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Pakistan’s version of Sesame Street – complete with an Elmo who squeals in Urdu – is facing a cutback in support from USAID, America’s Agency for International Development. (Youtube)

USAID cuts funding for Elmo on Pakistan TV

By Scott BaldaufStaff writer / 06.06.12

Pakistan’s version of Sesame Street – complete with an Elmo who squeals in Urdu – is facing a cutback in support from USAID, America’s Agency for International Development.

The cutbacks come amid allegations of fraud by the Lahore-based theater group that produces the children’s show, the Rafi Peer Theatre Workshop, but it also comes at a time when the US-Pakistani relationship is strained, and when the US government is cutting back dramatically on foreign aid worldwide.

USAID allocated $20 million for the production of Sim Sim Hamara (which means “Our Street” in Urdu), and $6.7 million of that was used to produce the first season, which premiered in 2011. The remainder of the contract has been terminated, pending the results of an investigation into the fraud charges.

"We did launch an investigation into the allegations. We also sent the theater workshop a letter that terminates the project agreement," US State Department spokesman Mark Toner told a news briefing in Washington on June 5. "No one is questioning, obviously, the value and positive impact of this kind of programming for children. But this is about allegations of corruption."

Faizaan Peerzada, Rafi Peer’s chief operating officer, denied the fraud charges, saying in a statement, “Rafi Peer is proud of its association with the project and the quality of children’s educational television programming created within Pakistan as a result.”

Whatever the ultimate result of the investigation, the shutdown of funds into children’s broadcasting in Pakistan come at an unfortunate time in the US-Pakistani relationship.

NATO airstrikes and US special forces raids on Pakistani territory have strained Pakistani patience with the US-led war on terror, and Pakistan has shut off NATO’s use of Pakistani roads and ports to resupply its troops in Afghanistan. The US, meanwhile, has grown increasingly frustrated with what it sees as signs of either Pakistani collusion with militant groups such as the Taliban, or incompetence in bringing them under control.

But the cutbacks should also be seen in a broader context of America’s steady pullback from foreign assistance. In 2011, US foreign assistance totaled $25.5 billion. President Obama requested an increase in those funds for 2012, up to $28.5 billion, but Congress eventually agreed to a budget of $20 billion, a cutback of almost 20 percent from 2011.

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Sesame Street never stood a chance to patch up the dysfunctional relationship between the US and Pakistan, but a funding cutoff eliminates one more way for the US to project the kinds of moderate values that both it and the Pakistani government seek to reinforce.

It also removes one more tool for educators in a country of 170 million where only 50 percent of girls and 60 percent of boys go to primary school.

Pakistan isn’t the only country to lose funding for a local version of Sesame Street. In January, the US State Department announced it was cutting funds for  Sharaa Sim Sim, the Palestinian version of the show, because of funding cuts from Congress.

“Unfortunately, with the cut in Economic Support Funds, we had to make some hard tradeoffs,” US State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said, noting that the Israeli version of the show would continue to receive funding. “This is programming in Israel designed to promote common sense of citizenship between Israeli Arabs and Israeli Palestinians, but also between all Israelis and folks in the Palestinian territories.”

Money talks

For some Americans, especially those who are skeptical about the effectiveness of American foreign aid, cutting $20 million in funds for the Pakistani version of Elmo may just feel good. Public perceptions of waste in foreign aid, often based on evidence, have a powerful effect on the American public, since negative news and scandal are the only stories about foreign aid that they are likely to hear in the American news media.

Yet nonmilitary foreign aid is a pittance compared to the money that the Pentagon receives each year. According to PBS columnist Joshua Foust, the Pentagon’s budget has doubled from 2001 to today, and now stands at $670 billion.

That kind of math is something even a child can understand. If Sim Sim Hamara goes off the air, but US bombs keep dropping, another generation of Pakistanis will have only one thing to associate the US government with: war.

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A NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) walks toward the police checkpoint in Jalalabad east of Kabul, Afghanistan, last week. NATO will exit Afghanistan through Central Asia, the same route the Soviet troops took after their withdrawal. (Rahmat Gul/AP)

NATO will exit Afghanistan as Soviets did, through Central Asia

By Scott BaldaufStaff writer / 06.05.12

NATO may not know the final result of its intervention in Afghanistan, but it now has an exit plan. And the exit will take place through Central Asia, the same route the Soviet troops took after their withdrawal in 1988 and 1989.

