Moldova ramps up EU membership push amid fears of Russia-backed coup

CHIȘINĂU, Moldova — Tens of thousands of Moldovans descended on the central square of the capital on Sunday, waving flags and homemade placards in support of the country’s push to join the EU and make a historic break with Moscow.

With Russia’s war raging just across the border in Ukraine, the government of this tiny Eastern European nation called the rally in an effort to overcome internal divisions and put pressure on Brussels to begin accession talks, almost a year after Moldova was granted EU candidate status.

“Joining the EU is the best way to protect our democracy and our institutions,” Moldova’s President Maia Sandu told POLITICO at Chișinău’s presidential palace, as a column of her supporters marched past outside. “I call on the EU to take a decision on beginning accession negotiations by the end of the year. We think we have enough support to move forward.”

Speaking alongside Sandu at what was billed as a “national assembly,” European Parliament President Roberta Metsola declared that “Europe is Moldova. Moldova is Europe!” The crowd, many holding Ukrainian flags and the gold-and-blue starred banner of the EU, let out a cheer. An orchestra on stage played the bloc’s anthem, Ode to Joy.

“In recent years, you have taken decisive steps and now you have the responsibility to see it through, even with this war on your border,” Metsola said. “The Republic of Moldova is ready for integration into the single European market.”

However, the jubilant rally comes amid warnings that Moscow is doing everything it can to keep the former Soviet republic within its self-declared sphere of influence.

In February, the president of neighboring Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, warned that his country’s security forces had disrupted a plot to overthrow Moldova’s pro-Western government. Officials in Chișinău later said the Russian-backed effort could have involved sabotage, attacks on government buildings and hostage-taking. Moscow officially denies the claims.

“Despite previous efforts to stay neutral, Moldova is finding itself in the Kremlin’s crosshairs — whether they want to be or not, they’re party of this broader conflict in Ukraine,” said Arnold Dupuy, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council think tank in Washington.

“There’s an effort by the Kremlin to turn the country into a ‘southern Kaliningrad,’ putting in place a friendly regime that allows them to attack the Ukrainians’ flanks,” Dupuy said. “But this hasn’t been as effective as the Kremlin hoped and they’ve actually strengthened the government’s hand to look to the EU and NATO for protection.”

Responding to the alleged coup attempt, Brussels last month announced it would deploy a civilian mission to Moldova to combat growing threats from Russia. According to Josep Borrell, the EU’s top diplomat, the deployment under the terms of the Common Security and Defense Policy, will provide “support to Moldova [to] protect its security, territorial integrity and sovereignty.”

Bumps on the road to Brussels

Last week, Sandu again called on Brussels to begin accession talks “as soon as possible” in order to protect Moldova from what she said were growing threats from Russia. “Nothing compares to what is happening in Ukraine, but we see the risks and we do believe that we can save our democracy only as part of the EU,” she said. A group of influential MEPs from across all of the main parties in the European Parliament have tabled a motion calling for the European Commission to start the negotiations by the end of the year.

But, after decades as one of Russia’s closest allies, Moldova knows its path to EU membership isn’t without obstacles.

“The challenge is huge,” said Tom de Waal, a senior fellow at Carnegie Europe. “They will need to overcome this oligarchic culture that has operated for 30 years where everything is informal, institutions are very weak and large parts of the bureaucracy are made viable by vested interests.”

At the same time, a frozen conflict over the breakaway region of Transnistria, in the east of Moldova, could complicate matters still further. The stretch of land along the border with Ukraine, home to almost half a million people, has been governed since the fall of the Soviet Union by pro-Moscow separatists, and around 1,500 Russian troops are stationed there despite Chișinău demanding they leave. It’s also home to one of the Continent’s largest weapons stockpiles, with a reported 20,000 tons of Soviet-era ammunition.

“Moldova cannot become a member of the EU with Russian troops on its territory against the will of the Republic of Moldova itself, so we will need to solve this before membership,” Romanian MEP Siegfried Mureșan, chair of the European Parliament’s delegation to the country, told POLITICO.

“We do not know now what a solution could look like, but the fact that we do not have an answer to this very specific element should not prevent us from advancing Moldova’s European integration in all other areas where we can,” Mureșan said.

While she denied that Brussels had sent any official signals that Moldova’s accession would depend on Russian troops leaving the country, Sandu said that “we do believe that in the next months and years there may be a geopolitical opportunity to resolve this conflict.”

Ties that bind

Even outside of Transnistria, Moscow maintains significant influence in Moldova. While Romanian is the country’s official language, Russian is widely used in daily life while the Kremlin’s state media helps shape public opinion — and in recent months has turned up the dial on its attacks on Sandu’s government.

A study by Chișinău-based pollster CBS Research in February found that while almost 54 percent of Moldovans say they would vote in favor of EU membership, close to a quarter say they would prefer closer alignment with Russia. Meanwhile, citizens were split on who to blame for the war in Ukraine, with 25 percent naming Russian President Vladimir Putin and 18 percent saying the U.S.

“Putin is not a fool,” said one elderly man who declined to give his name, shouting at passersby on the streets of the capital. “I hate Ukrainians.”

Outside of the capital, the pro-Russian ȘOR Party has held counter-protests in several regional cities.

Almost entirely dependent on Moscow for its energy needs, Moldova has seen Russia send the cost of gas skyrocketing in what many see as an attempt at blackmail. Along with an influx of Ukrainian refugees, the World Bank reported that Moldova’s GDP “contracted by 5.9 percent and inflation reached an average of 28.7 percent in 2022.”

“We will buy energy sources from democratic countries, and we will not support Russian aggression in exchange for cheap gas,” Sandu told POLITICO.

The Moldovan president, a former World Bank economist who was elected in 2020 on a wave of anti-corruption sentiment, faces a potentially contentious election battle next year. With the process of EU membership set to take years, or even decades, it remains to be seen whether the country will stay the course in the face of pressure from the Kremlin.

For Aurelia, a 40-year-old Moldovan who tied blue and yellow ribbons into her hair for Sunday’s rally, the choice is obvious. “We’ve been a part of the Russian world my whole life. Now we want to live well, and we want to live free.”

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Turkish century: History looms large on election day

ISTANBUL — From the Aegean coast to the mountainous frontier with Iran, millions of Turks are voting at the country’s 191,884 ballot boxes on Sunday — with both President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his main rival Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu warning the country is at a historical turning point.

In the last sprints of the nail-bitingly close election race, the dueling candidates have both placed heavy emphasis on the historical resonance of the vote falling exactly 100 years after the foundation of the secular Turkish republic by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk in 1923.

In the Istanbul district of Ümraniye on the final day of campaigning, Erdoğan told voters the country was on “the threshold of a Turkish century” that will be the “century of our children, our youth, our women.”

Erdoğan’s talk of a Turkish century is partly a pledge to make the country stronger and more technologically independent, particularly in the defense sector. Over the past months, the president has been quick to associate himself with the domestically-manufactured Togg electric car, the “Kaan” fighter jet and Anadolu, the country’s first aircraft carrier.

But Erdoğan’s Turkish century is about more than home-grown planes and ships. Few people doubt the president sees 2023 as a key threshold to accelerate his push away from Atatürk’s secular legacy and toward a more religiously conservative nation. Indeed, his campaign has been characterized by a heavy emphasis on family values and bitter rhetoric against the LGBTQ+ community. Unsurprisingly, he wrapped up his campaign on Saturday night in Hagia Sophia — once Constantinople’s greatest church — which he contentiously reconverted from a museum back into a mosque, as it had been in Ottoman times.

The state that Atatürk forged from the ashes of the Ottoman empire in 1923 was secular and modernizing, often along Western models, with the introduction of Latin letters and even the banning of the fez in favor of Western-style hats. In this regard, the Islamist populist Erdoğan is a world away from the ballroom-dancing, rakı-quaffing field marshal Atatürk.

