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End of Ethiopian Border Stalemate Could Transform Eritrea

Mon, 06/11/2018 - 16:21


In a surprise announcement, Ethiopia has promised to implement an international court’s decision resolving a border dispute with Eritrea. The move could end an 18-year stalemate and change Eritrea’s internal policies.

Eritrea has long said the border issue justified restrictions on its citizens, including mandatory national service, a diversion of resources into the military, curtailed civil liberties and the uninterrupted rule of President Isaias Afwerki, the unelected leader of the country since 1993.

In a report submitted to the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights last month, Eritrean officials said national elections were “kept on hold as priorities changed and the country had to grapple, first and foremost, with existential issues of preserving its sovereignty and territorial integrity.”

Those actions set the stage for extensive human rights violations and an exodus of young people from the country, according to multiple reports by the U.N. and various human rights groups. Amnesty International calls the overall human rights situation in Eritrea “deplorable.”

Jamie Staley is an aide to U.S. Representative Randy Hultgren, co-chair of the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission. In April, the commission held a hearing to address concerns about human trafficking and religious freedom in Eritrea.

Staley told VOA that Eritrea produces a large number of refugees and often denies religious freedoms.

“We are following cases of Eritrean asylum seekers around the world, in the U.S., in Israel and elsewhere, and want to ensure that no one who has left seeking asylum from Eritrea would ever be returned back to a situation where they would be put back in circumstances that they had left or where they would be made vulnerable to human trafficking in any way,” he said.

Press freedom

Press freedom groups such as Reporters Without Borders and Freedom House have also raised concerns about how Eritrea stifles dissent and targets journalists.

Abraham Zere is the executive director of PEN Eritrea, part of an international network of writers. He’s also a former columnist for Hadas Eritrea, a state-owned Eritrean newspaper. He testified before the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission that dozens of Eritrean journalists with whom he worked were held in military prison for up to six years.

Zere said that he was fortunate compared to his colleagues but still faced “continuous struggles of not being able to speak and not being able to express your thoughts,” even after he left the country.

Eritrea is one of the leading jailers of journalists around the world, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. Based on data compiled by CPJ, 15 journalists were imprisoned in Eritrea in 2017, among the most jailed journalists per capita in the world.

Seeking asylum

About 3,000 unaccompanied minors from Eritrea sought asylum in 2015, said Phillip Connor, a senior researcher with Pew Research.

“Eritreans have some of the highest success rates when it comes to their actual asylum applications being decided or approved to remain in Europe,” Connor told VOA last August. “About 92 percent of Eritreans receive positive decisions in some way, to be able to stay in Europe either temporarily or on a more permanent basis,” he added.

Eritreans almost always receive asylum because of the threats they face if they return home, according to European officials and human rights groups. But the Eritrean government has seized on these trends to advance another possibility: Migrants from other countries, particularly in East Africa, claim to be Eritrean given the likelihood they will receive asylum.

Unfairly maligned?

Eritrea’s government says the country is the victim of a coordinated campaign to malign its reputation and punish its leaders. In his annual independence day address last month, Afwerki repeated concernsabout an “illicit sanctions regime” against Eritrea.

Last November, a U.N. monitoring group determined that no conclusive evidence linked Eritrea to support of al-Shabab militants in Somaliasince at least 2013, despite earlier claims to the contrary by a member state in the region. Concerns about links to the militant group led to sanctions in 2009.

Criticism of Eritrea’s human rights record has also come from within Africa. In April, the Center for Human Rights at the University of Pretoria in South Africa called for action in a statement to the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights because of “long-standing deficiencies in the rule of law and the severe nature of human rights violations in Eritrea.”

Awaiting response

Eritrea has not yet officially responded to Ethiopia’s decision to adhere to the terms of the Algiers Agreement and implement the border defined by a U.N. boundary commission.

Following the announcement, Yemane Gebremeskel, Eritrea’s minister of information, said on Twitter that Eritrea’s “position is crystal clear and has been so for 16 years” in response to questions about why his government has not issued an official statement.

But Zere is doubtful that Ethiopia’s move will prompt action from Eritrea.

“I don’t think that the Eritrean government would make any big change,” he told VOA. “The government of Eritrea isn’t interested in bilateral relations, and they don’t believe in that. And therefore I would say that it is better if they (the international community) start focusing on those who are oppressed.”

Egypt Arrests Leave Few Vocal Critics of Dictator el-Sissi

Mon, 06/11/2018 - 16:18


A smiling Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi appeared on state television last month to pardonmore than 330 prisoners, saying it was an act of clemency aheadof the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan. This week, he pardonedanother 712.

Many were young Egyptians jailed for anti-governmentprotests.

But with less fanfare, at least six prominent el-Sissi critic have been detained in recent weeks, in what opposition activists say is an intensifying effort to crush all dissent less than three months after his landslide election victory.

“I am being arrested,” Wael Abbas, one of the highest-profile detainees, wrote on Facebook around dawn on May 23.

The journalist, who won an international award in 2007 for reporting on police brutality, was charged with spreading fake news and involvement with an illegal organization, a phrase often used by the Egyptian authorities as a reference to Islamist groups. His lawyer, Gamal Eid, said Abbas denied the

Other detainees

Abbas joined other high-profile figures in detention, allarrested in the space of three weeks. The group includes HazemAbdelazim, a well-known el-Sissi supporter-turned-critic, as well asseveral leading figures from Egypt’s 2011 uprising, when massprotests forced then-President Hosni Mubarak from office. Theactivists had since turned their sights on el-Sissi, whom they see asa return to an era of strong military control.

Egypt’s interior ministry and president’s office did notrespond to phone calls or written questions about the arrests.

Egypt’s foreign ministry said in a statement: “No citizen inEgypt is arrested … for directing criticism at the Egyptian government, but for committing crimes punishable by law.”

El-Sissi easily won re-election in March with 97 percent of thevote, but turnout was just 41 percent. All serious opponents hadwithdrawn beforehand from the race, citing intimidation.

Mohamed Zaree of the Cairo Institute for Human RightsStudies said he knew of about 30 journalists or activists whohad been arrested since the election. Reuters was not able toverify that figure.

The recent arrests have raised alarm, including in theUnited States and United Nations, partly because those detainedare prominent figures whose open criticism of the authoritieshad not triggered such strong reprisals until now.

