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Putin says West trying to ‘hold back’ powerful Russia




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President Vladimir Putin on Thursday said the West was trying to hold back an increasingly powerful Russia, during an end-of-year press conference that took aim at sanctions and “made-up” spy scandals.

Domestic concerns also loomed large at the annual event, after President Putin’s approval ratings took a beating in recent months over unpopular pension reforms.

Asked about Western sanctions against Moscow, Mr Putin said these were “connected with the growth of Russia’s power.”

“A powerful player appears who needs to be reckoned with. Until recently it was thought there was no longer such a country,” he said from behind a large wooden desk to an audience of hundreds of journalists.

The president dismissed spy scandals — such as the poisoning of former double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter in England — as invented to damage Russia’s standing.

“If there hadn’t been the Skripals, they would have made up something else. There is only one aim: to hold back Russia’s development,” he said, later lamenting that relations with Britain were at a “dead end”.

President Putin began the press conference, as usual, by reeling off economic growth figures.

“The main thing is that we need to get into a new economic league. We could very well take the fifth place in terms of size of economy. And I think we’ll do that,” he said.

Russia’s economy is currently ranked 12th in the world by the International Monetary Fund, which lists the United States first, followed by China, Japan, Germany and Britain.

Mr Putin said the economy grew 1.7 percent over the first 10 months of the year, roughly in line with predictions, while unemployment was down. Full-year growth is estimated at 1.8 percent.

But he appeared to damn his prime minister, former president Dmitry Medvedev, with faint praise, saying that he was “generally” happy with the work of his government.

Mr Putin was re-elected to a fourth term in March with nearly 77 percent of the vote, but recent polls have seen his support drop below 50 percent.

His previous term in the Kremlin was defined by a decline in living standards for many Russians, despite what were perceived as foreign policy wins.

An increase to the retirement age this year provoked anger and rare street protests but Mr Putin said the hike was “unavoidable” when questioned on the subject.


Against a backdrop of strained ties with the US, Putin praised President Donald Trump’s decision to pull troops out of Syria though condemned his withdrawal from a Cold War arms agreement.

There was a growing tendency to underestimate the threat of nuclear war, the Russian leader said.

But Mr Putin insisted Mr Trump was legitimately elected president and that any attempt to cast doubt on this — or the result of the Brexit referendum — showed “disrespect” to voters.

In the wide-ranging session, Mr Putin dismissed a recent crackdown on Russian rappers as pointless and condemned the creation of an independent Ukrainian church.

And he repeated Kremlin claims that Ukrainian actions in the Kerch Strait off Crimea were a “provocation”, following a naval confrontation and Russia’s arrest of several Ukrainian sailors.

The Kremlin demands questions be sent in advance, but reporters every year go to great lengths to encourage the president to call on them.

On Thursday, one journalist was dressed as a Russian fairytale character, the snow maiden, while another came holding a tambourine.

Organisers, however, put a size limit on the placards media representatives traditionally hold up to attract Putin’s attention.

The president began the tradition of such end-of-year press events in 2001, but with time they have evolved into marathon events. Since 2004, all December press conferences have surpassed three hours.

His record was in 2008, when questions and answers went on for four hours and 40 minutes.

The appearance was shown live on several TV stations, with some channels trailing the event with a day-long countdown clock.

As Russia has become increasingly centralised under Mr Putin, questions at the conference have begun to resemble lobbying attempts to resolve specific problems.

This year he promised to help open a new football pitch for children in Saint Petersburg, and coyly answered questions on his health and love life.



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Atheists dismiss census data, say they have1.5m members




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Atheists have rejected census data showing that 700,000 Kenyans do not believe in deity insisting they are twice as many.

Following the release of detailed census data, Atheists In Kenya (AIK) now claims that the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics (KNBS) deliberately failed to count atheists and the actual number of non-religious Kenyans is 1.5 million.

According to the detailed report on the Kenyan population based on their religious beliefs, 755,750 Kenyans do not believe in any religion. That is about 1.6 per cent of the total Kenyan population.

Kilifi County leads in the number of nonbelievers with 146,669, more than double the number of atheists in Nakuru which stands at 67,640.

Nairobi has the third highest atheist population with 54,841 followed by Narok (45,617), Kiambu (30770), Kitui (23,778), Meru (20,985) and Mombasa (11,148).


However, AIK now insists that the data is inaccurate and that KNBS enumerators deliberately failed tally atheists during the 2019 census.