As relations worsen between the United States and Pakistan, NATO has signed deals with Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Kazakhstan (see map here) to move out the tons of equipment that must be withdrawn by 2014, when NATO makes its final exit from Afghanistan.

Speaking with Agence France-Presse news agency, NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said that NATO now considers Central Asia and its Russian-built roads to be the most expedient route out of Afghanistan.  

"These agreements will give us a range of new options and the robust and flexible transport network we need," Mr. Rasmussen said.

Tarnished by more than a decade of war, mutual recriminations, and foreign policy goals that are increasingly at odds, the US-Pakistani relationship now has reached a nadir. From the early post 9/11 days, when NATO received 90 percent of its supplies for the Afghan war through the Pakistani port of Karachi, now Pakistan has cut off NATO’s old supply routes. Last November, Pakistan banned NATO’s use of Pakistani territory after NATO planes mistakenly bombed a Pakistani post, killing 24 Pakistani soldiers.

For Pakistan, the NATO bombing was the last straw, following the violation of its territorial sovereignty last year when US Navy SEALs captured and killed Osama bin Laden in the Pakistani city of Abbottabad.

Pakistani officials complain that Washington simply cannot grasp the difficulty of reining in popular Islamist militant groups in a country that sees itself constantly under threat from outside. Washington fails to see the threat that Pakistan’s larger rival, India, poses to Pakistan's very existence, and fails to understand how angry Pakistani citizens become after each successive aerial attack over their territory. For its part, Washington has come to see Pakistan as an unreliable ally, a country where the Pakistani military maintains ties with the very groups that attack US troops on Afghan soil, where America’s biggest enemy, Mr. bin Laden, was taking up residence in a military garrison town.

NATO and Pakistan could still patch things up. Pakistan has been hinting lately that there is still room for dialogue, with Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar suggesting that the US simply needed to apologize for the November bombing of its troops.

"For us in Pakistan ... the most popular thing to do right now is to not move on NATO supply routes at all. It is to close them forever," Ms. Khar told AFP in an interview. "If I were a political adviser to the prime minister, this is what I would advise him to do. But I'm not advising him to do that ... because what is at stake is much more important for Pakistan than just winning an election."

Khar may not want to wait for an apology, given America’s current election season. President Obama seems disinclined, to say the least, and his Republican rival, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney – whose campaign strategy is to attack Mr. Obama as weak on national defense – is about as likely to push for a NATO apology as he is to push for gun control.

So in the meantime, NATO is looking north, and expanding its options.

Trucking out tanks, artillery pieces, and other military devices that were designed specifically to destroy the Soviet Union, on a route through the former Soviet states themselves, is not only rich with irony, it is also quite expensive. The cost of the northern supply route is nearly double that of the Pakistani route, but at least it’s cheaper than flying all that equipment out by air, which costs the US military $14,000 per ton.

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A cleaner wears a face mask as she works in front of the giant portrait of former Chinese chairman Mao Zedong at Beijing's Tiananmen Gate on June 5. The Chinese government today warned the US Embassy in Beijing to stop telling the world how bad the air quality really is. (David Gray/Reuters)

China to US embassy: Stop telling people how bad the air is in Beijing.

By Staff writer / 06.05.12

The Chinese government today warned the US Embassy in Beijing to stop telling the world just how bad the capital’s air really is.

For the past three years or so, the embassy has Tweeted the hourly readings from a pollution monitor on its roof, providing the only real time indicator of what we are breathing here.

Deputy Environment Minister Wu Xiaoqing, however, told reporters today that this was a violation of the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations. Only the Chinese government is allowed to measure and publish air quality information, he said.

The trouble with that is that I am not the only person in Beijing who has sometimes found it hard to reconcile the soupy grey fog that I often see outside my window with the Beijing Municipal Environmental Monitoring Center’s insistence that pollution is “light.”

The US embassy spokesman was unavailable to comment on Mr. Wu’s admonition, but @BeijingAir, its Twitter feed, was still posting at 6 p.m.; it found the air to be “Unhealthy for Sensitive Groups.”

That is a definition taken from the US EPA, and Wu said it was not fair to judge Chinese air by American standards, which are stricter than Chinese ones, because of “our current stage of development.”

