Poultry industry could serve as example as dairy farmers confront bird flu

des moines, iowa — As the U.S. dairy industry confronts a bird flu outbreak, with cases reported at dozens of farms and the disease spreading to people, the egg industry could serve as an example of how to slow the disease but also shows how difficult it can be to eradicate the virus.

There have been earlier bird flu outbreaks in the U.S., but the current one started in February 2022 and has forced the slaughter of nearly 100 million chickens and turkeys. Hot spots still occur, but their frequency has dropped in part because of biosecurity efforts at farms and a coordinated approach between companies and agricultural officials, experts say.

Dairy farmers could try to implement similar safeguards, but the vast differences between the animals and the industries limit what lessons can be learned and applied.

How can a 1,500-pound cow and a 5-pound chicken have the same illness?It’s commonly called bird flu because the disease is largely spread by wild birds that can survive infections. Many mammals have caught the illness, too, including sea lions and skunks.

Effects differ greatly

Animals can be infected by eating an infected bird or by being exposed to environments where the virus is present. That said, there are big differences in how cows and chickens have fared after getting infected.

Bird flu is typically fatal to chickens and turkeys within days of an infection, leading to immediate mass killings of birds. That’s not true for cows.

Dairies in several states have reported having to kill infected animals because symptoms continued to linger and their milk production didn’t recover, but that’s not the norm, said Russ Daly, an extension veterinarian at South Dakota State University.

He said it appears that bird flu isn’t usually fatal to cows but that an infected animal can be more vulnerable to other ailments typically founds in dairies, such as bacterial pneumonia and udder infections.

What has the egg industry done to protect chickens? Egg operators have become clean freaks.

To prevent disease from spreading, egg producers require workers to shower and change into clean clothes before they enter a barn and shower again when they leave. They also frequently wash trucks and spray tires with solutions to kill off virus remnants.

Many egg operations even use lasers and install special fencing to discourage wild birds from stopping by for a visit.

“Gone is the day of the scarecrow,” said Emily Metz, president of the American Egg Board.

Without these efforts, the current outbreak would be much worse, said Jada Thompson, a University of Arkansas agriculture business professor. Still, maintaining such vigilance is difficult, even if the cost of allowing disease into an operation is so high, she said.

Chickens raised for meat, known as broilers, also have been infected with bird flu but such cases are less common. In part, that’s because broiler chickens are killed when they’re only 6 to 8 weeks old, so they have less time to get infected.

Some safeguards apply

Can the same be done to protect cows and dairy workers? Yes and no.

Dairies can certainly reduce the spread of disease by limiting access to barns, so people and equipment don’t bring in the virus from elsewhere. Workers could also wear eye protection, aprons and gloves to try to protect themselves, but there’s no way around it: Big animals are messy.

“The parlor is a warm, humid place with lots of liquid flying around, whether it’s urine, feces, water, because they’re spraying off areas. Cows might kick off a milk machine, so you get milk splatter,” said Keith Poulsen, director of the Wisconsin Veterinary Laboratory.

Dairies also don’t have time or staff to disinfect milking equipment between animals, so equipment could become contaminated. Pasteurization kills bacteria and viruses in milk, making it safe for people to drink.

Poulsen said the dairy industry could follow a path laid by the poultry and pork industries and establish more formal, better funded research organizations so it could respond more quickly to problems like bird flu — or avoid them altogether.

The dairy industry also could tamp down disease spread by limiting the movement of lactating cows between states, Poulsen said.

Are there new efforts to fight the virus? The U.S. Department of Agriculture will soon begin testing a vaccine that could be given to calves, offering the animals protection and also reducing the chance of worker illnesses.

The egg industry also is hopeful researchers can develop vaccines for poultry that could be quick, inexpensive and effective. Workers can’t give shots to the millions of hens that might need a vaccine, but industry officials hope a vaccine could be distributed in the water the birds drink, in the pellets they eat or even before birds hatch from their eggs.

Efforts to develop vaccines have become even more important now that the disease has spread to dairy cows and even a few people, Thompson said.

“Part of what is being developed right now is: What way can we vaccinate them that is cost-effective and disease-resistant?” Thompson said.

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Midwives: State law could jeopardize Native Hawaiian birth traditions

HONOLULU — Ki’inaniokalani Kahoʻohanohano longed for a deeper connection to her Native Hawaiian ancestors and culture as she prepared to give birth to her first child at home on the north shore of Maui in 2003.

But generations of colonialist suppression had eroded many Hawaiian traditions, and it was hard to find information on how the islands’ Indigenous people honored pregnancy or childbirth. Nor could she find a Native Hawaiian midwife.

That experience led Kahoʻohanohano — now a mother of five — to become a Native Hawaiian midwife herself, a role in which she spent years helping to deliver as many as three babies a month, receiving them in a traditional cloth made of woven bark and uttering sacred, tremorous chants as she welcomed them into the world.

Her quest to preserve tradition also led her into a downtown Honolulu courtroom this week, where she and others are seeking to block a state law that they say endangers their ability to continue serving pregnant women who hope for such customary Native Hawaiian births.

“To be able to have our babies in the places and in the ways of our kupuna, our ancestors, is very vital,” she testified. “To me, the point of what we do is to be able to return birth home to these places.”

Lawmakers enacted a midwife licensure law in 2019, finding that the “improper practice of midwifery poses a significant risk of harm to the mother or newborn, and may result in death.” Violations are punishable by up to a year in jail, plus thousands of dollars in criminal and civil fines.

The measure requires anyone who provides “assessment, monitoring, and care” during pregnancy, labor, childbirth and during the postpartum period to be licensed. The women’s lawsuit says that would include a wide range of people, including midwives, doulas, lactation consultants, and even family and friends of the new mother.

Until last summer, the law provided an exception for “birth attendants,” which allowed Kahoʻohanohano to continue practicing Native Hawaiian birth customs. With that exception now expired, however, she and others face the licensing requirements — which, they say, include costly programs only available out of state or online that don’t align with Hawaiian culture and beliefs.

In 2022, the average cost of an accredited midwifery program was $6,200 to $6,900 a year, according to court documents filed by the state.

Attorneys for the state argued in a court filing that the law “undoubtedly serves a compelling interest in protecting pregnant persons from receiving ill-advice from untrained individuals.”

