our allies.” Banning Huawei from 5G networks remains “an end goal,” he said.

THE TECH THREAT

The West has long harbored concerns about Chinese telecom equipment. In 2012, a U.S. House Intelligence Committee report concluded Chinese tech companies posed a national security threat. Huawei denounced the finding.

Despite such concerns, the U.S. government’s response to the threats posed by 5G only took shape more recently.

In February 2018, Malcolm Turnbull, then prime minister of Australia, flew to Washington D.C. Even before Australia’s eavesdropping agency had run its war game, Turnbull was already raising red flags in Washington. A former technology entrepreneur, he believed 5G presented significant risks and wanted to press allies to act against Huawei.

“He was warning about how important 5G networks would be and the security risks we all needed to think about around countries that had capability, form and intent, as well as coercive laws,” a senior Australian source told Reuters.

A spokesman for Turnbull declined to comment.

Turnbull and his advisers met U.S. officials, including Kirstjen Nielsen, then U.S. secretary of homeland security, and Michael Rogers, then head of the U.S. National Security Agency, the U.S. signals-intelligence operation. The Australians said they believed Beijing could compel Huawei to do its bidding and that this posed a threat should tensions with China rise in the future, said two of the Australian officials familiar with the meeting.

The U.S. officials were receptive to the Australian message, but imposing restrictions on the world’s largest maker of mobile network gear didn’t appear to be a high priority, according to the two Australian officials. “They didn’t share our concern with the same urgency,” said one.

Rogers declined to comment. A Department of Homeland Security official did not elaborate on the meeting, but said the agency works closely with Australia on security issues and that “China will continue to use cyber espionage and bolster cyber-attack capabilities to support its national security priorities.”

5G technology is expected to deliver a huge leap in the speed and capacity of communications. Downloading data may be up to 100 times faster than on current networks.

But 5G isn’t only about faster data. The upgrade will see an exponential spike in the number of connections between the billions of devices, from smart fridges to driverless cars, that are expected to run on the 5G network. “It’s not just that there will be more people with multiple devices, but it will be machines talking to machines, devices talking to devices – all enabled by 5G,” said Burgess, the Australian Signals Directorate chief, in his March address.

This configuration of 5G networks means there are many more points of entry for a hostile power or group to conduct cyber warfare against the critical infrastructure of a target nation or community. That threat is magnified if an adversary has supplied equipment in the network, U.S. officials say.

Huawei said in its statement that the company does “not control in any way the networks in which our equipment is deployed by our clients. The US and Australian allegations are fanciful and are not rooted in any evidence at all.”

In July 2018, Britain delivered a blow to Huawei. A government-led panel that includes senior intelligence officials said it was no longer fully confident it could manage national security risks posed by the Chinese telecom equipment giant.

That panel oversees the work of a laboratory that was set up by the British government in 2010 and is funded by Huawei to vet the company’s equipment used in the UK. The facility was established because even then Huawei was perceived as a security risk. The oversight panel said serious problems it had identified with Huawei’s engineering processes “exposed new risks in the UK telecommunication networks and long-term challenges in mitigation and management.”

That report was a “bombshell,” shaping how the Americans viewed the Huawei 5G risk, said one U.S. official.

U.S. officials also point to Chinese laws enacted in recent years that they say could compel individuals and companies to assist the Chinese government in conducting espionage.

China’s foreign ministry called this portrayal by U.S. officials of Chinese legislation “a misreading and a wanton smearing of relevant Chinese laws,” adding: “Trying to smear others to wash oneself clean is futile.”

THE WEST AWAKES

Through the middle of last year, the Australians continued to apprise other countries of their worries about 5G. “We were sharing our concerns about security with many allies, not just the U.S. and not just the traditional partners,” said one of the senior Australian officials. “We shared our thoughts with Japan, Germany, other European countries and South Korea.”

In Washington, the administration began imposing restrictions on Huawei. In August, Trump signed a bill banning federal agencies and their contractors from using equipment from Huawei and ZTE Corp, another Chinese telecom equipment maker. Huawei has since filed a lawsuit in federal court in Texas challenging the ban.

In late August, the Australians went further: They banned companies that didn’t meet their security requirements, which included Huawei, from supplying any equipment for the country’s 5G network, whether run by the government or by private firms.

