Russian Disinformation Spreading in New Ways Despite Bans

After Russia invaded Ukraine last February, the European Union moved to block RT and Sputnik, two of the Kremlin’s top channels for spreading propaganda and misinformation about the war. 

Nearly six months later, the number of sites pushing that same content has exploded as Russia found ways to evade the ban. They’ve rebranded their work to disguise it. They’ve shifted some propaganda duties to diplomats. And they’ve cut and pasted much of the content on new websites — ones that until now had no obvious ties to Russia. 

NewsGuard, a New York-based firm that studies and tracks online misinformation, has now identified 250 websites actively spreading Russian disinformation about the war, with dozens of new ones added in recent months. 

Claims on these sites include allegations that Ukraine’s army has staged some deadly Russian attacks to curry global support, that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy is faking public appearances, or that Ukrainian refugees are committing crimes in Germany and Poland. 

Some of the sites pose as independent think tanks or news outlets. About half are English-language, while others are in French, German or Italian. Many were set up long before the war and were not obviously tied to the Russian government until they suddenly began parroting Kremlin talking points.

“They may be establishing sleeper sites,” said NewsGuard co-CEO Gordon Crovitz. Sleeper sites are websites created for a disinformation campaign that lay largely dormant, slowly building an audience through innocuous or unrelated posts, and then switching to propaganda or disinformation at an appointed time. 

While NewsGuard’s analysis found that much of the disinformation about the war in Ukraine is coming from Russia, it did find instances of false claims with a pro-Ukrainian bent. They included claims about a hotshot fighter ace known as the Ghost of Kyiv that officials later admitted was a myth. 

YouTube, TikTok and Meta, which owns Facebook and Instagram, all pledged to remove RT and Sputnik from their platforms within the European Union. But researchers have found that in some cases all Russia had to do to evade the ban was to post it from a different account. 

The Disinformation Situation Center, a Europe-based coalition of disinformation researchers, found that some RT video content was showing up on social media under a new brand name and logo. In the case of some video footage, the RT brand was simply removed from the video and reposted on a new YouTube channel not covered by the EU’s ban. 

More aggressive content moderation of social media could make it harder for Russia to circumvent the ban, according to Felix Kartte, a senior adviser at Reset, a U.K.-based nonprofit that has funded the Disinformation Situation Center’s work and is critical of social media’s role in democratic discourse. 

“Rather than putting effective content moderation systems in place, they are playing whack-a-mole with the Kremlin’s disinformation apparatus,” Kartte said. 

YouTube’s parent company did not immediately respond to questions seeking comment about the ban. 

In the EU, officials are trying to shore up their defenses. This spring the EU approved legislation that would require tech companies to do more to root out disinformation. Companies that fail could face big fines. 

European Commission Vice President Vera Jourova last month called disinformation “a growing problem in the EU, and we really have to take stronger measures.” 

The proliferation of sites spreading disinformation about the war in Ukraine shows that Russia had a plan in case governments or tech companies tried to restrict RT and Sputnik. That means Western leaders and tech companies will have to do more than shutter one or two websites if they hope to stop the flow of Kremlin disinformation. 

“The Russians are a lot smarter,” said NewsGuard’s other co-CEO, Steven Brill. 

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With New Constitution, Tunisia Begins Uncertain Chapter

Scouting for plastic refuse along the capital’s broken streets, Mohammed describes brighter days working in Tunisia’s once-booming tourism industry, earning salary, room and board entertaining Europeans.

“Before, Tunisia was the icon of the Arab world,” says Mohammed, lean and deeply lined at 46, who declines to give his last name.

“Of course, it was a police state under Zine el Abidine Ben Ali,” he added of the country’s former autocrat, ousted in a revolution 11 years ago, “but we had work, we lived well. Now, we’re being hit in the stomach.”