State Deputy Attorney General Isaac Ickes told Judge Shirley Kawamura that the law doesn’t outlaw Native Hawaiian midwifery or homebirths, but that requiring a license reduces the risks of harm or death.

The dispute is the latest in a long history of debate about how and whether Hawaii should regulate the practice of traditional healing arts that dates to well before the islands became the 50th state in 1959. Those arts were banished or severely restricted for much of the 20th century, but the Hawaiian Indigenous rights movement of the 1970s renewed interest in the customary ways.

Hawaii eventually adopted a system where councils versed in Native Hawaiian healing certify traditional practitioners, though those suing say their efforts to form such a council for midwifery have failed.

Practicing midwifery without a license, meanwhile, was banned until 1998 — when, lawmakers say, they inadvertently decriminalized it when they altered the regulation of nurse-midwives, something the 2019 law sought to remedy.

Among the nine plaintiffs are women who seek traditional births and argue that the new licensing requirement violates their right of privacy and reproductive autonomy under Hawaii’s Constitution. They are represented by the Center for Reproductive Rights and the Native Hawaiian Legal Corporation.

“For pregnant people whose own family may no longer hold the knowledge of the ceremonial and sacred aspects of birth, a midwife trained in Native Hawaiian traditional and customary birthing practices can be an invaluable, culturally informed health care provider,” the lawsuit states.

When Kahoʻohanohano was unable to find a Native Hawaiian midwife to attend the birth of her first child, she turned instead to a Native American one, who was open to incorporating traditional Hawaiian aspects that Kahoʻohanohano gleaned from her elders.

She surrounded herself with Hawaiian cultural practitioners focusing on pule, or prayer, and lomilomi, a traditional massage with physical and spiritual elements. It all helped ease her three days of labor, she said. And then, “two pushes and pau” — done — the boy was born.

The births of her five children in various Maui communities, Kahoʻohanohano said, were her “greatest teachers” in herself becoming one of the very few midwives who know about Native Hawaiian birthing practices.

She is believed to be the first person in a century to give birth on her husband’s ancestral lands in Kahakuloa, a remote west Maui valley of mostly Native Hawaiians, where her daughter was born in 2015. The community is at least 40 minutes along winding roads to the island’s only hospital.

Kahoʻohanohano testified about helping low-risk pregnant women and identifying instances where she transferred someone to receive care at the hospital but said she’s never experienced any emergency situations.

Among the other plaintiffs are midwives she has helped train and women she has aided through birth. Makalani Franco-Francis testified that she learned about customary birth practices from Kahoʻohanohano, including how to receive a newborn in kapa, or traditional cloth, and cultural protocols for a placenta, including taking it to the ocean or burying it to connect a newborn to its ancestral lands.

The law has halted her education, Franco-Francis said. She testified that she’s not interested in resuming her midwifery education through out-of-state or online programs.

“It’s not in alignment with our cultural practices, and it’s also a financial obligation,” she said.

The judge heard testimony through the week. It’s not clear how soon a ruling might come.

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Complaints about non-citizen voting center on US voter ID laws

Former President Donald Trump, the presumptive Republican nominee for president, says people are voting illegally in U.S. elections, including immigrants. One California city is moving to impose voter identification rules that violate state voting laws. Genia Dulot reports.

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Trump Michigan trip includes Black church, far-right activists’ meeting

DETROIT, MICHIGAN — Donald Trump will use back-to-back stops Saturday to court Black voters and a conservative group that has been accused of attracting white supremacists as the Republican presidential candidate works to stitch together a coalition of historically divergent interests in the battleground state of Michigan.

Trump is scheduled to host an afternoon roundtable at an African American church in downtown Detroit. Later he will appear at the “People’s Convention” of Turning Point Action, a group that the Anti-Defamation League says has been linked to a variety of extremists.

Roughly 24 hours before Trump planned to address the conference, well-known white supremacist Nick Fuentes entered Turning Point’s convention hall surrounded by a group of cheering supporters. He was quickly escorted out by security.

Fuentes created political problems for Trump after Fuentes attended a private lunch with the former president and the rapper formerly known as Kanye West at Trump’s Florida estate in 2022.

Trump’s weekend plans underscore the evolving political forces shaping the presidential election this fall as he tries to deny Democratic President Joe Biden a second term.

Few states are expected to matter more in November than Michigan, which Biden carried by less than 3 percentage points four years ago. And few voting groups matter more to Democrats than African Americans, who made up the backbone of Biden’s political base in 2020. But now, less than five months before Election Day, Black voters are expressing modest signs of disappointment with the Democrat.

Michael Whatley, the new chairman of the Republican National Committee, told Michigan Republicans at a dinner Friday that the state could not be more important.

“Everybody knows if we don’t win Michigan, we’re not going to have a Republican in the White House,” Whatley said. “Let me be more blunt: If we don’t win Michigan, we’re not going to have Donald Trump in the White House.

“We are going to determine the fate of the world in this election in November,” he said.

Trump argues that he can pull in more Black voters due to his economic and border security message, and that his felony indictments make him more relatable.

Democrats are offering a competing perspective.

“Donald Trump is so dangerous for Michigan and dangerous for America and dangerous for Black people,” Michigan Lieutenant Governor Garlin Gilchrist II, who is African American, said Friday.

He said it was “offensive” for Trump to address the Turning Point conference, which was taking place at the same convention center that was “the epicenter of their steal the election effort.”

Indeed, dozens of angry Trump loyalists chanting “Stop the count!” descended on the TCF Center, now named Huntington Place, the day after the 2020 presidential election as absentee ballots were being counted. Local media captured scenes of protesters outside and in the lobby. Police prevented them from entering the counting area.

The protests took place after Trump had tweeted that “they are finding Biden votes all over” in several states, including Michigan.

The false notion that Biden benefited from widespread voter fraud has been widely debunked by voting officials in both parties, the court system and members of Trump’s former administration. Still, Trump continues to promote such misinformation, which echoed throughout the conservative convention over the weekend.

Speaking from the main stage, Turning Point founder and CEO Charlie Kirk falsely described the conference location as “the scene of a crime.”

Such extreme rhetoric does not appear to have hurt Trump’s standing with Black voters, however.

Among Black adults, Biden’s approval has dropped from 94% when he started his term in January 2021 to just 55%, according to an Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research poll published in March.

