Morning news brief
A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:
Elon Musk is a loud and self-professed champion of free speech. Last night, though, he suspended the accounts of several journalists from major news outlets.
ROB SCHMITZ, HOST:
Their offense - tweeting out publicly available information about the location of private planes used by Musk and his family.
MARTÍNEZ: NPR tech reporter Bobby Allyn joins us now with more. Bobby, it's been quite a ride for Twitter the last few months. How did we get here?
BOBBY ALLYN, BYLINE: Yeah, it really has been. So there's a bit of a history here. You know, a long time thorn in the side of Elon Musk has been this account known as @ElonJet. And it tracks, as you mentioned, the flight activity of Musk's private jets using publicly available information. It's run by this 20-year-old University of Florida student who loves aviation. Well, Musk offered him $5,000 to shut it down, and he refused. That was before Musk owned Twitter. Now that Musk does own Twitter, he decided to crack down. Musk has suspended the account. He changed Twitter policy, saying live information about someone's travel is basically doxxing. But things really took a shocking turn, A, when Musk last night suspended the accounts of about half a dozen high-profile journalists for simply writing about @ElonJet or tweeting links to it.
MARTÍNEZ: Yeah. I mean, it's kind of surprising - right? - that's what got those journalists suspended.
ALLYN: Yeah, exactly. And so Twitter says the journalists will be suspended for seven days and that future violators of this policy will face a similar fate. But, look, it's important to emphasize here that these journalists didn't have some kind of special surveilling powers, right? There were - the journalists were writing about an account that tracked Musk's jets, right? It started and ended with airports. We just knew what cities he or his jets were visiting. But Musk says that was enough to send what he described as a, quote, "crazy stalker" chasing after a car that one of his kids was riding. And Musk hasn't backed up the allegation with any documentation, but that is what he cited.
MARTÍNEZ: Yeah. So how have press freedom advocates responded to all this?
ALLYN: They are extremely alarmed. Jameel Jaffer, who heads the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University, said, you know, it's disturbing, especially for someone who styles himself a champion of free speech. Other press advocates said it sets a dangerous precedent - right? - having this powerful billionaire who controls what's basically the front page of the internet, banning journalists based on a personal animus.
MARTÍNEZ: So what do you think, Bobby? I mean, do we all have to sit now and be worried about retweeting something and all of a sudden get suspended somehow? Is that how it's going to work?
ALLYN: I guess so, A. I mean, the big lesson here is Twitter policy is written at the whim of Elon Musk, right? And that can mean professional journalists like you and I trying to do our jobs - you know, I'm a tech reporter. I cover Elon and cover Twitter. Maybe one day, I'll be caught in the middle and be suspended, right? I mean, his rules are arbitrary and constantly moving. They're hard to keep up with. And another lesson here, I think, is increasingly Twitter is just becoming a place that is openly hostile to journalists. I mean, Musk has long been at war with the media, but silencing high-profile journalists for linking to publicly available information about his private jets I think is really a new low point in Musk's relationship with the media.
MARTÍNEZ: How does the line go - retweets are not an endorsement because they might get suspended or something like that?
ALLYN: (Laughter) Exactly.
MARTÍNEZ: Yeah. That's NPR's Bobby Allyn. Bobby, thanks.
ALLYN: Thanks, A.
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MARTÍNEZ: Tunisia goes to the polls Saturday for parliamentary elections.
SCHMITZ: The normally divided political parties have united in their boycott of a vote they see as simply cementing Tunisian president Kais Saied's power grab.
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UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting in non-English language).
SCHMITZ: People protested in the streets in the days before the vote, and hopes are waning for what was once seen as the Middle East and North Africa's most promising nascent democracy.
MARTÍNEZ: Our co-host Leila Fadel joins me now from Tunis with the latest. Leila, so what's the situation headed into tomorrow's legislative vote?
LEILA FADEL, BYLINE: Well, A, before we can talk about today, we have to talk about what happened 12 years ago when Tunisia sparked a wave of revolts across the Middle East and North Africa. And when I covered those protests, it was shocking to see the power of people's anger toppling autocrats in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya. Protests kept spreading. And Tunisia was the only nation to emerge with an actual budding democracy. And that's why there's so much concern that it could all disappear under this current president who started consolidating power last year when he dissolved the elected Parliament. At the time, a lot of Tunisians were actually really happy because they were tired of the political infighting, so much fighting that badly needed economic reforms to a system that for decades was plagued with corruption and cronyism just didn't get done. Add to that the pandemic, and it was a really hard time.
And so Saied had popular support. But since that day, he's been arresting political opponents. He dissolved a top judicial body. He sacked judges, governors, replaced the post-revolutionary constitution by referendum in what a lot of people are calling a bloodless coup. To defend what he's doing, he's saying that this is what's needed to get democracy and the economy back on track. But today, the economic crisis is worse than ever with Russia's war in Ukraine and the states on the verge of economic collapse. I spoke to Selim Kharrat, who heads the Tunisian government watchdog group Al Bawsala.
SELIM KHARRAT: If I had the president or its prime minister in front of me, I would ask them a very simple question. You had two years without any kind of opposition. You were alone to take any kind of decision you wanted to take. What are the results?
MARTÍNEZ: So then who's keeping the government in check?