The 2023 election is widely being cast as a decisive referendum on which vision for Turkey will win through, and Erdoğan has been keen to portray the opposition as sell-outs to the West and global financial institutions such as the International Monetary Fund. “Are you ready to bury at the ballot box those who promised to give over the country’s values ​​to foreigners and loan sharks?” he called out to the crowd in Ümraniye.

This is not a man who is casting himself as the West’s ally. Resisting pressure that Ankara should not cozy up so much to the Kremlin, Erdoğan snapped on Friday that he would “not accept” the opposition’s attacks on Russian President Vladimir Putin — after Kılıçdaroğlu complained of Russian meddling in the election.

All about Atatürk

By contrast, Erdogan’s main rival Kılıçdaroğlu is trying to assume the full mantle of Atatürk, and is stressing the need to put the country back on the path toward European democratic norms after Erdoğan’s lurch toward authoritarianism. While Erdoğan ended his campaign in the great mosque of Hagia Sophia, Kılıçdaroğlu did so by laying flowers at Atatürk’s mausoleum.

Speaking from a rain-swept stage in Ankara on Friday night, the 74-year-old bureaucrat declared: “We will make all of Turkey Mustafa Kemal’s [Atatürk’s] Turkey!”

In his speech, he slammed Erdoğan for giving Turkey over to drug runners and crony networks of oligarch construction bosses, saying the country had no place for “robbers.” Symbolically, he chided the president for ruling from his 1,150-room presidential complex — dubbed the Saray or palace — and said that he would rule from the more modest Çankaya mansion that Atatürk used for his presidency.

Warming to his theme of Turkey’s “second century,” Kılıçdaroğlu posted a video in the early hours of Saturday morning, urging young people to fully embrace the founding father’s vision. After all, he hails from the CHP party that Atatürk founded.

“We are entering the second century, young ones. And now we have a new generation, we have you. We have to decide altogether: Will we be among those who only commemorate Atatürk — like in the first century — or those who understand him in this century? This generation will be of those who understand,” he said, speaking in his trademark grandfatherly tone from his book-lined study.

At least in the upscale neighborhood of Beşiktaş, on Saturday night, all the talk of Atatürk was no dry history lesson. Over their final beers — before an alcohol sale ban comes in force over election day — young Turks punched the air and chanted along with a stirring anthem: “Long Live Mustafa Kemal Pasha, long may he live.”

In diametric opposition to Erdoğan, who has detained opponents and exerts heavy influence over the judiciary and the media, Kılıçdaroğlu is insisting that he will push Turkey to adopt the kind of reforms needed to move toward EU membership.

When asked by POLITICO whether that could backfire because some hostile EU countries would always block Turkish membership, he said the reforms themselves were the most important element for Turkey’s future.

“It does not matter whether the EU takes us in or not. What matters is bringing all the democratic standards that the EU foresees to our country,” he said in an exclusive interview on the sidelines of a rally in the central city of Sivas. “We are part of Western civilization. So the EU may accept us or not, but we will bring those democratic standards. The EU needs Turkey.”

Off to the polls

Polling stations — which are set up in schools — open at 8 a.m. on election day and close at 5 p.m. At 9 p.m. media can start reporting, and unofficial results are expected to start trickling in around midnight.

The mood is cautious, with rumors swirling that internet use could be restricted or there could be trouble on the streets if there are disputes over the result.

The fears of some kind of trouble have only grown after reports of potential military or governmental involvement in the voting process.

Two days before the election, the CHP accused Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu of preparing election manipulation. The main opposition party said Soylu had called on governors to seek army support on election night. Soylu made no public response.

Turkey’s Supreme Election Council (YSK) has rejected the interior ministry’s request to collect and store election results on its own database. The YSK also banned the police and gendarmerie from collecting election results.

Erdoğan himself sought to downplay any fears of a stolen election. In front of a studio audience of young people on Friday, he dismissed as “ridiculous” the suggestion that he might not leave office if he lost. “We came to power in Turkey by democratic means and by the courtesy of people. If they make a different decision whatever the democracy requires we will do it,” said the president, looking unusually gaunt, perhaps still knocked back by what his party said was a bout of gastroenteritis during the campaign.

The opposition is vowing to keep close tabs on all of the polling stations to try to prevent any fraud.

In Esenyurt Cumhuriyet Square, in the European part of Istanbul, a group of high-school students gathered on Saturday morning to greet Ekrem İmamoğlu, the popular mayor of Istanbul, who would be one of Kılıçdaroğlu’s vice presidents if he were to win.

Ilayda, 18, said she would vote for the opposition because of its position on democracy, justice and women’s rights.

When asked what would happen if Erdoğan won, she replied: “We plan to start a deep mourning. Our country as we know it will not be there anymore.”

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Iranian journalists remain imprisoned for reporting on Mahsa Amini’s death

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Iran is one of the most repressive countries in terms of press freedom, according to an annual report released Wednesday by Reporters Without Borders, which ranked it 177th of 180 nations. Since the September 2022 death of Mahsa Amini in police custody in Tehran, 72 journalists have been arrested and 25 remain imprisoned, most of them women. FRANCE 24 takes a look at the cases of two journalists who remain behind bars over their reporting on the young Kurdish woman’s death.

Two distraught parents embraced in the empty corridor of a hospital in Kasra, Tehran. They had just learned that their 22-year-old daughter Mahsa Amini had died, three days after being arrested by the morality police for “improperly” wearing her hijab.

Journalist Niloofar Hamedi has been held for more than seven months by the Iranian authorities for capturing this silent moment in a photograph and making it public. A correspondent for the reformist daily newspaper “Shargh”, Hamedi was the first to break the news of the young Kurdish woman’s death on September 16, 2022, by posting the photograph on Twitter.

The post provoked an unprecedented wave of unrest and several months of demonstrations against the Iranian authorities.

Arrested at her home by intelligence agents on September 20, the 31-year-old journalist was not given a trial before being put behind bars, according to Jonathan Dagher, head of the Middle East Office of Reporters Without Borders (Reporters Sans Frontières or RSF), which published its annual report on press freedom on Wednesday.

Journalist Elahe Mohammadi, 35, is also being held at Qarchak prison south of Tehran. A writer for the reformist daily newspaper “Hammihan”, she was arrested on September 29 for going to Amini’s home town of Saqez in Iranian Kurdistan to cover the young woman’s funeral, which gave rise to the first demonstrations following her death.

The Iranian judiciary confirmed in April that the two women were indicted on charges including collaborating with the United States, undermining national security and spreading anti-state propaganda. The two women were formally accused in October of being agents for the CIA.

Symbols of the ‘Women, Life, Freedom’ movement

Denouncing these “grotesque accusations”, RSF has demanded the release of the two journalists. In Iran, charges of espionage are punishable by death.

Hamedi and Mohammadi’s cases are of particular concern: “Both have become emblematic of the repression of press freedom in Iran, but also of the (Women, Life, Freedom) movement. They are journalists and women. So they are symbols on many levels. That’s why the Iranian government treats them much more severely,” says Dagher. “Iran tends to punish journalists who are the first to reveal information more severely, and make an example of them for other women and journalists,” adds Dagher.

Nine other female journalists are being held by the authorities, including eight arrested since the uprising that followed Amini’s death. “This is unprecedented in the country and one of the highest figures in the world,” says Dagher, noting that female journalists are being targeted “because they play an important role in covering this movement, especially in giving a voice to women who are at the forefront of the protest”.

RSF says a total of 72 Iranian journalists have been arrested since Amini’s death on September 16, with 25 still behind bars. The incarcerations earn Iran seventh place among the countries detaining the most journalists, with China in the top spot followed by Myanmar, Vietnam, Belarus, Turkey and Syria.

Released but under pressure

But even for released journalists, “deliverance can become a threat in itself, with sentences that act like swords of Damocles hanging over their heads”, says Dagher.

