Nine months after Lobo showed us an Amazon ambush site, he was killed in one

Nine months after Lobo showed us an Amazon ambush site, he was killed in one
By Max Baring

LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Paulo Paulino Guajajara, also known as Lobo or “wolf”, was killed in an attack on Nov. 1, the latest fatality in an escalating battle between illegal loggers and indigenous tribes in Brazil’s Amazon rainforest.

Lobo was part of a group called “Guardians of the Forest” that the Thomson Reuters Foundation met on a reporting and filming trip to the Araribóia reservation in northeastern Maranhao state in January this year, joining them on a patrol.

Araribóia is an island of forest that has become separated from the ever-shrinking mass that is the Amazon rainforest.

This constitutionally protected indigenous land is home to the Awá Guajá, known as Brazil’s most vulnerable uncontacted tribe, whose voluntary isolation is defended by the Guajajara, especially the Guajajara brigade of “Guardians of the Forest”.

Lobo and about 120 others make up the group that was set up in 2012 and works alongside other indigenous groups of “Guardians” that have emerged over the past decade in Brazil in response to ever increasing incursions by illegal loggers.

For months we had been looking for an opportunity to join the guardians on patrol in what has become a deadly clash.

Brazil’s Indigenous Missionary Council found 135 indigenous people were murdered in 2018, up almost 23% from 2017, with clashes increasing since President Jair Bolsonaro vowed this year to open up indigenous lands to economic development.

Finally, in January this year we set out, joining Lobo and his brigade of guardians in a village used as a base from which to launch patrols inside the Araribóia reserve.

UNDER COVER OF DARKNESS

We spent a day filming in the village and interviewing guardians and some of their families before setting out on patrol. This included Lobo, aged about 27 with one son.

Then the time came. Their motorbike-riding scout returned with news of illegal loggers setting up a new camp and preparations started, with the guardians painting their faces with jenipapo for camoflauge and protection from mother nature.

That night we travelled on dirt tracks and waited at the entrance to the Araribóia protected area to see if we could intercept any loggers moving their illegal hauls under cover of darkness.

Along the way we had two tense encounters with indigenous Guajarara whom the Guardians accused of selling out their area of Araribóia to illegal loggers.

It became evident that while most of the struggles are between the indigenous people and outsiders there is also a significant conflict developing within indigenous groups themselves, divided over what should happen to the rainforest.

It took two more days for us to arrive at a small logging camp deep where the group set fire to the sawn timber lying around the camp being prepared to be hauled out of the reserve.

They burned down the camp before we continued patrolling along the loggers’ trail through the already thinned-out forest on the edge of the reserve but there was no sign of the loggers.

Since the group started in 2012 at least three Guajajara guardians have been killed in conflicts with illegal loggers. Over that time the guardians have burned down about 200 illegal logging camps, according to Olimpio Guajajara, the leader of this brigade.

It was clear throughout the operation that the guardians felt they had no choice but to protect their land, feeling abandoned by the authorities while well aware of the risks.

Lobo spoke of the death threats that he already had from a man he described as a loggers’ “hired gun”.

He also spoke of a Guardian named Alfonso who had been killed in a conflict with loggers and complained that the police often sided with the illegal loggers, not the indigenous “Guardians of the Forest”, when conflicts arose.

In one of the last scenes to be cut during the editing of the documentary “Guarding the Forest”, Lobo comes across a slight, wooden structure in the bush next to the trail.

He explains to camera that this was an ambush structure where loggers lie in wait for the guardians to launch surprise attacks at close quarters.

“This is a trap for the guardians who pass here. He’ll stay seated there waiting for the guardians to pass so he can shoot,” Lobo told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

On Nov. 1 came the news of Lobo’s death. Media India, a Brazilian indigenous media network, reported that he was shot in the face at close range while collecting water from a lake, in an attack near the area of Araribóia where we filmed him in February.

Indigenous leader Laercio Guajajara, also in our film, was seriously injured in the attack and was now recovering in hiding. He has pledged to continue fighting against illegal logging.

One of the loggers was also reportedly killed in the incident now being investigated by federal and state police.

(Reporting by Max Baring, Editing by Belinda Goldsmith; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women’s and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)

Most Americans expect next mass shooting to happen in next three months: Reuters/Ipsos poll

Mourners taking part in a vigil at El Paso High School after a mass shooting at a Walmart store in El Paso, Texas, U.S. August 3, 2019. REUTERS/Jose Luis Gonzalez

By Maria Caspani

(Reuters) – Nearly half of all Americans expect another mass shooting will happen soon in the United States, according to a Reuters/Ipsos public opinion poll released on Friday, as the nation reels from rampages in California, Texas and Ohio.

The Aug. 7-8 survey found that 78% of Americans said it was likely that such an attack would take place in the next three months, including 49% who said one was “highly likely.” Another 10% said a mass shooting was unlikely in three months and the rest said they did not know.

The poll was conducted after two mass shootings earlier in August in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, and a third in Gilroy, California, last month that left 36 people dead. The attacks have rattled the country and renewed calls for tougher gun laws.

“You are on guard because you never know when it’s going to happen and where,” said Suzanne Fink, 59, a Republican from Troutman, North Carolina. “It has been happening much too often and it’s like a copycat effect.”

There is no set definition of a mass shooting, but the nonprofit organization Gun Violence Archive has tallied more than 250 such incidents so far this year alone – for an average of more than one a day – a widely cited figure that counts events in which four or more people were either shot and killed or shot and wounded.

Following the mass shootings in Texas and Ohio, Democrats, including several 2020 presidential candidates criticized Republican President Donald Trump for rhetoric they labeled as racist and hard-line immigration polices, saying they stoked violence.

Former Texas congressman and presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke on Wednesday called the shooting in El Paso “an act of terror inspired by your racism” in response to a tweet by Trump.

The president, who condemned “sinister ideologies” and hate in a televised speech on Monday, has expressed support for tightening background checks for gun purchases.

Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell said on Thursday he would not call the Senate back early to consider new gun legislation, rejecting a plea from more than 200 U.S. mayors, including two whose cities endured mass shootings last weekend.

