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The mafia turns social media influencer to reinforce its brand



To the casual observer it was just another Facebook page dispensing inspirational messages — and the occasional threat — to its 18,000 followers. In fact “Honour and Dignity”, was a social media branding exercise for an Italian mafia boss whose frequent posts came to an abrupt end after he was sentenced to 30 years in prison.

Before his incarceration in 2017, Vincenzo Torcasio, a boss of a clan of the Calabrian ’Ndrangheta, Italy’s most powerful mafia, spent five years building up a sizeable online following. His digital offering provided an unlikely mix of kitsch images of roses and hearts, quotes from the writer Paulo Coelho, and occasional nuggets of grizzled gangster wisdom.

In other posts Mr Torcasio, from the southern Italian city of Lamezia Terme in Calabria, attacked the Italian state’s tough anti-mafia prison rules. Pictures of large sums of money were accompanied by the words: “when this is involved, you can’t trust anyone”.

For mafia experts, Mr Torcasio’s decision to become a social media influencer is an example of how some Italian mafia bosses, who generally maintain a low public profile to avoid attention from the authorities, have embraced a digital strategy to grow their criminal brands.

“The mafia has always been in the business of brand building, and here the medium has changed, but the aims have not,” said Federico Varese, an expert on organised crime at the University of Oxford.

“Powerful criminal brands reduce the need to use violence, as if you borrow money from me and know I am in the mafia, you already know I am serious. This reputation helps me avoid violence, which attracts attention, so building it is a very rational investment.” 

There is a long history of crime bosses using the media to build their personal profiles in the pre-digital age. New York mobster John Gotti, known as the dapper don, famously courted publicity and media attention in the 1980s. But while building a high-profile reputation can be good for business it presents multiple pitfalls.

“If you become too famous, that is not a good strategy,” said Mr Varese. “If you become a celebrity, that attracts attention from the police. Gotti made himself a target.”

Mr Torcasio’s “Honour and Dignity” Facebook page, which has been inactive since 2017 but remains online, does not include any direct promotion of criminal activity. Instead many of the posts focus on the risk of betrayal by those close to you, the need to have “cold blood” and to pay respect to well-known Italian organised crime bosses from the past, such as the famous Neapolitan Camorra boss Raffaele Cutolo.

Anna Sergi, a criminologist at the University of Essex in the UK, said crime bosses and their family members were using social media in this way to promote and defend what they believe are laudable cultural values.

“The mafia identity is not always the same as the activities of the organisation,” she said. “Those who belong to the clans often see it as a lifestyle and way of being, with lots of good in it. For these people it is natural from a criminological perspective to defend your identity and values at a time when they are attacked by the state.”

In its forays into social media, the mafia has embraced popular culture from outside Italy. Last year, in an example of cross-pollination between the Italian mafia and digital youth culture, a group of teenagers, some related to well established ’Ndrangheta crime families, posted a rap video on YouTube in the style of “trap”, a hip hop sub-genre originating from Atlanta, Georgia, that has become popular around the world.

The video by Glock 21 filmed in the rundown Calabrian town of Rosarno has attracted 267,000 views and features youths posing with automatic weapons, flashy jewellery and sports cars. There is no evidence that anyone in the video is in the mafia themselves.

Mr Varese said such videos showed that relatives of mafia members were influenced by the same online youth cultures as other teenagers and use social media in the same way as young people elsewhere. 

“These are people like us, they live in the same world as us,” he said. “They are part of the same culture we live in and most of the time they only reveal information on social media about themselves that is not criminal, and can’t be used in court.”

As with all young social media users, however, there was the risk of an ill-advised post coming back to haunt them later in life. “Once you start using social media it can be used against you,” Mr Varese said. “It is like someone who posts pictures of themselves at party when they are 18 and then it causes them problems when they are 30.”

It is a risk Mr Torcasio warned his online followers about. “If the past comes back to find you try and avoid it,” he wrote in one of his Facebook aphorisms. “There is no room for those who have turned their backs on you”.

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Fears grow over media independence in Czech Republic




European media groups have warned that the independence of the Czech public broadcaster is under mounting pressure, ahead of a parliamentary election in the central European nation later this year.

Czech Television (CT) remains one of the few independent public broadcasters in central Europe, where governments in countries such as Poland and Hungary have reduced public media to their mouthpieces.

However, media groups and Czech opposition politicians are worried that new appointments to CT’s governing body, which are due to be voted on in the next parliamentary session starting today, could lead to CT’s autonomy being undermined.