U.S. Vice President Mike Pence praised last month’s pardons,but also expressed concern to el-Sissi on May 24 over the newarrests. On Tuesday, U.N. human rights spokeswoman RavinaShamdasani urged Egypt to “respect … obligations underinternational human rights law.”

International and local rights groups have said the arrests were made without warrants and detainees were denied access to lawyers.

‘Targeted’ for writing

Since coming to power in 2014, el-Sissi has presided over asweeping crackdown on Islamist opponents and liberal activists,which rights groups say is the worst period of politicalrepression in modern Egyptian history.

The former military chief toppled elected Islamist President Mohamed Morsi in 2013 after mass protests against his rule.Thousands of supporters of Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood were arrested, and Egypt passed a law requiring interior ministry permission for any public gathering of more than 10 people.

El-Sissi’s supporters say such measures are needed to keep Egyptstable as it recovers from political chaos and tackles graveeconomic challenges. It also faces an Islamic State insurgencyin the Sinai Peninsula and has imposed a nationwide state ofemergency.

El-Sissi, who denies there are political prisoners in Egypt, hasissued pardons several times a year, including on majorholidays, often releasing students and young protesters.

Some lawyers, rights researchers and diplomats said they areat a loss to explain the latest arrests. Those detained hadmainly avoided incarceration for years despite their onlineactivism.

“Before the election [there was] the logical explanationthat it was to scare [opposition] supporters,” Mohamed Lotfy,director of the Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms,told Reuters.

“The latest [arrests] have just targeted those writing onthe internet,” he said, adding that el-Sissi’s critics wereincreasingly engaging in self-censorship for fear of arrest.

Lotfy’s wife, Amal Fathy, was detained last month forinsulting the state after posting a expletive-filled videocriticizing the government for failing to protect women againstsexual harassment.

Twitter postings

Another detainee, Hazem Abdelazim, had complained on Twitterabout a deepening crackdown days before his arrest on May 27.

“People are being arrested every day … oppression isincreasing,” he wrote.

In his Twitter postings, he criticizedthe release of more than 300 prisoners by el-Sissi as not includingany political opponents or prominent critics. A full list ofthose pardoned was not made available by the authorities.

Abdelazim served as a government official under Mubarak andcampaigned for el-Sissi’s first term in 2014, but has since saidthat this was his “biggest sin.”

Like Abbas, the journalist, Abdelazim faces charges ofspreading fake news and involvement with an illegalorganization, charges that his lawyer said he denied.

Satirist Shady Abu Zeid and lawyer Haitham Mohamedeen wereamong other prominent Egyptians arrested in May. Abu Zeid’slawyer said he faced the same charges as Abbas and Abdelazim,charges that he denies.Mohamedeen’s lawyer was not immediatelyavailable for comment.

Shady Ghazaly Harb, a leading opposition figure in 2011 whenmass protests forced Mubarak from office, was also detained lastmonth. He had taken to Twitter to criticize the detention ofdemonstrators taking part in a rare public protest against anincrease in fares on the Cairo metro.

When Broadway’s Tony Awards Get Political

Mon, 06/11/2018 - 16:10


The Band’s Visit, a musical about a an Egyptian police orchestra booked for a concert in an Israeli town, but end up in the wrong town, took home the prize for the best new musical at Sunday’s Tony Awards honoring Broadway performances

The stars of The Band’s Visit – Katrina Lenk and Tony Shalhoub – won the top acting in a musical prizes.

Based on at 2007 Israeli film of the same name, The Band’s Visit beat out Frozen, Mean Girls, and SpongeBob SquarePants.

Once On This Island won the best musical revival Tony.The 1990 calypso-infused musical triumphed over My Fair Lady and Carousel.

“(Let’s) just bake a cake for everyone who wants a cake to be baked,” Andrew Garfield said when he won a Tony Award for best leading actor in a play for his work in Angels In America, the revival of Tony Kushner’s monumental drama about life, love, AIDS and homosexuality in the 1980s.

Garfield’s remark was a reference to the recent Supreme Court decision in favor of a baker’s right to refuse to bake a cake for a gay couple’s wedding.

The awards show turned political once again when actor Robert De Niro came on stage to introduce a performance by special Tony winner Bruce Springsteen.

De Niro shouted an obscenity about the president of the United States and received a standing ovation. He said it again to more cheers. The CBS-TV censors bleeped out the obscenity for television viewers.

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, Parts One and Two won prizes for best play, best director of a play, best sound design, best lighting design, best scenic design, and best costume design.

Broadway veteran Nathan Lane won the Tony Award for best featured actor in a play for his work in Angels in America.

Josh Groban and Sara Bareilles co-hosted for this year’s awards ceremony.

Eighty-two year old British actress Glenda Jackson won her first Tony for her role in the revival of Edward Albee’s Three Tall Women.

Laurie Metcalf won best featured actress in a play for Three Tall Women. Metcalf won a Tony last year for A Doll’s House, Part 2.

But in the midst of Broadway’s magical night, one award was presented for outstanding off-Broadway work. The recipient was Melody Hertzfeld, the head of the drama department at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.

The drama teacher was recognized for saving dozens of children from the deadly mass shooting at the school that claimed 17 lives. She is credited for saving more than 65 students by guiding them to safety and keeping them out of harm’s way for more than two hours.

She received the 2018 Excellence in Theatrical Education award, which honors an educator “who has demonstrated monumental impact on the lives of students.” It comes with a $10,000 prize for the winner’s theater program.

Momentous Days as New PM Pledges Major Ethiopian Reforms

Mon, 06/11/2018 - 16:02


These are not ordinary times in Ethiopia. Sweeping changes that seemed unthinkable just weeks ago have been announced almost daily since a new prime minister, Africa’s youngest head of government, took office and vowed to bring months of deadly protests to an end.

From the surprise acceptance of a peace agreement with bitter rival Eritrea, to the opening of major state-owned sectors to private investment, plus the release of thousands of prisoners including opposition figures once sentenced to death, the 42-year-old Abiy Ahmed has kept Africa’s second most populous country buzzing.

“The people have the full right to criticize its servants, to elect them, and to interrogate them. Government is a servant of the people,” he said in his inaugural speech in early April. It was unusual talk considering his military background, and he quickly found enthusiastic crowds as he toured the country.

