Trump’s parting gift to Morocco: Recognition of sovereignty over Western Sahara

The appeal to history was the prelude to a proclamation. “It is thus fitting,” Trump wrote, “we recognize their sovereignty over the Western Sahara.”

In a series of tweets, he announced that Morocco had joined the growing list of predominantly Arab countries to establish open diplomatic relations with Israel, and in return, it appeared, the United States would formally recognize Morocco’s claims over the disputed Western Sahara region, becoming the only major world power to do so.

The Trump administration has prioritized strengthening Israel’s diplomatic position in the Middle East, helping burnish right-wing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s credentials as a regional statesman. For years, Morocco’s ruling monarchy maintained friendly yet covert ties with Israel, and Israeli passport holders are already able to obtain visas on arrival in Morocco. Yet the kingdom’s leadership needed a popular national victory, such as U.S. recognition of its Western Sahara claims, to assuage public opinion, which remains opposed to full normalization with Israel.

Morocco annexed Western Sahara, a former Spanish colony, in 1975. That sparked a bloody conflict, which left tens of thousands of refugees stranded in desert camps. A United Nations-brokered agreement in 1991 led to an uneasy truce. Some 38 nations recognize or maintain diplomatic ties with the Sahrawi Democratic Arab Republic, while Morocco’s neighbor Algeria backs and hosts the government-in-exile of the Polisario Front, the armed separatist movement fighting for Western Sahara’s independence.

Even though the United States supported Morocco’s military at the height of hostilities with the then-Soviet-backed Polisario Front, it along with the bulk of the international community maintained a position of neutrality on both sides’ political claims.

That is, until last week. The timing of Trump’s intervention is conspicuous. “Last month, the rebels ended a 29-year-old cease-fire and declared a state of war after they accused Morocco of launching military operations in a buffer zone in the Western Sahara,” wrote my colleague Sudarsan Raghavan. “Morocco said it acted because the rebels were allegedly stopping people and goods, and harassing U.N. peacekeeping troops, which the United Nations later denied.”

It’s unclear to what extent Trump can tip the scales of the current conflict. “What this does is it adds a major world power in support of Morocco’s claims, which is something that Morocco has lacked until now,” said Samia Errazzouki, a former Moroccan journalist and current doctoral candidate who closely tracks the Western Sahara issue, to Raghavan. She added that full American backing of Morocco’s claims complicates hopes for a referendum in the region on its status, as mandated by U.N. Security Council resolutions.

“Without a referendum, it’s going to have an impact on what future steps the Polisario Front and the refugees will take,” Errazzouki said. “And as we have seen in the past few months, war is not off the table.”

There’s no indication yet that other governments will duplicate Trump’s decision. Polisario officials condemned the move, while a statement from the Algerian foreign ministry said it “has no legal effect,” contradicts existing U.N. resolutions about the conflict and “would undermine” international efforts toward producing a “real political process.”

Trump, who is set to leave office next month, may simply be adding to the fires President-elect Joe Biden will try to put out. The declaration “puts the incoming administration … in a bind. Biden could face pressure from members of his own party and foreign allies to walk back U.S. recognition of Morocco’s control over Western Sahara,” noted the Wall Street Journal. “But any reversal of Mr. Trump’s declaration would create friction with both Morocco and Israel, adding to a long list of foreign policy problems Biden must tackle.”

“Once again, Trump cedes territory (an executive action on his part without any debate in Congress) which he does not own without even a discussion with, let along an agreement from, the Sahrawi people who have fought long and hard for self-determination,” wrote Nabeel Khoury, a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, referring to Trump’s controversial adjudications over the status of territories contested by Israelis and Palestinians. “Trump has once again disregarded three decades of US and UN diplomacy that sought via referendum and consultation to come to a peaceful resolution of the Western Sahara dispute.”

Some Palestinians and Sahrawis have found growing solidarity in a joint sense of abandonment. “Trump’s announcement will strengthen the bonds of solidarity between the Sahrawis and the Palestinians, who were deceived by the fake Moroccan support for the Palestinian cause,” Nazha el-Khalidi, a Sahrawi activist, told the Middle East Eye.

Ibtihaml Alaloul, a Sweden-based Palestinian activist, told the same website that Morocco’s overtures to Israel ought to disabuse Palestinians of whatever support they believe they have from other Arab nations. It also, in her view, highlights the link between the Palestinian and Sahrawi plight. “If not Palestinians, then who are the main nation who should understand this situation?” she asked.

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Swift backlash for Brazil students targeting misinformation

“Maybe I was blaming myself a bit, for leaving so many people vulnerable,” he said in a video interview with The Associated Press, with tears welling as he recalled his departure. “But what I did was right.”