This is the case for Nazila Maroofian, another female journalist who investigated Amini’s death. She was sentenced without trial to a two-year suspended prison term for “spreading false news” and “anti-government propaganda” after spending 71 days in prison. Maroofian, who is from the same city as Amini, was targeted by the Iranian authorities for publishing an interview with her father on the news website “Mostaghel Online”.

Others were released in exchange for signed confessions – “statements of remorse”, or promises not to cover certain events or stories – reports RSF.

One of these journalists was Ali Pourtabatabaei, who worked for a local news website in Qom, located 140km south of Tehran, and was one of the first to reveal that young girls were being poisoned using an unidentified gas in schools across the city in November 2022.

Pourtabatabaei was arrested on March 5 amid controversy over the ongoing wave of poisonings. After several weeks in detention, “on the day of his release, the government asked journalists not to cover this story because it was upsetting the public, demanding that they rely only on official sources for all information”, says Dagher.

Under these conditions, many Iranian journalists have been forced to flee the country. To manage the influx and provide assistance, RSF set up a crisis unit. Several have since settled in France, others in Canada, the United States and Turkey. But even there they are not safe from intimidation.

“Their families continue to be pressured in Iran,” says Dagher, who has collected several personal accounts to this effect. Other journalists have been informed by foreign intelligence services that they are potential kidnapping targets and so have been strongly advised not to travel to countries bordering Iran, including Turkey.

This article has been translated from the original in French.

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African, international news outlets appeal for press freedom in Mali and Burkina Faso

FRANCE 24 and its sister radio RFI have joined a group of 30 African and international news organisations and monitors in an appeal for press freedom in Mali and Burkina Faso. The news outlets and rights groups call on the authorities of these two countries and the international community to put an end to the pressure and threats against national and foreign journalists. They urge the transitional governments in Mali and Burkina Faso to respect their countries’ international commitments to uphold freedom of expression, in particular the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights.

The open letter, whose signatories include Jeune Afrique, Mali’s Joliba TV News and Burkina Faso’s L’Observateur Paalga, coincides with World Press Freedom Day on May 3. It is addressed to the Malian and Burkinabe authorities, as well as the wider international community.

The signatories voice their concern about threats to freedom of expression and the press amid increasing pressure and death threats targeting national and foreign journalists in both countries. “Measures taken by the authorities in Burkina Faso, especially in recent months, are liable to undermine the public’s fundamental right to be informed,” they write in the collective text. “Freedom begins where ignorance ends,” they add, recalling the recent arrests and imprisonment of journalists and opinion leaders in Mali.

>> Read more: Armed groups, juntas create dangers for journalists in Sahel

“In both Burkina Faso and Mali, these attacks are increasingly amplified on social media by ‘influencers’ who support the military regimes in these two countries, who play the role of dispensers of justice and issue death threats against journalists and opinion leaders they regard as overly independent,” reads the letter, signed by several press freedom watchdogs – such as the International Francophone Press Union (UPF) and the Union of West African Journalists (UJAO) – and rights advocacy groups including Human Rights Watch.

The “establishment of a regime of terror”, to quote L’Observateur Paalga, “is accompanied by a wave of fake news flooding social media with falsehoods”, the signatories add, noting that “the victims of these ‘influencers’ are the people of Mali and Burkina Faso, who are deprived of a democratic debate.”

Acknowledging the “complexity of the political, geopolitical and military context” in both counties, as well as their “crucial duty to inform the public”, the 30 signatories add: “The fight against terrorism must not in any way serve as a pretext for imposing a new reporting standard and restricting the fundamental rights of the Malian and Burkinabe public to seek and access news and information through professional and independent media.”

The open letter was drafted under the coordination of the Sub-Saharan Africa bureau of Reporters Without Borders (RSF).

Open letter on protecting journalists and defending freedom of expression and press freedom in Mali and Burkina Faso

For the attention of:

● The President of the Assembly of Heads of State and Government of the African Union

● The President of the Authority of Heads of State and Government of ECOWAS

● The President of the Conference of Heads of State and Government of WAEMU

● The Chair of the African Union Commission

● The President of the ECOWAS Commission

● The President of the WAEMU Commission

● The President of the Pan-African Parliament

● The UN Secretary-General

● The President of the UN Human Rights Council

● The Director-General of UNESCO

● The Secretary-General of the OIF

● The heads of the media regulatory bodies of the 15 ECOWAS countries

● The President of the Francophone Network of Media Regulators

● The President of the Platform of Broadcasting Regulators of WAEMU member countries and Guinea

● The Ministers of Communication of the 15 ECOWAS member countries

● The Chair of the African Broadcasting Union

What with calls for journalists and opinion leaders to be murdered, threats and intimidation against the national press, grotesquely fabricated accusations against journalists, the suspension of local broadcasting by French international news outlets RFI and FRANCE 24, and the expulsion of reporters with the French newspapers Libération and Le Monde – the threats to freedom of expression and press freedom are very worrying in Burkina Faso. Measures taken by this country’s authorities, especially in recent months, are liable to undermine the public’s fundamental right to be informed. Freedom begins where ignorance ends.

Journalists and opinion leaders are increasingly subjected to harassment and intimidation in Mali as well. In November-December 2022, television network Joliba TV was suspended by the High Authority for Communication (HAC) after it broadcast an editorial deemed critical of the authorities. This year, the Maison de la Presse in Bamako was ransacked on February 20, while Mohamed Youssouf Bathily, a radio columnist better known by the pseudonym Ras Bath, was charged and imprisoned on March 13 for denouncing former Prime Minister Soumeylou Boubèye Maïga’s “assassination”. Rokia Doumbia, the influencer also known as “Rose vie chère”, was arrested on March 15 for referring to inflation and the transitional government’s “failure”. The journalist Aliou Touré was abducted by masked gunmen on April 6 and was not found until four days later.

Here too, the international press is far from being spared. In February 2022, a Jeune Afrique reporter was deported from Bamako. A month later, RFI and FRANCE 24 were silenced throughout Mali.

In both Burkina Faso and Mali, these attacks are increasingly amplified on social media by “influencers” who support the military regimes in these two countries, who play the role of dispensers of justice and issue death threats against journalists and opinion leaders they regard as overly independent. Lies are now being added to the violence. The “establishment of a regime of terror”, as Burkinabe daily L’Observateur Paalga wrote, is accompanied by a wave of fake news flooding social media with falsehoods. The victims of these “influencers” are the people of Mali and Burkina Faso, who are deprived of a democratic debate.

Amid what is a serious security crisis in both countries, journalists are all aware of their crucial duty to inform the public. They also understand the complexity of the political, geopolitical and military context. They also live and suffer the serious consequences of this security crisis. Like all citizens, they want a quick return to peace. However, the fight against terrorism must not in any way serve as a pretext for imposing a new reporting standard and restricting the fundamental rights of the Malian and Burkinabe public to seek and access news and information through professional and independent media.

In Burkina Faso, the situation of journalists has become so critical that even the entity in charge of regulation is alarmed. In a press release published on March 29, the Superior Council for Communication (CSC) said it “notes with regret the recurrence of threats against media outlets and media actors” and asked the authorities to “take appropriate measures to ensure the safety of the media and journalists in the course of their work.”

On April 6, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Türk said he was “deeply troubled” by the restrictions on the media in Burkina Faso. “In this period of transition, protection of independent voices is more necessary than ever,” he added.

On February 20, Alioune Tine, the UN independent expert on the situation of human rights in Mali, said he was “extremely concerned about the restriction of civic space and freedom of expression and association” in Mali.

In the light of all these facts, we, the signatories of this open letter,

● Urge the authorities of Mali and Burkina Faso to put an end to all measures that undermine press freedom.

● Note a lack of protection by the security forces and silence from the judiciary in response to the intimidation campaigns and death threats against journalists in these two countries. While respecting the independence of justice, we call on prosecutors and police officers to respond more to such acts, which are punishable under criminal law.