Abiy has been called “Prime Minister Bolt” for the sprinter-like pace of reforms. Some Ethiopians say it’s hardly possible to comprehend a single day’s events.

On Tuesday alone, Parliament kicked off by lifting the state of emergency imposed in response to the protests demanding greater freedoms that began more than two years ago. It marked the most dramatic change yet under Abiy’s rule.

By nightfall there was bigger news: the prospect of peace with neighboring Eritrea after nearly two decades of border skirmishes and a two-year war.

Almost as an afterthought came word that Ethiopia, one of the world’s fastest-growing economies, was opening state-owned enterprises in aviation, telecommunications and more to foreign investment or outright privatization. That opens the door for stakes in globally successful Ethiopian Airlines and Africa’s largest telecom company by subscribers, Ethio Telecom.

“Now I need to take an umbrella when I get into a shower so that I can grab my phone and follow these rounds of breaking news items,” joked one Ethiopian, Firew Megersa, on Facebook.

The new prime minister has dined with opposition leaders, named new army and intelligence chiefs and suggested that his own position should have term limits. He’s visited Saudi Arabia and secured promises that thousands of Ethiopians detained as illegal migrants would be released. He’s made new port agreements with neighbors along one of the world’s busiest shopping lanes.

In a colorful sign of his ambitions, Abiy even hinted that landlocked Ethiopia would revive its navy.

Citizens of the East African nation where the government once shut off social media to dampen criticism now find themselves expressing opinions without fear. The return of stability to a key Western security ally in a region with turbulent neighbors like Somalia and South Sudan has some breathing more easily.

Despite the whirlwind of change, many wonder just how far reforms can go in a country where the ruling coalition still holds every seat in Parliament and opposition has been punished.

“The language the prime minister is using is very conducive for coming closer, to listen to each other. But for an actual political engagement in the country you need a number of practical things to happen,” said Andargachew Tsige, an Ethiopia-born Briton and opposition leader who was snatched by Ethiopian intelligence agents in Yemen in 2014 and sent to death row.

Andargachew’s freedom last month, along with the release of a photo showing him and Abiy in the prime minister’s office, captivated many Ethiopians.

Despite his turn of fortune, Andargachew told The Associated Press: “We need to see on-the-ground concrete measures, not only releasing political prisoners, not only making good speeches.” Ethiopia needs independent institutions, he said.

While Abiy’s rise to power has led to a dramatic decrease in protests, critics say what he has done so far is simply “putting out fires.”

“Up until now I haven’t seen any policy direction from the new leader on how to solve Ethiopia’s chronic problems, like setting up an equal, competing space for all political parties and directions regarding the country’s macro- and microeconomic path,” said opposition politician Yilikal Getnet. Ethiopia suffers from massive debt and faces an acute foreign exchange crisis after exports fell short of targets.

Even the new prime minister’s popularity could turn out to be risky in a country with a history of long-ruling authoritarian leaders, Yilikal said.

“I agree his speeches are conciliatory but at the same time I see a tendency of slipping back into dictatorship, with both state and private media delving into creating a cult of personality around the new leader,” Yilikal said.

For now, some observers once alarmed by Ethiopia’s unrest have started to soften their tone.

“We are encouraged by recent developments,” said U.S. Embassy spokesman Nick Barnett, adding the U.S. is ready to support all efforts to build a “more representative political system.” Ravina Shamdasani, spokeswoman for the U.N. human rights office, said she had witnessed “tremendous hope” among civil society activists, traditional leaders and others.

The new prime minister “can’t change every individual’s life, but he is setting up the ground for changes to happen and create a national consensus among all Ethiopians,” said Seyoum Teshome, a prominent blogger who was arrested twice under the state of emergency.

A Synopsis Regarding the Benefits of Legalizing Marijuana

Mon, 06/11/2018 - 13:33

Shortly after a recent meeting with Kim Kardashian, one predicated around prison-reform, President Trump signaled his willingness to entertain the idea of curtailing federal-ban of marijuana. While that is certainly not a sentence that I ever thought I would write, it is one that is emblematic of the progress the United States has made in recent years regarding the prospect of nationwide marijuana-legalization. In the wake of the aforementioned meeting, I feel as if it’s appropriate to (attempt to) diminish the stigma surrounding the drug.

First and foremost, you need not be an avid pot-smoker in order to advocate for its legalization. Far too often are individuals favoring authorization for legal-usage disregarded as “pot-heads” or other flattering labels of the likes. This is not always the case; in fact, I can refer you to numerous people favoring legalization who have ostensibly never utilized the drug in their life. “If they don’t actively use marijuana, why would they want it legalized?,” some may ask.

There are a variety of answers to this question, the first being for economic-reasons. If the government were to legalize it, or at least force the decision of legalization to be made at a state-level by dropping the schedule 1 designation title, ending the federal-ban, free-enterprise will inevitably take advantage of it. An inherent feature of capitalism is to supply the demand, and there will be a considerable amount of demand.

A 2017 study shows that a shocking 23% of American adults admit to regularly utilizing marijuana, and that well-over half of adults have used it at least once. Now, imagine if marijuana was sold legally in the private-sector. The amount of jobs, and inextricably, tax-revenue that would accompany the legalization of pot would certainly net beneficial results for all. In fact, weed-sales from dispensaries in Colorado alone have yielded over $500 million in tax-revenue within a 3 year span (2014-2017.)

More impressively, a study from New Frontier projects that the immediate legalization of marijuana would yield over 1-million jobs and generate a whopping $132 billion in federal tax-revenue by 2025. Conflate this figure with the fact that 27% of the people claim they don’t use marijuana claim solely due to it being illegal, and you have a minimum (emphasis on minimum) of 86 million people willing to purchase marijuana.

Additionally, marijuana has been said to alleviate the complications of many ailments, both physical and mental; however, I will abstain from citing marijuana as a means of mitigating depression, anxiety, ADHD, or anything of the like, as these ailments are proven to be overdiagnosed. Realistically, it’s not all too difficult to pass oneself off as depressed or anxious simply to obtain medicinal-marijuana; I digress. There is, however, an abundant amount of evidence suggesting that weed helps patients subjected to cancer and seizures.