“We find these statistics to be grossly inaccurate and not fit for purpose. We contend that we have well over 1.5 million atheists in Kenya, and the number is growing steadily. An independent survey of our members has revealed that some KNBS employees deliberately skipped asking whether one is an atheist during the 2019 census. We have evidence that many atheists were undercounted and miscounted,” AIK said in a statement on Saturday.

The statement dated February 23 was signed by the group’s President Harrison Mumia and recently elected Assistant Secretary Kio Kinuthia, questioned the statistics bureau credibility in the 2019 census. Now the atheists’ society is questioning the entire census data, terming it as inaccurate.

According to the 2009 population census report released by the same institution, the number of Kenyans who said that they were not affiliated to any religion was said to be 922,128.


We find it odd that the 2019 census report indicates that the number of atheists has declined by almost 200,000 in a span of 10 years, yet the population of Kenyans has increased by 10 million over the same period. This undermines the accuracy of not just the atheist data, but the entire KNBS 2019 census report,” AIK said.

While Christianity and Islam are the predominant religions in Kenya, atheism has been attracting quite a following in the past few years.

This has, however, been a tough rise in popularity for the movement under the leadership of Mr Mumia, an Information Technology specialist.

AIK was registered on February 17, 2016 but, just two months later, it was suspended by Registrar of Societies.

The final census report shows there are 15,777,473 Protestants in Kenya, the majority religious group.

Catholics are 9,726,169 in total while 9,648,690 people attend evangelical churches.

About 3,292,573 go to African Instituted Churches, Orthodox (201,263) and other Christian (1,732,911).

Islam has a following of 5,152,194, while Hindu has 60,287. About 318,727 Kenyans are traditionalists.

Atheists in Kenya now wants a review of the census data by KNBS.

“We reject the figure of 755,750 atheists reported by the KNBS 2019 census report. We call for an independent review of how the KNBS collects, analyses, and reports census data,” the society leadership said.



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Israel readies for third election in less than a year » Capital News




Polls suggest the parties of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and rival Benny Gantz will both fail to secure a majority in parliament © AFP/File / JACK GUEZ

, Jerusalem, ZZZ, Feb 23 – Israel is bracing for an unprecedented third election in under a year, with voters eyeing an end to the deadlock but polls indicating another tight race despite criminal charges against the prime minister.

Two previous votes in April and September last year failed to produce a clear winner between right-wing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his main challenger Benny Gantz, who heads the centrist Blue and White party.

Ballot-weary Israelis have shown limited enthusiasm ahead of the March 2 election, with some grudgingly accepting the possibility of a fourth run before the year ends.

But there have been significant developments since Israelis last went to the polls.

Netanyahu, Israel’s longest serving premier, has become the first to be indicted while in office.

Profile of Israel prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu. © AFP

Charges unveiled in November and filed in court last month accuse him of bribery, fraud and breach of trust.

The prime minister denies wrongdoing in the case that involves multiple alleged offences.

The most serious allegation is that Netanyahu offered mogul Shaul Elovitch regulatory changes worth millions of dollars to his telecoms giant Bezeq in exchange for positive coverage on Elovitch’s Walla! news website.

The trial starts on March 17.

– Trump bump? –

Since the last election, US President Donald Trump has unveiled his controversial plan to end the decades-long Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Trump’s terms have been rejected by the Palestinians as a capitulation to Israeli objectives.

Netanyahu, who was standing next to Trump at the White House as the initiative was announced last month, cheered it as an “historic” opportunity for the Jewish state.

He has also portrayed the deal as a product of his personal bond with Trump that can only be implemented if he is re-elected prime minister.

But neither the criminal indictments, nor the pro-Israel Trump initiative have moved the polls.

Recent surveys indicate that Netanyahu’s Likud party and Blue and White will both fall short of the 61 seats required for a majority in parliament, the Knesset.

Netanyahu’s main challenger Benny Gantz is a former military chief who argues that the premier’s legal woes will distract him from governing  © AFP/File / JACK GUEZ

Status quo in the polls could be good news for the prime minister, said Gideon Rahat, a political science professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.


“He is not attracting more voters, but he is not losing voters either,” despite the indictments, Rahat told AFP.

Gantz, a former military chief, has sought to convince Israelis that the prime minister’s legal woes will distract him from governing.

“Netanyahu is going to court… he won’t be able to look after the needs of Israeli citizens,” he said this week.

Meanwhile, Israeli prosecutors are probing whether a cyber-security firm formerly chaired by Gantz, Fifth Dimension, inappropriately received public funds.

