Arts & Entertainment

South Sudanese Player Awaits His Fate in NBA Draft

Peter Jok was set to find out Thursday night whether a long journey that began in war-torn Sudan and detoured through Ugandan and Kenyan refugee camps would end up with him landing on an NBA basketball court.

Jok, a University of Iowa standout for four years, was predicted to be chosen in the first two rounds of the National Basketball Association draft in New York.

The 198-centimeter-tall  (6 feet 6 inches) Jok told VOA’s South Sudan in Focus that his future once looked bleak, but since he began to play competitive basketball, he has set his sights on achieving a bright future.

“I have had a lot of ups and downs, but it has made me into a better man and a better player,” he said. “Everything I have been through has given me more edge, more motivation to go harder. The process is hard work, but you keep the faith and believe in God.”

From Lakes state

Jok, who is originally from South Sudan’s Lakes state, scored an average of 19.9 points per game in his senior year at Iowa. He was one of 62 players invited to the NBA Combine, a talent showcase for college players that’s held before the draft.

Jok made the All-America team and, on his 23rd birthday on March 30 this year, won the 3-point-shooting contest held as part of U.S. college basketball’s Final Four weekend festivities.

“In today’s game, every team needs a shooter,” Jok said. “I can shoot with the best of them. I feel my game fits the NBA better than college, because there’s more availability to do more things. My strength is shooting. And that’s what a lot of NBA teams need right now.”

Jok credits his mother, Amelia Ring Bol, for his leadership skills and work ethic.

“Growing up, I was always with my mom,” he said. “I would go everywhere with her. No matter what she went through, I was always with her. No matter what I am doing, I am doing it for her. I just knew from when I was growing up I was going to be a mama’s boy.”

His father was killed in the long war that resulted in South Sudan’s independence from Sudan in 2011. He and his mother fled Sudan when he was a young boy, eventually moving to the U.S. state of Iowa. He never played basketball until fourth grade, though his height and skills soon made him into a top prospect and one of the best players in the state.

Support of family, friends

Jok realized he easily could have ended up on the wrong path, but he believes the odds were more in his favor, thanks to family and friends.

“Moving to Iowa, I have always been surrounded by the right people. My background, coming from where I come from … if you have the right people around you and you have hard work in your system, I feel you can go anywhere,” said Jok.

If Jok is picked by an NBA team, he will be the third South Sudanese player active in the league, along with Luol Deng and Thon Maker.

Arts & Entertainment

Ron Howard Takes Helm of Han Solo ‘Star Wars’ Film

Ron Howard is taking command of the Han Solo “Star Wars” spinoff after the surprise departure of directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller.


Lucasfilm announced their replacement director Thursday, two days after Lord and Miller left the project over creative differences. Howard gives the reeling production a veteran hand in the wake of Lord and Miller’s exit in the midst of shooting.


Kathleen Kennedy, president of Lucasfilm, said filming will resume July 10. The untitled film, which stars Alden Ehrenreich as a young Han Solo, is about three-quarters of the way through production. It has several weeks of shooting left, along with reshoots.


Howard has shepherded Oscar winners like “A Beautiful Mind” and “Apollo 13.” But his recent films, including the “Da Vinci Code” sequel “Inferno” and “In the Heart of the Sea,” have struggled at the box office. He also has some history with Lucasfilm. He helmed the 1988 fantasy “Willow” and starred in George Lucas’ 1973 breakthrough “American Graffiti.”


“We have a wonderful script, an incredible cast and crew, and the absolute commitment to make a great movie,” said Kennedy.


Disney reiterated the film’s release date of May 25 next year, suggesting that — at least for now — the “Star Wars” spinoff will be released on schedule. Representatives for the studio declined to comment.


How producers and the Directors Guild of America handle the film’s directing credit will also be closely watched. DGA rules govern the crediting of directors.


Lord and Miller had previously been considered among Hollywood’s most sought-after directors, having turned “The Lego Movie” and “21 Jump Street” into unexpected and widely praised comedy hits. But reports have circulated that the duo, who favor improvisation and irreverent humor, clashed with Kennedy and co-writer Lawrence Kasdan, a “Star Wars” veteran and executive producer.


“Unfortunately, our vision and process weren’t aligned with our partners on this project. We normally aren’t fans of the phrase ‘creative differences’ but for once this cliche is true,” the directors said earlier in a joint statement. “We are really proud of the amazing and world-class work of our cast and crew.”

Economy & business

Minnesota to Still Engage With Cuba Despite Trump Setback

Minnesota’s government and businesses will continue to engage with Cuba in the areas they can, like agricultural trade, despite U.S. President Donald Trump’s partial rollback of the detente, Lieutenant Governor Tina Smith said on Thursday.

The first U.S. state representative to make an official visit to Communist-run Cuba since Trump’s announcement on Friday, Smith said authorities there were worried about the setback to bilateral relations.

