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Hurricane Delta makes landfall in Mexico

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Hurricane Delta slammed into Mexico’s Caribbean coast early on Wednesday packing maximum winds of 175kmph (110mph).

A weakened Delta hit the Yucatan Peninsula near the city of Puerto Morelos as a Category 2 storm, the National Hurricane Center said.

On Tuesday, it had reached “extremely dangerous” Category 4 status. The hurricane was downgraded to Category 3 as it approached the peninsula.

It hit Mexico’s Riviera Maya coast, which is home to major tourist resort towns including Cancun, although the number of visitors has plummeted because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Thousands of tourists had hunkered down in emergency shelters as the storm approached with a potentially life-threatening storm surge.

By nightfall on Tuesday, Cancun’s streets were mostly empty, shops closed and windows covered by wooden sheets or crossed with adhesive tape to try to prevent them from shattering.

More than 40,000 tourists in Cancun and neighbouring resorts were evacuated, the head of the area’s hotel association, Roberto Citron, told the AFP news agency.

Most were Mexicans, but they also included foreigners, notably from the United States.

In Cancun alone, more than 160 shelters were set up.

The authorities said the emergency shelters had been sanitised to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, which has killed more than 81,000 people in Mexico and battered the key tourism industry.

“To prevent the spread of COVID-19, the same measures have been taken in the shelters as in hotels, such as the use of gel and face masks,” said Cintron.

Soldiers wearing masks and face shields were seen preparing to deploy for relief efforts.

“The order has been given to mobilise up to 5,000 troops with all the necessary equipment to protect the population,” President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador told reporters.

Members of the Mexican Army prepare to move towards the municipalities of Valladolid and Tizimin, in Merida, Yucatan state, in preparation for the arrival of Hurricane Delta [Hugo Borges/AFP

Airports shut

The Cancun and Cozumel airports were ordered to close, and non-essential activities in the state of Quintana Roo were suspended.

People living in the area stocked up on food, drinking water and wooden boards to protect their homes as the storm approached.

“We’re rushing to get wood for the windows. We only learned this morning that the hurricane was coming here,” said Laura Mendez, a 54-year-old in Cancun.

Fishermen hauled their boats ashore to prevent them from being swept away.

Delta is forecast to bring heavy rainfall and floods to parts of the southeastern US later this week.

The governors of US states Alabama and Louisiana declared states of emergency on Tuesday ahead of the storm,

Alabama Governor Kay Ivey  ordered all tourists and visitors to evacuate coast, and extended a price gouging law, preventing businesses from charging excessive prices, to include hurricane Delta.

Delta is the 26th named storm of an unusually active Atlantic hurricane season.

Over the weekend, six people died and thousands were forced from their homes as Tropical Storm Gamma triggered floods and landslides in southeastern Mexico.

In September, meteorologists were forced to break out the Greek alphabet to name Atlantic storms for only the second time ever, after the 2020 hurricane season blew through their usual list, ending on Tropical Storm Wilfred.

Tourists are evacuated from their hotel in Puerto Morelos, Quintana Roo state, Mexico, in preparation for the arrival of Hurricane Delta [Elizabeth Ruiz/AFP]

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Facebook’s independent oversight board is finally up and running

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Facebook’s much-anticipated independent decision-making body, the Facebook oversight board, announced it will start allowing people to submit cases for review beginning today.

That means that if you post something on Facebook or Instagram and it’s taken down for violating any of Facebook’s ever-changing rules on things like hate speech, nudity, misinformation, or violence — you will soon have the ability to appeal that decision to someone besides Facebook. For now, that option will roll out in waves, and in the next few weeks, Facebook says it’ll be an option for all users.

Social media experts have long awaited the Board’s launch because it’s expected to serve as the final decision-maker in how Facebook handles complicated and problematic posts, which have plagued the social media company. Look, for example, at how it managed the unsubstantiated New York Post article about Hunter Biden or any of the countless times Facebook has been accused of letting racist hate speech run rampant on its platform. The Board said it will prioritize cases that threaten to harm freedom of expression or human rights, but declined to comment on specific cases it plans to take.

