Slain Journalist’s Investigative Report Published on Slovak Site

A Slovak website has published the unfinished investigative report on alleged government ties to the mafia written by slain journalist Jan Kuciak.

Kuciak and his girlfriend, Martina Kusnirova, were found dead Sunday in their home east of Bratislava. It was the first time a journalist’s death in Slovakia was linked to his or her work.

Kuciak’s story describes the alleged connection between a suspected member of the Italian ‘Ndrangheta organized crime family in Slovakia and two senior aides to Prime Minister Robert Fico.

The two aides — security council secretary Viliam Jasan and chief state adviser Maria Troskova — say they are shocked by the murders but deny any connection to the killings. They say they are stepping down from their posts until the investigation is complete.

Fico called the shootings an unprecedented attack on the freedom of the press and democracy in Slovakia. However, he warned newspapers against linking “innocent people” to a double slaying “without any evidence. Don’t do it.”

Slovak police chief Tibor Gaspar said Wednesday that Kuciak and Kusnirova were most likely killed because of Kuciak’s work as an investigative journalist. He said both were killed with the same weapon, which is missing.

The shootings have outraged Slovaks. More than a thousand people turned out for an opposition-sponsored protest, and student marches are planned across the country Friday.

State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said the U.S. is “shocked and saddened” by the murders, and calls for a “swift, determined investigation” to bring the killers to justice.

Montenegrin Defense Chief Says NATO Contributions on Target for 2024

Montenegrin Defense Minister Predrag Boskovic says the country is on target to spend 2 percent of annual economic output on defense by 2024, in keeping with a promise to expand military budgets as the United States offers an increase in its own defense spending in Europe.

Boskovic met with U.S. Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis on Tuesday, his first visit to the Pentagon since Montenegro became the 29th member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in June 2017.

“Montenegro, as a new member, will reach that target by 2024,” Boskovic said in an interview with VOA’s Serbian Service, after meeting with Mattis. “We are spending 1.7 percent already this year, and I think we can reach 2 percent level without any great effort.”

U.S. President Donald Trump has repeatedly criticized NATO allies for not spending enough on defense, claiming it is unfair to taxpayers in the United States. Earlier this month in Brussels, Mattis pressed European allies to stick to a promise to increase military budgets in lockstep with increased U.S. spending.

Fifteen of 28 NATO countries, excluding the United States, now have a strategy to meet a NATO benchmark first agreed to in 2014 in response to Russia’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea region, following years of cuts to European defense budgets.

​Afghanistan, Kosovo

Boskovic also announced that his country is planning to increase its troop presence in Afghanistan, where Montenegro currently has 18 soldiers participating in Operation Resolute Support, a NATO-led training and advisory mission with more than 13,000 soldiers.

The mission has been engaged in Afghanistan since 2015.

“We have already made a decision to increase the number of our soldiers in Afghanistan, which needs to be approved by the parliament, and I don’t doubt that by next rotation, we’ll have more troops in the country,” Boskovic told VOA.

Mattis, according to the readout of Tuesday’s meeting, praised the “significant contributions Montenegro has made to the Resolute Support mission in Afghanistan, and lauded the country’s plan to meet the Wales Summit defense spending pledge by 2024.”

Montenegro has also decided to send members of its armed forces to the NATO-led international peacekeeping force in Kosovo, known as KFOR. Montenegro’s plan to participate in the KFOR mission in Kosovo has been criticized by some officials in Serbia, which does not recognize Kosovo’s independence.

Two officers are expected to join KFOR by the end of the year, Boskovic told VOA.

This story originated in VOA’s Serbian Service.

Facebook Launches Job Search Feature for Low-Skilled Workers

Facebook wants to make it easier for people to find low-skilled jobs online.

After testing the new software in U.S. and Canada since last year, Facebook added job postings Wednesday in another 40 countries across Europe and elsewhere.

The software works with both Apple and PC operating systems.

Users can find openings using the Jobs dashboard on Facebook’s web sidebar or its mobile app’s More section. The search can be filtered according to area and type of industry, as well as between full-time and part-time jobs.

Users can automatically fill out applications with information from their Facebook profile, submit the applications and schedule interviews.

Businesses can post job openings using the Jobs tab on their page, and include advertisements.