According to the poll, 69% of U.S. adults want “strong” or “moderate” restrictions placed on firearms.

The poll also found that half of all Americans, including two-thirds of Democrats and a third of Republicans, believe that “the way people talk about immigration encourages acts of violence.”

A majority of U.S. adults considers “random acts of violence,” including mass shootings, to be the biggest threat to their safety, while one in four pointed to politically or religiously motivated domestic terrorism as the biggest safety threat. About one in six cited foreign terrorism.

People cited mental health, racism and bigotry and easy access to firearms as the top three causes of mass shootings in the United States, while only about one in six – and one in four Republicans – said in the poll that video games were to blame.

In his speech on Monday, Trump mentioned video games and mental illness as factors in mass shootings. Research studies have shown little or no link between violent video games and shootings.

The Reuters/Ipsos poll was conducted online in English throughout the United States. It gathered responses from 1,116 adults and has a credibility interval, a measure of precision, of plus or minus 3 percentage points.

(Reporting by Maria Caspani; Editing by Chris Kahn and Jonathan Oatis)

Backstory: Reporting from the dark in Venezuela

Locals gather at a street food cart during a blackout in Caracas, March 29. REUTERS/Ivan Alvarado

(Reuters) – Backstory is a series of reports showing how Reuters journalists work and the standards under which they operate.

Two waves of major electricity outages plunged Venezuela into darkness last month, putting even more strain on a nation struggling with food shortages and hyperinflation.

With a diesel-powered generator in their Caracas bureau, Reuters staff are better-placed than most Venezuelans to cope with the blackouts.

But reporting from a darkened city and making sure all journalists and support personnel are safe present multiple obstacles.

“Everything will go down for a minute or two, the TVs and screens will turn off, then maybe a minute later, the power generator will kick in,” said Brian Ellsworth, Reuters senior correspondent in Caracas.

That is when the problems start.

No electricity means pumps do not work, leading to shortages of clean water. Cell networks cannot operate, meaning mobile phones are useless. Bank networks go down. Transport is unpredictable.

“At first, we weren’t totally prepared for it,” said Ellsworth, who has come to accept short outages as normal after 15 years reporting in the country’s capital.

Once it was clear that March’s first blackout would be longer than usual, the bureau immediately stocked up on water and bought food for the team as payment systems collapsed.

Only the bureau has a generator, not the building it is housed in, which makes getting into the office more complicated. To make it easier, a staff member slept in the newsroom most evenings, opening the emergency staircase from the inside so reporters could start work early the next day.

Gathering the news gets more difficult to coordinate.

“Cell reception comes in and out. We can make calls over WhatsApp but we can’t call anyone in the country because no one has a functioning cell line,” Ellsworth said. “We have to rely on short-wave radios which function to about 3 km (1.9 miles), but that can be really fuzzy.”

UNCERTAINTY CLOUDS EVERYTHING

With phones unusable, Venezuelans are cut off from one another and from sources of news and social media.

Ellsworth reported on a rally in eastern Caracas to protest President Nicolas Maduro’s handling of the nation’s crisis.

“How did you know about the rally?” he asked one protester. The answer: she did not. She was looking for her mother. “When I got to her building, they told me she was here, so that’s why I came.”

Hospitals cannot perform some vital functions without electricity. Already scarce food starts to spoil. Schools are closed during power outages, which means looking after children becomes an added burden.

“All of that affects us as a bureau because people have to take care of their own homes,” Ellsworth said. “We try to make sure that all those folks have what they need,” he said.

During busy news periods, the Reuters team in Caracas can include as many as 25 people, from reporters, photographers and television staff to security, cleaning and transport crews. The bureau also tries to provide meals for the building’s security guards who are not formally linked to the company.

“They have the same problems, they are stuck here for 24 hours, and when they leave here they don’t know how they are going to get home, if they will have power at home. They don’t have a way to communicate with their families,” said Ellsworth.

“Reuters needs to look out for people that are helping us maintain the operation.”

Maduro and ruling Socialist Party officials have offered a wide range of explanations for the blackouts, including electromagnetic sabotage by the United States and opposition-linked snipers firing on the country’s main hydroelectric dam.

Opposition leader Juan Guaido, who is recognized by most Western nations as the country’s head of state, says it is the result of a decade of corruption and mismanagement.

As Ellsworth walks up seven flights of stairs to his family’s apartment to light candles in the darkness, he reflects on the state of uncertainty he and 2 million other inhabitants of Caracas now face as a matter of course.

“They don’t give clear answers as to when power is going to come back on, people don’t really believe them when they say the power’s about to come back on, and when it is back, people don’t really believe it will stay back on,” he said. “The uncertainty starts to cloud everything.”

(Writing by Bill Rigby; Editing by Howard Goller)

Capturing 24 hours in Gaza, one hour at a time

Locals walk past graffiti in Gaza City, February 20, 2019. Political graffiti covers walls throughout Gaza. REUTERS/Dylan Martinez

GAZA CITY (Reuters) – In the build-up to the one-year anniversary of the Gaza border protests that opened up a deadly new front in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Reuters photographer Dylan Martinez visited Gaza for the first time.

As someone who had never set eyes on Gaza, his assignment was to use those unfamiliar eyes to record life beyond the daily drumbeat of violence in the blockaded Palestinian territory.

The mood has become more tense in recent weeks as the March 30 anniversary nears, with trails of Palestinian rockets and Israeli missiles again appearing in the skies above.

Martinez did not know what to expect after he crossed through Israel’s fortified checkpoint and past a long caged walkway and parallel road leading to a dilapidated Palestinian checkpoint at the other end.

Bullet and shrapnel holes cover a wall as children fly kites in Gaza City, February 12, 2019. REUTERS/Dylan Martinez

Bullet and shrapnel holes cover a wall as children fly kites in Gaza City, February 12, 2019. REUTERS/Dylan Martinez

“We have a great team of photographers and journalists in Gaza whose main task, really, is to photograph the protest, the clashes between Israel and Gaza,” said Martinez, 49, a 28-year Reuters veteran who has covered Europe, Asia and the Americas and is currently based in London.