● Call on the authorities of these two countries to guarantee the protection and safety of all media professionals who are the victims of threats, intimidation, harassment and physical attacks.

● Call on the authorities to carry out impartial, effective and independent investigations to shed light on abuses committed against journalists, and to identify and prosecute those responsible.

● Call on both governments to respect the international obligations signed and ratified by their countries regarding freedom of expression and press freedom, in particular the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

● Call on the national authorities and pan-African and international bodies to whom this open letter is addressed to support this initiative at the highest level. Access to news and information is a fundamental right of peoples. On World Press Freedom Day, it is essential to defend and protect it.


1. AfrikaJom Center

2. Burkina Faso Journalists Association (AJB)

3. Association of Online Press Publishers and Professionals (APPEL Senegal)

4. Norbert Zongo Cell for Investigative Journalism (CENOZO)

5. Norbert Zongo National Press Centre (CNP-NZ Burkina Faso)

6. Courrier confidentiel (Burkina Faso)

7. Federation of African Journalists (FAJ)

8. International Federation of Journalists (IFJ)

9. International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH)

10. France 24 (France)

11. Media Foundation for West Africa (MFWA)

12. Human Rights Watch (HRW)

13. International Press Institute (IPI)

14. Jeune Afrique (France)

15. Joliba TV News (Mali)

16. Le Pays (Burkina Faso)

17. Le Monde (Burkina Faso)

18. (Burkina Faso)

19. Le Reporter (Burkina Faso)

20. L’Événement (Burkina Faso)

21. Libération (France)

22. L’Observateur Paalga (Burkina Faso)

23. Radio France Internationale (RFI)

24. Reporters Without Borders (RSF)

25. Burkina Faso Society of Privately-owned Press Publishers (SEP)

26. Omega Médias (Burkina Faso)

27. International Francophone Press Union (UPF)

28. Union of West African Journalists (UJAO)

29. (Burkina Faso)

30. Wakat Sera (Burkina Faso)

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Comcast beats estimates despite slowing broadband growth, higher Peacock losses

Comcast topped analyst expectations with its first-quarter earnings report Thursday, despite the cable and media giant’s residential broadband business’s slowing growth and mounting Peacock losses.

Shares of the company rose more than 7%.

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Here’s how Comcast performed, compared with estimates from analysts surveyed by Refinitiv:

  • Earnings per share: 92 cents adjusted vs. 82 cents expected
  • Revenue: $29.69 billion vs. $29.3 billion expected

For the quarter ended March 31, Comcast reported earnings of $3.83 billion, or 91 cents per share, compared with $3.55 billion, or 78 cents per share, a year earlier. Adjusting for one-time items, Comcast posted earnings per share of 92 cents for the most recent period.

Revenue dropped 4% to $29.69 billion from $31.01 billion in the prior-year period, with the company noting that last year it had broadcast both the Super Bowl and Beijing Olympics during the first quarter.

The Philadelphia company said its first-quarter adjusted earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization grew 3% to $9.42 billion during the first quarter.

Comcast said it returned $3.2 billion to shareholders in the quarter through a mix of $1.2 billion in dividend payments and $2 billion in share repurchases.

Comcast had 21,000 fewer residential broadband customers year-over-year at the end of the three-month period, adding just 3,000 during the quarter. It received a slight boost from its business customers. Company executives had warned earlier this year that Comcast was likely to lose broadband subscribers in the first quarter.

Still, it was a sign that Comcast, like its peers, continues to face slowing growth in the broadband business. Executives have said that, while the loss rate of customers is very low, growth has stagnated – especially since the early days of the Covid pandemic – as they face heightened competition from telecom and wireless providers.

Comcast executives said on Thursday’s earnings call that the company expects adding subscribers to likely be a challenge in the near term, but will focus on average revenue per user to grow revenue for the segment.

The Xfinity mobile business grew to nearly 5.67 million customers during the quarter, a sign that its wireless service – which is provided in conjunction with an agreement to use Verizon‘s network – remains a bright spot.

Cable TV customers continued their exodus from the traditional bundle, with Comcast losing 614,000 subscribers during the quarter.

Last month, Comcast announced it was changing how it reported its segments, now grouping its Xfinity-branded broadband, cable TV and wireless services with its U.K.-based Sky, which includes pay TV services and Sky-branded entertainment TV channels to form the “connectivity and platforms” segment. Total revenue for the segment was about $20.15 billion, a slight drop from the last quarter due to the impact of foreign currency.

The second segment, content and experiences, includes all of NBCUniversal’s TV and streaming business, the international networks and Sky Sports channels, as well as its film studios and theme parks units. Overall revenue for the segment was down nearly 10% to $10.26 billion in the quarter.

The media business’ revenue took a dip in the first quarter, with it dropping about 20% to $6.15 billion, due to its comparison last year, when NBC aired the Super Bowl and had the rights to the Beijing Olympics for its TV networks and Peacock. Still, Comcast said excluding the $1.5 billion incremental revenue from these two major sporting events, media revenue was still down about 2%.

The tightening ad market showed on Comcast’s balance sheet this quarter, as it has for peers like Paramount Global and Warner Bros. Discovery. Excluding the Olympics and Super Bowl – two events that generate a lot of ad revenue – domestic advertising during the quarter was down about 6% driven by lower TV network revenue and a TV ratings decline.

Domestic TV distribution revenue was up, excluding the Olympics, which Comcast noted was primarily due to higher revenue at Peacock, which had more paid subscribers.

Comcast said Peacock subscribers grew more than 60% year over year to 22 million, and revenue was up 45% to $685 million. Peacock had $704 million in losses, compared with losses of $456 million in the same period last year.

Last quarter, the company noted Peacock losses would amount to about $3 billion this year. The streaming service’s costs continued to weigh on the media segment’s earnings. Executives said Thursday they were “encouraged” by Peacock’s results, and following the expected peak losses this year will see a steady improvement. Comcast President Mike Cavanagh said the company had the confidence Peacock would “break even and grow from there.”

NBCUniversal’s film segment got a boost from the animated “Shrek” spinoff “Puss in Boots: The Last Wish” and horror flick “M3GAN,” during the quarter, with revenue up nearly 2% to $2.96 billion.

Both Comcast CEO Brian Roberts and Cavanagh touted NBCUniversal’s animation film business on Thursday’s call, with the success of “The Super Mario Bros. Movie,” which was released earlier this month. This week it surpassed $900 million at the global box office, including $444 million domestically.

“We’ve had tremendous success creating franchises,” Roberts said on Thursday’s call, noting the “Despicable Me” and “Shrek” franchises. “These are the results of the strategic decisions we made years ago to become a leader in animation and the conviction to invest in the business in the pandemic.”

Cavanagh noted that NBCUniversal’s “Jurassic Park,” “Minions” and “Halloween” installments last year helped boost its box office.

“We’re really proud of our animation business,” Cavanagh said Thursday.

NBCUniversal’s upcoming film slate includes next month’s “Fast X,” the next installment in the popular “Fast and Furious” franchise, as well as Christopher Nolan’s next epic, “Oppenheimer,” about the scientist who led the development of the atomic bomb during World War II. It will be released in July.

The company’s theme park segment kept on rolling higher, especially since the shutdowns of parks during the height of the pandemic, with revenue up 25% to $1.95 billion. Revenue was boosted by international parks, which were still weighed down by pandemic restrictions last year. The opening of Super Nintendo World helped boost revenue, too.

Earlier this week, NBCUniversal faced a shake-up with the ouster of CEO Jeff Shell due to a sexual harassment and discrimination complaint filed by an employee. Roberts addressed the matter at the start of Thursday’s call, saying it was “obviously a tough moment” for the company but noting his confidence in NBCUniversal’s leadership team, which will now report to Cavanagh.