This is not the first time the US Twitter feed has got into trouble. On Nov. 19, 2010, when the Air Quality Index soared above 500 – the top of the US scale – the reading was described in a tweet as “crazy bad.”

The term appeared to have been inserted into the monitoring program by a programmer who never expected such an outlandishly high reading: Anything over 300 “would trigger a health warning of emergency conditions” in America, according to an EPA website.

Nowadays, readings over 500 (20 times higher than World Health Organization guidelines) are described simply as “beyond index.”

The Beijing municipality website publishes its own hourly readings of PM 2.5 tiny particulate matter, regarded as especially dangerous, but only 24 hours after the fact. It also publishes an average figure for air quality over the previous 24 hours, but does not characterize it as good, bad, or hazardous.

Wu’s warning to the US embassy will doubtless re-focus public attention on the real quality of Beijing’s air, which cannot be good for the authorities. What’s odd is that for the past few early summer days here the air has mostly been clear, and even gloriously sharp on one or two evenings.

If the embassy Twitter feed dies, we shall just have to go back to trusting our eyes and our noses. Just because we cannot put a scientific figure to it, doesn’t mean we don’t know what we are breathing.

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Visitors take photos near a Chinese national flag with Tiananmen Gate in the background as many gathered to mark the anniversary of the deadly 1989 crackdown on pro-democracy protestors which centered on Tiananmen Square, in Beijing, China, Monday, June 4. (Ng Han Guan/AP)

Tiananmen anniversary keeps Chinese censors on edge (+video)

By Staff writer / 06.04.12

 For the 23rd year in a row, the Chinese authorities today continued their efforts to impose collective amnesia about the Tiananmen Square massacre on June 4, 1989, seeking to stamp out any public reference to the event.

For Beijing, the date, “6.4” as it has become known in China, is one not to be commemorated, but rather obliterated from the calendar. The government has always refused to discuss what happened when soldiers were ordered to disperse pro-democracy demonstrators on Tiananmen Square. Officially, they killed only about 200 protesters; but activists’ estimates range from several hundreds to several thousands.

The official blanket denial of the date has worked, to a large extent: Few ordinary Chinese citizens under the age of 30 are aware of the Tiananmen demonstrations or their tragic end. But censors remain determined to foil any attempt by people who do know what happened to say anything about it. Anything at all.

Censors at Sina Weibo, the popular Twitter-like social media platform, were working overtime to block searches for – or references to – “6.4” or other obvious signifiers such as “tank,” “crush,” “never forget,” and “square.”

“535” was a forbidden term, too, because Internet users have taken to referring to May 35,  instead of June 4. Classically minded censors wouldn’t let you post anything with VIIIIXVIIV in it either, in case readers familiar with Roman numerals could decipher 89.6.4. And by late afternoon, even the word “today” had been banned.

Over the weekend, Sina Weibo disabled its candle icon, which users might find an appropriate symbol with which to commemorate the Tiananmen dead. An explanation from the website said the icon was “currently being optimized” but nobody believed it. Before long there were 200,000 posts on Sina referring to “Weibo” and “candle” and the next thing anyone knew, the word “candle” itself became a banned search term.

As if to highlight the absurdity of how hard Sina Weibo censors were working, an impeccable and seemingly irrelevant source of information, the Shanghai Stock Exchange, suddenly turned subversive. By an extraordinary coincidence (or maybe not), the Shanghai Composite Index, which measures the market’s daily movement, fell on Monday by 64.89 points, in an uncensorable reminder of the date of the massacre.

Though the official campaign to airbrush the Tiananmen Square events out of Chinese history has been successful with most citizens, there are some, of course, who can never forget because their own children died.

One such father, Ya Weilin, apparently exhausted and driven to despair by his failure after nearly a quarter of a century to persuade the government to account for his son’s death, hanged himself 10 days ago. Tiananmen is still claiming victims; 23 years ago they were felled by bullets. Today they succumb to silence.

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A Google doodle Saturday in the UK celebrates the Queen's diamond jubilee. (Google)

For Queen Elizabeth, a Google doodle of diamonds and doggies

By Staff writer / 06.02.12

Queen Elizabeth graces the front page of Google today in the UK in a doodle marking her diamond jubilee, offering the rest of the world but a glimpse of the playful pop art and consumer kitsch on display here in Britain.