“My remit, I think, was to do pretty much anything but that. Because everyone has seen that side of Gaza.”

Gaza is a 139-square-mile (360-square-kilometre) coastal strip situated between Tel Aviv and Sinai and is home to around two million Palestinians, two thirds of them refugees.

It has been governed by the Islamist Palestinian movement Hamas since shortly after Israel withdrew its soldiers and settlers in 2005.

With its armed brigades and thousands of police and security men on the streets, Hamas controls Gaza’s interior as tightly as Israeli soldiers, gunboats and warplanes control most of Gaza’s perimeter, with Egyptian walls and watchtowers along the eight-mile southern border.

Accompanied by a Reuters assistant photographer from Gaza City, Martinez traveled the strip, photographing it at every hour of the day and night over a 10-day period.

Children play a game of "Arabs and Jews" outside a school in Gaza City, February 20, 2019. REUTERS/Dylan Martinez

Children play a game of “Arabs and Jews” outside a school in Gaza City, February 20, 2019. REUTERS/Dylan Martinez

One of the most powerful scenes was a patch of wasteland between a school and a mosque where children were playing.

“These kids were burning some cardboard, they had trenches, they were throwing sandballs so they weren’t hurting each other. And I said, ‘Oh, what are you guys doing?’ and they said, ‘Oh, we are playing Jews and Arabs.'” The image, he said, “will probably stay with me forever”.

SUNSETS AND RUBBISH

Parts of Gaza, to his surprise, resembled an underdeveloped version of California’s famed Venice Beach – with glorious Mediterranean sunsets, bathers and skateboarders, but often with crumbling buildings and rubbish heaps as part of the backdrop.

Car wrecks are seen at a garage in Gaza City, February 18, 2019. This particular garage has cars dating back to the 1950s, including an old Opel. REUTERS/Dylan Martinez

Car wrecks are seen at a garage in Gaza City, February 18, 2019. This particular garage has cars dating back to the 1950s, including an old Opel. REUTERS/Dylan Martinez

In vehicle scrapyards in the north, he saw stacks of discarded cars. With 53 percent of Gazans living in poverty, according to a United Nations report in December, valuable items such as cars are cannibalized for every accessory.

The same “use everything” dynamic could be seen at the harbor, where even the smallest fish discarded from a catch were gathered to be sold to poorer families.

On Friday, while youths were protesting at the Gaza-Israel border, Martinez went to the beach to see what was going on.

“I really understood that not 2 million people had gone to the border to clash with the Israelis. What else were they doing?” he said.

“I found a bunch of skaters there with, I don’t know, I think they had one or two boards between them, some pretty ropey roller blades…They were just busy filming themselves trying to do flips, trying to do tricks, things like that.”

After the sun goes down and the streets empty, pool halls and bakeries continue to operate through the darkness imposed by night, and by Gaza’s constant power cuts.

Martinez was warned many times by officials and bystanders on the street, in a more cautionary than menacing manner, not to photograph Hamas checkpoints and military installations.

Children make their way through the streets as they head to school in Gaza City, February 18, 2019. REUTERS/Dylan Martinez

Children make their way through the streets as they head to school in Gaza City, February 18, 2019. REUTERS/Dylan Martinez

Often, he did not realize what the buildings were because their exteriors gave no sign of what might have been within. Otherwise, Martinez encountered few problems.

“There’s a real sense of being enclosed. You can stand on the beach looking out toward the horizon and see this fantastic sun and crystal blue waters, a sense (that) you are part of the world and there is everything around you,” he said.

“You look to the right, you turn one way, and there is Israel and you can go down this road but in a car it was taking 20 minutes. You look the other way, there is Egypt. You go down the road there, there’s a blockade, you can’t go any further.

“You look inland, and there in the background as well is the horizon, is Israel. And you can’t go that way.”

“So there is always a feeling you can only go so far one way. And the other way. I did feel it. There is a sort of feeling of enclosure.”

(Writing by Stephen Farrell; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

U.S. Army vows to fix ‘broken’ housing at Fort Meade in wake of Reuters report

FILE PHOTO: Water damage to the doorway of a Corvias-managed military housing unit is pictured in Fort Meade, Maryland, U.S. October 29, 2018. REUTERS/Andrea Januta/File Photo

By Joshua Schneyer

NEW YORK (Reuters) – The commander of one of the largest Army bases in the United States promised residents to fix a broken housing system in which maintenance lapses by a private landlord left military families in homes with health and safety hazards.

The garrison commander at Maryland’s Fort Meade made the remarks in meetings with residents this month in response to a Reuters report in December that detailed the problems, which ranged from mold and rodent infestations to flooding, crumbling roofs and ceiling collapses. Many tenants accused the closely held civilian company that runs most housing at Fort Meade, Rhode Island’s Corvias Group, of routinely failing to make repairs.

Based on the Reuters articles, we failed you. I failed you, Colonel Erich C. Spragg, Meade’s garrison commander, told families at a January 11 town hall meeting.

“Why are we here tonight? I’ll tell you why: because this is broken, Spragg said of the Meade housing system, operated by a public-private venture between the Army and Corvias. I’ve got to figure out where it’s broken, and we have to fix it.&rdq

Corvias staff also spoke at the meetings, acknowledging lapses and pledging improvements, according to audio recordings that were shared with Reuters.

Trust is hard to earn back, and we’re going to do what we can to earn that back, JC Calder, Corvias’s operations director at Meade, told residents.

Meade and Corvias promised to overhaul the system for placing repair requests to more swiftly complete fixes. The garrison commander is convening resident focus groups to identify housing lapses.

Owned by real estate developer John Picerne, Corvias operates more than 26,000 family homes across 13 U.S. Army and Air Force bases under the Military Housing Privatization Initiative. It is slated to earn more than $1 billion in fees over 50-year contracts, Reuters found.

Asked about the new promises to Meade residents, Corvias spokeswoman Kelly Douglas said in a statement: Our core mission at Corvias is clear: put service members and their families first. We can do better and will do better, in addressing any resident issues.

