21 April 2017 13:13

US Vice President Mike Pence announced $10 billion in deals between American and Indonesian companies during a visit to Jakarta Friday, as he pushed for greater access to Southeast Asia's top economy.

Eleven deals were signed. Energy firm Exxon Mobil, General Electric, and aerospace giant Lockheed Martin were among the American companies involved in the agreements.

"These deals represent the tremendous excitement that American companies feel about opportunities in Indonesia,” said Pence.

Exxon Mobil will sell liquefied natural gas to Indonesian state-owned energy company Pertamina, General Electric will provide technology for Indonesian power plants, while Lockheed Martin will provide new weapons systems for F-16 fighter jets.

During the visit to Indonesia, his latest stop on an Asia tour, Pence has been pushing to help US firms who want to do business in Indonesia -- one of several countries targeted by Donald Trump's administration for running a trade surplus with the US.

During a meeting at a Jakarta hotel Friday where the deals were announced, Pence told business leaders that he and President Joko Widodo had "very candidly and very respectfully" discussed how to improve market access for US firms in Indonesia when they held talks.

He said earlier on the visit that Washington wanted to "break down barriers" for exporters seeking to enter the Indonesian market.

Indonesia has long been targeted by foreign investors, as it has enjoyed robust growth in recent years, driven by exports of its key commodities even as many developed countries have struggled. 

The country of 255 million people is home to a rapidly growing middle class and an army of consumers whose spending power is increasing.

But Indonesia can be a notoriously difficult place to do business due to nationalistic policies, complex bureaucracy and problems with corruption, and foreign firms have often run into trouble. 

The latest example of a US company facing problems is a row between the government and mining giant Freeport-McMoRan, which runs a huge gold and copper mine in Indonesia, after authorities demanded they obtain a new licence to operate.

Pence departed Indonesia Friday for the next stop on his tour, Australia. He has already visited South Korea and Japan on a trip that is aimed at smoothing some of the rougher edges of Trump's rhetoric.

Agence France-Presse



  31 March 2017 17:00

Cases of depression have ballooned almost 20 percent in a decade, making the debilitating disorder linked to suicide the leading cause of disability worldwide, the World Health Organization said Thursday.

By 2015, the number of people globally living with depression, according to a revised definition, had reached 322 million, up 18.4 percent since 2005, the UN agency said.

"These new figures are a wake-up call for all countries to rethink their approaches to mental health and to treat it with the urgency that it deserves," WHO chief Margaret Chan said in a statement.

According to the agency's definition, depression is more than just a bout of the blues.

It is a "persistent sadness and a loss of interest in activities that people normally enjoy, accompanied by an inability to carry out daily activities for two weeks or more."

Lack of energy, shifts in appetite or sleep patterns, substance abuse, anxiety, feelings of worthlessness and thoughts of self-harm or suicide are also common, and can wreak havoc on entire families. 

The drop in productivity, and other medical conditions often linked to depression, also takes a financial toll, with the global cost estimated at $1 trillion annually, the WHO said.

Shekhar Saxena, head of the agency's mental health and substance abuse department, said Thursday that both psycho-social and medical treatments could be highly effective, insisting on the importance of reaching more of those in need.

Even in the most developed countries, around half of people suffering from depression are not diagnosed or treated, and the percentage soars to between 80 and 90 percent in less developed nations.

Treatment can be difficult to access, while a fear of stigma also prevents many people from seeking the help required to live healthy and productive lives, the agency said.

According to the WHO, every dollar invested in improving access to treatment leads to a return of $4 in better health and productivity.

And "early identification and treatment of depression is a very effective means of decreasing death by suicide," Saxena told reporters.

About 800,000 people commit suicide worldwide every year, amounting to one suicide every four seconds.

And the link to depression is clear.

Saxena pointed to studies showing that 70 to 80 percent of people who commit suicide in high-income countries, and around half of those who kill themselves in low-income countries, suffer from mental disorders, of which depression is the most common.


Agence France-Presse


  31 March 2017 16:00

Rio de Janeiro prosecutors are seeking a 20,000-reais ($6,400) fine for pop star Justin Bieber, currently on tour in Brazil, for unauthorized wall-tagging of a historic hotel in 2013.

Judge Rudi Baldi Loewenkron reopened the case on March 21 at the request of the Rio public prosecutor's office, which wanted the Canadian singer to be informed of his crimes when he returned to Rio early Wednesday.