Australia’s decision, China’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement, “has no basis in fact, and is an abuse of ‘national security’ standards. China urges the Australian side to abandon Cold War thinking and ideological prejudices, and provide a fair, transparent, non-discriminatory environment for Chinese companies.”

In November, New Zealand’s intelligence agency blocked the country’s first request by a telecom service provider to use Huawei kit for a 5G network, citing national security concerns.

Like the Australians and Americans, British security officials had concerns over China’s potential use of Huawei as a channel for conducting espionage. But the options are limited. Huawei is one of only three major global companies that analysts say can supply a broad range of advanced mobile network equipment at scale. The other two are Ericsson and Nokia. And Huawei has a reputation among telecom operators for supplying cost-effective equipment promptly.

Nevertheless, British security officials were becoming increasingly frustrated with what they viewed as Huawei’s failure to fix software flaws in its equipment, particularly discrepancies in the source code; the programs’ underlying set of instructions. This problem means the laboratory near Oxford set up to vet Huawei equipment cannot even be sure that the code it is testing is exactly the same as the code Huawei deploys in its real-world equipment. This makes it difficult to provide safety assurances about the company’s gear.

British officials say the array of flaws could be exploited by China, as well as other malevolent actors. Ian Levy, a British security official who oversees the UK’s review of Huawei equipment, told Reuters the company’s software engineering is like something from 20 years ago. “The chance of a vulnerability with a Huawei piece of kit is much higher than other vendors,” he said.

The company said it has pledged to spend at least $2 billion “over the next five years” to improve its software engineering capabilities.

British ministers have agreed to allow Huawei a restricted role in building parts of its 5G network, but the government has yet to announce its final decision. The European Union has left it to individual governments to decide whether to ban any company on national security grounds. Some European security officials say banning one supplier doesn’t address the broader issue of the risks posed by Chinese technology in general.

HUAWEI FIGHTS BACK

As the tensions between the West and Huawei intensified through last year, they suddenly took a personal turn. U.S. law enforcement officials had for some time been investigating links between Huawei and Iran, including the involvement of Meng Wanzhou, Huawei’s chief financial officer, who is the daughter of the company’s founder. The probe followed Reuters stories in 2012 and 2013 that revealed links between Huawei, Meng and another company that allegedly attempted to violate U.S. sanctions on Iran.

When U.S. officials became aware that Meng would be traveling through Vancouver in December, they pounced, asking Canada to detain her on allegations of bank and wire fraud. Meng remains free on bail in Canada while the U.S. government tries to have her extradited. Huawei said in its statement that Meng “is not guilty of the charges she faces,” and that they are “politically motivated.”

The Huawei conflict isn’t only about U.S.-China superpower rivalry: The activities of Meng and Huawei were under scrutiny by U.S. authorities long before Trump began a trade war with China, according to interviews with people familiar with those probes. But there is no doubt the wider showdown with Huawei has now become intensely geopolitical.

In recent months, the U.S. has ramped up diplomatic efforts to urge allies to sideline Huawei. 5G is a “game-changing technology with implications across all aspects of society from business, government, military and beyond,” Gordon Sondland, U.S. ambassador to the European Union, told Reuters in February. “It seems common sense to me to not hand over the keys to your entire society to an actor that has … demonstrated malign conduct.”

Asked whether there is evidence of Huawei equipment having been used for espionage, Sondland said “there is classified evidence.” He declined to expand on the nature of the material beyond saying there was no doubt that Huawei had “the capability to hack a system” and “the mandate by the government to do so upon request.”

Pompeo has publicly gone further than most U.S. officials by directly linking the company to Beijing. “Huawei is owned by the state of China and has deep connections to their intelligence service,” he said in March. “That should send off flares for everybody who understands what the Chinese military and Chinese intelligence services do.”

Huawei has repeatedly denied it is controlled by the government, military or Chinese intelligence services. “U.S. Secretary of State Pompeo is wrong,” the company said in its statement, adding that it is owned by its employees.

While Huawei was initially muted in its public response, it too has become more combative. In late February, the company confronted the United States at a major annual gathering of mobile industry executives in Barcelona, where Huawei’s red logo was ubiquitous. Top American officials arrived intent on warning government and industry representatives off Huawei. But the company had flown in a team of senior executives to offer customers and representatives of European governments reassurance in the face of the U.S. accusations.

