Your News Companion by Ben Mathis-Lilley

Dec. 18 2014 10:46 PM

Eight Children Found Dead at a Home in Northeast Australia

Tragedy struck Australia again on Friday morning as eight children have been found dead at a home in a suburb of the city of Cairns in the northeastern state of Queensland. One woman, reportedly 34 years old, was found with serious injuries at the scene and is aiding the police investigation.  

"As it stands at the moment, there's no need for the public to be concerned about this other than the fact that it's a tragic, tragic event," Detective Inspector Bruno Asnicar said. "The situation is well controlled."

This story is developing, we'll update with new information as it becomes available.

*This post has been updated.

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Dec. 18 2014 9:39 PM

Civil Rights Law Barring Workplace Discrimination Will Now Protect Transgender Workers

The Justice Department announced on Thursday it's expanding its definition of what constitutes unlawful discrimination in the workplace under the 1964 Civil Rights Act to explicitly prohibit discrimination by employers based on gender identity. The decision outlined in a memo from Attorney General Eric Holder reversed a narrower Bush administration interpretation of sex-based discrimination in the workplace.

“That means the Justice Department will be able to bring legal claims on behalf of people who say they've been discriminated against by state and local public employers based on sex identity,” the Associated Press reports. “In defending lawsuits, the federal government also will no longer take the position that Title VII of the federal Civil Rights Act, which bans sex discrimination, does not protect against workplace discrimination on the basis of gender status.”

“This important shift will ensure that the protections of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 are extended to those who suffer discrimination based on gender identity, including transgender status,” Holder said in a statement. “This will help to foster fair and consistent treatment for all claimants. And it reaffirms the Justice Department’s commitment to protecting the civil rights of all Americans.”

Dec. 18 2014 7:33 PM

Sportswriter Laments Lack of Emojis in Print Makes It Hard to Preview Tonight’s NFL Game

The season is already over for the home team in Washington, but the Washington Post sports section has to cover the dreadful home squad until the bitter end anyway. When it comes to other mind-numbingly boring late-season NFL games, however, the Post can’t even. "I am writing sentences about this game because our word processing system for the newspaper doesn't include the poop emoji” was the actual intro from the Post, which seems like a fair take on Thursday night’s primetime matchup between a pair of two-win teams.

Dec. 18 2014 4:38 PM

California's Whooping Cough Epidemic Hits Latino Babies Disproportionately Hard

California is in the grips of its worst whooping cough epidemic since the 1940s and numbers indicate that Latino babies are bearing the brunt of the outbreak, according to NPR. Almost 10,000 cases of whooping cough have been reported in the state thus far this year, and 6 of 10 babies who've caught it (as is the case with many illnesses, babies tend to be more vulnerable than older children) are Latino.

No one knows for sure why Latino babies are contracting whooping cough at higher rates, but public health officials' suggested possible explanations include the Latino community's generally larger household sizes, "cultural practices around visiting new infants" leading to more early contact between babies and others, and a lack of access to health insurance (especially among California's undocumented immigrants, who may fear deportation if they seek health services). Latinos make up 62% of California's uninsured, an advocate interviewed by NPR said.

Babies can't safely be vaccinated for whooping cough until they are two months old, and according to public health officials, the current vaccine used to innoculate children against whooping cough also doesn't last as long as an older version, compounding California's problems. Of course, the resurgences of whooping cough and measles in the United States have also been traced back to the rise of the anti-vaccine movement; it can't possibly help the public health situation in California that, according to The Hollywood Reporter, some ritzy Los Angeles schools have vaccination rates comparable to those of countries like South Sudan and Chad. And while NPR's report mentions that anti-vaxxers themselves are likely to be wealthy, the whooping cough outbreak has disproportionately affected a part of California's population that is relatively less well-off.