About 8 in 10 Black voters have an unfavorable opinion of Trump, with roughly two-thirds saying they have a “very unfavorable” view of him, according to an AP-NORC poll conducted in June. About 2 in 10 Black voters have a very or somewhat favorable view of Trump.

Trump won 8% of the Black vote in 2020, according to AP VoteCast. And in what is expected to be a close election, even a modest shift could be consequential.

Maurice Morrison, a 67-year-old lifelong Detroit resident, plans to attend Trump’s church appearance. Morrison acknowledged that Trump, for whom he voted twice before and plans to again, is deeply unpopular in his community and even inside his home.

“Once he decided to run for president as a Republican, that automatically made him racist. That’s his middle name now — ‘Trump is racist’ — everybody I talk to, all the people I know, my family,” said Morrison, who is Black.

Meanwhile, thousands of conservative activists, most of them young and white, were eagerly awaiting Trump’s keynote address Saturday night.

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US city repeals ban on psychic readings as industry gains more acceptance

NORFOLK, Virginia — Ashley Branton has earned a living as a psychic medium for seven years, helping a growing number of people with heavy choices about toxic relationships, home purchases and cross-country moves.

And while the tarot cards are never wrong, she said, they didn’t see this one coming.

The City Council in Norfolk, Virginia, repealed a 45-year-old ban this week on “the practice of palmistry, palm reading, phrenology or clairvoyance, for monetary or other compensation.”

Soothsaying, it turned out, had been a first-degree misdemeanor and carried up to a year in jail.

“I had no idea that was even a thing,” Branton said with a laugh Thursday among the crystals in her Norfolk shop, Velvet Witch, where she also performs tarot readings and psychic healings. “I’m glad it’s never come down on me.”

It’s unclear exactly why this city of 230,000 people on the Chesapeake Bay, home to the nation’s largest Navy base, nullified the 1979 ordinance. Versions of the ban had existed for decades before.

Norfolk spokesperson Kelly Straub said in an email that it was repealed “because it is no longer used.” City Council members said little during their vote Tuesday, although one joked that “somebody out there predicted that this was going to pass.”

Jokes aside, the city’s repeal comes as the psychic services industry is growing in the U.S., generating an estimated $2.3 billion in revenue last year and employing 97,000 people, according to a 2023 report from market research firm IBIS World.

In late 2017, a Pew Research Center survey found that most American adults identify as Christians. But many also hold New Age beliefs, with 4 in 10 believing in the power of psychics. A 2009 survey for the Pew Research Center’s Religion & Public Life Project found about 1 in 7 Americans had consulted a psychic.

Branton, 42, who previously worked as a makeup artist, said the market is expanding for psychic mediums because social media has fueled awareness. An aversion to organized religion also plays a role, along with the nation’s divisive politics and a growing sense of uncertainty, particularly among millennials and younger generations.

“Ever since COVID, people have been carrying this weight. They’re just carrying so much,” Branton said.

“And people are starting to do inner work,” she continued. “They’re starting to take care of their mental health. And they’re starting to take care of the spiritual aspect.”

Branton said she considers her work a calling. Psychic gifts run in her family, and she’s had them her whole life.

“I always had interactions with spirits,” she said. “I’ve always been an empath. I can feel people’s energies.”

Branton said she’s built up her clientele through word of mouth, without any advertising.

“I’m very proud of that,” she said. “There’s going to be scammers and people out here doing this for just the money. Obviously, this is my way of living now. But it was never about money for me.”

In 2022, AARP warned of scam psychics who prey on “people who are grieving, lonely or struggling emotionally, physically or financially.”

And some bans remain in place. In October, the police chief in Hanover, Pennsylvania, told a witchcraft-themed store that any complaints about tarot card readings would prompt an investigation, The New York Times reported.

The police chief cited an old state law that makes it illegal to predict the future for money. In 2007, the city of Philadelphia cited the same law when it shut down more than a dozen psychics, astrologers and tarot-card readers, The Philadelphia Inquirer reported.

Fortune telling bans stemmed from anti-witchcraft and anti-vagrancy laws in 18th century England, said Charles McCrary, a professor of religious studies at Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, Florida.

The American laws took hold in the mid-19th century, an era of growing concern about fraudulent business practices, McCrary said. But the Spiritualism movement, which often involved channeling the dead, was also growing in popularity, particularly among the middle and upper classes.

“There was something about these white, Spiritualist women that I think troubled a lot of people,” McCrary said.

“Part of what made it threatening was it couldn’t be written off as something that poor people do or something for the marginal,” he added. “It was very popular. And so more mainstream Christians found it especially threatening. And a lot of people were Christians who also did seances.”

Such laws faced little scrutiny from the courts at first, said David L. Hudson, a law professor at Belmont University in Nashville, Tennessee, and a fellow with the Freedom Forum think tank in Washington.

The Ohio Supreme Court upheld a state law in 1928 that regulated fortune telling, writing that “liberty of speech is not license to speak anything that one pleases freed from all criminal or civil responsibility.” Other courts reasoned that fortune telling was commercial speech, which received no First Amendment protection until the mid-1970s.

More recently, courts have increasingly viewed bans on fortune tellers with skepticism on First Amendment grounds. Maryland’s Supreme Court ruled in 2010 that fortune telling for a fee is protected free speech.

“We’ve come a long way, both in terms of social norms and social acceptance,” Hudson told The Associated Press, likening psychic readings to tattoos. “But also there’s been a massive development of First Amendment law … It’s very disfavored to entirely ban a medium of expression.”

Even though Norfolk’s ban was practically forgotten and no longer enforced, Carol Peterson is relieved about the repeal. She owns the Crystal Sunflower, a store in Norfolk that offers tarot card readings and vibrational sound therapy. She is also a civilian geologist for the military.

“I was like, ‘Oh my God, I could get a class one misdemeanor,'” Peterson said.

“People have this misconceived notion that tarot is evil or demonic,” Peterson added. “But you’re helping people tap into their highest self for their journey. And if people would be more curious instead of judgmental, I think that they would be pleasantly surprised.”

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Some Mexican shelters see crowding as Biden’s asylum ban takes hold

MATAMOROS, Mexico — Some shelters south of the U.S. border are caring for many more migrants now that the Biden administration stopped considering most asylum requests, while others have yet to see much of a change.