Leal and his girlfriend of six years, Mayara Stelle — both 22-year-old law students — this year created a Twitter account with its stated mission to call out Brazilian websites for spreading “hate speech and Fake News,” and torpedoing those sites’ advertising revenue. They garnered 410,000 followers, more than the number of residents in their mid-size city.

They also mustered a legion of enemies. Vitriol poured in, directed toward their account, Sleeping Giants Brazil. Believing their identities are soon to be revealed after a ruling against Twitter, they expect they will be personally targeted, for lawsuits or worse.

Fear their families would be caught in the barrage because they had often accessed the account at their parents’ homes, they say, is why they left their lives behind and are choosing to make their identities known to The Associated Press and Folha de S.Paulo, Brazil’s biggest newspaper. The AP observed them accessing and using the Sleeping Giants Brazil account, and checked the names they provided against their government-issued identification cards.

“Those threats that say, ‘I’m going to kill you,’ or, ‘I’m offering 100,000 reais ($20,000) for the head of the profile’s owner,’ will now be directed at Mayara and Leo,” Stelle said from a city outside Sao Paulo. “This is a decision to protect our families and control exposure to show we’re common people, like anyone else who can have an idea. And that idea can be brilliant, can change things.”

This year, Brazil has been awash in misinformation about the pandemic, egged on by dubious claims from President Jair Bolsonaro. It marks the continuation of a digital battle in Latin America’s biggest country, with each side in the polarized nation seeking to portray itself as “owner of the truth,” as an expression in Portuguese goes.

Pursuit of Sleeping Giants Brazil is part of a growing trend over the last several years to instrumentalize the judiciary against those who train fire on conservative media outlets, interest groups and Bolsonaro’s administration, according to Taís Gasparian, a partner at law firm Rodrigues Barbosa, Mac Dowell de Figueiredo, Gasparian who has worked with media and free speech for decades. Often the alleged offenses may be covered by rights of free speech or press freedom. This year, that has included a writer, a cartoonist and a beach volleyball player.

Sleeping Giants Brazil followed the playbook of its US predecessor, which after Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential victory alerted companies to the fact their ads were appearing on websites including Breitbart News, a platform that critics have repeatedly accused of running racist, xenophobic and sexist content. Companies’ ads were often automatically placed through Google, and they decamped en masse upon learning of risk to their brands. Video that surfaced in mid-2019 showed Breitbart’s former executive chairman Steve Bannon saying Sleeping Giants had cost the organization 90% of its ad revenue.

The number of Sleeping Giants Brazil’s followers surpassed that of the US handle as it toppled one ad after another. A top target was Jornal da Cidade Online, a conservative website based in southern Brazil. The site’s content has repeatedly been debunked by fact-checking organizations, and a preliminary technical report shows “it is one of the big disseminators of false news in our country,” said lawmaker Lídice da Mata, the rapporteur of Congress’ ongoing investigation into misinformation, in a written response to AP questions.

Scores of advertisers in Brazil — among them Dell, McDonald’s, Facebook and Domino’s Pizza — have responded publicly to alerts from Sleeping Giants Brazil and likeminded Twitter users about their ads appearing on Jornal da Cidade, saying that they would remove them because of the site’s content or already had. State-run Bank of Brazil did the same, prompting a swift rebuke from Bolsonaro’s son and his communications secretary, who said on Twitter that independent journalism is important.

Jornal da Cidade claimed reputational and financial damages and sued Twitter, demanding the platform turn over data associated with the Sleeping Giants Brazil account that could identify its users. Twitter last week provided the court with the account’s I.P. addresses, according to a person with knowledge of the case, who isn’t authorized to speak publicly. Twitter said in an emailed statement that it “vigorously fought this case through several different appeals” and will continue to defend free speech and privacy rights.

Jornal da Cidade’s editor José Tolentino declined an interview request, and referred the AP to the law office representing him. His lawyer Simone Custódio declined an interview request, didn’t answer questions sent by email about the case, instead saying they will await the right time to comment publicly in observance of their client’s best interests.

“The cowardly attacks against Jornal da Cidade Online hide people, businesses and entities that certainly act in their desired attempt to install left-wing radicalism in Brazil or other even more sordid interests,” read an editorial it published on Dec. 4. The site has repeatedly denied spreading misinformation.

Danilo Doneda, a lawyer who specializes in data protection, told the AP that Brazilians are guaranteed freedom of expression, but the constitution has the peculiarity of prohibiting anonymity. Doneda, a member of the government’s newly-formed data protection council, likens Sleeping Giants Brazil to the pen name of an author known to his or her publisher.

“Twitter can gather the elements, technically, to reach these people, so it’s a pseudonym, not anonymity,” said Doneda.

Others have faced legal repercussions using their names.