A study in Colorado (seemingly the epicenter for marijuana-related experimentation in the US) showed that 36% of a control group diagnosed with epilepsy showed a reduced amount of seizures, while another 2% of patients of the group proved to be absolved of seizures entirely. Similar results exist within the dynamic between marijuana and cancer. There are numerous cases of success stories relating to cancer patients utilizing marijuana, as a considerable amount of people sent their cancer to remission solely by substituting chemotherapy for marijuana entirely. In fact, there’s an entire website predicated around such stories.

There is robust evidence that supports the assertion that marijuana has far more use than sole recreational purpose. Speaking subjectively (as it’s hard not to, seeing as how my perception is skewed due to my being a libertarian,) pot-prohibition is simply another way for government to control the livelihood of should-be-autonomous adults who can make decisions for themselves without futile influence from big-brother. This is not heroin or cocaine; there have been literally zero deaths by way of marijuana-overdose in the history of man.

It’s due time we allow marijuana to be legalized, regulated primitively, and sold accordingly.

Crackdown Hits Egyptian Activists, Bloggers and Journalists

Sun, 06/10/2018 - 11:13


The U.N. human rights office has condemned the most recent crackdown against activists, bloggers and journalists in Egypt as a violation of their rights to freedom of expression, association and assembly.

In recent weeks, the U.N. human rights office has reported that prominent bloggers, activists and journalists have been arbitrarily arrested and subjected to interrogation while in detention on spurious charges of peddling fake news.

In one instance, it notes an activist, Amal Fathy, was picked up and charged with using the internet and social media to spread false news to push forward a supposed terrorist agenda.

Human rights office spokeswoman Ravina Shamdasani says it is not possible to know how many people have been detained for exercising their rights of freedom of expression. She says their conditions of confinement are of concern as their rights to due process are not being respected.

“In many cases, these people are detained without an arrest warrant. In some cases, they are not aware of why they have been detained. In many cases, their pre-trial detention continues to be renewed again and again,” said Shamdasani. “In some of the cases that I mentioned, three individuals have been detained since March, since the end of February, early March and their detention, pre-trial detention keeps getting renewed for 15-day periods successively.”

Shamdasani says some of the charges carry long prison terms.

The U.N. human rights office is calling for the immediate and unconditional release of all those currently being held by the Egyptian authorities. Officials are urging the government to respect its obligations under international human rights law.

According to the Reuters news agency, the Egyptian state news agency MENA reports that President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi has pardoned 712 prisoners who were jailed for anti-government protests. The president was re-elected for a second term in March and sworn in recently.

Majority of Women in Charge of New Spanish Government

Sat, 06/09/2018 - 12:05


A female-dominated cabinet is taking shape as part of Spain’s new Socialist government, including a former astronaut as science minister and a European Union bureaucrat to oversee the country’s economy.

Nadia Calvino, who has been director general for budget at the EU’s Commission since 2014, was confirmed as the minister in charge of the eurozone’s fourth largest economy, Spain’s private agency Europa Press reported.

And Pedro Duque, an engineer and the first Spaniard in space, welcomed in a series of tweets on Wednesday his appointment as minister of science, innovation and universities.

Duque is a member of the European Space Agency and has taken part in several missions, including a 10-day flight on board of a Discovery shuttle in 1998, and another 10-day visit to the International Space Station on a Russian-designed spacecraft.

Pedro Sanchez, Spain’s new prime minister, is expected to convey the appointments to King Felipe VI on Wednesday before the new ministers can take their positions on Thursday.

Sanchez on Friday won a no confidence vote in the government of Mariano Rajoy, prime minister since 2011, following a corruption scandal involving several former members of the conservative Popular Party.

The no. 2 in the new government will be Carmen Calvo, several members of the ruling party have said, confirming rumors in Spanish media. Calvo, an expert on constitutional law and minister of culture between 2004 and 2007, will be deputy prime minister and also in charge of a resurrected Ministry of Equality.

Pending the announcements of the defense and interior ministers, the count shows 10 female ministers in the cabinet, with four men, including Sanchez himself.

The Socialists’ spokesman in the country’s Senate, Ander Gil, said the cabinet configuration “complies with the word given by the prime minister, with women and men with long and prestigious careers.”

“This is a responsible government that represents very well the talent and the future of Spain,” Gil told private broadcaster La Sexta TV.

The push for Catalan independence, which haunted Rajoy during the last eight months of the outgoing government, will be one of the key challenges of the new administration.

Meritxell Batet, a Catalan lawmaker and legal expert on the country’s constitution, will be charged with dealing with Catalonia’s desire for further autonomy as the new minister of public administration. The previously announced appointment of Josep Borrell, the former European Parliament president and pro-Spanish unity Catalan politician, as foreign minister, irked some separatists.

Sanchez has promised to open talks with a new regional cabinet in the prosperous northeastern region, but has said that any solution must fit within Spain’s Constitution, which calls the nation “indivisible” and says national sovereignty resides in the Madrid-based parliament.

How Louisiana Lawmakers Promote Bills That Help Relatives and Clients

Sat, 06/09/2018 - 10:07

A great report was just released concerning a troubling system of institutionalized corruption in Louisiana. The report is the product of reporting by ProPublica in partnership with local reporters at The Advocate and is a must read. Here is a small excerpt from the report:

A 2010 court “decision effectively prevented the Board of Ethics from serving as a watchdog for legislative conflicts of interest — leaving it to lawmakers to penalize other lawmakers for such conflicts. If someone outside of the Legislature identifies a violation, it can be considered only if another member of the Legislature decides to take it up.”

“Dealing with entanglements is a tricky subject among state legislatures, many of them made up of part-time lawmakers who maintain full-time jobs. In Louisiana, the same rules apply to legislators voting on bills involving family members as do to their own interests — namely, lawmakers are allowed to vote on bills as long as they or relatives don’t benefit more than others in the same industry. In California, by contrast, a recusal would be triggered when a lawmaker, or immediate family member, might benefit from a bill affecting a business where they have at least a $2,000 investment.”

“In some cases, the conflict doesn’t present itself until after votes are cast.”

Read the full article at ProPublica.

Why the Staged Assassination Unnerves Ukrainian Journalists

Fri, 06/08/2018 - 11:21


Ukrainian journalists have been left puzzled and feeling uneasy since the Ukrainian security service (SBU) staged the assassination of Russian reporter Arkady Babchenko, a U.S. media watchdog says.