The prosecutors proposed that Bieber pay the fine by making a donation of goods or food to the National Cancer Institute.

Bieber's lawyers now have three days to indicate whether he accepts the proposal.

The star, who gave a crowded concert at the Rio Sambodrome late Wednesday and has two more performances set for this weekend in Sao Paulo, has yet to discuss the case on social media.

"Because this is a crime with less potential to re-offend, we are not requesting that his passport be held," prosecutors said.

During his 2013 stay in Rio, Bieber — then 19 — tagged the wall of Nacional Hotel after refusing for security reasons to spray graffiti in an area where he had received permission from the mayor.

During that visit, Bieber was also photographed emerging under a blanket from a notorious Rio brothel and later vainly tried to bring prostitutes into the posh Copacabana Palace.

Furious at being thwarted, the then teen sensation reportedly went on a rampage in his suite, breaking various objects valued at nearly $6,000 in total.

Bieber and his entourage were subsequently kicked out of the hotel.

Agence France-Presse


  16 March 2017 13:30

A computer security firm on Wednesday revealed a flaw that could let hackers break into WhatsApp or Telegram messaging accounts using the very encryption intended to protect messages.

Check Point Software Technologies said that it alerted Telegram and Facebook-owned WhatsApp last week, waiting until the vulnerability was patched before making it public.

Check Point did not specify how many messaging accounts were at risk, but did say the flaw posed a danger to "hundreds of millions" of users accessing the messaging platform from web browsers in computers, as opposed to mobile applications.

"This new vulnerability put hundreds of millions of WhatsApp Web and Telegram Web users at risk of complete account take over,” Check Point head of product vulnerability Oded Vanunu said in a release.

"By simply sending an innocent looking photo, an attacker could gain control over the account, access message history, all photos that were ever shared, and send messages on behalf of the user."

The vulnerability made it possible for an attacker to booby-trap a digital image with malicious code that could spring into action after the picture is clicked on for viewing, according to Check Point.

The malicious code could then hijack an account, and even spread itself like a virus by sending infected messages to those listed as contacts.

WhatsApp and Telegram use end-to-end encryption designed to make certain only senders and recipients can see what is in messages.

The privacy protection had the side effect of preventing the services from being able to discern whether message contents included malicious code, according to Check Point.

To remedy the situation, both services shifted to finding and blocking viruses before messages are encrypted, the security researchers said.

WhatsApp is one of the most popular instant messaging services in the world with more than a billion users. Telegram claims only 100 million or so users, but is often cited as a preferred communications tool of jihadists because of encryption to keep messages from the eyes of authorities.

Agence France-Presse


  15 March 2017 19:30

Germany's justice minister proposed a law Tuesday that could see social networks such as Facebook slapped with heavy fines if they fail to wipe illegal hate speech from their sites.

The minister, Heiko Maas, who has been highly critical of Facebook's efforts to clamp down on outlawed racist and xenophobic posts and comments, said the new measures could carry penalties against the offending company of up to 50 million euros (Rp 710 billion).

He noted the draft law, which would still require the approval of Chancellor Angela Merkel's cabinet and then the parliament, followed several months in which companies had been allowed to take voluntary measures.

"These have proved insufficient, and they (the posts) are not being deleted quickly enough," Maas told reporters, citing data provided by internet watchdog jugendschutz.net.

A surge of hate speech on Facebook and other social media in Germany has raised the political heat on the companies ahead of a general election in September.

Facebook and other web giants pledged in 2015 to examine and remove within 24 hours any hateful comments spreading online, in particular over the mass influx of migrants and refugees.

However Maas said Tuesday that "networks aren't taking the complaints of their own users seriously enough".

He said that of the content reported by users deemed to run afoul of Germany's strict hate speech laws, Twitter only took down one percent and Facebook 39 percent.

Google's YouTube video sharing platform fared better, with a rate of 90 percent according to jugendschutz.net data cited by the minister.

Maas's draft law stipulates that social networks must offer users clear and easily accessible means to file complaints, review them quickly and delete blatantly illegal content within 24 hours.

At the latest, offensive posts would have to be taken down within one week after a complaint is submitted. 

Companies would also be required to file quarterly reports on their efforts to crack down on hate speech.

Maas's hard line, among the toughest in the European Union, has its critics within the government.

This month Economy Minister Brigitte Zypries, like Maas a Social Democrat, warned against a sweeping law, saying responsibility for enforcing hate speech legislation should not be "privatised". 