Leading a bipartisan trade delegation from Minnesota, she said she was therefore glad to carry the message that there was still plenty of support for continuing to normalize relations.

“There is no denying the actions Trump took last Friday are a real setback,” Smith, a Democrat, said in an interview in the gardens of Havana’s iconic Hotel Nacional. “But the important thing to me is that there is bipartisan support at the federal level for normalizing and modernizing our relationship.”

U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, a Minnesota Democrat, in May led a bipartisan coalition of lawmakers, including Republican Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona, to introduce legislation to lift the U.S. trade embargo on Cuba.

Minnesota is one of the largest U.S. farming states, and Smith’s delegation included its agriculture commissioner and the head of its corn growers association. The delegation hopes to improve ties with and promote exports to Cuba.

U.S. farm groups have been particularly critical of the decision by Trump, a Republican, to retreat from Democratic predecessor Barack Obama’s opening toward Cuba, saying it could derail huge growth in agricultural exports that totaled $221 million last year.

U.S. law exempts food from a decades-old embargo on U.S. trade with Cuba, although cumbersome rules on executing transactions have made deals difficult and costly.

While Trump’s new Cuba policy does not directly target agriculture, it damages improved relations, the farm groups say.

Trump ordered tighter restrictions on Americans traveling to Cuba and a clampdown on U.S. business dealings with the island’s military, which manages much of the economy.

The Minnesota delegation met this week with officials of the Cuban ministries of foreign affairs and agriculture, while also visiting a cooperative and local food markets.

But the tour did not include the usual trip to the Mariel port and special development zone, which Cuba hopes will attract foreign investment and become a major shipping hub in the Caribbean. It is controlled by a military-affiliated company.

“In Minnesota we don’t have a lot of cocoa or coffee or pineapples, but we do have a lot of corn and beans,” Smith said. “We need each others’ products.”

Cuba invited the Minnesota delegation to a trade show later in the year, Smith said, while Minnesota invited Cuban officials to visit.

“I am very hopeful all of those things will lead us to a place where we can move forward.”

Arts & Entertainment

Cosby Plans Speeches on Sexual Assault, Spokesman says

Bill Cosby plans to conduct a series of free public seminars about sexual assault this summer, his spokesman said days after a Pennsylvania judge declared a mistrial in the entertainer’s sex assault trial.

The 79-year-old comedian was best known for his role as the father in the hit 1980s TV comedy “The Cosby Show” before dozens of women came forward over the past few years to accuse him of sex assault, with one of the allegations leading to this month’s criminal trial outside Philadelphia.

“I received hundreds of calls from civic organizations and churches requesting for Mr. Cosby to speak to young men and women about the judicial system,” Andrew Wyatt, Cosby’s spokesman, said in an email on Thursday.

Pennsylvania prosecutors plan to re-try Cosby on charges of drugging and sexually assaulting Andrea Constand at his home near Philadelphia in 2004, after the jury in the first trial failed to reach a verdict.

The case is the only criminal prosecution to emerge from dozens of similar allegations against Cosby, as the other cases are too old to be the subject of criminal prosecution.

Wyatt cited Cosby’s assertion that former district attorneys had vowed not to prosecute him during negotiations related to a civil lawsuit.

“These groups would like for Mr. Cosby to share that people in the judicial system can use their powers to annul deals for personal agenda and political ambitions,” Wyatt said.

In a Wednesday interview on Birmingham, Alabama’s WBRC-TV news, Wyatt offered more detail about the seminars.

“This issue can affect any young person, especially young athletes of today,” Wyatt said. “And they need to know what they are facing when they are hanging out and partying when they are doing things they shouldn’t be doing. And it also affects married men.”

Cosby has long denied sexually assaulting anyone, saying that any sexual contact he had with Constand or anyone else was consensual.

Science & Health

Yellowstone Grizzly Bears to Lose Endangered Species Protection

Grizzly bears in and around Yellowstone National Park will be stripped of Endangered Species Act safeguards this summer, U.S. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke announced on Thursday in a move conservation groups vowed to challenge in court.

Dropping federal protection of Yellowstone’s grizzlies, formally proposed in March 2016 under the Obama administration, was based on the agency’s findings that the bears’ numbers have rebounded sufficiently in recent decades.

The estimated tally of grizzlies in the greater Yellowstone region, encompassing parts of Wyoming, Montana and Idaho, has grown to 700 or more today, up from as few as 136 bears in 1975 when they were formally listed as a threatened species through the Lower 48 states.

At that time, the grizzly had been hunted, trapped and poisoned to near extinction. Its current population well exceeds the government’s minimum recovery goal of 500 animals in the region.

Lifting the bears’ protected status will open them to trophy hunting outside the boundaries of Yellowstone park as grizzly oversight is turned over to state wildlife managers in Wyoming, Montana and Idaho, as well as to native American tribes in the region.

