Nation & World News

South Korea Decriminalizes Cheating, Shares Of Contraceptive Companies Rise

By Jasmine Garsd on February 26th, 2015 | Last updated: February 26, 2015 at 8:03 pm

Extramarital sex is no longer a crime in South Korea, giving shares of contraceptive companies a boost.

On Thursday, South Korea’s Constitutional Court struck down a decades-old law that made adultery a crime punishable by up to two years in prison.

NPR’s Anthony Kuhn tell our Newscast unit that “roughly 100,000 people have been convicted of adultery since the law was passed in 1953, but conviction rates have recently fallen to below 1 percent.”

Still, The Guardian reports there is “a deep vein of traditionalism” in the country. The adultery law, the newspaper says, was passed with the stated purpose of protecting women at a time when the country was largely dependent on agriculture and women had few property rights. But changes in the economy and sexual mores made the law feel obsolete to many South Koreans.

Last year, South Korea blocked a Korean version of the extramarital-hookup site Ashley Madison. Earlier Thursday, Fusion interviewed Ashley Madison founder Noel Biderman, who says he is interested in returning to the country.

Two of the court’s nine judges involved in the Thursday ruling voted to uphold the law, saying decriminalization would encourage affairs and debauchery.

The New York Times reports that “more than 5,000 people who have been indicted on adultery charges since that 2008 ruling can now seek a new trial or, if they have not been convicted, demand that the charges be dropped.”

Share prices for leading condom brand Unidus were up nearly 15 percent, the daily limit on the country’s Kosdaq market. And shares of Hyundai Pharmaceutical, which makes morning-after birth control pills and pregnancy tests, rose 9.7 percent.

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Banksy’s Murals Turn Up In Gaza Strip

By Krishnadev Calamur on February 26th, 2015 | Last updated: February 26, 2015 at 6:04 pm

Banksy’s work is now in the Gaza Strip.

The artist, who uses public spaces for his often-provocative murals, posted images that he said were of art he created in the Gaza Strip, along with a two-minute video of life in the Palestinian territory, titled “Make this the year YOU discover a new destination.”

Here are some of the murals, which you can also see on Banksy’s own website.

Banksy writes about this image:

“A local man came up and said ‘Please — what does this mean?’ I explained I wanted to highlight the destruction in Gaza by posting photos on my website — but on the internet people only look at pictures of kittens.”

And on his website, he writes about the mural below: “Gaza is often described as ‘the world’s largest open air prison’ because no-one is allowed to enter or leave. But that seems a bit unfair to prisons — they don’t have their electricity and drinking water cut off randomly almost every day.”

Banksy is known for his political art that is often provocative. And these images, and the video below, are likely to have supporters as well as detractors given that they deal with the impact last year’s fighting between Hamas, which runs Gaza, and Israel had on the territory.

The two-minute video has a line that reads: “If we wash our hands of the conflict between the powerful and the powerless we side with the powerful — we don’t remain neutral.”

The artist also posted one of the murals in Gaza on Instagram:

A publicist for the artist, whose identity is not known, released a statement to The New York Times that said:

“I don’t want to take sides. But when you see entire suburban neighborhoods reduced to rubble with no hope of a future — what you’re really looking at is a vast outdoor recruitment center for terrorists. And we should probably address this for all our sakes.”

Banksy’s work has previously appeared in the West Bank and other parts of the world, including his native U.K. In 2010, the artist worked on the opening sequence for The Simpsons that featured an Asian sweatshop.

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Senate Panel OKs Loretta Lynch Nomination As Attorney General

By Krishnadev Calamur on February 26th, 2015 | Last updated: February 26, 2015 at 8:03 pm

Loretta Lynch, President Obama’s nominee for attorney general, cleared a major hurdle Thursday to succeed Eric Holder as the country’s top law enforcement officer. The Senate Judiciary Committee voted 12-8 to send the nomination to the full chamber, which is expected to confirm her nomination.

Three Republicans joined the panel’s Democrats to vote “yes.” Those opposed to her nomination cited President Obama’s executive actions on immigration.

“We should not confirm someone to that position who intends to continue that unlawful policy,” said Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala.

Sessions’ fellow Republican on the panel, Orrin Hatch of Utah, who voted “yes,” defended Lynch.

“The case against her nomination, as far as I can tell, essentially ignores her professional career and focuses solely on about six hours that she spent before this committee,” he said.