Facebook’s oversight board is made up of a group of 20 academics, journalists, and international policy experts from around the world, and is set up as a separate company from Facebook, funded by a $130 million independent trust. Its decisions on individual pieces of content are binding, meaning Facebook has agreed to follow whatever decisions the Board makes, and the group can also make broader policy recommendations to Facebook — although those won’t be binding. That means the board has the power to overrule even Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, who has a history of taking stubborn stances in the name of protecting free expression. Zuckerberg allowed President Trump’s “when the looting starts, the shooting starts” post in response to Black Lives Matter protests in Minneapolis, and, until recently, allowed Holocaust denialism on Facebook — even when some of his own employees, civil rights leaders, and others have raised serious concerns.

“The Board is eager to get to work,” said Catalina Botero Marino, co-chair of the oversight board, in a press statement on Thursday. “We won’t be able to hear every appeal, but want our decisions to have the widest possible value, and will be prioritizing cases that have the potential to impact many users around the world, are of critical importance to public discourse, and raise questions about Facebook’s policies.”

At a time when Facebook is being criticized by US politicians on both sides of the aisle for how it handles contentious speech on its platform, the Board is meant as an outside check on Facebook’s power. Some, though, have criticized the Board, saying it was too slow in getting started (Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg first publicly described the idea two years ago) and too narrow in scope to meaningfully change how Facebook handles hate speech and misinformation. For example, for now, users will only be able to appeal cases where they feel their content is wrongfully taken down, not cases in which they think inflammatory content is wrongfully staying up on the platform (the Board says that latter option will come in the next few months).

“Facebook was always criticized for moving fast and breaking things. I think we are looking at this as the opposite that,” said oversight board co-chair and former Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt on a press call with reporters on Thursday.

Critics point out that the oversight board seems unlikely to help Facebook deal with one of the most controversial content moderation challenges it has faced to date: the 2020 US presidential election.

President Trump has been making unsupported assertions on Facebook and Twitter for months now that the election is “rigged,” centering on false claims about mail-in voting — which Facebook has labelled with a generic link to nonpartisan voting information, and Twitter has more aggressively — at times — labeled as “misleading” and fact-checked.

Many anticipate that Trump — or other politicians — could question the results of the election or declare a premature victory on social media before the race is called. In that case, it would be up to Facebook or Twitter to decide how to deal with such a declaration. (Facebook and Twitter have signaled they would fact-check and label such a post or even take it down, depending on what it says.) Whatever decision these companies make will be widely controversial.

But it seems unlikely the Board will take any cases in time to impact election-night posts or regulate misinformation in the remaining days until the election.

That’s because it will take up to 90 days for the Board to decide on a case — and that’s after the Board even figures out which cases it wants to hear first. Facebook the company can submit a case to the Board for expedited review, but on a press call with journalists on Thursday morning, the company said it will not send any cases to the Board before November 3.

“We are not going to send something for expedited review before the election,” said head of strategic initiatives at Facebook Brent Harris. “And we have done that because we do not wish to place undue pressure on the board.”

Last month, a group of 25 experts from academia, civil rights, politics, and journalism announced they were creating an ad-hoc group to scrutinize Facebook’s oversight board, calling themselves “The Real Facebook Oversight Board.”

Facebook oversight board’s Thorning-Schmidt said she welcomes the feedback.

“We welcome all debate on this,” she said. “Part of the reason why we have joined this course is because we want to debate around content moderation.”


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Obama delivers a blistering critique of Trump in his first stump speech of the 2020 cycle

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Speaking for the first time in person on the campaign trail in Philadelphia, former President Barack Obama did not hold back.

In a 36-minute speech delivered Wednesday to an audience seated in or standing by their cars, Obama slammed President Donald Trump as “incapable of taking the job seriously.” In between plugs for his former Vice President Joe Biden and Biden’s running mate Sen. Kamala Harris, Obama repeatedly attacked Trump’s record, starting with his handling of Covid-19.

“At least 220,000 Americans have died. More than 100,000 small businesses have closed. Millions of jobs are gone. Our proud reputation around the world is in tatters,” Obama said. “Presidents up for reelection usually ask if the country is better off than it was four years ago. I’ll tell you one thing, four years ago you’d be tailgating here at the Lincoln instead of watching a speech from your cars.”

Obama also pointed to statistics indicating that despite the US having its first identified cases around the same day, South Korea has a “per capita death toll is just 1.3 percent of what ours is.”

Obama’s visit to Pennsylvania underscored the importance the Biden campaign is placing on the state, and in mobilizing black voters in the Philadelphia area particularly. Obama’s approach: focus more on personality than policy.