The impact appears uneven more than a week after the temporary suspension took effect. Shelters south of Texas and California have plenty of space, while as many as 500 deportations from Arizona each day are straining shelters in Mexico’s Sonora state, their directors say.

“We’re having to turn people away because we can’t, we don’t have the room for all the people who need shelter,” said Joanna Williams, executive director of Kino Border Initiative, which can take in 100 people at a time.

About 120 are in San Juan Bosco shelter in Nogales, across the border from the Arizona city with the same name, up from about 40 before the policy change, according to its director, Juan Francisco Loureiro.

“We have had a quite remarkable increase,” Loureiro said Thursday. Most are Mexican, including families as well as adults. Mexico also agreed to accept deportees from Cuba, Haiti, Nicaragua and Venezuela.

A shelter in Agua Prieta, a remote town bordering Douglas, Arizona, also began receiving more Mexican men, women and children last weekend — 40 on Sunday, more than 50 on Monday and then about 30 a day. Like those sent to Nogales, most had entered the U.S. farther west, along the Arizona-California state line, according to Perla del Angel, a worker at the Exodus Migrant Attention Center.

Mexicans make up a relatively large percentage of border arrests in much of Arizona compared to other regions, which may help explain why Nogales is affected. Mexicans are generally the easiest nationality to deport because officials only have to drive them to a border crossing instead of arranging a flight.

In Tijuana, directors of four large shelters said this week that they haven’t received a single migrant deported since the asylum ban took effect. Al Otro Lado, a migrant advocacy group, consulted only seven migrants on the first full day operating an information booth at the main crossing where migrants are deported from San Diego.

“What there is right now is a lot of uncertainty,” said Paulina Olvera, president of Espacio Migrante, who houses up to 40 people traveling in families, predominantly from Mexico, and has others sleeping on the sidewalk outside. “So far what we’ve seen is the rumors and the mental health impact on people. We haven’t seen returns yet.”

Biden administration officials said last week that thousands have been deported since the new rule took effect on July 5, suspending asylum whenever arrests for illegal crossings hit a trigger of 2,500 in a single day. The officials, who briefed reporters on condition of anonymity, were not more specific. The halt will remain in effect until arrests fall below a seven-day daily average of 1,500.

“We are ready to repatriate a record number of people in the coming days,” Blas Nuñez-Neto, assistant homeland security secretary for border and immigration policy, told Spanish-language reporters after the policy was announced.

The Homeland Security Department did not immediately respond to a request for figures on Friday and neither did the National Immigration Institute in Mexico. 

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G7 leaders discuss economic threats from Chinese, AI ethics

On Friday, U.S. President Joe Biden wrapped up meetings in Italy with leaders of the Group of Seven democracies. The leaders focused on threats they say China poses to the global economy and artificial intelligence ethics championed by Pope Francis. Patsy Widakuswara reports from Brindisi, Italy.

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Conspiracy theorist Jones’ personal assets being sold for $1.5B Sandy Hook debt

houston — A federal judge Friday ordered the liquidation of conspiracy theorist Alex Jones’ personal assets but dismissed his company’s separate bankruptcy case, leaving the future of his Infowars media platform uncertain as he owes $1.5 billion for his false claims that the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting was a hoax. 

Judge Christopher Lopez approved converting Jones’ proposed personal bankruptcy reorganization to a liquidation, but threw out the attempted reorganization of his company, Austin, Texas-based Free Speech Systems. Many of the Sandy Hook families had asked that the company also be liquidated. 

If Free Speech Systems’ bankruptcy reorganization had been converted to a liquidation, Jones could have lost ownership of the company, its social media accounts, the Infowars studio in Austin and all copyrights as the company’s possessions were sold. Jones smiled as the judge dismissed the company’s case. 

It wasn’t immediately clear what will happen to Free Speech Systems, Infowars’ parent company that Jones built into a multimillion-dollar moneymaker over the past 25 years. 

One scenario could be that the company and Infowars are allowed to keep operating while efforts to collect on the $1.5 billion debt are made in state courts in Texas and Connecticut, where the families won lawsuits against Jones, according to lawyers involved with the case. 

Another scenario is that lawyers for the Sandy Hook families go back to the bankruptcy court and ask Lopez to liquidate the company as part of Jones’ personal case, because Jones owns the business, lawyers said. 

Lopez said his sole focus in determining whether to dismiss Free Speech Systems’ case or order a liquidation was what would be best for the company and its creditors, including the Sandy Hook families. Lopez also said Free Speech Systems’ case appeared to be one of the longest running of its kind in the country, and it was approaching a deadline to resolve it. 

Lopez said, “This case is one of the more difficult cases I’ve had. When you look at it, I think creditors are better served in pursuing their state court rights.” 

Many of Jones’ personal assets will be sold off, but his primary home in the Austin area and some other belongings are exempt from bankruptcy liquidation. He already has moved to sell his Texas ranch worth about $2.8 million, a gun collection and other assets to pay debts. 

In the lead-up to Friday’s hearing, Jones had been telling his web viewers and radio listeners that Free Speech Systems was on the verge of being shut down because of the bankruptcy. He urged them to download videos from his online archive to preserve them and pointed them to a new website of his father’s company if they want to continue buying the dietary supplements he sells on his show. 

“This is probably the end of Infowars here very, very soon. If not today, in the next few weeks or months,” Jones told reporters before Friday’s hearing. “But it’s just the beginning of my fight against tyranny.” 

Jones has about $9 million in personal assets, according to the most recent financial filings in court. Free Speech Systems, which employs 44 people, has about $6 million in cash on hand and about $1.2 million worth of inventory, according to J. Patrick Magill, the chief restructuring officer appointed by the court to run the company during the bankruptcy. 

Jones and Free Speech Systems filed for bankruptcy protection in 2022, when relatives of many victims of the 2012 school shooting that killed 20 first-graders and six educators in Newtown, Connecticut, won lawsuit judgments of more than $1.4 billion in Connecticut and $49 million in Texas. 

The relatives said they were traumatized by Jones’ comments and his followers’ actions. They have testified about being harassed and threatened by Jones’ believers, some of whom confronted the grieving families in person saying the shooting never happened and their children never existed. One parent said someone threatened to dig up his dead son’s grave. 