At her confirmation hearings last month before the panel, Lynch said she believed Obama’s executive actions on immigration were legal and constitutional.

NPR’s Carrie Johnson tells our Newscast unit that the veteran prosecutor “waited more than 100 days and answered 897 written questions in her bid to become the country’s top law enforcement officer.

“Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee praised Lynch for her poise and her background on fighting terrorism and protecting civil rights,” Carrie said. “But many Republicans criticized her support for the White House action on immigration worried she would not be independent from the president.”

Lynch, 55, is the U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of New York.

Carrrie, who has been reporting on Lynch, profiled her last month. She said:

“Lynch is the lead federal prosecutor in a district that serves 8 million people. But outside of law enforcement circles, this daughter of a preacher is not widely known. Friends say that’s because Lynch prefers to let her cases speak for themselves.”

If confirmed by the full Senate, Lynch will be the first black woman to be attorney general.

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Astronomers Discover A Supermassive Black Hole Dating To Cosmic Dawn

By Hannah Bloch on February 26th, 2015 | Last updated: February 26, 2015 at 6:03 pm

SDSS J0100+2802 is the rather understated name scientists have given to an exceptionally luminous, newly discovered quasar. It’s 12.8 billion light years away and shines as brightly as 420 million suns. At its center, there’s a super-sized black hole — as massive as 12 billion suns — that formed some 900 million years after the Big Bang.

It’s far more massive than any other known black hole from that time, and astronomers aren’t sure how it grew so big so fast.

An international team of astronomers reported their discovery in the February 26 issue of Nature, which calls the black hole at the center of SDSS J0100+2802 “a giant in the young universe.”

What exactly is a black hole? NASA defines it this way:

“A black hole is anything but empty space. Rather, it is a great amount of matter packed into a very small area — think of a star ten times more massive than the Sun squeezed into a sphere approximately the diameter of New York City. The result is a gravitational field so strong that nothing, not even light, can escape.”

Xiaohui Fan, one of the Nature study’s co-authors and an astronomer at the University of Arizona’s Steward Observatory, said in a university press release that the discovery raises important questions:

“How can a quasar so luminous, and a black hole so massive, form so early in the history of the universe, at an era soon after the earliest stars and galaxies have just emerged?” Fan said. “And what is the relationship between this monster black hole and its surrounding environment, including its host galaxy?

“This ultraluminous quasar with its supermassive black hole provides a unique laboratory to the study of the mass assembly and galaxy formation around the most massive black holes in the early universe.”

In other words, the discovery may help scientists better understand the universe when it was young. But — as theoretical physicist Marcelo Gleiser noted in NPR’s 13.7 Cosmos and Culture blog — some, like Stephen Hawking, believe that black holes (as we think we know them) may not exist at all.

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Judge Throws Out Cover-Up Allegations Against Argentine President

By Krishnadev Calamur on February 26th, 2015 | Last updated: February 26, 2015 at 9:04 pm

Last month, an Argentine prosecutor who was due to testify about an alleged cover-up in the investigation into the deadly 1994 bombing of a Jewish center in Buenos Aires was found dead.

Alberto Nisman had accused President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner’s government of covering up Iran’s alleged role in the bombing that killed 85 people to push through a grains-for-oil deal with Tehran. After Nisman’s death, the investigation was continued by prosecutor Gerardo Pollicita.

Thursday, a judge dismissed the accusations, saying the documents filed by prosecutors had failed to meet the minimum standards for a formal investigation.

Kirchner had previously dismissed the allegation of a secret deal with Tehran as “absurd.”

Nisman was found dead in his apartment last month with a gunshot wound to the head. A prosecutor said there appeared to be no outside involvement in the death, but investigators were treating it as suspicious.

Kirchner waded in, saying Nisman’s death “was not a suicide,” sparking conspiracy theories in the country over his death and his investigation. She then dissolved the country’s intelligence agency, suggesting it was tied to Nisman’s death and saying it “has not served the national interests.”

NPR’s Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, who has been reporting on this story, says there’s a reason Argentina is riveted by this case and its cast of characters, both major and minor:

“Part of this fascination has to do with Argentina’s murky, bloody history. The country suffered a brutal dictatorship under which people disappeared and babies were stolen to be brought up by their parents’ torturers. Conspiracy theories in Argentina often turn out to be true.”

Thursday, the country’s Congress also approved a law overhauling the intelligence agency, replacing it with a new intelligence service.