Ukrainian authorities have said the elaborate operation was designed to foil a Russian plot to assassinate Babchenko and other members of the Ukrainian media.

The Committee to Protect Journalists said Wednesday that Ukrainian media staffers were upset by SBU’s revelation that it had discovered a “hit list”of 47 journalists, bloggers and activists who may allegedly be targeted by assassins. But veteran journalists told CPJ that while they were perturbed by the news of the list, they were used to being under threat.

Many questioned why the SBU would go through all the trouble to protect Babchenko when it has yet to solve the daylight car bombing that killed Russian journalist Pavel Sheremet in 2016.

“I feel the same as I felt before the Babchenko case,” TV reporter Nastya Stanko told CPJ. “I didn’t feel safe then, and I don’t feel safe now.”

Stanko said the Babchenko case had, in fact, made things worsefor journalists.

“When some journalists spoke their mind and said journalists shouldn’t work with security services, Babchenko himself said that he wished for these ‘betrayers’ to have a killer knocking on their door,” she said. “I think we are now at a greater risk of that than before.”

VIDEO: A Symposium on Media Misinformation and Democracy

Fri, 06/08/2018 - 10:59

The century-old Brookings Institution and the independent nonprofit Social Science Research Council (SSRC) co-hosted a symposium about media misinformation and democracy on May 31. The event video was just shared to the public. The event, focused on the “history, circulation, and management of misinformation (untruths circulated without the intention to deceive) and disinformation (untruths intended to deceive)” was described in the event invite as follows:

The spread of false information is hardly new or unique to the current political moment. It has historical roots in sensationalist journalism, foreign espionage, propaganda, and partisan debates—a collection of approaches far richer than suggested by the phrase “fake news.” This historical context does not make disinformation any less dangerous, however. Understanding how disinformation is exploited by political actors both internal and external to the state, how existing divisions and polarization create the conditions for disinformation to be more effective, and the ways in which technologies incentivize or disrupt disinformation, is critical.

…Several panels of experts convened to explore the most effective means of identifying and countering false information, as well as the challenges in doing so. Social scientists and journalists spoke to three aspects of the current moment in misinformation: the status of facts/persistence of misinformation; the speed, virality, and spread of misinformation; and what we—or anyone—can do to correct or manage the misinformation that already exists.

Speakers at the symposium included:

  • E.J. Dionne
    W. Averell Harriman Chair and Senior Fellow – Governance Studies
  • Jason Rhody
    Program Director, Media & Democracy – Social Science Research Council
  • John Bullock
    Associate Professor – Northwestern University
  • Matthew Jordan
    Associate Professor – Pennsylvania State University
  • Lori Robertson
    Managing Editor –
  • Mark Stencel
    Co-director, Duke Reporters’ Lab – Duke University
  • Amber Boydstun
    Associate Professor – University of California, Davis
  • Pablo Barbera
    Assistant Professor – London School of Economics
  • Rob Faris
    Research Director, Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society – Harvard University
  • John Sides
    Associate Professor of Political Science – George Washington University
  • Alexander Coppock
    Assistant Professor – Yale University
  • Magdalena Wojcieszak
    Associate Professor – University of California, Davis
  • Meredith Broussard
    Assistant Professor – New York University

The first video in the four part series is below. The video is about 25 minutes. Take a look:

Sharp Power: The Growing Challenge to Democracy

Fri, 06/08/2018 - 00:49

The Heritage Foundation recently hosted an event focused around a new report by the National Endowment for Democracy on modern dictatorship’s use of ‘sharp power’ as a foreign policy tool. From the event description:

The concept of “soft power” evokes for many a benign alternative to the exercise of hard power as nations strive for strategic influence abroad. Among the United States and its democratic allies, soft power involves public diplomacy, people-to-people programs, student exchanges, cultural outreach and broadcasting news to foreign publics. For authoritarian regimes, however, the open exchange of ideas that characterize democracies is seen as a weakness and vulnerability to be exploited. In our globalized information environment, countries like China and Russia practice a very different kind of influence projection, termed “sharp power” by the authors of a new study published by the National Endowment of Democracy.

The International Forum for Democratic Studies at the National Endowment for Democracy was responsible for the new report titled, “Sharp Power: Rising Authoritarian Influence“. Here is the abstract from the report:

In recent years, China and Russia have invested significant resources in media, academic, cultural, and think tank initiatives designed to shape public opinion and perceptions around the world. These authoritarian influence efforts have traditionally been viewed by the democracies through the familiar lens of “soft power,” a concept which has become a catch-all term for forms of influence that are not “hard” in the sense of military force or economic might. Yet the authoritarian influence that has gained pace and traction in recent years, while not hard in the openly coercive sense, is not really soft, either.

Rather, authoritarian influence efforts in young and vulnerable democracies are “sharp” in the sense that they pierce, penetrate, or perforate the information and political environments in the targeted countries. These regimes are not necessarily seeking to “win hearts and minds,” the common frame of reference for “soft power” efforts, but they are surely seeking to influence their target audiences by manipulating or distorting the information that reaches them.

The following are key steps that can be taken to address the malign efforts by Russia and China to influence and manipulate democracies:

  • Address the shortage of information on China and Russia in young and vulnerable democracies
  • Unmask authoritarian influence in a comprehensive manner
  • Inoculate democratic societies against malign authoritarian influence
  • Reaffirm support for democratic values and ideals
  • Re-conceptualize soft power

The full video is about 60 minutes. Take a look:

The New York Times Stereotypes Southerners, Again

Thu, 06/07/2018 - 20:49
The American South – link

I am writing this in response to the New York Times Article “No One Really Understands the South” op-ed. As a 20+ year veteran of the south, I have some thoughts. While the author talks quite a bit about the structure of the Democratic Party in the South, her answer leaves out the majority of the reason why any Southern stays in the South. Southern Hospitality, communitarian identities, and genuine connections with neighbors are a few reasons I stay in the South.

Most Northerners have this idea of the South that is very different than the way of the South. It’s this idea that we live in a town without running water, power lines, and cell phone lines. Yet, somehow Doug Jones got elected by GOTV efforts that included 15,000 phone calls. Ev’ry body got a phone, now.