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McCaul raises concerns over USAGM ability to vet staff

WASHINGTON — The chairperson of the House Foreign Affairs Committee on Wednesday outlined what he described as failures by the U.S. Agency for Global Media to adequately investigate allegations and whistleblower complaints.

A 73-page report described a three-year investigation into whistleblower complaints about an employee at the USAGM network Voice of America, or VOA, including allegations of falsifying credentials and the mishandling of a contract.

Chairman Michael McCaul, a Republican representative from Texas, said, “Given the important work of USAGM and VOA to provide accurate news around the world, I am extremely concerned about the agency’s serious investigative blunders despite the alarming complaints.”

McCaul described the case as “the tip of the iceberg” in a statement, and staff representing Republicans on the committee said on background that it feeds into previous concerns about whether the agency properly vets foreign-born staff. However, the report focuses on the investigation into one employee.

The report found “credible evidence” of wrongdoing, including that the employee in question did not hold a doctorate or equivalent from a French university as stated on a resume; mishandled a major contract; awarded “excessive” overtime pay to favored employees; and “faced persistent complaints” about an “abrasive leadership style.”

Because the incident involves a personnel issue at VOA, which does not typically comment on such matters, the network is not naming the employee.

The report further notes that an investigation under former President Donald Trump’s appointed leadership at VOA had found grounds to dismiss the senior staff member in 2021 after an investigation that included the handling of a $950,000 contract.

After a change in administration, the McCaul report notes, the termination was reversed, and the employee was moved to a new department.

An independent investigation by the Office of Special Counsel, or OSC, released in May 2023, described the case as a “particularly complex matter” and said it was “beyond the scope of this review to evaluate the merits of several allegations made against the individual; however, CEO Office involvement will be examined.”

The OSC added that the USAGM Labor and Employee Relations investigators tasked with looking into the allegations “faced intense pressure” to conclude in 2021 that the employee should be terminated.

The report by McCaul includes testimony and interviews with senior USAGM and VOA officials and staff. It states that once the agency was provided evidence to support the claims of falsified credentials, USAGM moved to issue a reprimand to the employee.

Staff representing Republicans on the committee, speaking to VOA on background, said that during the committee investigation, they found USAGM had failed to thoroughly investigate the whistleblower complaints and other issues regarding oversight and negligence.

The staff said the report’s findings and USAGM’s apparent failure to take appropriate action reflect wider and far-reaching concerns about the agency, including whether political bias played a role.

A statement emailed to VOA and attributed to USAGM CEO Amanda Bennett said her office “cannot comment on specific personnel matters.”

But, Bennett said, “We unequivocally reject the Committee’s allegations that the agency’s investigation of an employee’s background was politicized, corrupt or mismanaged in any way.”

Noting that the agency stands by its final decision in investigating complaints, the statement said its staff “made tremendous efforts to locate evidence relevant to the matter in question, and aggressively pursued every possible avenue to conduct a thorough investigation.”

Mark Zaid, an attorney who represents the employee in question, told VOA via email, “The Committee’s one-sided report continues an unexplained vendetta that has spanned two Administrations” against his client.

He charged the report included “many incomplete, misinterpreted and defamatory conclusions.”

But, Zaid said, he “agrees with the Committee on two things.”

“First, there is a great deal of confusion surrounding the equivalency of French and American Ph.D.s, including among various experts,” he said. “Second, USAGM has mishandled this investigation from the beginning, particularly by interfering with [the client’s] right to counsel and denying [the client’s] appropriate due process.”

He noted that “contrary to a footnote in the report,” USAGM did not share details with Zaid, in his capacity as the employee’s attorney, or keep him updated about what the agency was doing in regard to the McCaul investigation.

Members of McCaul’s staff told VOA on background that the committee intends no ill will toward the employee but that as a congressional oversight board it is their duty to investigate whistleblower complaints and follow the facts.

The main focus of the report is on whether the employee held an advanced degree, as stated on the person’s resume and on the VOA website. McCaul’s report says it was able to quickly establish three years ago that the credentials were incorrect.

Zaid told VOA that attorneys have “repeatedly provided documentation” to confirm the degree, and enough evidence exists to show the qualification “has been properly described.”

Gregory Meeks, the leading Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, issued a statement that called McCaul’s report “one-sided.” Meeks said, however, that USAGM should “address the Committee’s oversight questions and concerns.”

The findings in McCaul’s report serve as a case study of a wider problem, according to the committee staff, who spoke on background.

The report calls for the employee to be terminated as per the earlier Labor and Employee Relations investigation and for USAGM to rectify its vetting process.

“USAGM’s actions raise questions about the agency’s ability to vet its own staff, and I am extremely concerned Democrats who criticized the agency under the last administration have gone silent instead of working in good faith to serve Americans who deserve transparency and accountability,” McCaul said in a statement.

It requests the agency deliver a report to Congress on vetting procedures within 90 days.

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Supreme Court strikes down Trump-era ban on bump stocks

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court on Friday struck down a Trump-era ban on bump stocks, a rapid-fire gun accessory that was used in the deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history.

The high court’s conservative majority found that the Trump administration did not follow federal law when it changed course from previous administrations after a gunman in Las Vegas attacked a country music festival with assault rifles equipped with bump stocks.

The accessory allows a rate of fire comparable to machine guns.

The gunman fired more than 1,000 rounds in the crowd in 11 minutes, sending thousands of people fleeing in terror as hundreds were wounded and dozens were killed in 2017.

The 6-3 majority opinion written by Justice Clarence Thomas said a semiautomatic rifle with a bump stock is not an illegal machine gun because it doesn’t make the weapon fire more than one shot with one pull of the trigger.

“A bump stock does not alter the basic mechanics of bump firing, and the trigger still must be released and reengaged to fire each additional shot,” he wrote in an opinion that contained multiple drawings of guns’ firing mechanisms.

He was joined by his fellow conservatives. Justice Samuel Alito wrote a short separate opinion to stress that Congress can change the law to equate bump stocks with machine guns.

Changing the definition of a bump stock through regulation rather than legislation took pressure off Republicans in Congress to act or justify inaction in the face of the Las Vegas massacre during Trump’s presidency.