She said the company already has a high rate of completing work orders, but to respond to resident issues more quickly, is adding additional maintenance and service staff.

In a statement Wednesday, the Army said it is committed to providing a safe and secure environment on our installations, and said it recently completed visual inspections of 10 percent of family housing units nationwide with children ages six or younger.

The Army began the inspection program last year after Reuters found lead poisoning hazards on several bases.

The results, the Army said, will inform our long-term plan to address issues across the force.

Fort Meade is the site of a major U.S. Army contingent and home to the secretive National Security Agency. Corvias operates around 3,000 family homes on the base.

Last month, Reuters detailed housing concerns at Fort Meade and two other bases where Corvias operates, North Carolina’s Fort Bragg and Louisiana’s Fort Polk, where a subsequent online petition to hold Corvias accountable has gained 5,000 signatures. Corvias said it is reviewing its service request system to better address resident concerns at all bases where it operates.

At the two Meade town hall sessions last week, some families described mold sickening their children, unexplained charges from their landlord, days without heat, and problems that forced them to move in temporarily with neighbors.

Corvias is among more than a dozen private real estate firms housing service families on U.S. bases under the two-decade-old privatization program.

Rhode Island Senator Jack Reed, ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, this month told a local TV station he would press for Senate hearings to explore base housing conditions across the country.

Before Corvias took over Fort Bragg housing in 2003, Reed helped make introductions for Picerne at the Army post and credited his work serving military families. After the Reuters report, Reed said the Senate should review operations of all contractors, including Corvias.

(Editing by Ronnie Greene)

Special Report: How Iran spreads disinformation around the world

FILE PHOTO: Iran's national flags are seen on a square in Tehran

By Jack Stubbs and Christopher Bing

LONDON/WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Website Nile Net Online promises Egyptians “true news” from its offices in the heart of Cairo’s Tahrir Square, “to expand the scope of freedom of expression in the Arab world.”

Its views on America do not chime with those of Egypt’s state media, which celebrate Donald Trump’s warm relations with Cairo. In one recent article, Nile Net Online derided the American president as a “low-level theater actor” who “turned America into a laughing stock” after he attacked Iran in a speech at the United Nations.

Until recently, Nile Net Online had more than 115,000 page-followers across Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. But its contact telephone numbers, including one listed as 0123456789, don’t work. A Facebook map showing its location dropped a pin onto the middle of the street, rather than any building. And regulars at the square, including a newspaper stallholder and a policeman, say they have never heard of the website.

The reason: Nile Net Online is part of an influence operation based in Tehran.

It’s one of more than 70 websites found by Reuters which push Iranian propaganda to 15 countries, in an operation that cybersecurity experts, social media firms and journalists are only starting to uncover. The sites found by Reuters are visited by more than half a million people a month and have been promoted by social media accounts with more than a million followers.

The sites underline how political actors worldwide are increasingly circulating distorted or false information online to influence public opinion. The discoveries follow allegations that Russian disinformation campaigns have swayed voters in the United States and Europe. Advisers to Saudi Arabia’s crown prince and the army in Myanmar are also among those using social media to distribute propaganda and attack their enemies. Moscow has denied the charges; Riyadh and Yangon have not commented.

Former CIA director John Brennan told Reuters that “countries around the globe” are now using such information warfare tactics.

“The Iranians are sophisticated cyber players,” he said of the Iranian campaign. “There are elements of the Iranian intelligence services that are rather capable in terms of operating (online).”

Traced by building on research from cybersecurity firms FireEye and ClearSky, the sites in the campaign have been active at different times since 2012. They look like normal news and media outlets, but only a couple disclose any Iranian ties.

Reuters could not determine whether the Iranian government is behind the sites; Iranian officials in Tehran and London did not reply to questions.

But all the sites are linked to Iran in one of two ways. Some carry stories, video and cartoons supplied by an online agency called the International Union of Virtual Media (IUVM), which says on its website it is headquartered in Tehran. Some have shared online registration details with IUVM, such as addresses and phone numbers. Twenty-one of the websites do both.

Emails sent to IUVM bounced back and telephone numbers the agency gave in web registration records did not work. Documents available on the main IUVM website say its objectives include “confronting with remarkable arrogance, western governments and Zionism front activities.”

Nile Net Online did not respond to questions sent to the email address on its website. Its operators, as well as those of the other websites identified by Reuters, could not be located. Previous owners identified in historical registration records could not be reached. The Egyptian government did not respond to requests for comment.

“UNSPOKEN TRUTH”

Some of the sites in the Iranian operation were first exposed in August by companies including Facebook, Twitter and Google’s parent, Alphabet after FireEye found them. The social media companies have closed hundreds of accounts that promoted the sites or pushed Iranian messaging. Facebook said last month it had taken down 82 pages, groups and accounts linked to the Iranian campaign; these had gathered more than one million followers in the United States and Britain.

But the sites uncovered by Reuters have a much wider scope. They have published in 16 different languages, from Azerbaijani to Urdu, targeting Internet users in less-developed countries. That they reached readers in tightly controlled societies such as Egypt, which has blocked hundreds of news websites since 2017, highlights the campaign’s reach.

The Iranian sites include:

* A news site called Another Western Dawn which says its focus is on “unspoken truth.” It fooled the Pakistani defense minister into issuing a nuclear threat against Israel; * Ten outlets targeting readers in Yemen, where Iran andU.S. ally Saudi Arabia have been fighting a proxy conflict since civil war broke out in 2015; * A media outlet offering daily news and satirical cartoons in Sudan. Reuters could not reach any of its staff; * A website called Realnie Novosti, or “Real News,” for Russian readers. It offers a downloadable mobile phone app but its operator could not be traced. The news on the sites is not all fake. Authentic stories sit alongside pirated cartoons, as well as speeches from Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. The sites clearly support Iran’s government and amplify antagonism to countries opposed to Tehran – particularly Israel, Saudi Arabia and the United States. Nile Net’s “laughing stock” piece was copied from an Iranian state TV network article published earlier the same day.