As current President Kais Saied solidifies his control of the tiny North African country under a newly passed constitution, he will be challenged to deliver on promises of jobs, bread and stability for citizens such as Mohammed — who today earns roughly 20 cents filling up large burlap bags with garbage for recycling.

“I didn’t vote,” Mohammed said, counting among 70% of eligible Tunisians, out of opposition or apathy, who declined to participate in a July 25 referendum on Saied’s charter, which passed anyway. “I don’t trust politicians.”

The vote came exactly a year after Saied seized vast powers, dismissing his government and ultimately dissolving parliament, in what his opponents call a coup.

Today, Tunisia’s future—and Saied’s—may depend on a raft of factors, observers say: from whether the president can both secure and sell a crucial International Monetary Fund loan and its tough austerity requirements to save the country’s moribund economy, to the calculations of powerful players such as the country’s main trade union and revered army.

Also shaping the country’s trajectory will be whether Saied can retain his fading but still-sizable support — and whether Tunisians have the will and energy to return to the streets if they believe yet another government has failed them.

“We are in real uncertainty,” said Tunis University political science professor, Hamadi Redissi. “If Saied improves people’s economic and social conditions, he will probably be reelected. But if his only obsession is the constitution and elections, the country will probably plunge into crisis.”

A decade of darkness?

What happens next, analysts say, carries important lessons in a region where every other Arab Spring experiment has failed, and disenchantment in multiparty politics appears to be growing.

A recent Arab Barometer poll found falling public faith, including in Tunisia, in democracy as a motor for economic growth. Many here, like Mohammed the garbage collector, are nostalgic about a perceived heyday under Ben Ali’s strongman rule. The country’s bickering and gridlocked parties have only helped to cement their views.

Yet Ben Ali’s 2011 ouster, triggering the broader Arab Spring uprising, was fueled by the same bread-and-butter worries as today. Only now, things are worse.

However flawed and fragile, Tunisia’s democracy has “really, really mattered,” says Monica Marks, assistant professor of Middle East politics at New York University Abu Dhabi. “Tunisian democracy was a strong counter-argument not only to autocracies in the region but also violent extremists.”

Former soldier Mourad Sassi instead sees the years since Tunisia’s revolution as “a decade of darkness.”

“We don’t even have the money to buy things like cooking oil,” he says. “We can’t live another decade like this.”

“You hear the word ‘exhaustion’ more than anything else,” Marks says. “It seems Tunisians under the summer heat are wilting. And their energy to defend the only democracy in the Arab and Muslim world has wilted too.”

Man of the people

Not surprisingly, Saied and his supporters argue differently. The president says he is committed to preserving the revolution’s freedoms and his constitution will better deliver on the demands of the street — in part by creating a so-called Council of Regions as a second chamber of parliament.

Many ordinary Tunisians are proud of their man-of-the-people leader — an unremarkable constitutional scholar from a modest neighborhood, who catapulted to power in 2019 with an unlikely shoestring campaign.

“Kais Saied’s hands are clean,” says taxi driver Mohamed Bokadi. “He’s a learned man.”

Yet Saied has a lean governing resume, shows little appetite for prioritizing the economy and has failed to surround himself with effective political allies, analysts say. His prime minister, Najla Bouden, is a former geologist.

Publicly, Western leaders have offered a low-key response to Saied’s moves. But when Washington last month voiced concern about an “erosion of democratic norms,” Tunisian Foreign Minister Othman Jerandi pushed back, calling the statement an “interference in national internal affairs.”

Civil society groups and political opponents—some of whom question the referendum’s results—say the constitution merely cements a year of eroding rights: from a crackdown on political critics and journalists, to the dismissal of dozens of judges and Saied’s replacement of the independent electoral commission’s executive board just weeks before his referendum.

Tunisians have partly responded with growing self-censorship, analyst Marks says, characteristic of pre-revolution days.

“When Kais took the reins last year, a lot of people just naturally stopped discussing politics on the phone, because they believed the phones were tapped again,” she says.