Scots guardsmen cupcake toppers, union jacks on toothpicks, ice queen scoops. Bunting: enough to string together the old empire. Royal photos on thimbles, spoons, tea cups, shot glasses, egg cups, tea towels – the usual tat, as the Brits say. Jubilee thongs? Yes.

Then there’s the cleverness contest surrounding the WWII-era slogan, “Keep Calm and Carry On.” Written on a women's compact: “Keep Calm and Powder On.”
Comparatively, Google’s doodle is an understated affair. The letter O’s are diamonds, symbolic of the 60th (diamond) anniversary on the throne. The E sits as a jewel in the queen’s crown. The queen appears in two-dimensional contour; her beloved corgis, however, look ready to leap off the page.

The playful riffs on royal themes reflect the generally favorable mood toward the royals of late.

A YouGov poll last month found 67 percent agreeing the monarchy is good for Britain, and 86 percent approve of Queen Elizabeth. This is up from the days when her children's divorces dominated the headlines and her slowness to show emotion over the death of Princess Diana frustrated many.

Still, the public mood is not really one of royal reverence. Britons are in party mode at the start of a long weekend – Monday and Tuesday being holidays as part of the four-day official jubilee celebration. Many Londoners took the chance to flee on summer vacations, as foreign and British tourists crowd into the city for events that include Sunday’s royal family flotilla on the Thames and Tuesday’s carriage procession.

Among the street art for the crowds will be the construction Sunday of a 94-sq.-ft. portrait of Queen Elizabeth made from 3,120 squares of cake – one for each week of her reign.

German-born baker Gerhard Jenne came up with the idea. Mr. Jenne dipped each piece of lemon cake into one of 24 frosting colors, turning each into a pixel of this icing illustration.

Jenne’s a fan of the queen, but not so much so that he feels the need to become her subject even 30 years after moving to London. He doesn’t expect to meet her on Sunday, when he publicly arranges the cake squares into the portrait.

“It’s very interesting how the queen has changed. Even from 30 years ago, [the royals] are much closer to the people now,” he says. “You almost feel like she might come see you…. There could just be a 1 in 40 million chance.”

After spending hundreds of hours on the cake, he expects it to be gobbled up within 20 minutes when it’s opened up to the crowds.

Some customers in his Konditor & Cook bakeries have asked him if it’s proper for an image of Her Highness to be eaten.

“I just said yes, it’s fine by me. At the end of the day, it’s a cake, it’s a bit of fun. And she seems like a humorous person.”

An earlier version of this story incorrectly attributed the phrase "Keep calm and carry on" to the British royal family.

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In this March 2010 file photo, flowers are placed on the Google logo outside Google China headquarters in Beijing. (Ng Han Guan/AP/File)

Sly Google wields the knife in Chinese Internet censorship tussle

By Staff writer / 06.01.12

This week the search engine giant Google kept a polite smile on its face as it stuck its shiv in up to the hilt, introducing a feature to its Chinese site that tells users exactly when the censors have blocked a search word for being too “sensitive.”

The Chinese government keeps its list of banned search terms secret; Google is now revealing them. But not once did Google Vice President Alan Eustace mention the word “censorship” in his blog introducing the new feature.

Instead he noted that users in China “are regularly getting error messages” when they search for “a particular subset of queries.” He mentioned the word “jiang” as a case in point – but did not explain why such a common surname that also means “river” should be a banned search term.

It’s because “jiang” is the surname of former president Jiang Zemin, about whom the censors don’t want Chinese citizens to find out much because most of what is written about him on the web concerns his allegedly poor health and his role in succession struggles within the ruling Communist party.

The problem for Google users in China, and Google, is that whenever a user searched for a banned word not only would the search yield only an error message, but the connection to Google would be lost for a minute or so, which is highly inconvenient.

No wonder that Google has only 16 percent of the Chinese search engine market, way behind local competitor Baidu, with 78 percent. Baidu self-censors, so its users have no problem searching “jiang.” Google has refused to self censor since 2010, when it withdrew from the mainland and based itself in Hong Kong.

Google’s new feature, designed, says Mr. Eustace, to “help improve the search experience in mainland China,” will warn users when they are searching for a banned word that will cut their connection, allowing them to re-define their searchwords.

Google has identified the “dangerous” words after analyzing the censors’ response to 350,000 of the most popular search queries in China, Eustace explained. And now it is telling its users what those words are, in defiance of the Chinese government’s policy of keeping them secret.