Separately, Facebook announced the introduction of a face recognition software that helps users quickly find photos they’re in, but haven’t been tagged in. The new software will help users protect themselves against unauthorized use of their photos, as well as allow visually impaired users learn who is in their photos and videos.

Moon to Get Its Own Mobile Network

Several high-tech companies are teaming up on a plan to put a mobile phone network on the moon next year.

Vodaphone Germany, Nokia, and Audi are working on a mobile network and robotic vehicles that are part of a private expedition to the moon, timed to coincide with the 50th anniversary year of the first manned lunar landing.

The project with PTScientists in Germany would use a 4G network to send high-definition information from rovers back to a lunar lander, which would then be able to communicate it back to Earth. 

Project scientists say the system uses less energy than having rovers speak directly to Earth, leaving more power for scientific activities. 

They plan to launch the vehicles from Cape Canaveral next year on a Space X Falcon 9 rocket. 

Facebook: No New Evidence Russia Interfered in Brexit Vote

Facebook Inc has told a British parliamentary committee that further investigations have found no new evidence that Russia used social media to interfere in the June 2016 referendum in which Britain voted to leave the European Union.

Facebook UK policy director Simon Milner in a letter Wednesday told the House of Commons Committee on Digital, Culture Media and Sport that the latest investigation the company undertook in mid-January to try to “identify clusters of coordinated Russian activity around the Brexit referendum that were not identified previously” had been unproductive.

Using the same methodology that Facebook used to identify U.S. election-related social media activity conducted by a Russian propaganda outfit called the Internet Research Agency, Milner said the social network had reviewed both Facebook accounts and “the activity of many thousands of advertisers in the campaign period” leading up to the June 23, 2016 referendum.

He said they had “found no additional coordinated Russian-linked accounts or Pages delivering ads to the UK regarding the EU Referendum during the relevant period, beyond the minimal activity we previously disclosed.”

At a hearing on social media political activity that the parliamentary committee held in Washington earlier in February, Milner had promised the panel it would disclose more results of its latest investigation by the end of February.

At the same hearing, Juniper Downs, YouTube’s global head of public policy, said that her company had “conducted a thorough investigation around the Brexit referendum and found no evidence of Russian interference.”

In his letter to the committee, Facebook’s Milner acknowledged that the minimal results in the company’s Brexit review contrasted with the results of Facebook inquiries into alleged Russian interference in U.S. politics. The company’s U.S. investigation results, Milner said, “comport with the recent indictments” Justice Department special counsel Robert Mueller issued against Russian individuals and entities.

Following its Washington hearing, committee chairman Damian Collins MP said his committee expected to finish a report on its inquiry into Social Media and Fake News in late March and that the report is likely to include recommendations for new British laws or regulations regarding social media content.

These could include measures to clarify the companies’ legal liability for material they distribute and their obligations to address social problems the companies’ content could engender, he said.

ISS Astronauts Will Soon Get a Personal Assistant

Astronauts aboard the International Space Station will soon get a personal assistant, similar to Amazon’s Alexa and Apple’s Siri, but so smart that astronauts prefer to call it a “colleague.”

Its official name is CIMON, short for Crew Interactive Mobile Companion, and it will partially live in a five-kilogram ball built by Airbus. It has a video screen with rudimentary face features, cameras with face recognition, microphones and speakers.

CIMON will move freely within the space station; however, its brain will be on Earth in IBM’s supercomputer, named Watson, loaded with a huge amount of scientific knowledge.

CIMON’s main human companion will be German astronaut Alexander Gerst, who will bring it onboard ISS in June. The two are currently training together, as CIMON will have to be able to recognize Gerst’s voice and face, and also to navigate within the complicated interior of the spacecraft.

For starters, Gerst and CIMON will cooperate in experiments with crystals, a complex medical experiment, and also try to solve the Rubik’s magic cube using only videos.

A larger experiment will be the interaction between human and artificial intelligence, especially in view of future deep-space missions.

CIMON’s developers would like to see whether an intelligent interactive assistant will help reduce astronauts’ stress during long flights and improve their efficiency.