“Nobody can say no to Kais Saied,” says Rached Ghannouchi, leader of Tunisia’s once-powerful Islamist-inspired Ennahdha party. He is being investigated for corruption allegations he dismisses as politically motivated.

“He controls the judiciary, the National Assembly, the administration” Ghannouchi adds, “he rules like a pharaoh.”

Rocky times ahead

Tunisia’s leader faces sizable road bumps ahead. The powerful UGTT trade threatens another strike next week over better pay and benefits—potentially paving the way for an uptick of social unrest.

How much Saied can count on the country’s security forces — including its popular military that sided with the people in the 2011 revolt — is another unknown.

“It does look like he still has the military with him,” analyst Marks says. But if the country tips into the massive protests of a decade ago, “the military might make a recalculation.”

Marks, for one, is not betting on the president.

“I think Kais is destined to become that most unfortunate of creatures – an unpopular populist,” she says. “I think his days are numbered – how long remains to be seen.”

Engineer Rania Zahafi, who did not vote for Saied’s constitution and worries about its fallout, remains confident Tunisians will have the last say.

“It’s up to us to change things,” she says. “We have to make our country a better place.”

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Polls Open in Kenyan Presidential Election Said to be Tight

Voting was well underway on Tuesday in Kenya’s unusual presidential election, where a longtime opposition leader who is backed by the outgoing president faces the brash deputy president who styles himself as the outsider and a “hustler.” 

The election is considered close, and East Africa’s economic hub could see a presidential runoff for the first time. Economic issues such as widespread corruption could be of greater importance than the ethnic tensions that have marked past votes with sometimes deadly results. 

Kenya is a standout with its relatively democratic system in a region where some leaders are notorious for clinging to power for decades. Its stability is crucial for foreign investors, the most humble of street vendors and troubled neighbors like Ethiopia and Somalia. 

Hundreds of voters lined up hours ahead of polls opening in some locations, often after being summoned by volunteers’ early morning whistles. Voting started late in some areas as materials or polling workers were delayed. 

The candidates

The top candidates are Raila Odinga, a democracy campaigner who has vied for the presidency for a quarter-century, and 55-year-old Deputy President William Ruto, who has stressed his journey from a humble childhood to appeal to millions of struggling Kenyans long accustomed to political dynasties. 

“In moments like this is when the mighty and the powerful come to the realization that it is the simple and the ordinary that eventually make the choice,” a smiling Ruto told journalists after becoming one of the first voters. “I look forward to our victorious day.” He urged Kenyans to be peaceful and respect others’ choices. 

“I have confidence that the people of Kenya are going to speak loudly in favor of democratic change,” Odinga told journalists on his way to vote. 

Outgoing President Uhuru Kenyatta, the son of Kenya’s first president, cut across the usual ethnic lines and angered Ruto by backing longtime rival Odinga after their bitter 2017 election contest. But both Odinga and Ruto have chosen running mates from the country’s largest ethnic group, the Kikuyu. 

The 77-year-old Odinga has made history by choosing running mate Martha Karua, a former justice minister and the first woman to be a leading contender for the deputy presidency. “Make your voice heard,” she said after voting early in a knitted cap, a sign of the unusually cold weather in parts of the country. 

Rising food and fuel prices, huge government debt, high unemployment and corruption mean economic issues are at the center of an election in which unregulated campaign spending highlighted the country’s inequality. But personalities still matter. 

“We need mature people to lead, not someone who abuses people. Someone who respects elders,” said 55-year-old teacher Rosemary Mulima, who arrived with friends at a polling station on the outskirts of Nairobi to find an estimated 500 people in line before dawn. She had “very high” hopes for Odinga on his fifth try. 

Others predicted a lower turnout than the 80% five years ago and blamed voter apathy. The electoral commission signed up less than half of the new voters it had hoped for, just 2.5 million. 