“Think of me as being here for awhile,” Cavanagh said regarding his future as overseeing the NBCUniversal team. He noted during the call he’s been close to the business since joining Comcast nearly eight years ago and has been “deeply involved for a long time.”

Investors also shouldn’t expect to see NBCUniversal “revisiting strategy” as a result of Shell’s departure alone, and instead would react “as the environment changes.”

Disclosure: Comcast owns NBCUniversal, the parent company of CNBC.

Correction: Comcast’s total media revenue was down more than 20%. An earlier version misstated that figure.

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BuzzFeed will lay off 15% of staff, shutter its news unit

BuzzFeed will lay off 15% of staff and shut down its news unit, BuzzFeed CEO Jonah Peretti wrote in an email to staff Thursday.

The layoffs will affect BuzzFeed’s business, content, administration and tech teams. The layoffs amount to about 180 people. The company’s staff totaled about 1,200 people as of its most recent securities filing.

BuzzFeed News, part of the digital media company’s content division, had about 100 employees and lost about $10 million a year, two people familiar with the matter told CNBC last year. It stood apart from the main, viral-content-generating BuzzFeed brand with straight news and investigative reporting. BuzzFeed News won a Pulitzer Prize in 2021 for its reporting on China’s mass detention of Muslims. Several large shareholders had urged Peretti to shut down its news operations.

Shares of the company have fallen about 90% since its IPO in late 2021. The stock fell nearly 20% Thursday, closing at 75 cents.

The news comes during a tough period for digital media companies as publishers are cutting staff as advertisers reduce spending. These cuts have impacted companies like Wall Street Journal publisher Dow Jones and Vox Media. In January, Vice Media restarted its sale process at a lower valuation, CNBC previously reported. The company, which was valued at $5.7 billion in 2017, was poised to fetch a price of below $1 billion.

“There’s no free lunch anymore in the [digital media] space in the sense that the advertising market this year is not particularly strong, and everything has to be earned,” said Jonathan Miller, the CEO of Integrated Media, which specializes in digital media investments.

Miller added that going public is probably not the best strategy for digital media companies like Buzzfeed. “There’s not that many public companies in digital media. And I think investment dollars in general will be tough to come by unless you can show a real differentiated plan.”

BuzzFeed wasn’t the only digital media company to announce layoffs Thursday. Insider, which is owned by German conglomerate Axel Springer, told staff Thursday morning it was reducing its total headcount by 10%, including union and non-union staffers, according to an internal memo viewed by CNBC. Affected employees will receive a minimum of 13 weeks of base pay and medical benefits will be covered through August, the memo says.

Insider executives said layoffs have stemmed from a significant recession in advertising spending in technology and finance, as well as disruptions to distribution and revenue share.

“As you know your industry has been under significant pressure for more than a year. The economic headwinds that have hurt many of our clients and partners are also affecting us,” Insider President Barbara Peng wrote in the memo. “Unfortunately, to keep our company healthy and competitive, we need to reduce the size of our team. We have tried hard to avoid taking this step, and we are sorry about the impact it will have on many of you.”

Peretti said HuffPost and BuzzFeed’s flagship site will open a number of roles for BuzzFeed News editors and reporters. The company will also reduce budgets, open roles and most other discretionary expenditures.

“We’ve faced more challenges than I can count in the past few years: a pandemic, a fading SPAC market that yielded less capital, a tech recession, a tough economy, a declining stock market, a decelerating digital advertising market and ongoing audience and platform shifts,” Peretti wrote.

Peretti admitted fault for not managing these changes better and being “slow to accept that the big platforms wouldn’t provide the distribution or financial support required to support premium, free journalism purpose-built for social media.”

Peretti also wrote that revenue chief Edgar Hernandez and operating chief Christian Baesler decided to exit the company.

BuzzFeed cut nearly 12% of its workforce, or around 180 staffers, back in December 2022. The company said the layoffs came in response to challenging economic conditions and its acquisition of Complex Networks. BuzzFeed reduced its footprint in New York last year and will reduce its real estate in Los Angeles from four buildings down to one.

The digital media company scaled back its news operation in an attempt to make BuzzFeed News profitable, resulting in the departure of several editors. The company went public via a special purpose acquisition vehicle last year, which sent shares down nearly 40% in its first week of trading.

One shareholder told CNBC last year that shutting down the newsroom could amount to $300 million of market capitalization to the stock.

Peretti also wrote that the company is proposing headcount reductions in some international markets.

–CNBC’s Lillian Rizzo contributed to this article.

Read the full note from Jonah Peretti below:

Hi all,

I am writing to announce some difficult news. We are reducing our workforce by approximately 15% today across our Business, Content, Tech and Admin teams, and beginning the process of closing BuzzFeed News. Additionally, we are proposing headcount reductions in some international markets.

Impacted employees (other than those in BuzzFeed News) will receive an email from HR shortly. If you are receiving this note from me, you are not impacted by today’s changes. For BuzzFeed News, we have begun discussions with the News Guild about these actions.

As part of today’s changes, both our CRO Edgar Hernandez and COO Christian Baesler have made the decision to exit the company. I’m grateful to both of them for their passion and dedication to Complex and to BuzzFeed, Inc. Christian will be with us through the end of April, and Edgar through the end of May to help with the transition.

Marcela Martin, our President, will take on responsibility for all revenue functions effective immediately. In the US, Andrew Guendjoian is our new Head of Sales, and Ken Blom will continue in his role as Head of Revenue Operations. Globally, International Sales will move under Rich Reid, Head of International and Head of Studio, also reporting to Marcela.

I have great confidence in this revenue leadership team, and the early plans I’ve seen from them to accelerate performance from our Business Org. We will share more on their plans in the Business All Hands next week (and we are extending an invite company-wide).

The changes the Business Organization is making today are focused on reducing layers in their organization, increasing speed and effectiveness of pitches, streamlining our product mix, doubling down on creators, and beginning to bring AI enhancements to every aspect of our sales process.

While layoffs are occurring across nearly every division, we’ve determined that the company can no longer continue to fund BuzzFeed News as a standalone organization. As a result, we will engage with the News Guild about our cost reduction plans and what this will mean for the affected union members.

HuffPost and BuzzFeed Dot Com have signaled that they will open a number of select roles for members of BuzzFeed News. These roles will be aligned with those divisions’ business goals and match the skills and strengths of many of BuzzFeed News’s editors and reporters. We raised this idea with the News Guild this morning and look forward to discussing it further. Moving forward, we will have a single news brand in HuffPost, which is profitable, with a loyal direct front page audience.

I want to explain a little more about why we’ve come to these deeply painful decisions. We’ve faced more challenges than I can count in the past few years: a pandemic, a fading SPAC market that yielded less capital, a tech recession, a tough economy, a declining stock market, a decelerating digital advertising market and ongoing audience and platform shifts. Dealing with all of these obstacles at once is part of why we’ve needed to make the difficult decisions to eliminate more jobs and reduce spending.

But I also want to be clear: I could have managed these changes better as the CEO of this company and our leadership team could have performed better despite these circumstances. Our job is to adapt, change, improve, and perform despite the challenges in the world. We can and will do better.

In particular, the integration process of BuzzFeed and Complex, and the unification of our two business organizations, should have been executed faster and better. The macro environment is tough, but we had the potential to generate much more revenue than we delivered over the past 12 months.

Additionally, I made the decision to overinvest in BuzzFeed News because I love their work and mission so much. This made me slow to accept that the big platforms wouldn’t provide the distribution or financial support required to support premium, free journalism purpose-built for social media.

More broadly, I regret that I didn’t hold the company to higher standards for profitability, to give us the buffer needed to manage through economic and industry downturns and avoid painful days like today. Our mission, our impact on culture, and our audience is what matters most, but we need a stronger business to protect and sustain this important work.