Artificial Intelligence Poses Big Threat to Society, Warn Leading Scientists

Artificial Intelligence is on the cusp of transforming our world in ways many of us can barely imagine. While there’s much excitement about emerging technologies, a new report by 26 of the world’s leading AI researchers warns of the potential dangers that could emerge over the coming decade, as AI systems begin to surpass levels of human performance.

Automated hacking is identified as one of the most imminent applications of AI, especially so-called “phishing” attacks.

“That part used to take a lot of human effort – you had to study your target, make a profile of them, craft a particular message – that’s known as phishing. We are now getting to the point where we can train computers to do the same thing. So you can model someone’s topics of interest or preferences, their writing style, the writing style of a close friend, and have a machine automatically create a message that looks a lot like something they would click on,” says report co-author Shahar Avin of the Center for the Study of Existential Risk at Britain’s University of Cambridge.

In an era of so-called “fake news,” the implications of AI for media and journalism are also profound.

Programmers from the University of Washington last year built an AI algorithm to create a video of Barack Obama, allowing them to program the “fake” former president to say anything they wished. It’s just the start, says Avin.

“You create videos and audio recordings that are pixel to pixel indistinguishable from real videos and real audio of people. We will need new technical measures. Maybe some kind of digital signatures, to be able to verify sources.”

There is much excitement over technology such as self-driving AI cars, with big tech companies alongside giant car makers vying to be the first to market. The systems, however, are only as secure as the environments in which they operate.

“You can have a car that is as good and better at navigating the world than your average driver. But you put some stickers on a ‘Stop’ sign and it thinks it’s ‘Go at 55 miles per hour.’ As long as we haven’t fixed that problem, we might have systems that are very safe, but are not secure. We could have a world filled with robotic systems that are very useful and very safe, but are also open to an attack by a malicious actor who knows what they are doing,” adds Avin.

The report warns that the proliferation of drones and other robotic systems could allow attackers “to deploy or re-purpose such systems for harmful ends, such as crashing fleets of autonomous vehicles, turning commercial drones into face-targeting missiles or holding critical infrastructure to ransom.”

He says AI use in warfare is widely seen as one of the most disturbing possibilities, with so-called ‘killer robots’ and decision-making taken out of the hands of humans.

“You want to have an edge over your opponent by deploying lots and lots of sensors, lots and lots of small robotic systems, all of them giving you terabytes of information about what’s happening on the battlefield. And no human would be in a position to aggregate that information, so you would start having decision recommendation systems. At this point, do you still have meaningful human control?”

There is also the danger of AI being used in mass surveillance, especially by oppressive regimes.

The researchers stress the many positive applications of AI; however, they note that it is a dual-use technology, and assert that AI researchers and engineers should be proactive about the potential for its misuse.

The authors say AI itself will likely provide many of the solutions to the problems they identify.

 

Venezuelan Opposition Coalition Condemns Falcon Presidential Bid

Venezuela’s opposition coalition decried a decision by a former state governor to run against President Nicolas Maduro in elections in April, accusing him on Wednesday of undercutting their strategy of boycotting the vote.

Henri Falcon, 56, a former military man who broke with the ruling socialists in 2010 to join the opposition, launched his candidacy in defiance of the Democratic Unity coalition’s policy of not fielding candidates to isolate Maduro.

“With this step, Henri Falcon abandons the (Democratic) Unity and the Venezuelan people’s democratic sentiment,” the coalition said in a series of angry tweets.

“We cannot legitimize a fraudulent election system. We call on Venezuelans to keep fighting for democratic change.”

Opponents say Maduro, 55, has rigged the April 22 presidential vote by ensuring his most popular rivals – Leopoldo Lopez and Henrique Capriles – are barred from standing.

Hard-line protest leader Lopez is under house arrest accused of fomenting violence in anti-Maduro demonstrations in 2014, while Capriles is prohibited from holding offices on a charge of “administrative irregularities” when he was a state governor.

Both men say the accusations were made up to sideline them. Critics also accuse authorities of skewing the field by barring opposition parties from using their party names, failing to reform the pro-Maduro election board, and keeping hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans abroad off the electoral register.

Falcon, however, has decided to challenge the president he calls the “hunger candidate” in reference to Venezuela’s dire economic crisis. He hopes to benefit from widespread dissatisfaction with Maduro and the ruling Socialist Party during a fifth year of recession that has left millions hungry, caused widespread shortages, and fueled a migration exodus.