“The problems from 2017, the economy, the day to day life, are still here,” said 38-year-old shopkeeper Adrian Kibera, who wasn’t sure he would bother to vote. “We don’t have good choices,” he said, calling Odinga too old and Ruto too inexperienced. 

Kenyans are hoping for a peaceful vote. Elections can be exceptionally troubled, as in 2007 when the country exploded after Odinga claimed the vote had been stolen from him and more than 1,000 people were killed. Ruto was indicted by the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity for his role in violence, but his case was terminated amid allegations of witness tampering. 

In 2017, the high court overturned the election results, a first in Africa, after Odinga challenged them over irregularities. He then boycotted the new vote and proclaimed himself the “people’s president,” bringing allegations of treason. A handshake between him and Kenyatta calmed the crisis. 

This is likely Odinga’s last try, and Kenyans and election observers will be watching to see how his often passionate supporters react to the results and any allegations of rigging. 

Candidates say they will accept results

Ruto and Odinga have said they will accept the official results — if the vote is free and fair. “It is every Kenyan’s hope,” the president told journalists after voting. 

More than 22 million people are registered to vote. Official results must be announced within a week, but impatience is expected if they don’t come before this weekend. The underfunded Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission is under pressure to ensure an untroubled vote. 

To win outright, a candidate needs more than half of all votes and at least 25% of the votes in more than half of Kenya’s 47 counties. No outright winner means a runoff election within 30 days

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New Constitution Charts Uncertain Future for Tunisia

Tunisia’s new and controversial constitution goes into effect later this month, cementing the vast powers seized a year ago by its author, President Kais Saied — though fewer than three in 10 voters cast their ballots in a July referendum. From Tunis, Lisa Bryant reports the North African country’s future depends on many factors — including whether Tunisians will defend the Arab Spring’s only democracy.

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Pakistan Suspends TV Channel Critical of Government

Authorities in Pakistan suspended a mainstream television channel Monday in what critics denounced as an illegal move to stifle media freedom in the country. 

 

Private Pakistani cable operators were ordered by the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA) to block the transmission of ARY News immediately “till further notice.”  

 

The state regulator later sent a formal “show cause notice” to the broadcaster, accusing it of airing “false, hateful and seditious content.” It went on to argue that ARY News aired comments early Monday on one of its shows by a spokesman for ousted Prime Minister Imran Khan which PEMRA said were “tantamount to inciting [the] ranks and files of armed forces towards revolt.”  

PEMRA went on to say in the letter that “airing of such content on your news channel shows either a weak editorial in the content or the licensee is intentionally indulged in providing its platform to such individuals who intend to spread malice and hatred against the state institution for their vested interest.” 

Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf Party (PTI) accused the government of Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif of sponsoring a social media campaign aimed at proving the opposition party is anti-army. 

 

The TV channel rejected PEMRA’s charges as unlawful, and so did legal experts, journalists and PTI leaders.

CEO says channel shut for reporting truth

Salman Iqbal, founder and CEO of one of the most popular channels in Pakistan, tweeted that his ARY News “gets shut down just because we reported a true story.” 

 

Muhammad Ahmad Pansota, a lawyer and legal analyst, condemned PEMRA for suspending ARY News without any legal justification.  

 

In a tweet, he called freedom of the press a constitutionally guaranteed right that must not be tampered with by anyone, including the state.

Sedition allegations, critics say, are often used to intimidate and harass media outlets and journalists critical of the powerful military institution.  

Mubashir Zaidi, a prime-time television anchor, advised the government against suspending any channel, noting such an action is in violation of recent judicial orders.  

“But in this case, shutdown happened ahead of the notice, and the action will be declared illegal by the courts sooner or later,” Zaid tweeted. 

 

Media watchdogs also suspect the military is behind a recent campaign of intimidation and harassment against journalists in Pakistan — charges the government and army reject.  

Multiple cases of intimidation

 

In recent weeks, cases of intimidation were registered against several Pakistani journalists for questioning the military’s alleged role in the national politics. 