Reuters adds: “The Chamber of Deputies voted 131-71 to create the Federal Intelligence Agency. The government says it will be structured to improve the accountability of espionage agents compared with the soon-to-be dismantled SI Intelligence Secretariat.”

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Pew Study On Religion Finds Increased Harassment Of Jews

By Tom Gjelten on February 26th, 2015 | Last updated: February 26, 2015 at 10:03 pm

Updated at 2 p.m. ET.

This week, a man was sentenced to die in Saudi Arabia because he renounced his faith in Islam; a Hindu leader in India made a new accusation against Mother Teresa; a mosque near Bethlehem was set on fire.

It’s hardly news that religious differences lead to conflict, nor is it surprising that governments try to restrict religious practice or favor some religions over others. But a report from the Pew Research Center released Thursday shows the pervasiveness of religious intolerance around the world in 2013 — and finds that the targeting of Jews, in particular, has worsened over the past seven years.

About a quarter of all countries are dealing with high levels of religious hostilities within their borders, according to the annual report, and those countries are home to 3 out of 4 people on the planet.

China, India, Pakistan, Indonesia and Russia — all with big populations — are among the countries where the government either highly restricts religious practice or where there is a high degree of social harassment, including discrimination, vandalism against religious property and attacks on minorities.

The Pew report, which is based on data and reports from 2013, finds that Muslims and Christians face comparable levels of hostility, though Christians are harassed more often by governments, Muslims more often by individuals.

One group faces increased hostility: Jews. Each year since 2007, when Pew began these surveys, the targeting of Jews around the world has gotten worse.

European Jews, in particular, encounter intolerance, says Peter Henne, the lead Pew researcher on the report.

“There’s a pretty marked harassment of Jews in Europe,” he says. “They’re harassed in 76 percent of countries in Europe, which is higher than the number of countries in which they’re harassed in other regions.”

The United States does not get off the hook in the Pew report. It ranks the U.S. as having a “moderate” level of religious harassment, on par with such countries as France, Slovakia and Mongolia.

“In terms of what we see in the United States, there are some issues with land use, churches or mosques trying to build or expand their site and being blocked by local governments,” Henne says. “There are some tensions in prisons — limits on prisoners’ ability to convert or to use things like tobacco in religious ceremonies.”

Overall, the level of religious harassment in 2013 is about the same as it was the year before, according to Pew. But with only seven years of data, it’s hard to see any historical trend.

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James Bond Meets His Match — The Roman Cobblestone

By Sylvia Poggioli on February 26th, 2015 | Last updated: February 26, 2015 at 6:03 pm

The headline in today’s La Repubblica was, “The streets of Rome bring Bond to a standstill — car hits pothole, Craig suffers head injury.”

The newspaper reported that the accident occurred while actor Daniel Craig, reprising the role of the suave British spy in the 24th James Bond thriller, Spectre, was driving one of the movie’s four custom-made Aston Martins on a narrow cobblestone street near the Vatican.

Craig reportedly hit his head on the car roof when the speeding vehicle met the irresistible force of a loose sanpietrino, as the Roman cobblestones are known.

Rumor has it that Craig flew home to London after being visited by medics on the set, but the production company played down the incident. Spectre has been shooting in Rome for the past week. The Rome leg is scheduled to last 10 more days, and Craig is expected to return soon.

Meanwhile, the Bond-meets-cobblestone affair revived a long-standing controversy between the pro- and anti-sanpietrini camps. A national consumer protection association, ADOC, issued a statement asking, “Are the potholes of Rome the real enemy of James Bond? It would seem so.”

ADOC President Lamberto Santini said, “The streets of Rome pose a daily danger to pedestrians, cyclists, and car and motorcycle drivers who risk serious injuries. If James Bond can be sidelined, imagine the fate of our average resident.”

The object of controversy is a beveled, hand-carved cobblestone made from volcanic rock. The sanpietrini — literally, “little St. Peters” — date from the late 16th century when Pope Sixtus V had all the main streets of Rome paved with cobblestones, because at the time they were considered the best pavement for carriage transit.

But in recent decades, there are fewer and fewer sanpietrino craftsmen or workers capable of fixing Rome’s high-maintenance cobblestone streets (and sidewalks), which are at best uneven, at worst a series of yawning crevices. Taxi drivers complain of the damage to their spines from bouncing on the uneven streets their entire working day, and motorcyclists stress the damage done to tires. Pedestrians are prone to tripping over the many protruding stones and breaking bones. (You will rarely see a Roman woman wearing stiletto heels in old Rome.) And when it rains, the slippery sanpietrino poses serious dangers for everyone.