In a keynote speech, Guo Ping, a deputy chairman at Huawei, took aim at America’s own spying operations. “Prism, Prism on the wall. Who’s the most trustworthy of them all?” he said. Guo was referring to a mass U.S. foreign-surveillance operation called Prism that was disclosed by former NSA contractor Snowden. The barb drew laughter from the audience.

Europeans pushed back, too. During one closed-door session, senior representatives from European telecom operators pressed a U.S. official for hard evidence that Huawei presented a security risk. One executive demanded to see a smoking gun, recalled the U.S. official.

The American official fired back: “If the gun is smoking, you’ve already been shot. I don’t know why you’re lining up in front of a loaded weapon.”

(Reporting by Cassell Bryan-Low, Colin Packham, David Lague, Steve Stecklow and Jack Stubbs. Additional reporting by Charlotte Greenfield in Wellington; Yoshifumi Takemoto in Tokyo; Jonathan Weber; Sijia Jiang; Ben Blanchard and Gao Liangping in Beijing. Edited by Peter Hirschberg and Richard Woods.)

Missouri governor expected to sign new abortion restrictions into law

U.S. President Donald Trump speaks with the Governor of Missouri Mike Parson as he arrives in St. Louis, Missouri, U.S., July 26, 2018. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts

(Reuters) – Missouri’s Republican governor could sign a law as early as this week banning most abortions in the Midwestern state after the eighth week of pregnancy, part of a wave of restrictions aimed at driving a challenge of abortion to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Republican Governor Mike Parson told reporters on Friday he planned to sign the bill, which was approved by the Republican-controlled state legislature last week and would enact one of the United States’ most restrictive bans. He did not set a date for the signing but has until July 14 to do so, according to local media reports.

The state is one of eight where Republican-controlled legislatures this year have passed new restrictions on abortion. It is part of a coordinated campaign aimed at prompting the nation’s now conservative-majority top court to cut back or overturn the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision that established a woman’s right to terminate a pregnancy.

The most restrictive of those bills was signed into law in Alabama last week. It bans abortion at all times and in almost all cases, including when the pregnancy resulted from rape or incest but allows exceptions when the mother’s life is in danger. The Missouri bill also offers no exception for cases of rape or incest.

The American Civil Liberties Union has said it will sue to block Alabama’s law from taking effect. Last week, the ACLU joined Planned Parenthood, the women’s reproductive healthcare provider, in suing Ohio over its recent six-week abortion ban.

Abortion is one of the most bitterly contested social issues in the United States. Opponents often cite religious belief in saying that fetuses deserve rights similar to those of infants. Abortion rights advocates say the bans deprive women of equal rights and endanger those who end up seeking riskier, illegal methods to end a pregnancy.

Kentucky, Georgia, Utah, Mississippi and Arkansas have also passed new restrictions on abortion this year.

Conservative lawmakers have been emboldened in their efforts to roll back Roe v. Wade by two judicial appointments by President Donald Trump that have given conservatives a 5-4 majority on the court.

The Supreme Court could act as early as Monday on appeals seeking to revive two abortion restrictions enacted in Indiana in 2016.

Abortion rights activists on Sunday marched on the Alabama state capital in Birmingham to protest that state’s new law, which would take effect in two months.

(Reporting by Jonathan Allen in New York; editing by Scott Malone and Jonathan Oatis)

Facebook looks to place restrictions on who can go live after Christchurch attack

FILE PHOTO - People gather to form a "ring of peace" around a local mosque to show solidarity with the victims of the Christchurch mosque attacks in New Zealand, in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, March 22, 2019. REUTERS/Carlos Osorio

(Reuters) – Facebook Inc Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg said on Friday the company was looking to place restrictions on who can go live on its platform based on certain criteria in the aftermath of the Christchurch massacre.

The company will monitor who can go “Live” on Facebook depending on factors such as prior community standard violations, Sandberg said in a blog post https://instagram-press.com/blog/2019/03/29/by-working-together-we-can-win-against-hate.

A lone gunman killed 50 people at two mosques in New Zealand on March 15, while live streaming the massacre.

Facebook has identified more than 900 different videos showing portions of the 17-minutes of carnage and has used its existing artificial intelligence tools to identify and remove hate groups in Australia and New Zealand, the blog said.