Czech MPs are set to pick four new members of CT’s governing body, the Council. The Council does not directly control the broadcaster’s content, but has the power to fire its director-general.

Opposition MPs have claimed that candidates on the shortlist for the four open positions on the 15-strong Council have been picked not for their media expertise but because their views align with those of the ANO party of prime minister Andrej Babis and its allies.

Czech Republic prime minister Andrej Babis owned various media titles including two big newspapers through his company Agrofert © AP

MPs from ANO deny this. “For us, the only criterion is whether the candidates have met all the requirements for selection required by law,” Stanislav Berkovec, an ANO MP, told the website last month.

However, the situation in Prague has prompted the European Broadcasting Union, which represents public service media, to issue an unusually strong warning about governments across Europe “trying to silence opposition voices by restricting freedom of the press”.

EBU director-general Noel Curran and Delphine Ernotte, the chief executive of France Televisions and EBU president, have written to Czech MPs urging them to protect the independence of the national broadcaster.

“In recent months, it has become alarmingly clear that the Czech Republic’s government is trying to exert pressure on [the independence of Czech Television], directly and indirectly,” the EBU said in a statement.

“It may be that only pressure from outside will preserve the hard-won independence of a public-service broadcaster that is crucial . . . to the democratic future of a nation often seen as a bulwark against authoritarianism in central and eastern Europe.”

The Vienna-based International Press Institute, a media watchdog, has expressed similar concerns, warning that the manoeuvring around the Council appointments could, in the worst case, pave the way for the removal of the current director-general of CT, Petr Dvorak.

“We find it hard to avoid the conclusion that the real aim is to fill the CT Council with enough figures who are critical of Dvorak to ensure that there is a majority to vote to dismiss him when the opportunity arises,” it said.

Observers say that CT’s independence is particularly important, given that many private Czech media groups are controlled by oligarchs. Prime minister Babis, himself a billionaire, owned various titles including two big newspapers through his company Agrofert, before he put his assets in trust in 2017.

“Czech public television, especially its information channel, is one of the most trusted of sources of information, especially concerning the pandemic . . . It is also one of the few which has overall reach and can get to everyone in the country,” said Martin Ehl, a senior journalist at Hospodarske Noviny, a leading Czech daily, and senior associate at the think-tank Visegrad Insight. “It is very important in this media environment, where different oligarchs own different media.”

The battle in Prague comes ahead of a parliamentary election in October, in which Babis’s ANO, which has headed a coalition government for the past four years, is facing a serious challenge from opposition parties. A poll last month put ANO second behind the centrist Pirate party.

The battle also has echoes of conflicts around Europe as public broadcasters in various countries are fighting to preserve their independence against governments who are aggressively seeking to influence output, or hobble the organisations by cutting taxpayer funding. 

Poland and Hungary are the most striking examples of how public broadcasters have been turned, through management and staff changes, into enthusiastic champions of the ruling party’s illiberal political agenda. But MEPs and campaigners fear the tactics are spreading to countries such as Slovenia, the Czech Republic and beyond. 

Adam Cerny from the Czech journalists’ group, Syndikat Novinaru, said there was “increasing risk” that the Czech Republic could go in the same direction as Poland and Hungary. But he expressed scepticism that ANO would want to have a such a big fight before the election. “I don’t think that Babis wants open political confrontation because of Czech TV,” he said.

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CDU leadership backs Armin Laschet’s bid to be German chancellor




Armin Laschet won a key victory in his campaign to succeed Angela Merkel when the party he leads, the Christian Democratic Union, backed him as their candidate for chancellor in September’s Bundestag election.

The CDU governing executive’s decision to back Laschet was a setback for Markus Söder, governor of Bavaria, who has also laid claim to the title.

The move was expected, but could prove controversial. Söder is by far the more popular politician, and many CDU MPs had argued in recent days that the party would have a much better chance of winning September’s election with Söder as their candidate.

After throwing his hat into the ring on Sunday, Söder said he would accept the CDU’s decision. However, it is still unclear whether his party, the Bavarian Christian Social Union, will accept Laschet as the CDU/CSU’s joint candidate. The CSU’s executive is meeting later on Monday.

Sunday’s events threw the process for finding a successor to Merkel, who will step down this year after 16 years as Germany’s leader, into confusion. The CDU and CSU traditionally field a joint candidate for chancellor: that person is usually the leader of the CDU, which is by far the larger party.

Volker Bouffier, governor of the western state of Hesse, said the CDU’s executive had unanimously backed Laschet at a meeting in Berlin on Monday morning. He added, however, that no formal decision had been made on the issue.