Dec. 18 2014 2:17 PM

Iran Unveils Memorial to Fallen Jewish Soldiers

This week, Iran unveiled a memorial commemorating the lives of Jewish soldiers who died fighting for the country in the Iran-Iraq war. The monument, located in Tehran, has inscriptions in both Hebrew and Persian, and the ceremony remembered the fallen soldiers as "martyrs." Photos from the state-run news agency IRNA show officials putting wreaths on the graves of Jewish soldiers and praying together. From Haaretz:

Iran, a home for Jews for more than 3,000 years, has the Middle East’s largest Jewish population outside of Israel. But while Iran’s Jews in recent years had their faith continually criticized by the country’s previous governments, they’ve found new acceptance under moderate President Hassan Rouhani.
“The government has listened to our grievances and requests. That we are being consulted is an important step forward,” said Homayoun Samiah, leader of the Tehran Jewish Association. “Under former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, nobody was listening to us. Our requests fell on deaf ears.”

The Iran-Iraq War cost Iran 1 million lives and altered the demographic landscape of the country, ushering in what has become a national fertility crisis.

The erection of the monument is one of a number of moves Rouhani's government has made away from the incendiary anti-Semitism of his predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who set the bar rather low when it came to friendliness towards the Jewish people. Ahmadinejad seized many opportunities to voice his views that the Holocaust is a fabrication and was often quoted as saying Israel must be "wiped off the map." (The Washington Post points out that this particular turn of phrase, oft cited by American politicians, is actually a mistranslation of a phrase that meant something closer to "must vanish from the page of time.")

While Iran is still hardly friendly towards Israel, the government's treatment of its own population of 20,000 Jews has warmed markedly under Rouhani. In 2013, a Twitter account loosely affiliated with the president's office sparked conversation among western media outlets when it tweeted Rosh Hashanah greetings. And earlier this year, Rouhani's governemnt made a donation of $400,000 to Tehran's only Jewish hospital. The donation, widely seen as symbolically significant, was accompanied by comments by the Health Ministry that increasing support for hospitals serving Iran's Christians and Jews was a priority for the administration. Rouhani's brother, who presented the gift, was quoted as saying "[o]ur government intends to unite all ethnic groups and religions, so we decided to assist you.”

Dec. 18 2014 2:00 PM

Rand Paul Voices Support for Obama’s Cuba Move

Washington hawks have one more reason to hate Rand Paul: The Kentucky senator and likely 2016 presidential candidate said on Thursday that he thought “opening up Cuba is probably a good idea” and that the long-time U.S. embargo on the island nation hasn’t been successful.

He made the comments in a talk radio interview with a Huntington, West Virginia station.

"The 50-year embargo just hasn't worked," Paul said, per the Associated Press. "If the goal is regime change, it sure doesn't seem to be working and probably it punishes the people more than the regime because the regime can blame the embargo for hardship.”

This puts the senator at odds with most of his fellow Hill Republicans, including hawkish Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham. It makes for a particularly jarring contrast with Sen. Marco Rubio, a Cuban-American Republican from Florida who’s been an ardent opponent of the president’s move. And it puts Paul at odds with fellow Kentuckian and incoming Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who told the AP that he defers to Rubio on the issue. Sen. Ted Cruz and former Florida governor (and likely 2016 candidate) Jeb Bush also oppose the president’s move toward normalizing U.S.-Cuba relations.

But as Steve Benen pointed out at msnbc.com, Republicans aren’t lockstep on this. Conservative Republican Rep. Mark Sanford said current Cuba policy violates “Americans’ constitutional rights to travel freely” and praised the president’s move. Sen. Jeff Flake’s statement on the issue characterized the president’s move as a “positive change.” Flake and Sanford have said they’ll introduce legislation in their respective chambers loosening restrictions on travel to the country. Paul’s statement may give more House Republicans political cover to join ranks with Sanford and Flake on travel legislation.

Dec. 18 2014 1:36 PM

More Than 100 People in One Cambodian Village Tested HIV Positive in a Single Week

More than 100 people in a Cambodian village in the province of Battambang, including 19 children, have tested positive for HIV in the last week, Al-Jazeera reports. A doctor using dirty needles is suspected of causing the surge, though that explanation appears to be little more than a rumor at this point:

Teng Kunthy, secretary-general of the National AIDS Authority, said that as of Wednesday, 106 villagers in Roka Commune had been diagnosed with HIV since December 8...
Police are questioning an unlicensed doctor who has been accused by many in the community of about 9,000 people of spreading the disease by allegedly providing medical treatment to patients using the same needle.