While Obama’s remarks also lauded Biden’s health care plan and his foreign policy experience, the bulk of the speech focused on questions of character — both Biden’s and Trump’s. Throughout the speech, Obama returned to that familiar theme, including his oft-used maxim: “The presidency doesn’t change who you are, it reveals who you are.”

When he discussed his view of Trump’s fitness for office, Obama’s incredulity was palpable. As he recounted Trump retweeting conspiracy theories about whether SEAL Team Six actually killed Osama Bin Laden he spoke to voters exhausted by the news cycle: “You might be able to have a Thanksgiving dinner without having an argument” if Trump loses this November.

“And, look, this notion of truthfulness and democracy and citizenship, and being responsible, these aren’t Republican or Democratic principles, they’re American principles. They’re what most of us grew up learning from our parents and our grandparents. They’re not White or Black or Latino or Asian values, they’re American values, human values, and we need to reclaim them. We have to get those values back at the center of our public life.”

At one point, he leveled his ire at those who have made excuses for what he views as intolerable behavior from the president. Obama also lamented that Trump’s abnormal behavior “distracts all of us” from the policy ramifications of this administration. Ironically, in this speech, the former president seemed to be caught in that trap as well.

The Atlantic has reported that while “Obama is alarmed about Trump’s presidency,” like many he has struggled with how to campaign during a pandemic. Wednesday night’s speech — and an accompanying stop to meet with community organizers — seems to indicate he’s found his answer. It will be one event in a two-week blitz where “Obama will hit the trail, potentially adding joint appearances with Joe Biden and Kamala Harris.”


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Polish court allows stricter abortion law, sparking outcry

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Chief justice says existing legislation that allowed abortion of malformed fetuses was ‘incompatible’ with the constitution.

Poland’s constitutional court has struck down a provision of the country’s abortion law allowing Europe’s most strict legislation to be further tightened and provoking an outcry from rights groups.

Chief justice Julia Przylebska said in a ruling on Thursday existing legislation, which allows for the abortion of malformed fetuses, was “incompatible” with the constitution.

The verdict, which is final and cannot be appealed, drew immediate condemnation from the Council of Europe, whose Commissioner for Human Rights Dunja Mijatovic called it “a sad day for #WomensRights”.

“Removing the basis for almost all legal abortions in #Poland amounts to a ban & violates #HumanRights,” Mijatovic tweeted.

“Today’s ruling … means underground/abroad abortions for those who can afford & even greater ordeal for all others.”

Since 1993, Poland has only allowed abortions in case of rape or incest, a threat to the mother’s life or a deformed fetus.

Now the court ruling could pave the way for legislators from the governing right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) party to approve draft legislation that would ban pregnancy terminations in the case of fetuses with congenital birth defects.

Many Polish women bridled when PiS backed the bill originating as a popular petition earlier this year, prompting conservative legislators to refer the matter to the constitutional court.

The tribunal, whose main role is to ensure any law complies with the constitution, underwent government reforms in 2016 that led critics to contend it is stacked with PiS allies.

Police separate pro-choice activists, right, carrying a poster saying ‘We are not incubators’ from anti-abortion rights protesters, left, in front of Poland’s constitutional court in Warsaw [Wojtek Radwanski/AFP]

‘Blood on your hands’

Former liberal Polish Prime Minister and PiS critic Donald Tusk called the timing of the abortion issue “political wickedness”.

“Throwing the topic of abortion and a ruling by a pseudo-court into the middle of a raging pandemic is more than cynical,” the head of the European People’s Party tweeted.

The NGO Action Democracy, which had gathered more than 210,000 signatures against the stricter law, issued a statement saying the court delivered “a shameful, political verdict dictated by right-wing fundamentalists”.

Leftist legislator Barbara Nowacka blamed the devoutly Catholic country’s bishops, telling them at a news conference in parliament: “You have blood on your hands.”

PiS-allied President Andrzej Duda has said if approved by the parliament he would sign the draft legislation into law.

On Thursday, his spokesman Blazej Spychalski said “the president’s views on this matter are well-known and haven’t changed. We’re satisfied that the constitutional court sided with life”, he was quoted by the Polish news agency PAP as saying.

The country of 38 million people sees fewer than 2,000 legal abortions a year, but women’s groups estimate up to 200,000 procedures are performed illegally or abroad.

An attempt by the PiS government to tighten the abortion law in 2016 was scrapped following nationwide protests by tens of thousands of women dressed in black.

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