However the Central Council of Jews in Germany welcomed Maas's proposal, saying stronger measures against "incitement of racial hatred, glorification of National Socialism and Holocaust denial on social media" were "urgently required".

© Agence France-Presse


  13 March 2017 17:45

Saudi Arabia's powerful Deputy Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, seeking foreign investment in an economic reform plan, left for the US Monday to meet President Donald Trump, state media said.

Prince Mohammad will be the highest-ranking Saudi official to hold talks with Trump since the US leader took office in January. 

The visit, which officially begins Thursday, focuses on the "strengthening of bilateral relations... and regional issues of mutual interest," the Saudi Press Agency said.

Second in line to the throne, Prince Mohammad is the son of King Salman and holds the post of defence minister, although much of his focus is on economic issues.

He is the chief proponent of Vision 2030, a wide-ranging social and economic reform plan begun last year to diversify the oil dependent economy.

Washington and Riyadh have a decades-old relationship based on the exchange of American security for Saudi oil.

But ties became increasingly frayed during the eight-year administration of former president Barack Obama.

Saudi leaders felt Obama was reluctant to get involved in the civil war in Syria and was tilting towards Riyadh's regional rival Iran.

Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir has expressed optimism that the Trump presidency will be more engaged in the region, particularly in containing Iran.

Saudi Arabia regularly accuses Iran of interfering in the affairs of its neighbours, particularly in Yemen where Tehran backs rebels fighting the internationally recognised government.

The US provides weapons, refuelling and intelligence support for a Saudi-led coalition helping Yemen's government battle the Huthi rebels and their allies.

Prince Mohammad's trip comes as King Salman, 81, is on an Asian tour lasting about one month and emphasising economic ties.

A foreign diplomat told AFP the king is travelling with a large cross-section of the royal family and the tour is seen by some as a way to help him build loyalty to Prince Mohamad.

Analysts have pointed to rivalry between Prince Mohammad and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, 56, the first in line to the throne who is also interior minister.

Agence France-Presse


  10 March 2017 18:10

Refugees who sheltered fugitive whistleblower Edward Snowden in Hong Kong are formally seeking asylum from the Canadian government as their lawyers said Thursday their lives are in danger.

The impoverished refugees living hand to mouth in the city took in the former National Security Agency contractor in 2013, helping him to evade authorities by hiding him in their cramped homes after he initiated one of the largest data leaks in US history. 

Their stories only emerged late last year and lawyers say they are now in the spotlight of Hong Kong and their home countries.

The refugees say they have been specifically asked about their links to Snowden by Hong Kong authorities. 

Their lawyers and some city legislators say two Snowden hosts, from Sri Lanka, have been targeted by agents from their own country who have travelled to Hong Kong. 

Speaking to reporters on Thursday, Canadian lawyer Marc-Andre Seguin said: "It is a matter of life and death." 

Seguin is one of a legal team for the refugees trying to raise awareness of their situation in Hong Kong, Canada and around the world.  

The lawyers say they want Canada to consider taking them in because of their "exceptional circumstances", rather than trying to set any kind of precedent. 

Canada has a track record of accepting refugees.

The asylum petition has been lodged with the Canadian government.

"What we're asking is that he (the immigration minister) expedite the process and give priority given the exceptional circumstances," Seguin said.

"What adds to the exceptional nature of the case is that there are three stateless children who are involved here and affected by that," he added.

After leaving his initial Hong Kong hotel bolthole for fear of being discovered, Snowden went underground, fed and looked after by refugees for around two weeks.

Hong Kong is not a signatory to the UN's refugee convention and does not grant asylum.

However, it is bound by the UN Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (UNCAT) and considers claims for protection based on those grounds. 

It also considers claims based on risk of persecution.

After government screening, claimants found to be at risk of persecution are referred to the UN's refugee agency, which can try to resettle them to a safe third country.

But with fewer than one percent of cases successfully substantiated by city authorities, most refugees live in fear of deportation.

Like Snowden's hosts, Hong Kong's 11,000 marginalised refugees spend years in limbo, hoping the government will eventually support their claims.

Vanessa Rodel from the Philippines, who has a five-year-old daughter and is one of those seeking asylum in Canada, has said she has no regrets about taking Snowden in.

"I am hopeful that we can get into Canada and start a new life (with) safety and freedom," she told AFP.

Agence France-Presse