The city’s public works council made headlines last December when it proposed removing the cobblestones on streets and sidewalks and replacing them with smooth asphalt, which requires less maintenance.

The proposal outraged scholars who say the sanpietrino is an integral part of the Eternal City’s history and identity.

While city authorities ponder the issue, the Sam Mendes-directed movie continues shooting in the old streets of Rome. The script reportedly calls for a high-speed chase along the Tiber, with one or more cars flying into the river and James Bond parachuting from a helicopter onto the Ponte Sisto, a Renaissance bridge.

Along with Craig, the movie stars Christoph Waltz, Ralph Fiennes and Italian actress Monica Bellucci, who at 50 plays the oldest Bond girl ever.

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FCC Approves Net Neutrality Rules For ‘Open Internet’

By Bill Chappell on February 26th, 2015 | Last updated: February 26, 2015 at 7:03 pm

The Federal Communications Commission approved the policy known as net neutrality by a 3-2 vote at its Thursday meeting, with FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler saying the policy will ensure “that no one — whether government or corporate — should control free open access to the Internet.”

The Open Internet Order helps to decide an essential question about how the Internet works, requiring service providers to be a neutral gateway instead of handling different types of Internet traffic in different ways — and at different costs.

“Today is a red-letter day,” Wheeler said Thursday.

The dissenting votes came from Michael O’Rielly and Ajut Pai, Republicans who warned that the FCC was overstepping its authority and interfering in commerce to solve a problem that doesn’t exist. They also complained that the measure’s 300-plus pages weren’t publicly released or openly debated.

The new policy would replace a prior version adopted in 2010 — but that was put on hold following a legal challenge by Verizon. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit ruled last year that the FCC did not have sufficient regulatory power over broadband.

After that ruling, the FCC looked at ways to reclassify broadband to gain broader regulatory powers. It will now treat Internet service providers as carriers under Title II of the Telecommunications Act, which regulates services as public utilities.

Update at 2:20 p.m. ET: Reactions — For And Against

Welcoming Thursday’s news, the ACLU’s legislative counsel Gabe Rottman says:

“This is a victory for free speech, plain and simple. Americans use the Internet not just to work and play, but to discuss politics and learn about the world around them. The FCC has a critical role to play in protecting citizens’ ability to see what they want and say what they want online, without interference. Title II provides the firmest possible foundation for such protections. We are still sifting through the full details of the new rules, but the main point is that the Internet, the primary place where Americans exercise their right to free expression, remains open to all voices and points of view.”

Broadband for America, a group whose members include major Internet service providers, is calling for Congress to intervene. Its honorary co-chairs John Sununu and Harold Ford Jr. say:

“The FCC’s decision to impose obsolete telephone-era regulations on the high-speed Internet is one giant step backwards for America’s broadband networks and everyone who depends upon them. These ‘Title II’ rules go far beyond protecting the Open Internet, launching a costly and destructive era of government micromanagement that will discourage private investment in new networks and slow down the breakneck innovation that is the soul of the Internet today.”

Update at 1:22 p.m. ET: Rules Will Apply To Mobile

“The landmark open Internet protections that we adopted today,” Wheeler says, should reassure consumers, businesses and investors.

Speaking at a news conference after the vote, Wheeler says the new policy will “ban blocking, ban throttling, and ban paid-prioritization fast lanes,” adding that “for the first time, open Internet rules will be fully applicable to mobile.”

Update at 1 p.m. ET: FCC Adopts Net Neutrality

By a 3-2 vote, the FCC votes to adopt net neutrality rules to “protect the open Internet.”

Update at 12:50 p.m. ET: Wheeler Draws Applause

Chairman Tom Wheeler is speaking, meaning a vote is looming.

“The action that we take today is an irrefutable reflection of the principle that no one — whether government or corporate — should control free open access to the Internet,” FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler said, drawing applause and whoops of approval from some of those in attendance.

Update at 12:01 p.m. ET: A Dissenting Vote

Saying the FCC was seizing power in “a radical departure” from its earlier policies. Commissioner Ajut Pai, a Republican, spoke against the proposal. He accused the FCC of “turning its back on Internet freedom.”