But not too defiant. The tone of Eustace’s blog could not have been smoother nor its references to censorship more roundabout. Google, it seems, does not want to upset Beijing too much.

Perhaps that is because although the US company is pretty much out of the search engine market here, and the censors block or mess with all its products except Gmail, Google still has a big commercial interest in China.

The firm is pushing its Android mobile phone operating system hard, and successfully, with Chinese handset manufacturers. Last month it won Beijing’s approval for its $12.5 billion purchase of Motorola Mobility, a wireless device maker. Under those circumstances, it is probably best not to be too blunt when you are challenging the authorities. A polite smile to mask the knife thrust seems a wise idea.

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Myanmar opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi waves while leaving a community center in Mahachai, Samut Sakhon Province, Thailand on Wednesday, May 30. Kicking off her first trip abroad since 1988, to attend a World Economic Forum summit on Friday. (Sakchai Lalit/AP)

Aung San Suu Kyi's 'test run' outside of Myanmar (+video)

By Staff writer / 05.30.12

Not for nearly 25 years has Aung San Suu Kyi dared step outside her homeland. Not even to see her husband as he lay dying in Britain. If she ever left, she feared, Myanmar’s military government would never let her return home.

Determined never to give up, the woman who has become an icon not only for her own people but for democracy activists worldwide refused to give the generals an opportunity to sideline her. She put up with 15 years of house arrest rather than risk becoming an exiled irrelevance.

Now she is on her first international trip since 1988, visiting neighboring Thailand to attend a World Economic Forum summit on Friday, in a sign of her confidence in recent reforms in Myanmar (also known as Burma).

Today, though, her first full day abroad, she must have felt right at home.

Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi spent the morning in the town of Mahachai, home to Thailand’s largest community of Burmese migrant workers. Thousands mobbed her before she addressed the crowd from the balcony of a community center. 

Around 2.5 million impoverished Burmese have fled their country in search of jobs in Thailand – an illustration of how badly Myanmar’s economy suffered under nearly half a century of military rule.

Sorting out that mess is one of the prime tasks facing Myanmar’s nominally civilian government. The political reforms the government has pushed through over the past 12 months – including partial parliamentary elections in April that Aung San Suu Kyi’s party won by a landslide – are generally seen as a first step toward economic recovery since they have prompted Western nations to suspend damaging economic sanctions.

On Friday, at the World Economic Forum, Aung San Suu Kyi will be addressing the sorts of Asian movers and shakers whom Myanmar is counting on to invest in the country’s economic revival. Businessmen from around the world have recently been pouring into Yangon, the country’s commercial capital, seeking opportunities as Myanmar opens up to the rest of the world.

Aung San Suu Kyi’s trip to Thailand is a sort of test run, though nobody seriously expects the Myanmar government to turn her back when she flies home to Yangon this weekend.

 Next month she sets off on a more ambitious journey, and one freighted with sentiment as much as with politics, to Europe.

Besides visiting Switzerland and Ireland, Aung San Suu Kyi will go to Britain, where she was living before she returned to Myanmar in 1988 to care for her ailing mother, and where her British husband died in her absence. She will also go to Oslo, to formally accept the Nobel Peace Prize that she could not collect in person in 1991, for fear of getting stuck outside her homeland. 

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Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe follows proceedings at celebrations to mark 32 years of independence of Zimbabwe, in Harare, in this April 18 file photo. Mugabe has just been named the UN’s international envoy for tourism, despite a long record of human rights abuses. (AP/File)

Why Zimbabwe's President Mugabe was named UN 'tourism envoy'

By Scott BaldaufStaff writer / 05.30.12

Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe has just been named the UN’s international envoy for tourism. It’s a special recognition for Mr. Mugabe’s agreement to co-host, with Zambia, a United Nations World Tourism Organization general assembly next August.

At a ceremony in Victoria Falls, Mugabe said the agreement between Zimbabwe, Zambia, and the United Nations is of “historical importance.”
 
 “For our people, the signing of the agreement attests to our commitment, our readiness to welcome the entire tourism fraternity to our countries,” Mugabe was quoted by the independent Zimbabwe newspaper NewsDay as saying. “For the UN World Tourism Organisation, on the other hand, the signatures testify to the confidence and trust that was bestowed upon us.”

That Mugabe, a man who faces a European Union travel ban and economic sanctions because of his repression and torture of opposition activists, would be named a UN envoy for tourism has drawn a certain amount of criticism.