Some of the sites are slapdash. The self-styled, misspelled “Yemen Press Agency” carries a running update of Saudi “crimes against Yemenis during the past 24 hours.” Emails sent to the agency’s listed contact, Arafat Shoroh, bounced back. The agency’s address and phone number led to a hotel in the Yemeni capital, Sana’a, whose staff said they had never heard of Shoroh.

The identity or location of the past owners of some of the websites is visible in historical Internet registration records: 17 of 71 sites have in the past listed their locations as Iran or Tehran, or given an Iranian telephone or fax number. But who owns them now is often hidden, and none of the Iranian-linked operators could be reached.

More than 50 of the sites use American web service providers Cloudflare and OnlineNIC – firms that provide website owners with tools to shield themselves from spam and hackers. Frequently, such services also effectively conceal who owns the sites or where they are hosted. The companies declined to tell Reuters who operates the sites.

Under U.S law, hosting and web services companies are not generally liable for the content of sites they serve, said Eric Goldman, co-director of the High Tech Law Institute at Santa Clara University. Still, since 2014, U.S. sanctions on Iran have banned “the exportation or re-exportation, directly or indirectly, of web-hosting services that are for commercial endeavors or of domain name registration services.”

Douglas Kramer, general counsel for Cloudflare, said the services it provides do not include web-hosting services. “We’ve looked at those various sanctions regimes, we are comfortable that we are not in violation,” he told Reuters.

A spokesman for OnlineNIC said none of the sites declared a connection to Iran in their registration details, and the company was in full compliance with U.S. sanctions and trade embargoes.

The U.S. Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) declined to comment on whether it planned an investigation.

ANOTHER WESTERN DAWN

The Kremlin is widely seen as the superpower in modern information warfare. From what is known so far, Russia’s influence operation – which Moscow denies – dwarfs Iran’s. According to Twitter, nearly 4,000 accounts connected to the Russian campaign posted over 9 million tweets between 2013 and 2018, against over 1 million tweets from fewer than 1,000 accounts believed to originate in Iran.

Even though the Iranian operation is smaller, it has had impact on volatile topics. AWDnews – the site with the focus on “unspoken truth” – ran a false story in 2016 which prompted Pakistan’s defense minister to warn on Twitter he had the weapons to nuke Israel. He only found out that the hoax was part of an Iranian operation when contacted by Reuters.

“It was a learning experience,” said the deceived politician, 69-year-old Khawaja Asif, who left Pakistan’s government earlier this year. “But one can understand that these sorts of things happen because fake news has become something huge. It’s something which anyone is capable of now, which is very dangerous.”

Israeli officials did not respond to a request for comment.

AWDnews publishes in English, French, Spanish and German and, according to data from web analytics company SimilarWeb, receives around 12,000 unique visitors a month. Among others who shared stories from AWDnews and the other websites identified by Reuters were politicians in Britain, Jordan, India, and the Netherlands; human-rights activists; an Indian music composer and a Japanese rap star.

In August 2015, an official account for a European department of the World Health Organization (WHO) tweeted an AWDnews story. Annalisa Buoro, secretary for the WHO’s European Office for Investment for Health and Development, said the person running the department’s Twitter account at the time did not know the website was part of an Iranian campaign.

She said the tweet had gone out when the account had a relatively small following, limiting the damage, but “on the other hand, I am very concerned … because as a UN agency we have a huge responsibility.”

JOBS FOR WOMEN

FireEye, a U.S. cybersecurity firm, originally named six websites as part of the Iranian influence operation. Reuters examined those sites, and their content led to the Tehran-based International Union of Virtual Media.

IUVM is an array of 11 websites with names such as iuvmpress, iuvmapp and iuvmpixel. Together, they form a library of digital material, including mobile phone apps, items from Iranian state media and pictures, video clips and stories from elsewhere on the web, which support Tehran’s policies.

Tracking usage of IUVM content across the Internet led to sites which have used its material, registration details, or both. For instance, 22 of the sites have shared the same phone number, which does not work and has also been listed for IUVM. At least seven have used the same address, which belongs to a youth hostel in Berlin. Staff at the hostel told Reuters they had never heard of the sites in question. The site operators could not be reached to explain their links with IUVM.

Two sites even posted job advertisements for IUVM, inviting applications from women with “ability to work effectively and knowledge in dealing with social networks and (the) Internet.”

DEMOLISHED HOME

One of IUVM’s most popular users is a site called Sudan Today, which SimilarWeb data shows receives almost 150,000 unique visitors each month. On Facebook, it tells its 57,000 followers that it operates without political bias. Its 18,000 followers on Twitter have included the Italian Embassy in Sudan, and its work has been cited in a report by the Egyptian Electricity Ministry.

The office address registered for Sudan Today in 2016 covers a whole city district in north Khartoum, according to archived website registration details provided by WhoisAPI Inc and DomainTools LLC. The phone number listed in those records does not work.

Reuters could not trace staff members named on Sudan Today’s Facebook page. The five-star Corinthia hotel in central Khartoum, where the site says it hosted an anniversary party last year, told Reuters no such event took place. And an address listed on one of its social media accounts is a demolished home.

Sudan used to be an Iranian ally but has changed sides to align itself with Saudi Arabia, costing Tehran a foothold in the Horn of Africa just as it becomes more isolated by the West. In that environment, Iran sees itself as competing with Israel, Saudi Arabia and the United States for international support, and is taking the fight online, said Ariane Tabatabai, a senior associate and Iran expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

Headlines on Sudan Today’s homepage include a daily round-up of stories from local newspapers and Ugandan soccer results. It also features reports on bread prices – which doubled in January after Khartoum eliminated subsidies, triggering demonstrations.

Ohad Zaidenberg, senior researcher at Israeli cybersecurity firm ClearSky, said this mixture of content provides the cover for narratives geared at influencing a target audience’s attitudes and perceptions.

The site also draws attention to Saudi Arabia’s military actions in Yemen. Since Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir ended his allegiance with Iran he has sent troops and jets to join Saudi-led forces in the Yemeni conflict.