‘Horrible misery’

“I speak in the name of millions of Venezuelans whom the government promised paradise but gave hell, with a failed and illegitimate model that has plunged us into the most horrible misery of the last 100 years,” Falcon said on Wednesday.

“We must win this election because people do not surrender. They fight, suffer and rise up.”

Given his roots within “Chavismo” – as the ruling movement is known after former President Hugo Chavez – Falcon may appeal to some government supporters, although many also view him as a traitor for having jumped to the opposition eight years ago.

On the other hand, many opposition supporters are also angry with Falcon for deciding to run, saying he is a sellout who is being exploited by Maduro to give legitimacy to a sham election.

One recent poll, however, bucked the consensus of most political analysts by showing Falcon would in fact have a real chance of defeating Maduro.

The survey of 1,000 people in early February, by local pollster Datanalisis for Wall Street investment bank Torino Capital, said that in a two-way race Falcon would defeat Maduro by 45.8 percent to 32.2 percent of likely voters.

Several other minor figures have registered for the election, but have little chance of making an impact.

Maduro’s overall approval rating was up 4.4 points to 26.1 percent, the poll showed, citing the impact of government handouts including food bags, while Falcon’s rating was 38.7 percent.

Falcon styles himself a center-leftist, seeking to combine business-friendly economic policies with strong welfare programs.

Western nations and a dozen Latin American neighbors have been highly critical of the April election, saying Maduro was depriving Venezuelans of fair voting conditions.

Washington is considering slapping oil sanctions on the OPEC nation if Maduro presses ahead without reforms.

Maduro says Venezuela’s election system is clean, and accuses the United States of leading a right-wing international conspiracy to end socialism and take over his nation’s oil.

UN Sets Up ‘Helpline’ to Fight Sexual Harassment Among its Own

The United Nations has set up a 24-hour helpline to fight sexual harassment among its staff in the workplace as part of its Zero Tolerance policy regarding sexual exploitation and abuse. 

The so-called “Speak Up” hotline is part of the U.N. Secretary-General’s wider initiative to fight sexual harassment and to support victims and witnesses.  U.N. spokeswoman in Geneva, Alessandra Vellucci, explains U.N. staff can call the helpline 24 hours a day to speak confidentially to a trained, impartial person about problems of sexual abuse and to provide information.

She says the United Nations also is creating a specialized team to investigate cases of sexual harassment.

“Particular attention of this would be on increasing the number of female investigators,” she said. “So, basically we are strengthening our tools to answer to this problem and put victims at the core of our action.”

While the United Nations can deal with internal problems of sexual harassment, Vellucci says the organization has no control over the behavior of U.N. peacekeepers.  She says it is ultimately the responsibility of the member state of the soldiers accused of sexual misconduct to investigate and prosecute these crimes.

Officials from U.N. agencies condemned the recent reports that local workers and private charities were trading food and other assistance for sexual favors from Syrian women.  U.N. refugee spokesman Andrej Mahecic calls the practice despicable and dehumanizing.

“But the mere suggestion that the U.N. can somehow control the situation in a war zone and the implied conclusion that we can somehow turn this on and off is rather simplistic,” said Mahecic. “It is disconnected from the reality of what an aid operation looks like in an open and fierce conflict.”

The UNHCR and other U.N. aid agencies say their partners must adhere to a strict code of conduct, which covers sexual exploitation and abuse.  They say any U.N. personnel found to be in breach of the code would be subject to disciplinary measures, including dismissal from service.

US Calls Out Russia for Playing ‘Arsonist and Firefighter’ in Syria

A top U.S. general is accusing Russia of sowing the seeds of instability in Syria and across the greater Middle East, part of an ongoing attempt to expand its influence at the expense of the United States and the international community.

“Diplomatically and militarily, Moscow plays both arsonist and firefighter, fueling tensions among all parties in Syria,” the commander of U.S. Central Command, Gen. Joseph Votel, told lawmakers Tuesday.

Votel further accused Russia of then offering to serve as a mediator in an effort to “undermine and weaken each party’s bargaining position.”