Writer J.P. Cuenca has been hit with more than 140 lawsuits in 21 Brazilian states since he composed a tweet in June, according to his lawyer, Fernando Hideo. The tweet, which appeared to call for violence against Bolsonaro and evangelical pastors, was a Brazilian spin on a historical quotation.

Federal police interrogated cartoonist Renato Aroeira in July after depicting Bolsonaro as transforming a red cross representing hospitals into a swastika; the president had recently called on his social media followers to enter hospitals and film whether they were in fact overburdened with COVID-19 patients. And beach volleyball player Carol Solberg shouted “Out, Bolsonaro!” during an on-court interview on Sept. 20 in Rio de Janeiro state; a sports court warned her she could face a fine of up to $20,000 and a 6-game suspension if she spoke out again.

Polarization has taken root since Brazil’s sprawling Car Wash investigation that kicked off in 2014 and exposed rampant corruption, followed by President Dilma Rousseff’s impeachment. The reason was violation of Brazil’s budget laws, but her Workers’ Party ascribed removal to political motives.

Into that political divide strode Bolsonaro, a fringe lawmaker claiming he would restore law and order to the beleaguered nation, put God and country above all else, loosen gun controls and banish left-wing politics.

His 2018 campaign was turbocharged by social media and messaging app WhatsApp. Media reported that executives had bankrolled blast messages on WhatsApp — much of which contained content deemed false by fact-checkers — and in doing so potentially broke campaign finance laws. It spurred Congress to launch its investigation into misinformation spread before the election.

One of the businessmen named in a story was Luciano Hang, a Bolsonaro booster and department store tycoon with a penchant for wearing bright green suits with yellow ties — the colors of Brazil’s flag. He denied the assertions and sued the story author Patrícia Campos Mello, one of the nation’s more prominent journalists, and Folha de S.Paulo. A judge this month ruled in his favor and ordered payment of 100,000 reais. The paper and Campos Mello will appeal to a higher court, according to Gasparian, the lawyer representing them.

Throughout, Bolsonaro has denigrated mainstream media, often calling them “fake news.” In February, he repeated a debunked, sexually charged allegation about Campos Mello, who last year won the International Press Freedom Award after coverage of his campaign.

Sympathetic conservative websites have consistently cheered him on. One is Jornal da Cidade, which the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab (DFRLab) characterized as a pro-Bolsonaro site. Its editorial stance is explicit in its suit against Twitter, saying editor Tolentino has sought “to highlight the current federal administration’s fight to govern the country, despite the groundless accusations it is suffering publicly.”

When Leal and Stelle successfully petitioned Dell to remove its ads from Jornal da Cidade, Tolentino published a text saying Sleeping Giants’ followers were “all frustrated, spiteful, criminal and envious leftists,” and that his site receives more than one million visits daily. It has 1.5 million followers on Facebook, where its posts about COVID-19 significantly outperformed those from traditional media outlets, particularly ones politicizing the health crisis, according to a DFRLab report in May.

Sleeping Giants Brazil targeted Jornal da Cidade early on, Stelle said, because of its coronavirus-related content. That has included touting chloroquine to fight COVID-19, an anti-malarial drug that Bolsonaro trumpeted despite a growing body of evidence that it is ineffective against the disease. In April, Congress extended its probe to investigate misinformation about the pandemic.

The site published a story with the headline: “A catastrophic analysis about the vaccines against the Chinese virus: ‘They interfere directly in genetic material.’” It was debunked by two separate fact-checking groups, Agencia Lupa and Comprova, but not before racking up 191,000 interactions on Facebook. Jornal da Cidade replaced the story with a correction, which has garnered less than 3% as many interactions.

And ahead of this year’s municipal elections, Jornal da Cidade hosted six of the ten most-shared links on Facebook that encouraged Brazilians to believe in ballot fraud and election manipulation, according to a study published Nov. 10 by the department of public policy analysis at the Getulio Vargas Foundation, a university.

Cristina Tardáguila, associate director of the International Fact-Checking Network and founder of Agencia Lupa, said Sleeping Giants Brazil was naive in not providing transparency and focusing efforts on one side of the political spectrum, which hurt credibility and handed ammunition to opponents.

“There was a certain naivete in thinking they’d be carried on the shoulders of the people, but Brazilians are ultra-polarized,” Tardáguila said. “Half the people wanted to do that, but half wanted to kill them, destroy them.”

She added she worried that the judiciary didn’t take into account the very real physical risk that the account’s administrators could face. The AP reviewed more than ten physical threats made publicly on Twitter. Jornal da Cidade hasn’t incited any violence against them.

Leal and Stelle aren’t sticking around to see if threats are mere bluster from keyboard warriors. They’re moving to their new home — the location of which they declined to disclose – where they intend to keep working.

Da Mata, rapporteur for Congress’ investigation, called Sleeping Giants Brazil “truly important work, an initiative that helps combat disinformation as a whole.”