Please know that we exhausted many other cost saving measures to preserve as many jobs as possible. We are reducing budgets, open roles, travel and entertainment, and most other discretionary, non-revenue generating expenditures. Just as we reduced our footprint in NYC last year, we will be reducing our real estate in Los Angeles — from four buildings down to one, which saves millions in costs as well as mirrors our current hybrid state of work.

I’ve learned from these mistakes, and the team moving forward has learned from them as well. We know that the changes and improvements we are making today are necessary steps to building a better future.

Over the next couple of months, we will work together to run a more agile and focused business organization with the capacity to bring in more revenue. We will concentrate our news efforts in HuffPost, a brand that is profitable with a highly engaged, loyal audience that is less dependent on social platforms. We will empower our editorial teams at all of our brands to do the very best creative work and build an interface where that work can be packaged and brought to advertisers more effectively. And we will bring more innovation to clients in the form of creators, AI, and cultural moments that can only happen across BuzzFeed, Complex, HuffPost, Tasty and First We Feast.

It might not feel this way today, but I am confident the future of digital media is ours for the taking. Our industry is hurting and ready to be reborn. We are taking great pains today, and will begin to fight our way to a bright future.

On Monday we’ll begin to have conversations with each division about the way forward. And in the meantime, I hope you can take time for yourselves this weekend.

Thank you for supporting one another on a difficult day.


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Big bank earnings in spotlight following historic failures: ‘Every income statement line item is in flux’.

JPMorgan Chase & Co.
Citigroup Inc.

and Wells Fargo & Co.

— along with PNC Financial Services Group Inc.

and BlackRock Inc.

— report earnings Friday as Wall Street’s fixation on a recession continues to run deep. And following the implosion of Silicon Valley Bank
Signature Bank

and Silvergate Bank
along with efforts to seal up cracks in First Republic Bank

and Credit Suisse Group AG
Wall Street is likely to review quarterly numbers from the industry with a magnifying glass.

“Every income statement line item is in flux and the degree of confidence in our forecast is lower as the probability of a sharper slowdown increases,” Morgan Stanley analyst Betsy Graseck said in a note on Wednesday.

For more: Banks on the line for deposit flows and margin pressure as they reel from banking crisis

She said that the collapse of Silicon Valley Bank and Signature Bank last month would trigger an “accelerated bid” for customers’ money, potentially weighing on net interest margins, a profitability gauge measuring what banks make on interest from loans and what they pay out to depositors. Tighter lending standards, she said, would drive up net charge-offs — a measure of debt unlikely to be repaid — as borrowers run into more trouble obtaining or refinancing loans.

Phil Orlando, chief investment strategist at Federated Hermes, said in an interview that tighter lending standards could constrain lending volume. He also said that banks were likely to set aside more money to cover loans that go bad, as managers grow more conservative and try to gauge what exposure they have to different types of borrowers.

“To a significant degree, they have to say, what percentage of our companies are tech companies? What percentage are financial companies? Do we think that this starts to dribble into the auto industry?” he said. “Every bank is going to be different in terms of what their portfolio of business looks like.”

He also said that last month’s bank failures could spur more customers to open up multiple accounts at different banks, following bigger concerns about what would happen to the money in a bank account that exceeded the $250,000 limit covered by the FDIC. But as the recent banking disturbances trigger Lehman flashbacks, he said that the recent banking failures were the result of poor management and insufficient risk controls specific to those financial firms.

“COVID was something that affected everyone, universally, not just the banking companies but the entire economy, the entire stock market,” he said. “You go back to the global financial crisis in the ’07-’09 period, that’s something that really affected all of the financial service companies. I don’t think that’s what we’re dealing with here.”

Also read: Banking sector’s growing political might could blunt reform in wake of SVB failure, experts warn


Chief Executive Jamie Dimon has said that Trump-era banking deregulation didn’t cause those bank failures. But in his annual letter to shareholders last week, he also said that the current turmoil in the bank system is not over. However, he also said that the collapse or near-collapse of Silicon Valley Bank and its peers “are nothing like what occurred during the 2008 global financial crisis.”

“Regarding the current disruption in the U.S. banking system, most of the risks were hiding in plain sight,” Dimon said. “Interest rate exposure, the fair value of held-to-maturity (HTM) portfolios and the amount of SVB’s uninsured deposits were always known — both to regulators and the marketplace.”

“The unknown risk was that SVB’s over 35,000 corporate clients – and activity within them – were controlled by a small number of venture capital companies and moved their deposits in lockstep,” Dimon continued. “It is unlikely that any recent change in regulatory requirements would have made a difference in what followed.”

The Federal Reserve’s decision to raise interest rates, along with a broader pullback in digital demand following the first two years of the pandemic, stanched the flow of tech-industry funding into Silicon Valley bank and caused the value of its bond investments to fall.

Don’t miss: An earnings recession seems inevitable, but it might not last long

But the impact of those higher interest rates — an effort to slow the economy and, by extension, bring inflation down — will be felt elsewhere. First-quarter earnings are expected to decline 6.8% for S&P 500 index components overall, according to FactSet. That would be the first decline since the second quarter of 2020, when the pandemic had just begun to send the economy into a tailspin.

“In a word, earnings for the first quarter are going to be poor,” Orlando said.

This week in earnings

For the week ahead, 11 S&P 500

components, and two from the Dow Jones Industrial Average
will report first-quarter results. Outside of the banks, health-insurance giant UnitedHealth Group

reports during the week. Online fashion marketplace Rent the Runway Inc.

will also report.

The call to put on your calendar

Delta Air Lines Inc.: Delta

reports first-quarter results on Thursday, amid bigger questions about when, if ever, higher prices — including for airfares — might turn off travelers. The carrier last month stuck with its outlook for big first-quarter sales gains when compared with prepandemic levels. “If anyone’s looking for weakness, don’t look at Delta”, Chief Executive Ed Bastian said at a conference last month.

But rival United Airlines Holdings Inc.

has told investors to prepare for a surprise loss, even though it also reported a 15% jump in international bookings in March. And after Southwest Airlines Co.’s

flight-cancellation mayhem last year brought more attention to technology issues and airline understaffing, concerns have grown over whether the industry has enough air-traffic controllers, prompting a reduction in some flights.

For more: Air-traffic controller shortages could result in fewer flights this summer

But limitations within those airlines’ flight networks to handle consumer demand can push fares higher. And Morgan Stanley said that strong balance sheets, passengers’ willingness to still pay up — albeit in a concentrated industry with a handful of options — and “muscle memory” from being gutted by the pandemic, could make airlines “defensive safe-havens,” to some degree, for investors.

“It is hard to argue against the airlines soaring above the macro storm underneath them (at least in the short term),” the analysts wrote in a research note last week.

The numbers to watch

Grocery-store margins: Albertsons Cos.
— the grocery chain whose merger deal with Kroger Inc.

has raised concerns about food prices and accessibility — reports results on Tuesday. Higher food prices have helped fatten grocery stores’ profits, even as consumers struggle to keep up. But Costco Wholesale Corp.
in reporting March same-store sales results, noted that “year-over-year inflation for food and sundries and fresh foods were both down from February.” The results from Albertsons could offer clues on whether shoppers might be getting a break from steep price increases.

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Want to watch MLB games? Making sense of the confusing TV and streaming landscape

Seattle Mariners shortstop J.P. Crawford (3) slides into third to advance on a sacrifice fly against the Oakland Athletics during the third inning at T-Mobile Park, Sept. 28, 2021..

Joe Nicholson | USA TODAY Sports | Reuters

Buy me some peanuts and Cracker Jack – and a bunch of streaming and TV subscriptions, too.

Major League Baseball‘s season opens Thursday, and fans have to navigate various outlets to find their home team’s games this season. This might create some confusion, while causing some viewers to beef up their baseball budgets.

related investing news


MLB teams play 162 games during the regular season, giving the league a lot of runway to sign media rights deals with various outlets in a bid to broaden its reach and audience. In recent years, the focus has been on placing more games on streaming services, while traditional cable TV is needed for a bulk of game viewing.