One cartoon from IUVM published by Sudan Today in August shows Donald Trump astride a military jet with an overflowing bag of dollar bills tucked under one arm. The jet is draped with traditional Saudi dress and shown dropping bombs on a bloodstained map of Yemen. The map is littered with children’s toys and shoes.

Turkish cartoonist Mikail Çiftçi drew the original. He told Reuters he did not give Sudan Today permission to use it.

Alnagi Albashra, a 28-year-old software developer in Khartoum, said he likes to read articles on Sudan Today in the evenings when waiting for his baby to fall asleep. But he and three other Sudan Today readers reached by Reuters had no idea who was behind the site.

“This is a big problem,” he said. “You can’t see that they are not in Sudan.”

Government officials in Khartoum, the White House, the Italian Embassy and the Egyptian Electricity Ministry did not respond to requests for comment.

BACKBONE

It is unclear who globally is tasked with responding to online disinformation campaigns like Iran’s, or what if any action they should take, said David Conrad, chief technology officer at ICANN, a non-profit which helps manage global web addresses.

Social media accounts can be deleted in bulk by the firms that provide the platforms. But the Iranian campaign’s backbone of websites makes it harder to dismantle than social media because taking down a website often requires the cooperation of law enforcement, Internet service providers and web infrastructure companies.

Efforts by social media companies in the United States and Europe to tackle the campaign have had mixed results.

Shortly after being contacted by Reuters, Twitter suspended the accounts for Nile Net Online and Sudan Today. “Clear attribution is very difficult,” a spokeswoman said but added that the company would continue to update a public database of tweets and accounts linked to state-backed information operations when it had new information.

Google did not respond directly to questions about the websites found by Reuters. The company has said it identified and closed 99 accounts which it says are linked to Iranian state media. “We’ve invested in robust systems to identify influence operations launched by foreign governments,” a spokeswoman said.

Facebook said it was aware of the websites found by Reuters and had removed five more Facebook pages. But a spokesman said that based on Facebook user data, the company was not yet able to link all the websites’ accounts to the Iranian activity found earlier. “In the past several months, we have removed hundreds of Pages, Groups, and accounts linked to Iranian actors engaging in coordinated inauthentic behavior. We continue to remove accounts across our services and in all relevant languages,” he said.

Accounts linked to the Iranian sites remain active online, especially in languages other than English. On Nov. 30, 16 of the Iranian sites were still posting daily updates on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or YouTube – including Sudan Today and Nile Net Online. Between them, the social media accounts had more than 700,000 followers.

(Additional reporting by Nadine Awadalla in Cairo, Erich Knecht and Khalid Abdelaziz in Khartoum, Bozorgmehr Sharafedin Nouri and Ryan McNeill in London; Edited by Sara Ledwith)

Special Report: Reuters’ testing triggers lead cleanup at Fort Knox base

FILE PHOTO: Col. John Cale Brown and Darlena Brown pose for a portrait with their sons J.C. and Rider at their home in 2017. Picture taken 2017. REUTERS/Aaron P. Bernstein

By Joshua Schneyer

FORT KNOX, Kentucky (Reuters) – Fort Knox is famed for its ultra-secure bullion depository that holds $100 billion in U.S. gold reserves. But some families at the Kentucky Army base have concerns about another heavy metal: lead.

When Reuters offered lead testing to military families at several bases, the highest result came from a peeling paint sample one Knox family collected from their covered back porch. It contained 50 percent lead, or 100 times the federal hazard level.

In April, a reporter visited the home, where Karla Hughes lives with her husband, an Army captain, and 4-year-old daughter, who doesn’t have elevated lead levels. In a grassy area where children play nearby, paint chipping from an abandoned electric switch house contained 16 percent lead.

Lead samples line up ready for testing at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory in Palisades, New York, U.S. March 29, 2018. Picture taken March 29, 2018. To match Special Report USA-MILITARY/HOUSING. REUTERS/Mike Wood

Lead samples line up ready for testing at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory in Palisades, New York, U.S. March 29, 2018. Picture taken March 29, 2018. To match Special Report USA-MILITARY/HOUSING. REUTERS/Mike Wood

Several historic homes on the Hughes’ street had old paint peeling from exterior trim, porch or window areas.

Knox Hills, the landlord for more than 2,300 homes on base, removed exterior lead paint from many older homes in recent years but left others untouched.

When Hughes complained about paint conditions in April, the company sent a maintenance worker, who repainted a porch beam but conducted no testing.

Later, Hughes pointed out the copious black paint peeling from a porch handrail to a housing supervisor from Knox Hills. “That’s not lead paint,” she said he assured her. Knox Hills declined to comment on the episode.

A reporter was a block away and later watched as Hughes collected paint falling from the handrail. Lab testing showed its lead content was 28 times a federal threshold that would require abatement.

In response, Knox Hills announced a neighborhood-wide lead paint abatement project focused on porch banisters, several home exteriors and the old switch-house. Residents said the project involves around 40 homes; it included “complete removal of paint and repainting” of the porch handrails.

Without Reuters’ testing data, Hughes said, “this danger may have been left undiscovered and ignored.”

“Knox Hills is taking the proper steps,” said Army spokeswoman Colonel Kathleen Turner. No child living on base has tested high for lead in years, she said.

Knox Hills is a partnership between the Army and private contractors including Lendlease, a property developer headquartered in Sydney, Australia, that operates military housing at several U.S. bases.

“Our response to these concerns, as in all resident issues, are our highest priority,” said Lendlease spokeswoman Meryl Exley.

(Editing by Ronnie Greene)

Reuters report on Myanmar massacre brings calls for independent probe

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) – A Reuters investigation into the killing of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar prompted a demand from Washington for a credible probe into the bloodshed there and calls for the release of two journalists who were arrested while working on the report.

The special report, published overnight, lays out events leading up to the killing of 10 Rohingya men from Inn Din village in Rakhine state who were buried in a mass grave after being hacked to death or shot by Buddhist neighbors and soldiers.

“As with other, previous reports of mass graves, this report highlights the ongoing and urgent need for Burmese authorities to cooperate with an independent, credible investigation into allegations of atrocities in northern Rakhine,” U.S. State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said.