Last week, the social networking giant said it removed 1.5 million videos globally that had footage of the New Zealand mosque attack in the first 24 hours after the attack.

Earlier this week, one of the main groups representing Muslims in France said it was suing Facebook and YouTube, accusing them of inciting violence by allowing the streaming of the video.

Facebook, the world’s largest social network with 2.7 billion users, has faced growing discontent over its approach to privacy and user data amid increasing concerns over its advertising practices.

(The story corrects headline and first paragraph to say restrictions on who can go live, not restrict live videos.)

(Reporting by Sayanti Chakraborty in Bengaluru; Editing by Shailesh Kuber)

Putin signs Russian ‘counter-sanctions’ into law

Russian President Vladimir Putin answers questions from journalists during a joint news conference with Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borissov following their talks at the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia May 30, 2018. Pavel Golovkin/Pool via REUTERS

MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russian President Vladimir Putin on Monday signed into law counter-sanctions legislation that was drawn up by lawmakers in response to U.S. sanctions imposed on Russia in April.

The legislation gives the president, among other things, the power to sever ties with unfriendly countries, and to ban trade of goods with those countries.

However, it has been watered down since it was first conceived by lawmakers in response to the new round of U.S. sanctions on Russian businesses.

Lawmakers initially proposed large-scale restrictions on U.S. goods and services, ranging from food and alcohol to medicine and consulting services.

The law was one of two items of legislation. In the second, lawmakers debated making it a crime punishable by jail for a Russian citizen to comply with the U.S. sanctions.

Russian and foreign business lobbies had said any such law would effectively force firms to choose between doing business with Russia and having dealings with the rest of the world.

Last month Putin said any retaliation against western sanctions must not hurt the Russian economy or partners that do business in Russia.

(Reporting by Andrey Ostroukh; Writing by Tom Balmforth; Editing by Toby Chopra and David Stamp)

Students launch walkout against gun violence in United States

A small group of anti-gun protesters hold a vigil outside the Vermont State

By Gina Cherelus

NEW YORK (Reuters) – Students walked out of classrooms across the United States on Wednesday, waving signs and chanting their demands for tighter gun safety laws, joining a movement spearheaded by survivors of the deadly shooting spree at a Florida high school last month.

The #ENOUGH National School Walkout began at 10 a.m. EDT with 17-minute walkouts planned at 10 a.m. local time in western time zones, commemorating the 17 students and staff killed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, on Feb. 14.

Students arrive for class at Columbine High School before participating in a National School Walkout to honor the 17 students and staff members killed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, in Littleton, Colorado, U.S., March 14, 2018. REUTERS/Rick Wilking

Some students got in an early start. At Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School in New York City, crowds of students poured into the streets of Manhattan, many dressed in orange, the color of the gun-control movement.

“Thoughts and prayers are not enough,” read one sign, needling the rote response many lawmakers make after mass shootings.

In Parkland, students slowly filed onto the Stoneman Douglas school football field as law enforcement officers looked on.

The walkouts are part of a burgeoning, grass-roots movement that grew out of the Parkland attack. Some of the survivors have lobbied state and federal lawmakers, and even met with President Donald Trump, to call for new restrictions on gun ownership, a right protected by the Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

“If our elected officials don’t take responsibility for their inaction on both sides of the aisle, then we are going to kick them out of office,” David Hogg, a Stoneman Douglas student, said in an interview with MSNBC on Wednesday.

The students’ efforts helped bring about a tightening of Florida’s gun laws last week, when the minimum age for buying any kind of gun was raised to 21 years from 18, although lawmakers there rejected a ban on the sort of semiautomatic rifle used in the Parkland attack.

In Washington, however, plans to strengthen the background-check system for gun sales, among other measures, appear to be languishing.

A large crowd of students gathered and chanted slogans outside the gates of the White House. Trump, however, was out of town on a trip to California.

Students from more than 2,800 schools and groups are joining the walkouts, many with the backing of their school districts, according to the event’s organizers, who also coordinated the Women’s March protests staged nationwide over the past two years.

Support has also come from the American Civil Liberties Union and Viacom Inc <VIAB.O>, which said all seven of its networks, including MTV, would suspend programming at 10 a.m. in each U.S. time zone during the 17-minute walkout.

