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Under The Radar – 11 June

Photo by Jeremy Bishop on Unsplash

This week, we discuss:

  1. The power struggle at the heart of the Guardian Media Group

  2. Bitcoin becoming legal tender in El Salvador

  3. Bellingcat’s report into the activity of Russia’s FSB agents

Battle for The Guardian

What happened?

Guardian Media Group (GMG) chief executive Annette Thomas has quit after repeatedly clashing with its editor-in-chief Katharine Viner. Thomas is leaving the news organisation just over a year after joining and is expected to receive a £600,000 payoff.

What does it mean?

Unlike other news organisations, The Guardian’s editor has a high degree of independence and is answerable to the board of the Scott Trust, the owner of GMG. As such, Viner was on par with Thomas, setting up a year-long battle consisting of conflicting responsibilities and competing visions for the historic newspaper.

The main point of contention between the pair was over the group’s finances. Thomas has pushed hard to raise more money from readers whilst Viner has led the staunch resistance from within the paper to implementing any form of paywall. And whilst Thomas focused on promoting fiscal restraint, The Guardian‘s surprising performance during the pandemic prompted calls from Viner for even more investment.

Cultural differences have also contributed to their strained relationship. Thomas is an American executive with a background in scientific publishing who, in her short time at the paper, has made cost-cutting measures that have included job cuts, much to the chagrin of journalists. On the other hand, Viner rose through the ranks of the left-wing newsroom before she was elected by her fellow journalists to the position of editor-in-chief in 2015.

With both women diametrically opposed to the espoused goals of the other, it was inevitable that one of them would eventually have to go. A house divided cannot stand. 

“Are you paying with cash, card or bitcoin?” 

What happened?

President Nayib Bukele has made the historic decision to include bitcoin as a legal tender in El Salvador. The move is aimed at increasing economic growth and facilitating greater financial inclusion in a country where 70 percent of Salvadorans lack access to traditional banking.

What does it mean?

It is hoped Bitcoin usage will reduce El Salvador’s reliance on the US dollar, something a number of developing countries have recently proposed yet failed to implement. And while this is a victory for bitcoin champions and entrepreneurs, skeptics have commented that El Salvador will essentially now have two currencies operating without government control. With President Bukele consolidating his power in increasingly autocratic ways, concerns have also arisen about the propensity of Bitcoin to facilitate corruption and money laundering in El Salvador. Due to the fact that bitcoin lacks a physical currency, and is secured by the blockchain underpinning it, it presents as an attractive option for criminal gangs and sleazy elites determined to continue their illegal activities with impunity.

However, the saving grace to Bukele’s plan could be the ongoing reliance of Salvadorans on remittances from US-based family members, which currently make up one fifth of El Salvador’s GDP according to the World Bank. With transfer fees sometimes reaching up to $125, the use of Bitcoin to send and receive remittances could make the whole process a much cheaper one. If this transpires, it can be expected that other large remittance markets such as Mexico will soon follow suit.  As we await the inevitably long and bumpy road ahead in Bitcoin’s quest to become a mainstream currency choice, many will be watching closely to see if Bukele’s decision will be a revolutionary one.

A Belling-cat and mouse game

What happened?

Investigative organisation Bellingcat has published a new report, revealing that the same Russian agents who tailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny before his poisoning had also shadowed the author and journalist, Dmitry Bykov, before he suffered a near fatal illness in 2019.

What does it mean?

At the time, doctors attributed Dmitry Bykov’s mysterious illness to bacterial food poisoning, but Bellingcat’s new report implies that it may have come from a more sinister source. With both the circumstances and symptoms of Bykov’s illness mirroring Navalny’s, it appears he was another victim of the infamous nerve agent Novichok. The media rhetoric around Novichok has always been filled with contradictions. On the one hand, it is supposedly a chemical weapon capable of killing anyone who so much as handles a doorknob with traces on it. On the other hand, all of the alleged targets of Novichok poisoning – the Skripals, Navalny and, now, Bykov – have survived and recovered from it. This contradiction captures the challenge of understanding Putin’s Russia, which is unpredictable and often defies logic. The narrative of sophisticated deep state operations and misinformation campaigns is in stark contrast to the hapless thugs who left a trail of radioactive poison across London. Bellingcat’s latest report only adds to the confusion: while Bykov’s poems incisively satirise Putin, he is not a real political threat and it is unclear what the regime would gain from his murder. What is certain, however, is that this report comes out at just the right time to cause maximum impact, with Presidents Biden and Putin set to have their first bilateral meeting in Switzerland next week. Navalny’s poisoning is already on the agenda, and now so too will Bykov’s.

This Week’s Must Reads

  1. ‘The Minister of Chaos’ by Tom McTague for The Atlantic

  2. ‘Exporting Chinese surveillance: the security risks of ‘smart cities’ by

  3. James Kynge, Valerie Hopkins, Helen Warrell & Kathrin Hille for the Financial Times.

  4. ‘Election Denial and $16 Spritzers: Welcome to Florida’s Trump Coast’ by Joshua Green for Bloomberg

  5. ‘How Biden puts Emmanuel Macron in a bind’ by Rym Momtaz for POLITICO

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