“Such an investigation would help provide a more comprehensive picture of what happened, clarify the identities of the victims, identify those responsible for human rights abuses and violations, and advance efforts for justice and accountability,” she said.

The Reuters report drew on interviews with Buddhists who confessed to torching Rohingya homes, burying bodies and killing Muslims in what they said was a frenzy of violence triggered when Rohingya insurgents attacked security posts last August.

The account marked the first time soldiers and paramilitary police have been implicated by testimony from security personnel in arson and killings in the north of Rakhine state that the United Nations has said may amount to genocide.

In the story, Myanmar said its “clearance operation” is a legitimate response to attacks by insurgents.

Asked about the evidence Reuters had uncovered about the massacre, Myanmar government spokesman Zaw Htay said on Thursday, before publication of the report: “We are not denying the allegations about violations of human rights. And we are not giving blanket denials.”

If there was “strong and reliable primary evidence” of abuses, the government would investigate, he said.

There was no comment from the government following the publication of the report.

“A TURNING POINT”

Nearly 690,000 Rohingya have fled their villages and crossed the border of western Myanmar into Bangladesh since August.

British Labour Party lawmaker Rosena Allin-Khan told BBC’s Newsnight that the Reuters report was consistent with accounts she had heard while working as a doctor at Rohingya refugee camps in Bangladesh last year.

“We’ve been bystanders to a genocide,” she said. “This evidence marks a turning point because, for the first time since this all started to unfold in August, we have heard from the perpetrators themselves.”

She said that, as well as an international probe, there needed to be a referral to the International Criminal Court.

Human Rights Watch said Myanmar’s military leaders should be held accountable in an international court for alleged crimes against the Rohingya population.

“As more evidence comes out about the pre-planning and intent of the Myanmar armed forces to wipe out Rohingya villages and their inhabitants, the international community … needs to focus on how to hold the country’s military leaders accountable,” said HRW’s deputy Asia director Phil Robertson.

Campaign group Fortify Rights also called for an independent investigation.

“The international community needs to stop stalling and do what’s necessary to hold accountable those who are responsible before evidence is tainted or lost, memories fade, and more people suffer,” said the group’s chief executive Matthew Smith.

United Nations’ Special Rapporteur on freedom of opinion and expression, David Kaye, said in a tweet: “During the reporting of this article, two Reuters journalists were arrested by Myanmar police. They remain held & must absolutely be released.”

Yanghee Lee, the U.N. human rights investigator for Myanmar who has been barred from visiting the Rohingya areas, echoed that call and added in a tweet: “Independent & credible investigation needed to get to the bottom of the Inn Din massacre.”

Police arrested two Reuters reporters, Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, on Dec. 12 for allegedly obtaining confidential documents relating to Rakhine and have accused them of violating Myanmar’s Official Secrets Act. They are in prison while a court decides if they should be charged under the colonial-era act.

(Writing by John Chalmers; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan and Alex Richardson)

After one week, Myanmar silent on whereabouts of detained Reuters journalists

After one week, Myanmar silent on whereabouts of detained Reuters journalists

YANGON (Reuters) – Two Reuters journalists completed a week in detention in Myanmar on Tuesday, with no word on where they were being held as authorities proceeded with an investigation into whether they violated the country’s colonial-era Official Secrets Act.

Journalists Wa Lone, 31, and Kyaw Soe Oo, 27, were arrested last Tuesday evening after they were invited to dine with police officers on the outskirts of Myanmar’s largest city, Yangon.

“We and their families continue to be denied access to them or to the most basic information about their well-being and whereabouts,” Reuters President and Editor-In-Chief Stephen J. Adler said in a statement calling for their immediate release.

“Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo are journalists who perform a crucial role in shedding light on news of global interest, and they are innocent of any wrongdoing.”

The news group Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB) on Tuesday cited government spokesman Zaw Htay as saying that the journalists were “being treated well and in good health”.

It gave no further details in its online report.

Reuters was unable to reach Zaw Htay for comment.

Myanmar’s civilian president, Htin Kyaw, a close ally of government leader Aung San Suu Kyi, has authorized the police to proceed with a case against the reporters, Zaw Htay said on Sunday.

Approval from the president’s office is needed before court proceedings can begin in cases brought under the Official Secrets Act, which has a maximum prison sentence of 14 years.

The two journalists had worked on Reuters coverage of a crisis that has seen an estimated 655,000 Rohingya Muslims flee from a fierce military crackdown on militants in the western state of Rakhine.

CRITICISM FROM FAR AND WIDE

A number of governments, including the United States, Canada and Britain, and United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, as well as a host of journalists’ and human rights’ groups, have criticized the arrests as an attack on press freedom and called on Myanmar to release the two men.

The European Union’s foreign affairs chief Federica Mogherini added her voice on Monday, with her spokeswoman describing the arrests as “a cause of real concern”.

“Freedom of the press and media is the foundation and a cornerstone of any democracy,” the spokeswoman said.

Myanmar has seen rapid growth in independent media since censorship imposed under the former junta was lifted in 2012.

Rights groups were hopeful there would be further gains in press freedoms after Nobel peace laureate Suu Kyi came to power last year amid a transition from full military rule that had propelled her from political prisoner to elected leader.

However, advocacy groups say freedom of speech has been eroded since she took office, with many arrests of journalists, restrictions on reporting in Rakhine state and heavy use of state-run media to control the narrative.

BLACK SHIRTS PROTEST

About 20 local reporters belonging to the Protection Committee for Myanmar Journalists (PCMJ) posted pictures on Tuesday of themselves wearing black shirts as a sign of protest. They said their act was meant “to signify the dark age of media freedom”.

“By wearing black shirts, all journalists should show unity,” said Tha Lun Zaung Htet, a producer and presenter at DVB Debate TV and a leading member of the PCMJ. “We must fight for press freedom with unity.”

But most journalists in Yangon did not take part in the campaign. Mya Hnin Aye, senior executive editor at the Voice Weekly, said few participated because the arrested journalists work for foreign media, much of whose “reporting on the Rakhine issue is biased”.