In a dissent joined by her liberal colleagues, Justice Sonia Sotomayor pointed to the Las Vegas gunman. “In murdering so many people so quickly, he did not rely on a quick trigger finger. Instead, he relied on bump stocks,” she said, reading a summary of her dissent aloud in the courtroom. Sotomayor said that it’s “deeply regrettable” Congress has to act but that she hopes it does.

Former President Donald Trump’s 2024 campaign team said it respects the court’s decision in a statement that quickly pivoted to politics, touting his endorsement by the National Rifle Association. President Joe Biden did not have an immediate comment.

The ruling came after a Texas gun shop owner challenged the ban, arguing the Justice Department wrongly classified the accessories as illegal machine guns.

The Biden administration said that the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives made the right choice for the gun accessories, which can allow weapons to fire at a rate of hundreds of rounds a minute.

It marked the latest gun case to come before the high court. A conservative supermajority handed down a landmark decision expanding gun rights in 2022 and is weighing another gun case challenging a federal law intended to keep guns away from people under domestic violence restraining orders.

The arguments in the bump stock case, though, were more about whether the ATF had overstepped its authority than the Second Amendment.

Justices from the court’s liberal wing suggested it was “common sense” that anything capable of unleashing a “torrent of bullets” was a machine gun under federal law. Conservative justices, though, raised questions about why Congress had not acted to ban bump stocks, as well as the effects of the ATF changing its mind a decade after declaring the accessories legal.

The high court took up the case after a split among lower courts over bump stocks, which were invented in the early 2000s. Under Republican President George W. Bush and Democrat Barack Obama, the ATF decided that bump stocks didn’t transform semiautomatic weapons into machine guns. The agency reversed those decisions at Trump’s urging after the shooting in Las Vegas and another mass shooting at a Parkland, Florida, high school that killed 17 people.

Bump stocks are accessories that replace a rifle’s stock, the part that rests against the shoulder. They harness the gun’s recoil energy so that the trigger bumps against the shooter’s stationary finger, allowing the gun to fire at a rate comparable to a traditional machine gun. Fifteen states and the District of Columbia have their own bans on bump stocks.

The plaintiff, Texas gun shop owner and military veteran Michael Cargill, was represented by the New Civil Liberties Alliance, a group funded by conservative donors such as the Koch network. His attorneys acknowledged that bump stocks allow for rapid fire but argued that they are different because the shooter has to put in more effort to keep the gun firing.

Government lawyers countered that the effort required from the shooter is small and doesn’t make a legal difference. The Justice Department said the ATF changed its mind on bump stocks after doing a more in-depth examination spurred by the Las Vegas shooting and came to the right conclusion.

There were about 520,000 bump stocks in circulation when the ban went into effect in 2019, requiring people to either surrender or destroy them, at a combined estimated loss of $100 million, the plaintiffs said in court documents.

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South Florida rainstorms lead to flight delays, streets jammed with stalled cars

FORT LAUDERDALE, Florida — A tropical disturbance that brought a rare flash flood emergency to much of southern Florida delayed flights at two of the state’s largest airports and left vehicles waterlogged and stalled in some of the region’s lowest-lying streets.

“Looked like the beginning of a zombie movie,” said Ted Rico, a tow truck driver who spent much of Wednesday night and Thursday morning helping to clear the streets of stalled vehicles. “There’s cars littered everywhere, on top of sidewalks, in the median, in the middle of the street, no lights on. Just craziness, you know. Abandoned cars everywhere.”

Rico, of One Master Trucking Corp., was born and raised in Miami and said he was ready for the emergency.

“You know when it’s coming,” he said. “Every year it’s just getting worse, and for some reason people just keep going through the puddles.”

Travelers across the area were trying to adjust their plans on Thursday morning. More than 50 centimeters of rain had fallen in some areas of South Florida since Tuesday, with more predicted over the next few days.

Ticket and security lines snaked around a domestic concourse at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport just before noon Thursday. The travel boards showed about half of that terminal’s flights had been canceled or postponed.

Bill Carlisle, a Navy petty officer first class, had spent his morning trying to catch a flight back to Norfolk, Virginia. He had arrived at Miami International Airport about 6:30 a.m., but 90 minutes later he was still in line and realized he couldn’t get his bags checked and through security in time to catch his flight.

“It was a zoo,” said Carlisle, a public affairs specialist. He was speaking for himself, not the Navy. “Nothing against the [airport] employees — there is only so much they can do.”

He used his phone to book an afternoon flight out of Fort Lauderdale. He took a shuttle the 32 kilometers north, only to find that the flight had been canceled. He was then heading back to Miami for a 9 p.m. flight, hoping it wouldn’t get canceled by the heavy rains expected later in the day. He was resigned, not angry.

“Just a long day sitting in airports,” Carlisle said. “This is kind of par for the course for government travel.”

Wednesday’s downpours and subsequent flooding blocked roads, floated vehicles and even delayed the Florida Panthers on their way to Stanley Cup games in Canada against the Edmonton Oilers.

The disorganized storm system was pushing across Florida from the Gulf of Mexico at roughly the same time as the early June start of hurricane season, which this year is forecast to be among the most active in recent memory amid concerns that climate change is increasing storm intensity.

The disturbance has not reached cyclone status and was given only a slight chance to form into a tropical system once it moves into the Atlantic Ocean after crossing Florida, according to the National Hurricane Center.

In Hallandale Beach, Alex Demchemko was walking his Russian spaniel Lex along the still-flooded sidewalks near the Airbnb where he’s lived since arriving from Russia last month to seek asylum in the U.S.

“We didn’t come out from our apartment, but we had to walk with our dog,” Demchemko said. “A lot of flashes, raining, a lot of floating cars and a lot of left cars without drivers, and there was a lot of water on the streets. It was kind of catastrophic.”

On Thursday morning, Daniela Urrieche, 26, was bailing water out of her SUV, which got stuck on a flooded street as she drove home from work on Wednesday afternoon.

“In the nine years that I’ve lived here, this has been the worst,” she said. “Even in a hurricane, streets were not as bad as it was in the past 24 hours.”

The flooding wasn’t limited to the streets. Charlea Johnson spent Wednesday night at her Hallendale Beach home barreling water into the sink and toilet.

“The water just started flooding in the back and flooding in the front,” Johnson said.