Jornal da Cidade is just one of the sites Sleeping Giants Brazil went after. Congresswoman Carla Zambelli, a close ally of Bolsonaro’s, in August called on everyone who was targeted to sue for civil and criminal charges.

Leal and Stelle say they know their struggle is only beginning.

“We tried to prepare as much as possible for this. We’re betting everything on this project,” Leal said. “Demonetization of fake news means dealing with the worst of the internet: racists, xenophobes, and so on. From the moment you take the money away from these people, they never forget.” ___ Follow Biller on Twitter: @DLBiller

Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.

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Britain, EU avoid breakdown in Brexit talks, deadline extended

Prime Minister Boris Johnson, in a TV address, did not sound optimstic, however. “I’m afraid we’re still very far apart on some key things,” he said. “But where there is life there’s hope, we’re going to keep talking to see what we can do, the U.K. certainly won’t be walking away from the talks.”

Johnson warned “the most likely” outcome would see Britain leave the European Union with no deal, forcing it to trade on what the prime minister insists on calling “Australian terms,” which really means going forward with no free trade deal at all, but instead defaulting to do business by the rules set by the World Trade Organization.

Britain’s largest trading partner is Europe and so reverting to WTO rules means taxes, or tariffs, on exports sold to the continent. While overall, the average WTO tariff is less than 3 percent, for automobiles it is 10 percent and for fresh meat — such as Welsh lamb — it is 38 percent or higher.

In his remarks, the British prime minister might have been jostling for position. Or he might have been warning the nation.

“The best thing to do now, for everybody, is to follow up all the work that has been done over the last four and half years, colossal amount of preparation at our ports, everywhere across the U.K., get ready to trade on WTO terms,” said Johnson. “There is a clarity and a simplicity in that approach that has it’s own advantages. It is not where we wanted to get to but if we have to end up with that solution, the U.K. is more than prepared.”

Whether Britain is truly prepared to have its import and exports subjected to border controls, inspections and tarrifs is unknown. Many predict chaos at the ports.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen was slightly less gloomy. She said it is worth trying to struggle on to a finish line. “We had a useful phone call this morning. We discussed the major unresolved topics,” the commisson president said.

Then she patted both sides on the back, noting, “our negotiating teams have been working day and night over recent days. And despite the exhaustion after almost a year of negotiations, despite the fact that deadlines have been missed over and over, we think it is responsible at this point to go the extra mile.”

And so, “we have accordingly mandated our negotiators to continue the talks and to see whether an agreement can even at this late stage be reached.”

The negotiations will continue, at least for now, in Brussels. Britain exits the European Union at midnight on Dec. 31.

The Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney, who has been a close observer of the talks, told the national broadcaster RTE on Sunday that “a deal can be done, but it really needs to be done within the next few days.”

Jitters of a no-deal “hard Brexit” have been dialed up, regardless.

The Guardian newspaper reported the British government “warned supermarkets to stockpile food and other essential supplies amid increasing fears of a no-deal Brexit in less than three weeks’ time.”

On the Sunday morning TV talk shows, Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab sought to assure Britons that there would be enough medicines and vaccines in the country no matter what, because the government has already begun to stockpile supplies.

Meanwhile, Johnson’s government announced that four Royal Navy patrol ships would be ready to take to British waters to protect the country’s fishing grounds in the event of a no-deal Brexit. The vessels would be given the power to board and impound European fishing boats inside Britain’s 200-mile exclusive economic zone.

European Council President Charles Michel, on the French radio on Sunday, said the sides should keep calm and carry on. “The U.K. and Europe are friends, partners, allies and it will be the case after Brexit. I encourage everyone to remain calm. I would not say, like Donald Trump, that our boats are bigger than theirs, because I’m trying to be serious, but, on the European side at least we remain calm …We are reasonable. We want to have close links with the U.K.”

The impasse and issues have not changed over these many months. Britain wants to be able to “take back control” of its sovereignty — for many Brexiteers, that was the whole point of leaving the bloc. Johnson and his allies say it makes no sense to leave the customs union and single market, only to have to continue to align in lock-step with E.U. regulations over state subsidies, labor laws and enviromental regulations.

But Europe has appeared in little mood for compromise — especially over these “level playing field” challenges.

The disagreements have touched on areas that have been sore points for years — in some cases, centuries, like fisheries, specifically European access to British waters.

In addition to wrangling over cod and scallops, which represents far less than 1 percent of GDP to either Britain or Europe, the E.U. also doesn’t want Britain undercutting it on issues such as state aid or environmental regulations to gain a competitive advantage. It wants to make sure British rules stay closely aligned with E.U. ones as a prerequisite for Britain to get relatively unfettered access to the European market.

Aries reported from Brussels.

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