The overall rate of HIV/AIDS infection in the country is actually relatively low—only 0.7 percent of Cambodians 15 to 49 have the virus, a rate more comparable to the United States than to somewhere like South Africa, where the disease rate in that segment is a staggering 19.1 percent.

Dec. 18 2014 1:11 PM

Qatar Pays Migrant Workers to Sit at Sporting Events as Fake "Fans "

Since it was selected to host the 2022 World Cup, Qatar has been criticized heavily for its barbaric attitude on LGBT issues and deplorable treatment of migrant workers—some of whom, apparently, are North Koreans who may not be compensated for their labor. The AP has another story today which calls the country's fitness as a host into question, although it tends toward the bizarre rather than the appalling: Migrant workers in Qatar are apparently bussed into sports events and paid to pretend to be sports fans. An AP reporter actually embedded himself on one of the trips:

One by one, from memory, the men reeled off their employee numbers — no names — to a man who methodically shuffled down the aisle, jotting down the details on a crumpled piece of paper. This ensured he'd later know who to pay, workers said.
At the Al Gharafa Sports Club, we disembarked and formed a line. An official in Qatari robes counted us in, with taps on the shoulder. French volleyballers Edouard Rowlandson and Youssef Krou were winning their bronze-medal match as we filled seats, making the arena appear almost full.

This is such a common and well-known practice, the AP reports, that two-thirds of respondents in a recent survey conducted by the Qatar government "cited 'the spread of paid fans' as a 'significant reason'" that attendance was low at soccer matches in the country. The world is a strange place.

Dec. 18 2014 11:56 AM

Boko Haram Likely Kidnapped 100 More Women and Children (and the #MissingGirls Are Still Missing)

The reports have become so routine as to have a numbing effect, and here's another: More than 100 women and children have been kidnapped in northeastern Nigeria, and the terrorist group Boko Haram is likely responsible. From Reuters:

Suspected Boko Haram gunmen kidnapped more than 100 women and children and killed 35 other people on Sunday during a raid on the remote northeast Nigerian village of Gumsuri, a security source and resident said on Thursday.

The militants were also reported to have burned down a medical center as well as some houses and stores.

In October, Boko Haram's purported leader denied reports that a potential truce might lead to the return of the 200-plus girls kidnapped from a school in the town of Chibok in April.

Dec. 18 2014 10:16 AM

NYPD Union Leader Calls Congressional "Hands Up, Don't Shoot" Protest "Stupid S---"

New York Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association president Patrick Lynch—the leader of the city's most prominent police union—was recorded referring to black Congressional staffers' Capitol-steps "hands up, don't shoot" walkout protest as as "stupid shit" at a union meeting in which he also condemned what he called "stupid rules" governing police-citizen interactions. From Capital New York:

“There’s a book they make for us where if you carried it with you, you won’t need to go to the gym," Lynch said. "Every time there’s a problem, they tell us what we can’t do. They tell us what we shouldn’t do. They never tell us what we can do. We’re going to take that book, their rules and we’re going to protect ourselves because they won’t. We will do it the way they want us to do it. We will do it with their stupid rules, even the ones that don’t work.”
Lynch also complained about members of "the United States Congress on the steps of the Capitol raising their hand as if police officers aren’t protecting their rights to do stupid shit like that," referring to a December 11 demonstration in Washington.

Lynch's remarks were made at a union delegate meeting in Queens; it's not clear if he knew he was being recorded. The comments come in the context of a dispute with New York mayor Bill DeBlasio over DeBlasio's alleged lack of support for police officers in the wake of a grand jury's decision not to indict officer Daniel Pantaleo for the chokehold killing of Staten Island resident Eric Garner. (Pantaleo has allegedly said he did not choke Garner, though he appears to in video of the incident.) "He is not running the city of New York," Lynch says of DeBlasio on the recording. "He thinks he’s running a fucking revolution."

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