The criticism, though worded more sharply than in the past, is in line with previous warnings from U.S. and Western intelligence officials, who have said Russia views Syria as an opportunity to reassert Moscow’s central place on the world stage.

It also echoes concerns laid out in the most recent U.S. National Security Strategy, which called Russia a “revisionist power” intent on tearing down the current international order.

“It is clear that Russia’s interests in Syria are Russia’s interests and not those of the wider international community,” Votel said. “Their role is incredibly destabilizing at this point.”

But the general’s words may also reflect a growing disconnect with the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump, which has often sought to emphasize areas of cooperation.

While administration officials say there are areas in which Russian activity is impinging on U.S. interests, and in which the U.S. is pushing back, they say the Middle East is not one of them.

“Is there a threat to us, a direct threat to us from Russia emanating from the Middle East? Obviously, the threat there is the terrorist threat and Iran,” a senior administration official said recently on the condition of anonymity.

Blaming Russia

In Syria, the U.S. and Russia have found themselves on different sides of the ongoing Syrian conflict, with Moscow backing the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and the U.S. backing the Syrian Democratic Forces, a group of moderate rebels, who have until recently largely been focused on efforts to defeat the Islamic State terror group.

Both Washington and Moscow have made concerted efforts to avoid conflict, setting up a deconfliction line in order to make sure their forces on the ground in Syria did not engage each other by mistake.

Still, Central Command’s Votel said Russia’s actions in Syria are actively undermining efforts to roll back IS and, ultimately, find a political solution to the larger conflict. 

“Russia has placed this progress at risk with their activities which are not focused on defeating ISIS but rather on preserving its own influence and control over the outcome,” Votel said, using an acronym for Islamic State.

Votel also criticized Russia for its failure to follow through on its self-declared “humanitarian pause” in Syria’s eastern region of Ghouta on Tuesday.

Residents said at least six civilians were killed after just a brief pause in fighting, when Syrian government warplanes resumed their bombing of the region.

Russian officials blamed the resumption of fighting on rebel groups, but the U.S. State Department put the blame on Moscow.

“They’re not adhering to the cease-fire because they continue to sponsor and back Bashar al-Assad’s government. That is tragic,” the State Department’s Heather Nauert told reporters.

In his testimony Tuesday before the House Armed Services Committee, U.S. Central Command’s Votel was equally blunt.

“Either Russia has to admit it is not capable or that it doesn’t want to play a role in ending the Syrian conflict,” Votel said.

‘Clever game’

There are also concerns Russia is increasingly willing to use proxies and allies in Syria and across the Middle East to confront the U.S. as part of a larger, great power competition with the U.S.

Earlier this month, pro-Assad forces attacked U.S. and U.S.-backed forces in Syria. 

U.S. defense officials have refused to comment on who directed the attack. But audio recordings obtained from a source close to Kremlin by Polygraph.info, a fact-checking project by Voice of America, indicate some of the forces were part of CHVK Wagner, a Kremlin-linked private military company.

Analysts also see Russia’s hand in Turkey’s decision to launch an incursion into the Afrin region of northern Syria last month.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said at the time that Ankara had a deal with Moscow, and Russian media reported Russian troops in the area had withdrawn prior to the incursion.

“Russia’s played a very clever game here by being the newfound friend of Erdogan,” said Luke Coffey, a former British defense adviser now with the Washington-based Heritage Foundation. “Then, of course, you throw Iran into this and [Syria’s] Assad and you see this sort of deadly cocktail that is present that makes it more difficult for the U.S. to act and act in a coherent and strategic manner.”

Top U.S. defense officials, like Votel, worry that with Moscow’s help, the stage is being set for more and bigger problems.

“Russia is a party to this and they have responsibilities to ensure that the tractable partners that may be in this area are under control,” he said Tuesday. 

Still, there are those who worry that as long as Trump administration officials are more focused on terrorist groups like IS and al-Qaida, and on Iran, Russia has the upper hand.

“We never saw what’s happening in Syria as a [great power] competition, but [Russian President Vladimir] Putin always did,” said Anna Borshchevskaya, a fellow specializing in Russian Middle East policy at The Washington Institute.

“We basically ceded Syria to him without even realizing it,” she said. “With dictators, you always have to show strength. Putin will push until someone pushes back.”