Mr. Mugabe’s ruling party is accused of arresting, detaining, and in some cases killing members of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change during the 2008 national elections. He later formed a coalition government with the MDC, after an 11-month stalemate in which the national currency became worthless and inflation soared to more than 1 million percent.

Mugabe is also blamed for a violent land-reclamation campaign, in which armed thugs stormed and took over the property of white commercial farmers, as well as the Gukurahundi counterinsurgency campaign in the early 1980s against the rival ZAPO militant group in the Matabeleland region, which killed as many as 20,000 people.

So Mugabe’s selection as UN tourism envoy is not an obvious choice.

At the Victoria Falls ceremony, where Mugabe and Zambian President Michael Sata signed an agreement to hold the UNWTO assembly, the UN’s Taleb Rifai told a gathering, “By coming here, it is recognition, an endorsement on the country that it is a safe destination."

Zimbabwe once had a thriving tourism industry, both before and after the fall of the racist white Rhodesian government to Mugabe’s ZANU-PF majority government in 1980. Then, tourists flocked to see the gorgeous Victoria Falls or trundled around game parks to see lions, elephants, and rhinos in their native environment. Economic collapse and political instability changed all that, and Mugabe’s hanging on to power for 32 years has given the local tourism industry little incentive to grow. A UN conference will certainly add a little jingle in a few pockets, but once the suited diplomats leave, there is little indication that Zimbabwe’s tourism industry is heading toward a revival.

Members of the MDC, an opposition party that now shares power with Mugabe’s ZANU-PF, condemned the UN’s honoring of Mugabe.

"I can't see any justification for the man being an 'ambassador,' " Kumbi Muchemwa, an MDC spokesman told the Guardian newspaper. "An ambassador for what? The man has blood on his hands. Do they want tourists to see those bloody hands?”

Mugabe's spokesman Rugare Gumbo told the Telegraph that the "situation on the ground in Zimbabwe is not as bad as portrayed."

There have been rumors for years that Mugabe would like to step down from power, and pave the way for a peaceful succession for his ZANU-PF to remain in power, so the seeming rehabilitation of Mugabe by various UN agencies could be seen as a gentle nudge toward honorable retirement.

Navi Pillay, the UN’s High Commissioner for Human Rights, urged Europe and the US to lift economic sanctions and travel bans against Mugabe and his inner circle of supporters because all three of the major parties in Zimbabwe now oppose them. Lifting sanctions would allow Zimbabwe to hold a fresh round of elections, perhaps by early next year, Ms. Pillay said.

"I would urge those countries that are currently applying sanctions on Zimbabwe to suspend them, at least until the conduct and outcome of the elections and related reforms are clear," Pillay told journalists on May 25, following a five day trip to Harare, Zimbabwe’s capital.

Could a few honorary degrees, an honorary ambassadorship, and a few thousand tourists persuade Mugabe to step down from power? Perhaps. It’s certainly a cheaper alternative to war.

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In this January 2011 file photo, Iranian journalism students use computers in an internet cafe in central Tehran, Iran. A new supervirus, which the Russian Internet security firm Kaspersky Labs discovered and named 'Flame,' designed to scoop up secret information like an 'industrial vacuum cleaner' is infecting computers in Iran and elsewhere in the Middle East. (Vahid Salemi/AP)

Russian security firm spots cyber supervirus that tops Stuxnet

By Correspondent / 05.29.12

A computer virus designed to scoop up secret information like an "industrial vacuum cleaner" is infecting computers in Iran and elsewhere in the Middle East, according to the Russian Internet security firm Kaspersky Labs.

The new supervirus, which Kaspersky discovered and named "Flame," is one of the most complex items of malicious software ever conceived – many times more sophisticated than the notorious Stuxnet worm – and could well be a purposeful "cyberweapon" directed against Iran, the firm said in a statement late yesterday.

Flame is "actively being used as a cyberweapon attacking entities in several countries," Kaspersky said in a statement. It is "one of the most advanced and complete attack-toolkits ever discovered.… The complexity and functionality of the newly discovered malicious program exceed those of all other cyber menaces known to date."

According to Kaspersky, the majority of infected computers are in Iran, followed by the Palestinian territories, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt. It said the virus has probably been active for at least two years, but has not been detected until now due to its "extreme complexity."