While the author sticks to the political structure of the Democratic Party, and the haunting reality of being black in the South, it is not a full picture. Like many things in life, there are nuances and new history being written, monuments built, and identities being empowered.

Old wounds – link

The Democratic Party has no stronghold here in Alabama, yet it is capable of being a purple state. Georgia has created an effort to look at its changing demographics through nonprofit and census work to start an effort to turn that state blue. That is also possible.

It is without merit to say anything is impossible. And the South isn’t as backwards as one assumes. There are millennials with a passion for social justice, black women who are working corporate jobs, and white blue collars in rural Alabama working in factories. You and I, New Yorkers, are not living in different realities. My reality may include a neighbor’s Southern drawl and kind demeanor while you may have a cussing neighbor who shouts at her dog in the middle of the night. I don’t know, I don’t live there.

The reality of being black in the South is also the reality of being black up North. Racism is easier to spot down here because it’s not subtle. While up North, it may be possible to be racist and have no one know. The argument I’ve always gone with is Southerners live their racism, Northerners love the collective, hate the individual.

But, the reality of the South is one full of families, friends, neighbors, and colleagues who work tirelessly to help each other. People go out of their way for each other. No one is to busy to help a friend. I’m not saying we live in Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood, but it’s a familiar world of slow paced small talk injected with college sports. Please see beyond the political and into the personal. If politics is about people, then it’s about more than living alongside people who agree with you but living alongside people who disagree with you but give you insight into their hearts and minds. Let’s do more of that.

Lawsuits Seeks to Block Citizenship Question on 2020 Census

Thu, 06/07/2018 - 16:49


Civil rights lawyers sued the U.S. Commerce Department on Wednesday to try to stop plans to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census.

The Manhattan federal court lawsuit on behalf of immigrants’ rights groups says racial animus was behind a recent announcement that the census will include a citizenship question for the first time since 1950.

The lawsuit, filed by the American Civil Liberties Union and others, claims the question intentionally discriminates against immigrants and will increase fear in their communities. It alleges census participation will be depressed, diluting the economic and political power of residents.

U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross announced the plan in March, saying the question was needed in part to help the government enforce the Voting Rights Act, a 1965 law meant to protect political representation of minority groups. The Commerce Department is responsible for the census.

The plan has resulted in several lawsuits, including one in California, the nation’s most populous state with the highest concentration of foreign-born residents, and another in New York brought by 17 Democratic attorneys general, the District of Columbia, six cities and the bipartisan U.S. Conference of Mayors.

Donna Lieberman, head of the New York Civil Liberties Union, said in a release that President Donald Trump’s administration was “shamelessly weaponizing the census to wage its war on communities of color, immigrants and the poor.”

She added: “New Yorkers refuse to be undercounted, discriminated against or driven into the shadows.”

The Justice Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The decennial census is required by the Constitution and used to determine the number of seats each state has in the House of Representatives, as well as how federal money is distributed to local communities.

Plaintiffs in the lawsuit include the New York Immigration Coalition, the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee and other groups. Besides the Commerce Department and Ross, the Bureau of the Census and its director, Ron Jarmin, were also listed as defendants.

Candidate Seeks to be the First Ever Native American Congresswoman

Thu, 06/07/2018 - 16:44


Native Americans have been largely absent from the corridors of power in Washington, D.C. But that could soon change. Deb Haaland, a member of the Pueblo of Laguna, won the Democratic nomination for New Mexico’s 1st Congressional District, and if predictions are correct, could become the first Native American woman in Congress.

“Tonight, we made history,” Haaland told supporters Tuesday. “Our win is a victory for working people, a victory for women, and a victory for Indian Country.”

Haaland, a graduate of the University of New Mexico’s law school, is no stranger to politics. A single mother, she was the first Native woman to chair the state’s Democratic Party (2015 to 2017). In 2012, she served as the state’s vote director during President Barack Obama’s 2012 campaign and is crediting with helping him win in New Mexico.

Observers are calling this week’s primary victory “historic.”

“What makes Haaland’s primary win so important is that she is running in a district that’s favorable to Democrats,” said Mark Trahant, editor of Indian Country Today, who has closely tracked the campaigns of dozens of Native Americans running for federal, state and local office across the country this year. “She is likely to rewrite history – either alone or with another Native woman.”

‘Worst Nightmare’

Climate change and renewable energy top Haaland’s political agenda. She is an outspoken critic of President Donald Trump’s environmental policy.

“The Trump administration is the worst nightmare to happen to the environment in decades,” she told VOA in February. “And then we have got the Bureau of Land Management working overtime to sell off leases to lands so that people can frack.”

She is also critical of Trump’s immigration policy and has promised to work to stop deportations and defend DREAMers, those protected under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). The federal government program, created in 2012 under Obama, allows children brought to this country illegally the temporary right to live, study and work in the U.S.

Native Americans in New Mexico, who account for 10% of the state’s population, did not get the right to vote until 1948.

‘Different perspective’

Haaland has called for changes to federal tax policy to require the wealthy to pay what she calls their “fair share” in taxes and for stronger gun laws in the wake of a series of school shootings across the country, and in New Mexico. A gunman killed two students at Aztec High School in December 2017. In August that year, a 16-year old gunman killed two employees at a library in downtown Clovis.

The candidate says she is confident she would bring a “different perspective” to Washington.

“Diversity is a good thing to have when people are doing things and making decisions,” she said, adding that she would also work to promote the interests of the more than 570 tribes and nations across the United States.

“My grandparents were products of forced assimilation,” she said. “My dad was in the military. My mom worked in Indian education for 25 years. I have a good knowledge of the history of our country, which means that I have a firm grasp on how Natives were treated and why it’s important that the U.S. government live up to its trust responsibility to tribes.”

Students’ Trial a Focal Point in Turkish Crackdown Criticism

Thu, 06/07/2018 - 16:38


In an Istanbul courthouse, 22 students from one of Turkey’s elite universities went on trial Wednesday on terrorism charges. The case has become a focal point in growing criticism of an ongoing legal crackdown under emergency rule.

“As the families of these Bogazici [Bosphorus] students, we now know very well that they are no longer our children only, but the children of those who want peace and democracy in Turkey, who want freedom and autonomy in universities,” Bulent Yilmaz, the father of one jailed student, said while addressing supporters and family members gathered ahead of the hearing.