But the attorney general has confirmed that Gantz is not personally implicated in the investigation.

– Last minute pitches –

Netanyahu has, ahead of past elections, been accused of making last-minute campaign pledges as a play for vital nationalist, right-wing support.

In an interview with the Jerusalem Post on Friday, he repeated his warning that Gantz cannot form a government without support from the mainly Arab Joint List, and its leader Ahmad Tibi.

Netanyahu announced thousands of new settler homes in annexed east Jerusalem, less than two weeks before the election © AFP/File / AHMAD GHARABLI

Joint List won a surprising 13 seats in the last election, making it the third-largest bloc in parliament.

“If Likud doesn’t win, there will be either a fourth election or a left-wing government headed by Gantz and dependent on Ahmad Tibi and the Joint List,” Netanyahu told the paper.

The prime minister this week also announced thousands of new Jewish settler homes in annexed east Jerusalem, construction projects considered illegal by most of the international community.

Palestinian leaders blasted the settlement announcement as a blatant play by Netanyahu to energise his right-wing base.

Facing static polls, both leading parties have grown increasingly concerned about turnout, Rahat said.

“Anywhere else in the world, when you have three elections really close together you would see declining turnout” due to voter apathy, he said.

But turnout ticked up marginally in September compared with April.

“In Israel, you never know,” Rahat said.

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Experts: A strange random call could be cybercrime attempt




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If you woke up to several unattended calls from an unknown number, what would you do? Call back? Text? Ignore? Contact your service provider?

The fashion in which the calls come in – one-ring then drop, and with the several missed calls – creates an air of urgency about it which you have to wonder how the caller got your contact.

The urge to call back a missed call becomes irresistible. Especially when they are numerous missed calls from a strange international caller. However, to some, it makes more sense to call their service provider.

On the eve of Valentine’s Day, when most people’s minds were tuned to the rhythm of love, random international callers with +243 prefixes contacted several Kenyan Safaricom subscribers, taking psychological advantage of the moment of affection.

Alan Mwenda, one of those contacted, reached out to Safaricom – the service provider, but he was advised to “share such numbers on SMS to 333 (free) for investigation and look up the “One Ring Scam.”  However, the telco is yet to share their stance.


But, what really was happening? How potential is this type of cyber security threat? Who exactly are these callers?

One ring and drop nature of the calls has been dubbed ‘Wangiri’ by America’s Federal Communications Commission report that derived it from the calls’ characteristic nature of calling and hanging up immediately, leaving a missed call notification from an international caller.

Mr Fred Wahome, vice chair of Kenya Cybersecurity and Forensic Association and an information security expert explains: “The calls are computer generated. It takes one to have an algorithm that can generate random numbers with their target telco’s prefix, say, between 070 and 079 as the instance with Safaricom, then the computer makes random calls to the unsuspecting subscribers.”

He adds, “The goal is not always to make you answer the call. It is persuading you to call back.”

Calling the fraudster would activate the exorbitant charges which then generates cash to the fraudsters. The best way to deal with such, according to him, is to ignore the allure of returning the call.


Service providers, he says, are mostly not able to track down these numbers as call data records may not have recorded them, because the computer generated algorithms make massive calls simultaneously to their subscribers.

When the victim calls back, then that would be considered as cyber fraud.

Dr Bright Mawudor, a cybersecurity expert at Internet Solutions Kenya says that the number, if at all not an algorithm, could be calling from anywhere in the world and not necessarily from Kinshasa.”

The ‘international caller’, he explains, could have purported to be calling from Kinshasa. “It could even have come from right here in Kenya. They usually change the phone dialing proxies to fool target user accounts, and make their attack plans easier to execute,” he expounds.

Vodafone, a global mobile communications provider, operating in 26 countries advises subscribers not to return international calls that they don’t recognise.

When befell by the same fate, the report also prescribes various means to ensure that would be employed to minimalise chances of the getting scammed.

Users must check out for the identity of the caller before receiving any call, even international, dismiss the temptation to answer or call back missed calls from unusual international numbers.

“You should ask your service provider to block incoming international calls on your line after any suspected attempt to breach your phone security.”

In 2017, Kenya’s digital economy lost Sh21.1 billion to cybercrime, which increased by 39.8 per cent in 2018 to Sh29.5 billion according to pan-African based cyber-security and business consultancy Serianu.

Heavy finances have been invested in cyber security infrastructure, but the menace keeps chopping off millions of shillings from companies’ profits, and stealing sensitive data from targeted senior employees.



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