By Wednesday evening, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis and mayors in Fort Lauderdale, Hollywood and Miami-Dade County each declared a state of emergency.

It’s already been a wet and blustery week in Florida. In Miami, about 15 centimeters of rain fell Tuesday and 17 centimeters fell in Miami Beach, according to the National Weather Service. Hollywood got about 12 centimeters.

More rain was forecast for the rest of the week, with some areas getting another 15 centimeters of rain.

The western side of the state, much of which has been in a prolonged drought, also got some major rainfall. Nearly 16.5 centimeters of rain fell Tuesday at Sarasota Bradenton International Airport, the weather service said, and flash flood warnings were in effect in those areas as well.

Forecasts predict an unusually busy hurricane season.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration estimates there is an 85% chance that the Atlantic hurricane season will be above average, predicting between 17 and 25 named storms in the coming months, including up to 13 hurricanes and four major hurricanes. An average season has 14 named storms. 

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At G7 Italy, Biden galvanizes support for Ukraine

US President Joe Biden and leaders of the Group of Seven wealthy democracies are meeting in Italy, underscoring support for Ukraine’s fight against Russia’s invasion and the need for a cease-fire in Gaza. White House Bureau Chief Patsy Widakuswara is traveling with the president and brings this report from Borgo Egnazia, the G7 summit venue.

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Astronaut health and a VIP tour of Boeing’s Starliner capsule

New studies examine the effects of spaceflight on amateur astronauts. Plus, a VIP tour of Boeing’s Starliner capsule, and we remember a spaceflight pioneer. VOA’s Arash Arabasadi brings us The Week in Space.

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US reporter Evan Gershkovich, jailed in Russia on espionage charges, to stand trial, officials say

Moscow — American reporter Evan Gershkovich, jailed in Russia on espionage charges, will stand trial in the city of Yekaterinburg, Russian authorities said Thursday.

Russia’s Prosecutor General’s office said an indictment of Gershkovich has been finalized and his case was filed to the Sverdlovsky Regional Court in the city in the Ural Mountains.

Gershkovich is accused of “gathering secret information” about a facility in the Sverdlovsk region that produced and repaired military equipment, the Prosecutor General’s office said in a statement, revealing for the first time the details of the accusations against the jailed reporter. Gershkovich has been charged with espionage.

The officials didn’t provide any evidence to back up the accusations.

Gershkovich was detained while on a reporting trip to Yekaterinburg in March 2023 and accused of spying for the U.S. The Federal Security Service, or FSB, alleged at the time he was acting on U.S. orders to collect state secrets but also provided no evidence. Washington designated him as wrongfully detained.

He was the first U.S. journalist taken into custody on espionage charges since Nicholas Daniloff in 1986 at the height of the Cold War. Gershkovich’s arrest shocked foreign journalists in Russia, even though the country had enacted increasingly repressive laws on freedom of speech after sending troops into Ukraine.

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Biden, G7 leaders focus on Ukraine, Gaza, global infrastructure, Africa

BORGO EGNAZIA, ITALY — U.S. President Joe Biden is in Apuglia, Italy, meeting with leaders of the Group of Seven wealthy democracies Thursday, aiming to address global economic security amid wars in Europe and the Middle East and U.S. rivalry with China.

The G7 leaders arrived at the luxury resort of Borgo Egnazia, the summit venue, welcomed by Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni. Meloni’s hard-right party took nearly 29% of the vote in last weekend’s European Parliament election, making her the only leader of a major Western European country to emerge from the ballots stronger.

Meanwhile Biden is dealing with a contentious reelection campaign against Republican presumptive nominee Donald Trump, and a personal ordeal. On Tuesday, a day before departing for the summit, his son, Hunter, was found guilty on federal charges for possessing a gun while being addicted to drugs.

Still, Biden came to the summit hoping to convince the group to provide a $50 billion loan to Ukraine using interest from Russian frozen assets, and deal with Chinese overcapacity in strategic green technologies, including electric vehicles. 

The European Union signaled their support by announcing duties on Chinese EVs a day ahead of the summit, a move that echoed the Biden administration’s steep tariff hike on Chinese EVs and other key sectors in May.

Biden is also lending his support to key themes in Meloni’s presidency – investing in Africa, international development, and climate change. Those topics were covered in the opening session of the G7 on Thursday, followed by discussions on the Gaza and Ukraine wars. 

Gaza cease-fire

With cease-fire negotiations at a critical juncture, Biden could face tough questions from leaders on whether he is doing enough to pressure Israel to pause its military campaign, reduce civilian casualties and provide more aid for Palestinians.

Leaders are “focused on one thing overall; getting a cease-fire in place and getting the hostages home as part of that,” White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan told VOA as he spoke to reporters on board Air Force One en route to Italy. Biden has “their full backing,” Sullivan added.

Leaders will also discuss increasing tension along the Israeli border with Lebanon, Sullivan told reporters Thursday morning. 

“They’ll compare notes on the continuing threat posed by Iran both with respect to its support for proxy forces and with respect to the Iranian nuclear program,” he added.

While the group has thrown its weight behind the cease-fire, G7 members are split on other Gaza-related issues, including the International Criminal Court’s decision last month to seek arrest warrants for the leaders of Hamas and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

The United States denounced the court’s decision, and Britain called it “unhelpful.” France said it supports the court’s “fight against impunity,” while Berlin said it would arrest Netanyahu on German soil should a warrant is released.

Sullivan dismissed a United Nations inquiry result released Wednesday that alleges both Israel and Hamas committed war crimes and grave violations of international law.

“We’ve made our position clear,” he told VOA, referring to a review published in April by the State Department concluding that Israel’s campaign did not violate international humanitarian law.

Russian assets

Biden is pushing G7 leaders to provide Kyiv with a loan of up to $50 billion that will be paid back to Western allies using interest income from the $280 billion Russian assets frozen in Western financial institutions, estimated at $3 billion a year, for 10 years or more.

The goal is a leaders declaration at the end of the summit, a “framework that is not generic, that is quite specific in terms of what it would entail,” Sullivan told VOA Wednesday. Core operational details would still need to be worked out, he added. 

In April, Biden signed legislation to seize the roughly $5 billion in Russian assets that had been immobilized in U.S. financial institutions. The bulk of the money, though, $190 billion, is in Belgium, and much of the rest is in France and Germany.