Myo Nyunt, deputy director for Myanmar’s Ministry of Information, told Reuters the case against Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo had nothing to do with press freedom, and said journalists have “freedom to write and speak”.

The Ministry of Information said last week that the two journalists had “illegally acquired information with the intention to share it with foreign media”, and released a photo of them in handcuffs.

The authorities have not allowed the journalists any contact with their families, a lawyer or Reuters since their arrest.

The International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) called on the authorities to immediately disclose the whereabouts of the pair.

“All detainees must be allowed prompt access to a lawyer and to family members,” Frederick Rawski, the ICJ’s Asia-Pacific Regional Director, said in a statement on Monday.

“Authorities are bound to respect these rights in line with Myanmar law and the State’s international law obligations.”

On Sunday, spokesman Zaw Htay said the journalists’ legal rights were being respected. “Your reporters are protected by the rule of the law.”

(Reporting by Yimou Lee, Thu Thu Aung, Shoon Naing and Simon Lewis; Writing by John Chalmers; Editing by Alex Richardson and; Raju Gopalakrishnan)

Trump wants to make sure U.S. nuclear arsenal at ‘top of the pack’

U.S. President Donald Trump pauses during an an interview with Reuters in the Oval Office at the White House in Washington, U.S., February 23, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

By Steve Holland

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Donald Trump said on Thursday he wants to ensure the U.S. nuclear arsenal is at the “top of the pack,” saying the United States has fallen behind in its weapons capacity.

In a Reuters interview, Trump also said China could solve the national security challenge posed by North Korea “very easily if they want to,” ratcheting up pressure on Beijing to exert more influence to rein in Pyongyang’s increasingly bellicose actions.

Trump also expressed support for the European Union as a governing body, saying “I’m totally in favor of it,” and for the first time as president expressed a preference for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but said he would be satisfied with whatever makes the two sides happy.

Trump also predicted his efforts to pressure NATO allies to pay more for their own defense and ease the burden on the U.S. budget would reap dividends. “They owe a lot of money,” he said.

In his first comments about the U.S. nuclear arsenal since taking office on Jan. 20, Trump was asked about a December tweet in which he said the United States must greatly strengthen and expand its nuclear capacity “until such time as the world comes to its senses regarding nukes.”

Trump said in the interview he would like to see a world with no nuclear weapons but expressed concern that the United States has “fallen behind on nuclear weapon capacity.”

“I am the first one that would like to see … nobody have nukes, but we’re never going to fall behind any country even if it’s a friendly country, we’re never going to fall behind on nuclear power.

“It would be wonderful, a dream would be that no country would have nukes, but if countries are going to have nukes, we’re going to be at the top of the pack,” Trump said.

Russia has 7,000 warheads and the United States, 6,800, according to the Ploughshares Fund, an anti-nuclear group.

“Russia and the United States have far more weapons than is necessary to deter nuclear attack by the other or by another nuclear-armed country,” said Daryl Kimball, executive director of the independent Arms Control Association non-profit group.

The new strategic arms limitation treaty, known as New START, between the United States and Russia requires that by February 5, 2018, both countries must limit their arsenals of strategic nuclear weapons to equal levels for 10 years.

The treaty permits both countries to have no more than 800 deployed and non-deployed land-based intercontinental and submarine-launched ballistic missile launchers and heavy bombers equipped to carry nuclear weapons, and contains equal limits on other nuclear weapons.

Analysts have questioned whether Trump wants to abrogate New START or would begin deploying other warheads.

In the interview, Trump called New START “a one-sided deal.”

“Just another bad deal that the country made, whether it’s START, whether it’s the Iran deal … We’re going to start making good deals,” he said.

“WE’RE VERY ANGRY”

The United States is in the midst of a $1 trillion, 30-year modernization of its aging ballistic missile submarines, bombers and land-based missiles.

Trump also complained that the Russian deployment of a ground-based cruise missile is in violation of a 1987 treaty that bans land-based American and Russian intermediate-range missiles.

“To me it’s a big deal,” said Trump, who has held out the possibility of warmer U.S. relations with Russia.

Asked if he would raise the issue with Putin, Trump said he would do so “if and when we meet.” He said he had no meetings scheduled as of yet with Putin.

Speaking from behind his desk in the Oval Office, Trump expressed concern about North Korea’s ballistic missile tests and said accelerating a missile defense system for U.S. allies Japan and South Korea was among many options available.

“There’s talks of a lot more than that,” Trump said, when asked about the missile defense system. “We’ll see what happens. But it’s a very dangerous situation, and China can end it very quickly in my opinion.”

China has made clear that it opposes North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs and has repeatedly called for denuclearization of the Korean peninsula and a return to negotiations between Pyongyang and world powers.

But efforts to change Pyongyang’s behavior through sanctions have historically failed, largely because of China’s fear that severe measures could trigger a collapse of the North Korean state and send refugees streaming across their border.

Trump’s meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe earlier this month in Florida was interrupted by a ballistic missile launch by North Korea.

Trump did not completely rule out possibly meeting North Korean leader Kim Jong Un at some point in the future under certain circumstances but suggested it might be too late.

“It’s very late. We’re very angry at what he’s done, and frankly this should have been taken care of during the Obama administration,” he said.

According to Japanese news reports, the Japanese government plans to start debate over the deployment of a U.S. missile defense system known as the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense, or THAAD, and the land-based Aegis Ashore missile defense system to improve its capability to counter North Korean ballistic missiles.

The strength of Trump’s remarks in favor of the EU took some Brussels officials by surprise after his support for Britain’s vote last summer to exit from the EU.

“I’m totally in favor of it,” Trump said of the EU. “I think it’s wonderful. If they’re happy, I’m in favor of it.”

Statements by him and others in his administration have suggested to Europeans that he sees little value in the Union as such, which Trump last month called a “vehicle for Germany.”

(Additional reporting by Jeff Mason, Roberta Rampton, Emily Stephenson, John Walcott, Matt Spetalnick, Arshad Mohammed and David Brunnstrom in Washington and Alastair Macdonald in Brussels; editing by Ross Colvin)