Here’s a breakdown of how the landscape looks, for now.

Home base plan

For the baseball fan looking to watch as many games as possible, a traditional pay TV service is still the go-to place.

Regional sports networks air the majority of local games during the season. In addition, national networks like Disney unit ESPN and Warner Bros. Discovery’s TBS, as well as Fox Corp.‘s broadcast and pay TV networks, take up a decent chunk of the schedule.

There are a few internet-TV bundle competitors that are an option, too. DirecTV’s DirecTV Stream and FuboTV carry most, if not all, regional sports networks. Other providers like Google‘s YouTube TV and Disney’s Hulu Live TV+ carry few, if any, of these networks.

The reason for that? The high fees networks charge pay TV operators. A “regional sports network” fee is broken out on pay TV bills. It varies by the market.

The fate of the regional sports networks has been brought into question. Recently, Diamond Sports, which operates a portfolio of regional sports networks, filed for bankruptcy protection, toppled by a debt load and the loss of pay TV subscribers.

The networks and the streaming services haven’t gone dark and are still expected to show games this season.

Similarly, Warner Bros. Discovery has been looking to exit the regional sports networks it inherited from the acquisition of Warner from AT&T last year, The Wall Street Journal recently reported. While Warner Bros. sent a notice to the teams looking to transition the network rights over to them, the league and Warner Bros. have been in negotiations to keep the networks running normally for the foreseeable future, people familiar with the matter said.

Streaming options

The New York Yankees’ YES Network launched its own option the day before Opening Day, priced at $25 a month. Still, for Yankees fans, it can be particularly confusing. Since last year, 20 of its local games have been on Amazon‘s Prime Video rather than YES or a local broadcast network, stemming from Amazon taking a piece of ownership in the network.

This will mark the second season that Apple‘s Apple TV+ will air two games every Friday night. However this year “Friday Night Baseball” will come at an extra cost – a $6.99 subscription to Apple TV+ – as opposed to when it was free last year.

A set of 19 games will once again air on Sundays on Comcast‘s Peacock beginning April 23 of this year, a bit earlier than its May 8 start last year. Peacock, which costs $4.99 a month, will soon have more information about its announcers for the Sunday broadcasts, many of which air at 11:35 a.m. ET or 12:05 p.m. ET, a bit earlier than the typical MLB start time of 1:05 p.m.

Since 2021, ESPN has begun simultaneously airing games on its streaming service ESPN+, which costs $9.99 a month, and also streams a local RSN game most days throughout the season.

“I do empathize now with the rose-colored glasses many have for the traditional cable bundle. There’s value to bundling we’ve learned not just across media but other industries,” said Mao.

These additional streaming bills come as the cost of pay TV subscriptions from satellite and cable providers varies across the U.S. A recent U.S. News report found that an average cable bill costs more than $200 a month, but that could include bundled services, likely broadband service. The Federal Communications Commission’s most recent report from 2018 shows the average of basic cable at $25.40 a month, with the expanded package averaging $71.31. The former is unlikely to include national sports networks.

Disclosure: Comcast owns NBCUniversal, the parent company of Peacock and CNBC.

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How fake media accounts in Afghanistan are used to push Taliban propaganda

Since the Taliban took over control of Afghanistan in August 2021, numerous accounts mimicking or trying to present themselves as media outlets have popped up online. These fake accounts share content that appears to be authentic, often using the same graphic signature and style as the real media outlet. But on closer inspection, researchers from the NGO Afghan Witness found that their posts have no basis in reality and serve to undermine opposition groups in Afghanistan and clamp down on independent media.

Since December 2022, researchers at Afghan Witness – a human rights project dedicated to documenting and verifying events in Afghanistan – have identified several of these fake accounts and the messages they are trying to share. Their analysis centred on one fake Twitter account, @AF_Inter5, which presents itself as the news media Afghanistan International.

‘It will erode trust in the opposition movement’

Tom Stubbs, Senior Analyst for Information Operations at Afghan Witness, told the FRANCE 24 Observers more. 

The content revolves around denigrating both Afghan International and opposition within Afghanistan. And a lot of the stories they were sharing weren’t backed up in any other media. Normally, when you have a news story from Afghanistan International or other news agencies, we can actually follow that up and we can understand the nature of what they’re saying is true. But what this fake account was doing was just made up.

The @AF_Inter5 account’s posts often extol the Taliban’s impact on Afghanistan, after the group reclaimed control of the country in August 2021. 

One post, published on March 1 and viewed more than 57,000 times, claims that the former top-ranking army commander of the Republic of Afghanistan and former Deputy Interior Minister for Security, Khoshal Sadat, said that the arrival of the Taliban ended the Republic, as well as “espionage, nationalism and insurgency”. 

However, there is no other record of this statement in English, Persian or Pashto-language media. And the image shared in this post dates back to 2020, before the Taliban took control of the country. 

Posts also undermine the rival National Resistance Front (NRF), which constitutes the main organised resistance to Taliban control.

Another tweet, published on March 11 and viewed more than 20,000 times, claims that the leader of the NRF, Ahmad Massoud, told the New York Times that his organisation has close relations with the Islamic State of Khorasan Province (ISKP), a part of the Islamic State organisation active in Afghanistan. 

A tweet published on March 11 claims that the leader of the National Resistance Front of Afghanistan said that his group had close relations with the Islamic State organisation in the country. © Observers

However, Massoud has never been interviewed by the New York Times nor said that the NRF has a good relationship with ISKP. This claim serves to link Afghanistan’s self-proclaimed only legitimate resistance movement fighting for democracy with ISKP, a UN-designated terrorist organisation.

Another tweet claimed that an NRF commander had visited Israel to discuss bilateral goals, despite no other evidence in the media that this visit occurred.

Stubbs explained how this content reflects common Taliban talking points.

It will erode trust in the opposition movement because if people are believing what this fake account is saying about the opposition movement, they’ll believe that [the NRF] is dealing with Afghanistan’s enemies and people who want to destroy Afghanistan, that they’re dealing with the Islamic State. It really degrades people’s opinion of the NRF.

The narratives shared in this content also vary drastically from that which is shared by the real Afghanistan International, a media outlet which claims to “provide balanced, and impartial news, about all for all Afghans, including all voices from across the political, social and business sectors inside Afghanistan and around the world”, according to its website.

Afghanistan International is a UK-based broadcaster and media outlet that emerged from the parent company of Iran International when the Taliban took over Afghanistan. Iran International has been criticised for alleged ties to the Saudi state through its parent company funding, though the media outlet denies this.

Although the fake account had only 6,500 followers at the time of writing, its posts sometimes receive over 50,000 views and numerous comments and shares. 

A poorly copied fake account

After noticing the traction that @AF_Inter5 had online, the Afghan Witness team began analysing its content and posting behaviours. It was immediately evident that the account was fake, thanks to several clear indicators on its page. 

First, the account is not verified on Twitter, unlike the official Afghan International account, which is verified through Twitter Blue. The fake account has a different bio and email address – notably a Gmail address, and not a “” address. And the account was created in November 2021, several months after the Taliban took over the country.

The fake account also has posted far fewer times than the real Afghanistan International account: 236 tweets versus 34,230 tweets on the real account.

Finally, the fake account’s cover photo shows a CNN newsroom, while the real account has an Afghanistan International graphic with text. 

A comparison of the fake Afghanistan International account (left) and the real one (right). Afghan Witness
A comparison of the fake Afghanistan International account (left) and the real one (right). Afghan Witness © Afghan Witness

That being said, the account’s tweets look very convincing. They follow the same graphic formatting as the legitimate Afghanistan International’s breaking news tweets, with a logo and edited text on a photo.