“There’s a tension here between a Biden administration ambition on an issue in which they do not have the final say, hitting against very staunch European fiscal conservatism and simply the mechanics of, how do you get something done in Europe in the week of European [parliamentary] elections,” Kristine Berzina, managing director of Geostrategy North at the German Marshall Fund think tank, told VOA.

Attending the summit for the second consecutive year, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy is advocating for the deal to pass. He and Biden will sign a separate bilateral security agreement outlining U.S. support for Ukraine and speak in a joint press conference Thursday evening.

From Italy, Zelenskyy heads to Switzerland for a Ukraine peace conference over the weekend.

Africa, climate change and development

Meloni, a far-right politician who once called for a naval blockade to prevent African migrants from crossing the Mediterranean Sea to Europe, now wants to achieve the goal by bolstering international investments to the continent.

Most of the nearly 261,000 migrants who crossed the Mediterranean Sea from northern Africa in 2023 entered Europe through Italy, according to the United Nations.

She has aligned her G7 presidency with this agenda, and the group is set to release a statement on providing debt relief for low- and middle-income countries, dealing with irregular migration and calling for more investments in Africa.

The G7 statement will reflect the Nairobi/Washington vision that Biden signed with Kenyan President William Ruto, Sullivan said.

Meloni invited several African leaders as observers to the G7 meeting, including Algerian President Abdelmadjid Tebboune, Tunisia’s Kais Saied, Kenyan President William Ruto and Mohamed Ould Ghazouani, the president of Mauritania. The invitation follows the first Italy-Africa summit in Rome in January, where Meloni launched her investment initiative called the Mattei Plan for Africa.

The Mattei Plan has been integrated into the G7’s Partnership for Global Infrastructure and Investment, which aims to mobilize $600 billion private infrastructure funding by 2027 as an alternative to Chin’s Belt and Road initiative.

On climate change, the G7 has an uphill climb. None of the group’s members are on track to meet their existing emission reduction targets for 2030 to align with the Paris Agreement goal, according to data compiled by Climate Analytics.

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US voices support for South Korean ‘balloon war’ efforts

Washington — The U.S. expressed its support for providing outside information to the people of North Korea even as attempts are made in South Korea to block leaflet campaigns aimed at sending information to the North.

Tensions on the Korean Peninsula have been rising in recent weeks due to tit-for-tat exchanges between Pyongyang and Seoul over balloons they both have been sending across the inter-Korean border.

Responding to an inquiry by VOA’s Korean Service, a State Department spokesperson said on Monday that “it is critical for the people of North Korea to have access to independent information not controlled by the DPRK regime.”

“We continue to promote the free flow of information into, out of, and within the DPRK,” continued the spokesperson, referring to North Korea by its official name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

“We continue to urge North Korea to reduce tensions and cease any actions that could increase the risk of conflict,” the spokesperson added.

North Korea, listed by Human Rights Watch among “the most repressive countries in the world,” considers outside information a threat to the ruling regime’s survival and denies its people access to information.

The government heavily controls all forms of media and cracks down on people distributing, watching or listening to any South Korean cultural content.

In what it said was a response to South Korean activists sending balloons carrying leaflets into the North, Pyongyang has floated more than 1,600 balloons filled with trash and waste into South Korea since May 28.

In response, Seoul on June 4 fully suspended an inter-Korean military deal made in 2018 and resumed loudspeaker broadcasts at the border Sunday before halting them the following day.

The South Korean balloons, sent aloft by human rights activists, have carried leaflets conveying information about the outside world and the North Korean regime. They also carried thumb drives containing K-pop songs and dramas.

But the effort has caused controversy in South Korea, where attempts are being made to halt the campaign.

In September 2023, the South Korean constitutional court struck down a law banning the sending of leaflets to North Korea, saying it violated the constitutional right to freedom of expression.

Nevertheless, the opposition Democratic Party of Korea is attempting to apply other existing laws to block the campaign.

The opposition party, preferring engagement with North Korea, has been opposed to sending leaflets to North Korea. The anti-leaflet law was passed in December 2020 by the liberal party of former President Moon Jae-in six months after North Korea, expressing discontentment over leaflet activities, blew up an inter-Korean liaison office in Kaesong, a town in North Korea near the border.

On Tuesday, Lee Jae-myung, the leader of the party, called leaflet activities “illegal under the current law.”

In June 2020, Lee, the then-governor of Gyeonggi Province, declared five cities in the province as “danger zones” under the Framework Act on the Management of Disasters and Safety. Gyeonggi Province borders North Korea.

Lee then issued an administrative order banning people from entering the areas to launch balloons.

Kim Dong-yeon, from the opposition party and the current governor of Gyeonggi Province, said on Wednesday a consideration is being made to declare some areas in the province “danger zones” to “prevent the launch of propaganda leaflets in accordance with related laws.”

He said he will “immediately dispatch provincial police to potential leaflet sites to bolster patrols and surveillance,” according to South Korea’s liberal daily Hankyore.

Questions have been raised in South Korea whether the police can stop leaflet-sending activities based on the Act on the Performance of Duties by Police Officers, according to Seoul-based news agency Yonhap. The act allows police to restrain people from causing damage to property or harm other people.

Yoon Hee-keun, National Police Agency commissioner, told reporters Monday that the leaflet campaigns cannot be blocked on the basis of that law.

He said this is because it is “unclear whether the trash-carrying balloons” sent by North Korea “would constitute an urgent and grave threat to the lives and bodies of the public, which is prerequisite for restricting them under the law.”

David Maxwell, vice president of the Center for Asia Pacific Strategy, told VOA on Tuesday via email that Seoul is “complying with the 2014 U.N. Commission of Inquiry that calls on people around the world to call out North Korea for its human rights abuses, one of which is the isolation of the people and the denial of all information going into the North.”

Bruce Klingner, senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation, said, “The North Korean balloons are government actions and thus a violation of the armistice,” whereas balloons from the South are sent by non-government organizations.

Robert Rapson, who served as charge d’affaires and deputy chief of mission at the U.S. Embassy in Seoul in 2018-21, said while Seoul’s “decision to pause loudspeaker broadcasts” is “a positive step toward de-escalation, it should go further by also pausing balloon launches from the South.” 

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