FADEL: Well, as you heard from Kharrat, no one. The president right now is really ruling by decree. And that's why there's so much concern. And his opponents say tomorrow's parliamentary election could cement this path he's taken to strengthen executive power. I spoke to the former head of Parliament, until it was dissolved, and longtime leader of Tunisia's Islamist Ennahda Party, which is a pretty dominant party over here, although unpopular with secular Tunisians. His name's Rached Ghannouchi, and this is what he said about the current government.
RACHED GHANNOUCHI: (Through interpreter) All the international community and the international organization should know that they are dealing with an illegitimate regime.
FADEL: Now he's speaking through an interpreter there. I need to say here, though, that Saied did come to power in a landslide election on an anti-corruption platform because people were angry with the political establishment, including Ghannouchi's party, which dominated every post-revolutionary election since 2011. And they were angry because these politicians failed to make their lives better. And Ghannouchi acknowledged that his party failed to bring in development, jumpstart the economy, but he says at least there was free speech. Ghannouchi is one of many of the president's political opponents currently being prosecuted.
MARTÍNEZ: So what about the state of free speech?
FADEL: Look, the president has issued decrees that are aimed at suppressing critics. People are getting arrested, prosecuted. But in our time here, people still spoke to us critically about this president. So the space to speak still seems to be open. They have hope that democratic ideals have taken root here and a path to autocracy will be defeated.
MARTÍNEZ: That's our co-host, Leila Fadel, reporting from Tunis. Leila, thanks.
FADEL: Thank you.
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MARTÍNEZ: Three months into the protests in Iran, the government is doubling down on an alarming tactic to crush the unrest - death sentences and executions.
SCHMITZ: Several people have already been sentenced to die, and at least two executions have been reported in recent days. This comes after the death of a 22-year-old Kurdish woman in the custody of the so-called morality police in September. The woman known as Jina or Mahsa Amini was detained for what the police called improper attire.
MARTÍNEZ: NPR's Peter Kenyon joins us from Istanbul, where he's been following the developments. Peter, so what do we know about how these death penalties are being doled out and who the defendants are?
PETER KENYON, BYLINE: Well, the trials have been closed, but there has been widespread attention paid to the two executions that have been carried out to date. Twenty-three-year-old Majidreza Rahnavard was hanged from a crane in a very public execution, and it came less than a month after he was arrested and convicted of killing two security guards. Earlier, Mohsen Shekari, also 23, who'd been convicted of wounding a security guard with a knife, was executed as well. The State Department denounced the executions. The spokesman, Ned Price, said the harsh sentences, quote, "simply just underscore how much the Iranian leadership actually fears its own people." A Norway-based rights group says at least 20 protesters are facing charges that could result in a death sentence. That's based on official Iranian reports. And one rights group estimates the death toll is now approaching 500 people.
MARTÍNEZ: And there have been thousands of arrests as well. So how does the government plan to deal with these detainees?
KENYON: Well, the estimates are in the 15,000 range when it comes to those arrested so far. With numbers this large and information so scarce, it's not really possible to draw any firm conclusions about how the government intends to deal with the detainees. But rights groups have warned that there's every reason to be concerned about a wave of death sentences being handed down and carried out. And we should point out that the defendants so far were not allowed to retain their own lawyers, and their state-appointed attorneys reportedly did little to defend them, while prosecutors have relied on so-called confessions that critics say were obtained under duress or torture.
MARTÍNEZ: And the thing is, though, with crackdowns underway, I mean, protests are still happening, right?
KENYON: Yes, they are. A post to Twitter this week said the governor's office in a town near Mashhad in northeast Iran was set ablaze in retaliation for the execution of the two young men, Mohsen Shekari and Majidreza Rahnavard. General strikes have occurred. They've caused widespread closures in commercial areas. Analyst Sanam Vakil at the U.K.-based Chatham House think tank told me that the unrest is reaching what she considers an inflection point, with the Islamic government determined to send what she calls the starkest message possible. She believes Iran will continue to execute demonstrators who receive the death penalty. She says the government is in essence trying to scare people off the streets with these public executions. But she also says so far, it doesn't necessarily seem to be working, especially among younger Iranians. Here's a bit of what she told me.
SANAM VAKIL: First of all, I think young people see this as one of the few opportunities they have to push for change, if not regime change. And that's why the protests have not been fully stamped out. This is, you know, a once-in-their-lifetime opportunity.
KENYON: Now, she also says, however, there have been signs of demonstrations getting smaller or happening less frequently, if at all, in certain parts of Iran. However, overall, these protests have shown remarkable longevity, and they're seen by some as the biggest threat to the clerical regime in decades.
MARTÍNEZ: That's NPR's Peter Kenyon. Peter, thanks a lot.
KENYON: Thank you, A,
MARTÍNEZ: And we have one more story for you this morning. Late last night, the Senate bought Congress some more time to avoid a potential government shutdown.
SCHMITZ: On a 71-19 vote, the Senate approved a stopgap funding measure to avert a shutdown this weekend while it works to reach a deal on a longer term spending plan. The House passed a similar measure on Wednesday.
MARTÍNEZ: The bill will fund the government through December 23. It now heads to President Biden's desk for his signature. The Senate also passed a $847 billion defense policy bill. Now, that one ends the military's COVID vaccination mandate, and it also includes a pay raise for service members, more money for Ukraine and unprecedented security aid for Taiwan. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.