The Bosphorus University students were arrested for organizing a counterprotest aimed at supporters of a Turkish military operation in Syria against the YPG Syrian Kurdish militia. Fourteen of those arrested have been jailed for nearly 70 days. According to the students’ lawyers, some were subject to police beatings and abuse.


“This is shameful that we are going through this experience,” said professor Can Candan of Istanbul’s Bosphorus University, speaking outside the court. “These students that have peacefully protestedhave been declared terrorists without trial, unjustly. They just expressed their opinions, and they are free to do that under our own constitution.”

With prosecutors demanding up to seven years in jail for supporting a terrorist organization, many of the students in court looked shaken by events.

One student, appearing to be holdingback tears, pleaded with the judge to be freed in order to graduate. All the detained students were released by the court under judicial control, with the case adjourned until October 3.

Critics say the case is politically motivated. The arrests followed President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s speech labeling the students terrorists for protesting the military operation in Syria. The United States has backed the YPG in the fight against Islamic State. Ankara has linked the YPG to the outlawed PKK Kurdish rebel group,which has been waging an insurgency in southeastern Turkey.Turkey has labeled the PKK a terrorist organization.

The defendants say Bosphorus University is the president’s real target. “Erdogan is trying to impose his ideology on the youth. That is why they are targeting a liberal university,” said a student attending the court proceedings. “This university is a liberal-rooted university, and it was an American college before, so we had comparatively liberal politics.With the arrests of the students and even our academics [teachers] and the presence of the undercover police on campus, now everyone feels pressure and anxiety.”

Past immunity

Bosphorus is one of Turkey’s top colleges, and analysts say its status had given it some immunity to past legal crackdowns. During military rule in the 1980s, it remained a beacon of liberalism. In the 1990s, the university was one of the few institutions that did not enforce a religious headscarf ban on students.

Erdogan has recently repeatedly targeted the university as a center of subversion, fueling suspicions that politics lie behind the crackdown.

“Bosphorus is a symbol for progressive democratic values; it’s a university much more democratic and free than many other universities in Turkey. It’s not a coincidence that Bosphorus has been targeted,” Candan said. “The student arrests are not the only thing facing the university. We have the trials of academics of peace going on; we have close to 100 academics facing trial for signing a peace petition. We’ve been criminalized for calling for peace.”

Candan and nine colleagues are due in court Thursday for having signed a petition that calls for an end to the war against the PKK. Hundreds of other academics across the country are also on trial.

The Bosphorus University situation is part of thebroader legal crackdown implemented after a 2016 coup attempt. Under emergency rule introduced after the botched military takeover, nearly 100,000 people were detained, and many more were fired from their jobs, including a number of academics.

‘Hands off’ university

“This court case is actually a sign of how all the liberties are restricted,” undermining Turkey’s laws, said parliamentary deputy Binnaz Toprak of the main opposition party, the CHP.

“Take your hands off Bosphorus University; take your hands off our students,” added Toprak, who once taught at the school.

Abolishing emergency rule is a shared pledge of all the opposition parties and presidential challengers in the presidential and parliamentary elections set for June 24.

Emergency rule gives the president sweeping powers and suspends many legal rights.

“The polls do show the majority of Turks do want emergency rule lifted, around 65 percent,” said Sinan Ulgen, head of the Istanbul-based Edam research institution.”This is not the normal state of affairs as the name indicates; it is something extraordinary. People want to go back to normalcy. Fatigue may be a factor [for voters], but much more so is the economy.”

Erdogan continues to robustly defend the need for emergency rule, arguing conspirators behind the failed coup still threaten democracy and that the country is continuing to fight the Kurdish rebels.

Judges Take Over Iraqi Election Body After Fraud Allegations

Thu, 06/07/2018 - 16:27


Iraq’s top judicial authority on Thursday took over the Independent Elections Commission as stipulated by a law passed in response to complaints of widespread fraud in last month’s national elections, according to a statement.

On Wednesday, lawmakers approved amendments to the election law that include annulling results from balloting abroad and camps for displaced people in four Sunni-dominated provinces, and call for a manual recount of all ballots.

Supreme Judicial Council spokesman Abdul-Sattar Bayrkdar said the group of top jurists, who are appointed by parliament, will meet on Sunday to select judges who will run the commission and supervise the manual recount requested by the law. Bayrkdar said the council will act in a “fair and impartial way.”

Hours later, the elections commission in a statement defended its procedures as “professional and transparent” and expressed readiness to fully cooperate with judicial authorities. But commission said it will challenge the amendments in court, arguing they are unconstitutional and against the law.

Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, mainly Sunnis, were driven from their homes during the war against the Islamic State group, with many unable to return because their homes and neighborhoods were destroyed. It’s not known how many of them voted in the election, or what impact the cancellation of their ballots could have on the results.

The divide between the Sunnis and Iraq’s Shiite majority, which rose to power following the 2003 U.S.-led invasion, was a key factor behind the violence that followed the invasion and the eventual rise of the Islamic State group. But those tensions appear to have eased following the war with IS, and many Shiite politicians openly campaigned in Sunni areas.

Last month’s elections — the fourth held in the last 15 years — saw low turnout, reflecting widespread anger at the country’s dysfunctional political class.

Supporters of the populist Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, whose forces once battled U.S. troops, emerged with the most seats, followed by a coalition of mostly Shiite paramilitary forces and another led by Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi. The dispute over the election could prolong the process of forming a new government.

A government commission set up to investigate the election found “unprecedented” violations by the Independent Elections Committee, according to al-Abadi. The elections commission has not responded to the report, and officials could not be reached for comment on Thursday.

Burundi’s President Promises to Retire in 2020

Thu, 06/07/2018 - 16:16


Burundi’s president announced Thursday he will not run for another term, even as he put in place a new constitution that would allow him to stay in power until 2034.

Speaking in the Kirundi language, President Pierre Nkurunziza told supporters: “We assure Burundians and the international community. Our term will end in 2020. This constitution was not modified to favor President Nkurunziza, as the enemies of the country spread recently. I swear and am really ready, with all my heart, with all my mind and with all my strength, to support the new president we will elect in 2020.”

He added: “A man can change his position in the bed, but he cannot change his word.”