 

France-based Reporters Without Borders (RSF) cautioned the Pakistan army high command last month against further harassment of the media, saying such tactics would “seriously undermine” democracy in Pakistan.  

 

“The many cases of harassment that RSF has registered in the past two months have one thing in common — all the journalists concerned had, in one way or another, criticized the army’s role in Pakistani politics,” said Daniel Bastard, head of RSF’s Asia-Pacific desk.  

“It is clear from the data that the armed forces have launched a major campaign to intimidate critical journalists. This kind of interference, which is absolutely intolerable, must stop at once or else the chief of the army staff, General Qamar Javed Bajwa, will be held directly responsible for the decline in press freedom in Pakistan,” Bastard said. 

 

Khan alleges the United States colluded with Sharif and other opposition parties to oust him through a parliamentary vote of no-confidence in April, charges that Washington rejects vehemently.  

 

The deposed prime minister has also accused the military leadership of supporting what he claims was a U.S.-sponsored “regime change” plot against his nearly four-year-old government allegedly provoked by his efforts to conduct Pakistan’s foreign policy independent of Washington influence.  

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 Arrest of Zimbabwe Journalists ‘Out of Sync’ With Press Freedom Norms

Zimbabwe has charged two journalists under its cybercrime law in a move media advocates say runs counter to global trends to support and promote press freedom.

Police in Harare have charged two journalists from the national paper, News Day, under provisions of the country’s Cyber and Data Protection Act that cover “false data messages.”

Editor Wisdom Mdzungairi and senior reporter Desmond Chingarande were called in for questioning last week over their coverage of a legal dispute involving local authorities and a memorial park in Harare.

Both deny the charge and Chingarande said he was surprised when police called.

“They allege l published a false statement on internet, but l see this as an intimidation tactic. There were allegations that they are burying people on a part of Glen Forest Memorial Park called Chikomo Chemhute, which is situated at the confluence of Mazowe River, without approval from responsible ministries,” he said.

Chingarande said he sought comment from all sides in the story before publishing. But, with the story now part of a police matter, he says he is unable to say much more.

Mdzungairi and Chingarande are the first journalists charged under new provisions of the cybersecurity law that Zimbabwe enacted during the coronavirus pandemic.

The Media Institute of Southern Africa said such laws are a means to target journalists and citizens.

Tabani Moyo, who heads the regional media watchdog, said, “These are some of the challenges which we continue having in Zimbabwe, where in we make progress in repealing acts such as the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act, then the government claw(s) back using other pieces of legislation to retain elements that will further targets journalists. To have penal or sedition provisions in our statute books that target journalists [is] so out of sync with the global trends toward promotion and protection of media and journalistic expression.”

Zimbabwe is not alone in passing such laws, Moyo said. Zambia, Eswatini and Tanzania enacted cybersecurity laws and Namibia and Lesotho are finalizing similar legislation.

Moyo says heavy penalties, including up to 20 years in prison for those deemed to have shared false news, goes against democratic norms.

“This is an anathema to democratic existence and out of sync with our own constitution which provides for freedom of expression and media freedom, also violating international and regional conventions and tools,” Moyo said.

Ruby Magosvongwe, chair of the Zimbabwe Media Commission — a government-appointed body set up to promote and protect journalism — said she is aware of concerns over violations against the media.

Speaking at a conference on the safety of journalists, organized by UNESCO and media watchdogs in Africa Friday, she called for the government to be more involved in complaints of attacks against the media.

“My wish, my desire, is that in future we include our line ministries so that they get the firsthand reports, because they provide the link between ourselves as media institutions, media entities, with the respective governments from across the continent, across Africa, because examples have been given where journalists have suffered violence but if the line ministries are not involved, then it becomes kind of a conspiracy of sorts,” Magosvongwe said.

For News Day journalists Mdzungairi and Chingarande, they are now waiting to hear from court officials on when a trial in their case will take place.

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