The protests took place a day after Florida prosecutors said they would seek the death penalty for Nikolas Cruz, who has been charged with 17 counts of premeditated murder and 17 counts of attempted murder in the Parkland attack.

The New York City Department of Education allowed students to participate if they submitted a signed permission slip from their parents.

But a few school districts around the country had warned against protests during school hours.

Administrators in Sayreville, New Jersey, told students that anyone who walked out of class would face suspension or other punishment, according to myCentralJersey.com.

(Reporting by Gina Cherelus in New York; Additional reporting by Jonathan Allen and Alice Popovici in New York, Joe Skipper in Parkland, Florida, and Susan Heavey in Washington; Editing by Frank McGurty and Jonathan Oatis)

Trump urges bipartisan compromises but continues hard line immigration policies

U.S. President Donald J. Trump (C) stands at the podium as U.S. Vice President Mike Pence (L) and Speaker of the House U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) (R) look on during his first State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress inside the House Chamber on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., January 30, 2018.

By Steve Holland and Jeff Mason

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump urged lawmakers on Tuesday to work toward bipartisan compromises, but pushed a hard line on immigration, insisting on a border wall and other concessions from Democrats as part of any deal to protect the children of illegal immigrants.

Trump, in his first State of the Union speech, gave no ground on the contentious issue of whether to shield young immigrants known as “Dreamers” from deportation.

Aiming to keep conservative supporters happy as he looks to November congressional elections, Trump stood by a set of principles opposed by Democrats, including the border wall with Mexico and new restrictions on how many family members that legal immigrants can bring into the United States.

“Tonight, I call upon all of us to set aside our differences, to seek out common ground, and to summon the unity we need to deliver for the people we were elected to serve,” Trump said in his address.

Trump used the hour-and-20-minute speech, given annually by presidents to Congress, to try to overcome doubts about his presidency at a time when he is battling a probe into his campaign’s alleged ties with Russia and suffering low job approval ratings.

Trump made no mention of the federal probe into whether his campaign colluded with Russia in the 2016 presidential election, a controversy that is dogging his presidency. Trump has denied collusion and has called the probe a “witch hunt.”

The speech was short on details about Trump’s policy proposals.

But his sober, measured approach was welcomed by the public. A CNN/SSRS snap poll said 48 percent of those surveyed had a “very positive” response to the speech and 22 percent “somewhat positive.”

There was little sign of unity inside the House of Representatives chamber where Trump spoke. Republican lawmakers cheered wildly at the president’s applause lines. Democrats often sat in their seats silently and many booed when he laid out his immigration proposals.

DENOUNCES NORTH KOREAN LEADERSHIP

Turning to foreign policy late in the speech, Trump denounced the “depraved character” of North Korea’s leadership and said Pyongyang’s “reckless pursuit of nuclear missiles could very soon threaten our homeland.”

“We are waging a campaign of maximum pressure to prevent that from happening,” he said. In a surprise moment, he singled out a North Korea defector in the crowd, Ji Seong-ho, as an example of what he called the reclusive country’s brutal nature.

Trump also said he had signed an order to keep open the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, for foreign terrorism suspects. Former Democratic President Barack Obama had vowed to close the prison, which has been condemned by human rights groups, but was unable to shut it down completely.

Whether Trump would follow through on his appeal for bipartisan harmony was far from clear. Trump’s past attempts at a unifying message have been undermined by his later rancorous tweets and divisive statements that angered Democrats and frequently annoyed lawmakers in his own Republican Party.

The unity plea will first be put to the test in his drive for a compromise on protecting 1.8 million Dreamers – people brought illegally to the country as children – who face a March 5 deadline on whether they can begin to be deported.

Republicans welcomed Trump’s immigration proposals, with U.S. Senator James Lankford of Oklahoma saying Trump tried to strike a middle ground.

“My Democratic colleagues can say he didn’t move enough, but you can’t deny he moved a lot. There are people in his core base who think he has moved way too far.”

But Senator Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat and the longest-serving senator, said Trump’s words about unity, after a year of “divisive actions, petty insults and disgraceful race-baiting … ring hollow.”