"Over recent years the danger of military operations in Cyberspace has been one of the most serious issues of information safety," Yevgeny Kaspersky, the firm's director, is quoted as saying in the statement. "Stuxnet and Duqu were parts of one circuit of cyber attacks; their application raised concerns of a potential unleashing of global cyber war. Harmful Flame, most likely, is next stage of that war. It is important to understand, that this cyberweapon can be easily turned against any state."

The firm said it found the virus accidentally, after it was hired by the United Nations International Telecommunications Agency to trace the source of unexplained glitches and deletions of sensitive information in the agency's Middle East operations. A spokesman for Kaspersky told journalists yesterday that the virus's creator "remains unknown"; but it is probably a government, not only because of its huge size and complexity, but also because it does not appear to be designed to steal bank account information or perform the sorts of tasks usually set by private criminal hackers.

Stuxnet, which reportedly wreaked havoc on Iran's nuclear program, was designed to disrupt and destroy sensitive industrial systems. The new virus, which Kaspersky admits it does not yet fully understand, appears to evade detection, bury itself deeply, and continue siphoning off vital data for years.

Iran's official Maher Labs, a division of Iran's telecommunications ministry, said on its website today that "tools to recognize and clean this malware have been developed and, as of today, they will be available for those [Iranian] organizations and companies who want it."

Among the key characteristics of the virus, Maher said, are "distribution via removable medias and local networks, network sniffing, detecting network resources and collecting lists of vulnerable passwords, scanning the disk of infected system looking for specific extensions and contents, creating series of user’s screen captures when some specific processes or windows are active, transferring saved data to control servers, and bypassing tens of known antiviruses, anti malware and other security software."

The virus can infect computers running any Windows-based operating system, it said.

"We can clean this virus now, but we are still analyzing and discovering what it's capable of," says Vitaly Kamluk, chief malware expert at Kaspersky. "It took years to detect and understand Duqu and Stuxnet. These were highly profesional tools that evaded us for a long time. Flame is the newest, but there's no doubt that worse things may be out there. You can count on it."

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With a mouse click, an expat casts his French vote, from Beijing

By Staff writer / 05.29.12

Living as a foreigner in China, where none of my local friends has ever had a chance to cast a free vote, I make a special point of always voting when I get the opportunity in my own elections.

Yesterday, France (of which I am a citoyen) made it a whole lot easier for me to do so. I cast my ballot online in parliamentary elections – the first time this has been allowed.

In fact, France is only the second country in the world to allow Internet voting in a national election, (Estonia has been doing it since 2007), offering an online ballot to citizens living abroad. Not only that, we were voting for one of 11 seats in parliament specifically reserved (for the first time) for deputies representing expatriates.

I say the system made it “a whole lot easier.”

But, not exactly. In fact, all in all, it probably took me longer than it would have done to nip over to the French embassy to vote in person at the polling station there next Sunday. But that was because of security concerns, and it took a phone call to a helpline agent in France to sort out various problems with Java script before I could cast my virtual vote.

Security concerns, of course, are what stop Americans from being able to vote online. The Pentagon tried a system in 2000 for its personnel deployed overseas, but decided it was too vulnerable to hackers and abandoned it.

The French are pretty cautious too. Only people registered at a French consulate could vote online, and each voter needed a 10 character personal code sent (once only) by SMS to a mobile phone and another 10 character password sent to a verified e-mail address.

I am no computer geek, but if complexity is any indication of security I am comfortable with the procedures in place. After I had voted I was sent a “control code” that I can use to ensure that my vote is counted: that code comprised 337 digits, symbols, and letters in upper and lower case, more than four lines.

If my math is right, that means there are 65 to the power of 337 possible combinations of the components of my code. Pretty personalized.

In fact the technical aspects of voting were only the half of it. The real challenge was political: My constituency covers 41 countries, from Vanuatu to Ukraine, and I had to choose among 21 candidates, only one of whom I had heard of before the elections.

He was a minister in recently-defeated President Nicolas Sarkozy’s last government and is the only candidate presenting himself in my constituency who has never lived abroad. As far as I’m concerned, that rules him out from the start.

So I read a whole lot of online manifestos, and made my choice, and moved my cursor to the appropriate button and clicked my left mouse-key.

Democracy in action, in the heart of Beijing. A shame you have to be a citoyen francais to enjoy it...

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