Jun 15, 2020

Axios World

By Dave Lawler
Dave Lawler

Welcome back to Axios World. Tonight's journey includes stops in courtrooms, battlefields and bullrings. It's 1,643 words (6 minutes).

  • Podcast fans: Check out Axios Re:Cap, hosted by my colleague Dan Primack. Ten minutes on the day's news, with a business lens. Today's guest is former NBA star Jalen Rose.
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1 big thing: Three consequential convictions

Maria Ressa arrives in court. Photo: Ezra Acayan/Getty Images

Three verdicts handed down in the last few days could have consequences far beyond the courtroom.

Driving the news: Maria Ressa and Paul Whelan, both U.S. citizens, were sentenced to prison Monday in the Philippines and Russia respectively. On Saturday, Australian Karm Gilespie received a death sentence in China.

  • Ressa and her news site, Rappler, have become symbols of the global fight to preserve press freedom. Her conviction for cyber libel was quickly decried by activists and journalists but not, thus far, by the U.S. government.
  • Whelan and Gilespie, meanwhile, have been caught up in standoffs between global powers.

The backstory: Ressa and Rappler have been hounded by President Rodrigo Duterte’s government for years. They face at least 11 other cases or investigations, Axios fellow Camille Elemia reports.

  • Ressa and a former Rappler colleague face six months to six years in prison, pending appeal, after being convicted under a law that didn't exist when they published the story in question.
  • The government argued that when Rappler updated the story in 2014 to fix a typo — “evation” was changed to “evasion” — it became subject to the new law.
  • The conviction for Ressa, who holds U.S. and Philippine citizenship, is another milestone in Duterte’s clampdown on the free press. The country’s largest broadcaster, ABS-CBN, is currently off the air due to a separate dispute.
  • What to watch: The cyber libel law could ultimately be applied to anything posted online — not just from media outlets.

Whelan’s case began in December 2018 when agents from Russia's security services, the FSB, stormed into his room in Moscow’s Metropol Hotel.

  • They accused Whelan — who holds Canadian, Irish, U.K. and U.S. passports — of possessing a USB drive containing classified information. He said it was a setup and he'd been handed the drive minutes earlier without knowing what was on it.
  • Former U.S. intelligence officials say Whelan would never have been sent to Moscow to spy, particularly without diplomatic protections. Some speculated he was being held as potential leverage for a prisoner swap.
  • Whelan protested his innocence to journalists at court hearings, which he could not understand as they were held entirely in Russian.
  • The latest: Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called today for Whelan's immediate release, condemned the “secret trial, with secret evidence” and said his treatment had been “appalling.”

Gillespie’s case is murkier still. The death sentence was China's first acknowledgment that it had been secretly holding him for seven years, reportedly for attempting to smuggle meth into the country.

  • It comes amid backlash from Beijing over Australia's push for a probe into the origins of the coronavirus pandemic.
  • China placed restrictions on agricultural imports from Australia and warned Chinese tourists against visiting the country, which relies heavily on trade with China. The Australian government says Gilespie's case is not necessarily linked to the broader tensions.
  • Zoom out: China does have a history of using prisoners as geopolitical pawns. Canadians Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor are being held in China in apparent retaliation for the arrest in Canada of Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou, who faces possible extradition to the U.S. for allegedly conspiring to evade U.S. sanctions.
2. Middle East: The tide turns in Libya

Fighters loyal to the Tripoli government, near Sirte. Photo: Mucahit Aydemir/Anadolu Agency via Getty

With renegade Gen. Khalifa Haftar's fighters retreating from Libya’s capital and militias supporting the UN-backed government on the offensive, the foreign countries powering Libya’s civil war are scrambling to adjust to a new reality.

The big picture: Russia, the UAE, Egypt and to a lesser extent France embraced the idea of a secular strongman taking control in Libya after years of chaos. But Haftar's offensive turned into a yearlong stalemate, and now a string of embarrassing defeats.

  • Turkey, the Tripoli government’s most powerful backer, stands to benefit from the shifting tide — possibly through the military use of Libyan ports and drilling rights in contested areas.
  • Russia, which sent aircraft and mercenaries in support of Haftar but has now reportedly pulled them off the front lines, is set to hold talks soon with Turkey on Libya as well as Syria.
  • Haftar, meanwhile, appeared alongside Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi last week to call for a ceasefire.
  • The Tripoli government is pushing on. Mohammed Abdallah, a U.S.-based adviser to the government, tells Axios that Haftar must be forced “out of Sirte and possibly oil ports before his reps will acknowledge reality.”
  • The war has been brutal. As Haftar’s forces retreated, at least eight mass graves were discovered.

What to watch: While Haftar’s position has been severely weakened, he still holds the sparsely populated but oil-rich East — a claim backed by Russian muscle. That’s led to speculation the country could be formally partitioned.

3. Europe: Lively fight over dead men

For Churchill, a gathering storm. Photo: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

The Great Statue Debate sparked by Black Lives Matter protests has intensified in Europe, particularly in the U.K.

Driving the news: Depictions of slave traders have come down, Winston Churchill’s statue in Parliament Square was vandalized, and far-right counter-protesters clashed with police in London over the weekend.

This debate has launched a thousand columns.