Bouffier said the executive had made clear “that we consider [Laschet] exceptionally well-suited and asked him to discuss together with Markus Söder how we proceed”. He added that “the current polls should not determine the decision over [who we choose as] candidate”.

Since Laschet was elected CDU leader in January, the party has suffered a precipitous slump in the polls and that created an opening for Söder. He has frequently argued that the CDU/CSU’s joint candidate should be the politician with the best chances of winning in September.

Voters have blamed the CDU for the government’s recent missteps in its handling of the coronavirus pandemic, in particular the slow pace of Covid-19 vaccinations. Revelations that a number of CDU and CSU MPs earned huge commissions on deals to procure face masks also badly damaged the party’s image.

The malaise in the CDU was highlighted last month when it slumped to its worst ever election results in the two states of Baden-Württemberg and Rhineland-Palatinate, which for decades had been Christian Democrat strongholds. National polls currently put support for the CDU/CSU at between 26 per cent and 28 per cent, way down on the 33 per cent it garnered in the last Bundestag election in 2017.

There was more bad news at the weekend for Laschet, who as well as being CDU leader is also prime minister of North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany’s most populous state. A poll for broadcaster WDR in NRW found that only 26 per cent of voters in the state are satisfied with the work of the regional government Laschet leads and only 24 per cent of voters consider him a suitable candidate for chancellor.

The slide in the CDU’s fortunes contrasts with the rise of the Greens. The party garnered 8.9 per cent of the vote in 2017 and is now polling at 23 per cent. It is seen as a racing certainty that it will be part of Germany’s next government.

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EU and UK edge towards accord on trade rules for Northern Ireland




The UK and the EU are making progress in talks on how to apply post-Brexit trade rules in Northern Ireland, raising hopes of an agreement that could help reduce tensions that have spilled over into violence on the streets of Belfast.

Officials on both sides said that recent days of intensive contacts had given cause for optimism that the UK and EU can craft a “work plan” on how to implement the Northern Ireland protocol, which sets the post-Brexit terms for goods to flow between the region and Great Britain. EU Brexit commissioner Maros Sefcovic and his UK counterpart David Frost may meet to review progress this week. 

“They are advancing on a technical level and probably we will see a [Frost-Sefcovic] meeting rather sooner than later”, said one EU diplomat, while cautioning progress depended on firm commitments from the UK and its “unequivocal support” for the Brexit withdrawal agreement.

Other EU diplomats and officials said strong UK engagement in the technical talks on implementation of the Northern Ireland protocol had raised hopes that an understanding could be reached. 

“The mood seems to have warmed up a bit — the tone of the discussions is quite good,” said one British official. 

The talks are a follow up to a draft plan about implementation of the Northern Ireland protocol that was submitted by the UK to Brussels at the end of last month — a step the EU said was essential to rebuilding trust after Britain unilaterally extended waivers for traders from some aspects of the rules in March. This move prompted EU legal action.

The discussions between British and EU officials in recent days have taken place against the backdrop of violence in Northern Ireland, stoked in part by resentment within the unionist community at how the protocol treats their region differently to the rest of the UK.

From April 2 there were eight consecutive nights of unrest in Northern Ireland, involving both unionist and nationalist areas. The police responded by deploying water cannons for the first time in six years.

The Brexit deal placed a trade border down the Irish Sea in order to keep commerce seamless on the island of Ireland. The Northern Ireland protocol requires customs and food safety checks for goods entering Northern Ireland from Great Britain.

Officials said the EU-UK talks now under way about implementation of the protocol cover a wide array of practical issues ranging from trade in steel and medicines to the policing of food safety standards, how to deal with residual soil on plant bulbs, and the construction of border inspection posts. 

“Technical talks are ongoing”, said an EU official. “Depending on the progress made at technical level, a political-level meeting may be held soon.”

But EU diplomats and officials also cautioned that more work remains to be done, especially on the thorny issue of applying food safety checks. Difficult talks also lie ahead on the timetable for putting particular measures in place.

Meanwhile Downing Street played down a report in The Observer that it was resisting proposals by Dublin for a special crisis summit to address the outbreak of violence in Northern Ireland.

“We have not refused anything,” said a Number 10 official. “It’s something we will consider.”

However there are concerns on the British side about the wisdom of holding a summit in Northern Ireland with Irish government ministers at a time when pro-UK loyalist groups have been engaged in street violence.

Irish officials said taoiseach Micheál Martin and British prime minister Boris Johnson have spoken and would “maintain close contact over coming days”.

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