Deadly political violence and a failed coup attempt followed Nkurunziza’s decision in 2015 to pursue a third term, which critics called unconstitutional. More than 1,200 people were killed and hundreds of thousands fled the country, and last year International Criminal Court judges authorized an investigation into allegations of state-sponsored crimes.

More than 73 percent of Burundi’s 4.7 million voters in a referendum last month approved changes to the constitution, promoted by Nkurunziza, which extended the length of the president’s term from five years to seven. That could allow the 54-year-old Nkurunziza, in power since 2005, another 14 years when his current term expires in 2020.

Opposition activists called the referendum another effort by the president to cling to power, part of a trend by a number of African leaders changing laws to eliminate or loosen term or age limits.

The opposition also alleged intimidation and harassment of people who didn’t support the amendments ahead of the May 17 vote, including threats of drowning and castration. A presidential decree criminalized calls to abstain from voting, with a penalty of up to three years in jail.

Key opposition figures in the East African country could not immediately be reached for comment Thursday.

The government rejects allegations of abuses, calling them propaganda by exiles.

Zimbabwe Risks Another Sham Poll Without Electoral Reform

Thu, 06/07/2018 - 16:09


Human Rights Watch (HRW) says the Zimbabwe government’s failure to carry out legal and electoral reforms threatens the credibility of the country’s general election next month.

Without electoral reform before the July 30 general election, Zimbabwe risks having another sham election, said HRW’s Southern Africa Director Dewa Mavhinga.

“There is lack of reforms that risks credible elections,” he said. “We call on President Mnangagwa to act on his pledge for free and fair elections. We ask President Mnangagwa go beyond mere rhetoric and genuine steps to level the playing field for candidates and their parties.

Speaking Thursday in Harare, Mavhinga called for institutional bias to be eliminated.

“A key step would be whether state [owned or controlled] media gives equal coverage to all political parties without bias or favor,” he said. “Zimbabwe’s military and other state security forces have for many years interfered with nation’s political and electoral affairs adversely affecting the right of Zimbabweans to vote for candidates of their choice.”

Elections and the military

Human Rights Watch says its research in May found security forces involved in the electoral process, abusive laws that remain in effect, and violence and intimidation by the ruling party all contribute to an environment that is not conducive to free and fair elections.

HRW said it discovered at least 15 percent of the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission’s leadership is serving or former military officials.

Mnangagwa faces Nelson Chamisa of the country’s main opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change, among several other opponents.

The July 30 election will be the first in Zimbabwe’s 38 years of independence without Robert Mugabe, who resigned last November after giving in to military led pressure. Mnangagwa has lifted a ban on Western election observers, but the opposition says that is not good enough.

This week, opposition parties protested the Electoral Commission’s refusal to release the voter roll and said Mnangagwa must have the roll audited if Zimbabwe is to have a credible election.

A Complete Report on the Vulnerable State of American Voting Laws

Tue, 06/05/2018 - 22:37

From the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law, a “nonpartisan law and policy institute that works to reform, revitalize – and when necessary, defend – our country’s systems of democracy and justice”:

In the first federal election since the presidency turned on a razor-thin margin, voters in at least eight states will face more stringent voting laws than they did in the last federal election cycle, and voters in 23 states will face tougher rules on voting than they did in the 2010 wave election. In The State of Voting 2018, the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU Law details threats to the ballot this fall. This wide-ranging analysis includes not just the laws but the political forces like gerrymandering and foreign interference that may impact Americans’ right to vote this November.

“This fall voters will continue to face new obstacles to voting, after a decade of laws restricting voting access and manipulating electoral maps,” said Wendy Weiser, director of the Brennan Center’s democracy program and co-author of the report. “This will be the first time most voters head to the polls since a foreign government attempted to hack our election systems in 2016. Voters’ voices across the country will be muted because of extreme gerrymandering. And despite a wave of enthusiasm during this contentious election year, harsh voter ID laws and cutbacks to registration and early voting may depress voting among traditionally marginalized groups.”

The State of Voting 2018 presents new and updated data on the voting laws and court cases that could shape the midterm elections on November 6. The report finds that the decade-long battle over voting restrictions continues, while more than a dozen lawsuits challenging these restrictions are ongoing, and this year, state legislatures have introduced more bills to expand the vote than restrict it. Still, the report predicts the legal fights will likely remain at an impasse – with states implementing restrictions and courts blocking some of them in whole or in part – until there is a dramatic change of circumstances, like a Supreme Court decision or voter backlash.

The report elevates the Brennan Center’s research on vulnerabilities to the machines and computers that manage our country’s elections. Forty-three states will use voting machines that are no longer manufactured – and that officials in 33 states must replace their machines by 2020 and are unlikely to have the funds to do so. The analysis also provides a snapshot of the national fight over gerrymandering and previews how the Supreme Court’s upcoming decision in a major partisan gerrymandering case could change the landscape for how legislative districts are drawn.

“In 2016, the direction of our country hinged on some 80,000 voters in three states. Every vote counts, which is why we want to identify the threats but also outline the ways we can fight back and protect the vote this fall,” said the Brennan Center’s Max Feldman, co-author of the report. “This isn’t about raising fears; it’s about giving Americans the facts about the ways their rights are under attack, and about what we can all do to defend them.”

Jennifer Lawrence Joins Maine’s Ranked Choice Voting Push

Tue, 06/05/2018 - 22:23

More from Represent.Us:

Last week, Maine’s Ranked Choice Voting campaign found an unlikely ally: Katniss Everdeen. But if you’ve been following this issue closely, it makes sense that she volunteers herself as tribute. In the Hunger Games of modern politics, this campaign is building lasting coalitions across party lines to reform our voting process.

Jennifer Lawrence is a Represent.Us Board Member – and like the rest of us, she’s tired of establishment politicians trying to take power from voters. That’s why she’s joining the chorus of support for Mainers to vote Yes on 1 on June 12.

This vote is historic, and the rest of the country is looking to Maine to see how the process works. It will send a powerful message to the rest of the country: In America we don’t let politicians walk all over us.

It is an opportunity to draw a line in the sand with legislators who are ignoring the will of the people.

It’s down to the wire and every bit counts – support Mainers by donating to RCV Maine!

See more at Represent.Us

Jennifer Lawrence | by Gage Skidmore – link