An image posted by @AFIntlBrk, the real Afghanistan International Twitter account (on the left) and an image posted by @AF_Inter5 (on the right).
An image posted by @AFIntlBrk, the real Afghanistan International Twitter account (on the left) and an image posted by @AF_Inter5 (on the right). © Afghan Witness

>> Read more on The Observers: How to investigate a Twitter account or suspicious tweets

According to the Account Analysis tool, which allows you to see statistics about a Twitter account’s posting patterns, @AF_Inter5 tends to post between 6:30am and 8:30pm Afghanistan time – certainly not a 24/7 outlet as it claims.

A comparison of the posting behaviours for the fake Afghan International account (above) and the real account (below), which posts 24/7. All times indicated are in GMT+1.
A comparison of the posting behaviours for the fake Afghan International account (above) and the real account (below), which posts 24/7. All times indicated are in GMT+1. © Observers

All of @AF_Inter5’s posts were posted on Twitter for Android, which could point to it being run by an individual or group of individuals who are supportive of the Taliban. In contrast, the real Afghan International account posts from Twitter’s web client, Tweetdeck, and several social media clients – more typical of a newsroom social media outlet managed by several staff members. 

Contacted by the FRANCE 24 Observers team, the media outlet Afghanistan International confirmed that they are not at all affiliated with the @AF_Inter5 account and “have been trying to take it down for some time without much luck”.

‘The Taliban are trying to change the media environment in Afghanistan into a Taliban promotion machine’

Stubbs says the Afghan Witness has no indication that those posting on @AF_Inter5 are part of the Taliban. Nonetheless, the account typifies several important aspects of the Taliban’s online propaganda campaign.

We’re seeing that the Taliban are labelling Afghanistan International as fake news when they publish stories that criticise the Taliban. And they are incredibly quick to jump on news stories that they feel are unfair. And so having these fake accounts really chimes into the wider information operation that the Taliban is trying to create – they’re trying to erode trust away from independent news sources.

The information environment within the country is being eroded at such a massive rate. The official news sources that people can trust are diminishing. So it just means that there’s going to be one less source that people can look for. The Taliban are trying to change the media environment in Afghanistan into a Taliban promotion machine rather than a free and independent media, as was prior to August 2021. What we’re seeing is effectively a revolutionary movement trying to rapidly erode a free media environment in a way that’s never really done in the world before. Quite often restrictions on the press are gradual, but what the Taliban are doing is incredibly rapid.

Online propaganda operations are nothing new for the Taliban, and many believe they were key to helping the group regain control of the Afghan territory. 

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Kellyanne Conway Defends Trump Grift Because ONLY JARED Got Saudi Billions, Everyone Else Got Just Millions

Kellyanne Conway, communications professional, has an odd habit of saying the quiet part out loud. Here she is yesterday deftly deflecting criticism from Juan Williams about Republicans’ lack of interest in the Trump family’s wholesale looting of the presidency even as they pick through the pissant deals that Hunter Biden made to keep his family fed while fighting a crippling drug addiction.

Fox is currently pulling the laboring oar for the GOP’s bumbling effort to get to President Joe Biden through his only surviving son. Their theory of the case appears to be that Hunter Biden, in the throes of a cocaine addiction which had him leaving incriminating information at random computer repair shops, was simultaneously running a massive influence peddling operation. The problem is that they’ve been trying to make FETCH happen for years, and they’ve come up with exactly nothing that connects Hunter Biden’s sad scrabbling to his father.

Take for instance this memo released yesterday by that hayseed dipshit who heads the House Oversight Committee, Rep. James Comer. He subpoenaed bank records from Hunter Biden’s business partner John Robinson Walker, whom Comer refers to ominously as “a Biden family associate.”

“Robinson Walker, LLC received a $3 million wire from a Chinese company in March 2017 — less than two months after Vice President Joe Biden left public office — and that Mr. Walker then transferred over a million dollars to various bank accounts associated with the Bidens in the following months,” he continues breathlessly.

How does this connect to Joe Biden? Well, it doesn’t but … look, they’re trying, okay?

The Committee is concerned about the information revealed in these bank records, including: (1) why the Chinese energy company waited less than two months after Vice President Biden left public office to send the $3 million wire; (2) why the Robinson Walker, LLC account received the China company’s payment instead of the Biden family members’ companies; (3) why the payments to the Biden family members were structured in incremental payments to different bank accounts; (4) what services the Biden family members provided to the China company and when those purported services were provided; (5) why Hallie Biden—publicly reported to work as a school counselor—received money from Robinson Walker, LLC; 2 and (6) who the account holder is for the bank account entitled “Biden.” We hope that our Democrat colleagues will join us in addressing these important issues.

“The Committee is concerned about the national security implications of a President’s or Vice President’s immediate family members receiving millions of dollars from foreign nationals or companies without any oversight,” he goes on, which is just precious considering (1) he just conceded that Biden was not in office when those transactions took place; and (2) Comer just nixed all oversight of the gazillions of dollars the Trump family took in during and after his time in the White House.

The younger Biden put out a response noting that he was perfectly entitled to earn a living and spend his money as he pleased:

Hunter Biden, a private citizen with every right to pursue his own business endeavors, joined several business partners in seeking a joint venture with a privately owned, legitimate energy company in China. As part of that joint venture, Hunter received his portion of good faith seed funds which he shared with his uncle, James Biden, and Hallie Biden, with whom he was involved with at the time and sharing expenses. The accounts so dramatically listed by Representative Comer belonged to Hunter, his uncle and Hallie — nobody else.

Which brings us back to Fox yesterday.

“There were massive investigations, millions of dollars spent, and always the question, you know, what are they getting in return?” Martha MacCallum intoned accusingly, eliding the fact that those millions of dollars went to enforce the Oversight Committee’s subpoenas as Trump spent years in court fighting to keep his business records under wraps. “So, do you have the same question for the Biden family when you look at this money transaction? What was China getting in return? Is that something Americans must know?”

But Juan Williams wasn’t having it.

“What we have is a check to a widow from someone who was paid by the Chinese with no context. We don’t know what this money was for. In fact, the same person had sent checks to her before there was any payment from the Chinese,” he demanded of Conway, noting that the Comer memo proves exactly nothing and omits actual context.

“Why don’t you look into things like Jared Kushner getting $2 billion directly from the Saudis after former President Trump bragged about protecting the Saudi prince?”

This was, of course, a reference to the $2 billion the Saudi sovereign wealth fund transferred to Kushner’s fledgling hedge fund, under extremely favorable terms, at the behest of Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who overruled his own advisors to force the transaction through — a deal Republicans have shown zero interest in, because they are laser focused on Hunter Biden, who never worked in the White House, and his efforts to monetize his name for a few million dollars.

Williams went on: “We don’t know, but I think this is a thin veil for the fact that, after all this investigation and talk about Hunter Biden, the committee’s come up with zero. With nothing! And they got the laptop, they got this, that … nothing!”

“Well, Jared, of course, is the only person I think who has benefitted in the billions – with a ‘B’ – from the Trump presidency. That’s for sure,” she conceded. Because even Kellyanne Conway, the queen of alternative facts, cannot wish away the millions of dollars earned from foreign sources by every member of the Trump family, including the then-sitting president. Not Ivanka’s Chinese patents, not the ghost bookings of blocks of hotel rooms at Trump properties by Saudi royalty, not Don Jr.’s access peddling in India, not Jared’s sister promising visas for Chinese buyers of the family’s condos, just … come the fuck on. And that’s not even including the hundreds of millions of dollars Trump raked in at the Trump Hotel in DC from domestic companies and candidates trying to slip a little something into his G-string in hopes of receiving favorable treatment.

“But look, I think whataboutism isn’t gonna work here,” Conway blurted, in hopes of clawing her way back. But of course the damage was already done. Mostly to America, of course, but also to the Republicans, who will continue to peddle this horseshit until the earth falls into the sun.

[Mediaite / NYT]

Catch Liz Dye on Opening Arguments podcast.

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