Trump said he was “extending an open hand” for an immigration deal and that he would provide Dreamers a pathway to citizenship over 10 to 12 years in exchange for funding the border wall, which he promised during his campaign, and restrictions on legal immigration.

He called his plan a “down-the-middle compromise,” but some Democrats hissed when he said he wanted to rein in “chain migration,” the ability of legal immigrants to bring a wide-ranging number of family members into the country.

“Let’s come together, set politics aside and finally get the job done,” Trump said.

INFRASTRUCTURE PLAN

Trump took credit for U.S. economic gains including a soaring stock market and a low jobless rate. He boasted about the economic growth he believes will result from tax cuts Republicans pushed through Congress late last year.

“This is our new American moment. There has never been a better time to start living the American Dream,” he said.

Trump said he would like a compromise over a plan to rebuild aging roads, bridges and other infrastructure. He said he wanted legislation to generate at least $1.5 trillion through a combination of federal, state and local spending as well as private-sector contributions.

Market reaction was muted, with S&P 500 futures drifting higher, but investors saying there was little new for Wall Street in the speech.

“Futures lifted a bit because it was not a negative speech. He was calm. He celebrated America. He avoided his own failures,” said Tim Ghriskey, chief investment officer at Cresset Wealth Advisors in Chicago.

While Trump spoke of compromise, his speech provided some reminders of partisan battles over the past year.

He singled out a speech guest, 12-year-old Preston Sharp, for leading an effort to put American flags on the graves of 40,000 veterans, saying the initiative was “why we proudly stand for the national anthem.”

His criticism of National Football League players who refused to stand for the anthem in protest against police shootings of minorities and racial disparities in the justice system, dominated headlines last autumn.

(Additional reporting by Richard Cowan, Susan Cornwell, Roberta Rampton, Makini Brice, Eric Beech and Eric Walsh; Editing by Peter Cooney)

Russia to amend law to classify U.S. media ‘foreign agents’

Journalists watch Russia's President Vladimir Putin on a big screen during his annual news conference in Moscow, December 20, 2012.

By Polina Nikolskaya and Andrew Osborn

MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russia’s parliament warned on Friday some U.S. and other foreign media could be declared “foreign agents” and obliged to regularly declare full details of their funding, finances and staffing.

Vyacheslav Volodin, the speaker of the State Duma, said parliament could back legislation as early as next week in response to what lawmakers view as U.S. pressure on Russian media.

“Possible restrictions will be the same as those taken by the United States,” Interfax news agency quoted him as saying.

He said some U.S. media in Russia were trying to turn U.S. public opinion against Moscow.

“We understand that it’s essential to protect the interests of our citizens and the country and we will do this in the same way as the country which lays claim to be the gold standard and mentor and which is constantly talking about freedom.”

Russian lawmakers said the move was retaliation for a demand by the U.S. Department of Justice that Kremlin-backed TV station RT register in the United States as a “foreign agent”, something Moscow has said it regards as an unfriendly act.

The U.S. action against RT came after U.S. intelligence agencies accused Russia of trying to interfere in last year’s U.S. presidential election to help President Donald Trump win the White House, something Moscow has denied.

 

RUSSIAN ELECTION

Russia faces a presidential election next March. Vladimir Putin is widely expected to stand again and to win. He remains broadly popular though critics accuse him of suppressing dissent not least by tight control of domestic media.

Lawmakers will conduct a first reading of the new restrictions on Nov. 15 and try to complete approval in two further readings by the end of next week.

U.S. and any other foreign media that fall under the new restrictions could have to regularly disclose to Russian authorities full details of their funding, finances and staffing and might be obliged to say on their social media profiles and internet sites visible in Russia that they are “foreign agents”.

The Duma earlier this year launched an investigation into whether CNN, Voice of America, Radio Liberty and “other American media” were complying with Russian law.

U.S. government-sponsored Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) said last month Moscow had threatened to brand their Russian language service projects “foreign agents” in retaliation for U.S. pressure on RT.

Russia said the same month it had dropped accusations against CNN International of violating Russian media law and that the U.S. channel could continue broadcasting in Russia.

 

San Francisco-based social network Twitter has also angered Russian authorities when it accused RT and the Sputnik news outlet of interfering in the 2016 U.S. election and banned them from buying ads on its network.

 

(Writing by Andrew Osborn; Editing by Ralph Boulton)