Pai said the commissioners were backing the new measure for only one reason: “because President Obama told us to.”

Seeing the new policy as an attempt to intrude on the Internet, Pai predicted higher costs for consumers and less innovation by businesses.

Update at 11:25 a.m. ET: ‘Open Internet’ Portion Has Begun

After dealing with another issue (of municipalities being able to control broadband service), the FCC has turned to the new proposal.

The proposal was introduced at Thursday’s meeting by Julie Veach, chief of the FCC’s Wireline Competition Bureau, who said it “would set forth clear, sustainable, enforceable rules to preserve and protect the open Internet as a place for innovation and free expression.”

She said the order “builds on the views of some 4 million Americans” who responded to a request for comments.

Guest speakers included Etsy CEO Chad Dickerson and writer and TV producer Veena Sud, whose show The Killing survived with the help of Netflix. A short video from Tim Berners-Lee was also shown.

Our original post continues:

Precise terms and details of the policy have not been made publicly available — a situation that prompted two Republican FCC commissioners to seek to postpone Thursday’s vote. That request was denied.

Summarizing “What You Need To Know” about the vote, Eyder wrote for the Two-Way, “Without net neutrality rules, ISPs could theoretically take money from companies like Netflix or Amazon to speed up traffic to their sites.”

Thursday’s vote comes after Commissioners Michael O’Rielly and Ajut Pai asked that the FCC “immediately release the 332-page Internet regulation plan publicly and allow the American people a reasonable period of not less than 30 days to carefully study it.”

That request was denied; we’ll post the document here when it’s available.

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ISIS Video Shows Extremists Smashing Priceless Artifacts

By Alice Fordham on February 26th, 2015 | Last updated: February 26, 2015 at 4:03 pm

The self-styled Islamic State has released a video showing an orgy of destruction of ancient statues in the Iraqi city of Mosul, with footage at a museum and at least one archaeological site nearby.

The video begins with an image of the police known as the Hisba, tasked with enforcing their strict interpretation of Islamic law, patrolling the streets. Then, the scene cuts to bearded men ripping protective coverings from statues in the museum.

Mosul is set on the Nineveh plain, site of the rise and fall of several ancient civilizations, among them the Assyrians, the Parthians and the Sumerians. Some of the artifacts in the museum were as much as 2,500 years old, such as one tablet that depicted a banquet given by Assyrian King Ashurnipal II.

In the video, statues from the Parthian Empire can be seen — with distinctive beards and headdresses, and sculptures of the lamassu, which is a mythical beast usually shown as a winged ox or lion with a human head.

None, it seems, are spared. The bearded men wield sledgehammers and attack friezes. They push statues to the ground, shattering them, with carved heads rolling and splintering.

An unidentified, bearded man addresses “all Muslims.” Speaking to the camera, he says these statues are the idols of people from previous centuries, who worshipped “without God.” He says God commanded them to remove the idols and statues and that they will do so even if they are worth billions of dollars. As precedent, he cites the uncle of the Prophet Muhammad calling for the obliteration of all statues.

The group has already destroyed much of the heritage in Mosul, a populous city with a long Islamic history that has been intertwined with Christianity and other, smaller faiths. About six weeks after the extremists took the city, they demolished an ancient mosque, which had once been a church, known as the burial place of the prophet called Jonah in the Bible and Yunus in the Quran.

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Madonna’s Tumble At Brit Awards Lights up Twitter, Stirs Ageism Debate

By Krishnadev Calamur on February 26th, 2015 | Last updated: February 26, 2015 at 12:04 pm

Singer Madonna fell off the steps next to the stage while performing her song “Living for Love” at the Brit Awards in London. The 56-year-old singer picked herself up and continued her performance.

The fall at Wednesday’s music awards show was apparently caused by a move that went wrong: A dancer tugged at Madonna’s cape, which failed to detach, and the singer fell down a flight of steps. Almost immediately, she rose and continued singing.

The fall lit up Twitter, as such things do these days, with the hashtags #shefellover and #fallenmadonna both trending. The reaction, as you might expect, was mixed. Many found the fall funny:

The negative reaction spawned much conversation on Twitter about ageism and at least one essay defending the singer.

“No wonder Madonna took her Brit awards fall in her stride – she deals with much worse just for being a 56-year-old woman,” columnist Bidsha wrote in The Guardian.

But there were messages of support, too:

Later, on Instagram, Madonna said:

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