  • The Economist argues, for example, that figures best known for things we now find repugnant — like growing rich off the slave trade, or fighting to defend it — should be moved to museums, where more context can be provided.
  • Those “known chiefly for their contribution to their country” can stay —including George Washington, who owned slaves, and Churchill, who espoused racist views.

What they're saying: U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson declared he would “resist with every breath in my body any attempt to remove” Churchill's statue, Axios’ Rebecca Falconer writes.

  • French President Emmanuel Macron, while denouncing racism, also declared France "won’t take down statues."
  • Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison told those calling for the removal of statues of 18th century explorer Captain James Cook to "get a bit of a grip" and incorrectly claimed Australia had no history of slavery (he later apologized).
  • Prince Laurent of Belgium defended his ancestor King Leopold II over the appalling abuses in Congo cited by those removing his statues. "He never went to the Congo. I don't see how he could have made people suffer on the ground," he said.
4. State of the outbreak: By the numbers
Expand chart
Data: The Center for Systems Science and Engineering at Johns Hopkins; Map: Axios Visuals

One-half of coronavirus deaths reported in the last 24 hours occurred in Brazil (892), the U.S. (646) or Mexico (424).

  • The Americas are now firmly established as the pandemic’s epicenter, with Chile (222) and Peru (190) also among the countries recording the most deaths.

6% of the global population could receive Moderna’s vaccine in the first year if it proves safe and effective and ambitious production targets are met, Axios’ Bob Herman reports.

  • At least six other vaccines have entered phase two trials, but it remains unclear how vaccines will be distributed if and when they become available.

75% of Indians approve of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s performance, according to a Morning Consult tracker. That’s despite a lockdown strategy criticized abroad as ill-conceived.

  • He benefits from a reputation for decisiveness, a weak opposition and a mastery of the media, per Eurasia Group.
  • Australia’s Scott Morrison (64%), Canada’s Justin Trudeau (58%) and Germany’s Angela Merkel (57%) have all seen their approval ratings spike during the pandemic.
  • The opposite is true for Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro (38%) and Japan’s Shinzo Abe (26%).
  • Mexico’s Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s ratings are high (54%) but trending downward, while France’s Emmanuel Macron’s have ticked up but remain low (32%).
  • In the U.K., Boris Johnson’s shot up (46% --> 66%) before returning to earth (44%).
5. Sports and the pandemic

A bullfight in Barcelona. Photo: David Ramos/Getty Images

Based on the response the last time I mentioned the English Premier League, I’m guessing many of you are looking forward to the return of the world’s most-watched soccer league on Wednesday.

But in Spain, a sport closely linked with the national culture may never bounce back. Axios’ Jeff Tracy reports on the fight to save bullfighting, or end it once and for all:

  • As countless bullfights and festivals were canceled over the past three months, many breeders were forced to sell their bulls for slaughter, which only recoups about 10% of the investment required to rear a fighting bull.
  • Bullfighting supporters have staged protests across the country to demand government subsidies. "We want them to treat us as they would any other cultural industry," says breeder Victorino Martín.
  • The other side: Those who oppose bullfighting see a unique opportunity to rid Spain of a "national shame.” Over 160,000 people have signed a petition opposing subsidies.
6. What I'm reading: Fiona Hill, in profile

Fiona Hill testifies. Photo: Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post via Getty

Fiona Hill was the most-discussed woman in Washington for a time in November, when she testified that the Trump administration had been running a parallel foreign policy in Ukraine that excluded people like her — formerly the National Security Council’s director for Europe and Russia.

Hill escaped the spotlight into quarantine in Bethesda, but she emerged over the weekend as the subject of a profile from the Guardian’s Julian Borger and the latest “Lunch with the FT” guest.

  • Borger found Hill surrounded by books she’d been reading “to try to piece together an explanation of why" the U.K., the U.S. and Russia “had all failed so spectacularly in handling” coronavirus.
  • Hill, a miner’s daughter from the north of England, says there are parallels between the populist nationalism in all three countries, as "people have got stuck — stuck in place both metaphorically and physically."
  • She could have been stuck too. She discusses the deep embarrassment she felt during an admissions interview at Oxford, arriving “in clothes her mum had sewn,” per the FT, only to have her accent mocked by her fellow applicants, one of whom tripped her.
  • She made it to St. Andrews, to Harvard and eventually to the White House.
  • Even there, Trump confused her for a secretary, she tells Borger, when he wanted someone to type up a press release following a call with Vladimir Putin (about whom Hill had co-authored a highly regarded book).

While Trump has no regard for expertise and the infighting in his White House rivals the Bolsheviks, Hill says, she doesn’t attribute his behavior toward Putin to anything more nefarious than a desire to charm people:

  • “Trump just wants to sit down with the guy, whoever it is, and create personal chemistry and then everyone else works out the details,” she told Borger.
7. Stories we're watching

Stormy weather in Yangon, Myanmar. Photo: Sai Aung Main/AFP via Getty

  1. Lawmakers demand answers from Zoom CEO
  2. Beijing closes food market amid fears of second wave
  3. India reports record increase in coronavirus cases
  4. Russia doubles death toll amid scrutiny from WHO
  5. Ukraine seizes $5 million bribe related to Burisma
  6. UAE sends message to Israeli public on annexation
  7. Bolton to argue Trump misconduct


"Game on."
— John Bolton to Trump on the back cover of his forthcoming book, which the White House has tried to block.
Dave Lawler

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