Hunters and ranchers, who make up a powerful political constituency in Western states, have strongly advocated removing grizzlies from the threatened species list, arguing the bears’ growing numbers pose a threat to humans, livestock and big-game animals such as elk.

Environmentalists have raised concerns that while grizzlies have made a comeback, their recovery could falter without federal safeguards. They point to the fact that a key food source for the bears, whitebark pine nuts, may be on the decline due to climate change.

“The grizzly fight is on. We’ll stop any attempt to delist Yellowstone’s grizzlies,” the Oregon-based Western Environmental Law Center said in a Twitter post.

“We anticipate going to court to challenge this premature, deeply concerning decision,” Bethany Cotton, wildlife program director for the conservation group WildEarth Guardians, said Thursday.

Native American tribes, which revere the grizzly, also have voiced skepticism about ending its threatened classification.

Zinke said the final delisting rule by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will be published “in coming days” and go into effect 30 days later.

As proposed last March, the rule will not affect four other smaller federally protected grizzly populations in parts of Montana, Idaho and Washington state. A much larger population in Alaska remains unlisted.

Economy & business

Chile’s New Low-cost Airline JetSmart Plans to Sell $1.50 Tickets

JetSmart, a low-cost airline set to launch this year in Chile, said on Thursday it will offer one-way tickets for less than $2, as the nation’s passenger air market becomes increasingly competitive.

“We will have 30,000 tickets for 1,000 pesos ($1.50) per one-way trip plus taxes, to fly within Chile … in 2017,” JetSmart, owned by Indigo Partners, an airline-focused U.S. investment fund Indigo Partners, said on its website.

Indigo Partners has already carved out a niche in ultra-low-cost airlines and owns Mexican low-cost carrier Volaris and part of Denver-based Frontier Airlines.

Indigo is known for unbundled, or a la carte, fares that carry cheap base prices but charge additional fees for extras, such as carry-on bags too big to fit under the seat and advance seat assignments.

In February, Indigo announced that JetSmart would operate three Airbus A320s in Chile in 2017, and another six in 2018.

While the company will focus on domestic routes, it will eye opportunities for regional expansion once established in Chile, Indigo managing partner Bill Franke said at the time.

Chile’s airline market is dominated by LATAM Airlines, Latin America’s largest carrier, with a smaller share taken by established low-cost carrier Sky.

LATAM, which has been facing increasing pressure from low-cost airlines throughout the region, is rolling out a partial low-cost model this year.

Low-cost carrier Viva Air launched in Peru in May, low-cost airline Flybondi is set to launch later this year in Argentina, and Norwegian Air is set to launch long-haul, low-cost routes from Europe to Buenos Aires early next year.

Silicon Valley & Technology

Drones, 5G Internet Dominate Talks as Tech Execs Visit White House

Ubiquitous drones and a faster Internet are coming sooner than you might think, and governments are staring into the unknown as they face the prospect of regulating the coming technological revolution in a way that fosters innovation, while at the same time protecting the often conflicting interests of consumers, entrepreneurs and the general public.

It’s Technology Week at the White House, and top industry executives huddled together Thursday with President Donald Trump to show off their wares and talk about what government’s role should be in regulating, and at the same time encouraging the pace of change. The discussion was all about “next generation” lightning-fast 5G wireless services and the exponential growth of drone-related technologies.

“This meeting comes at an important time because we’re on the precipice of moving to 5G and bringing about the Internet of Things,” said Mike Sievert, Chief Operating Officer of T-Mobile, a leading cellphone service provider. “The position that the government takes is going to determine whether or not America continues to lead in technology.”

Sievert was joined by a Who’s Who of top executives from venture capitalists and firms such as Sprint, AT&T, General Electric, Honeywell, Verizon, and Microsoft. Also attending were entrepreneurs from drone industry leaders like AirMap, which produces a platform for drone mapping that is in use at most U.S. airports; and Precision Hawk, which analyzes data gathered by advanced drone technology and sensors for the energy and agriculture industries.

Trump told the group he is committed to keeping the government out of the way to allow the tech companies to grow and prosper.

“[There have been] too many years of excessive government regulation,” Trump told the drone executives. “We’ve had regulation that’s been so bad, so out of line, that it’s really hurt our country. On a daily basis, we’re getting rid of regulation.”

Enabling innovation

Trump’s message did not appear to go down well with the entrepreneurs, however. Precision Hawk CEO Michael Chasen explained to the president the need for government to take a lead role in establishing rules and standards for the drone industry.

“This is the one industry where we need a little bit more regulation,” Chasen told Trump. “Because the default [present state of affairs] is limiting what drone technology can do and we need the FAA and other regulatory bodies who have the power to regulate [to open] up those opportunities so we can stay competitive with other countries.”

Trump said his government wants to provide an environment where innovators can dream big.

“We’re on the verge of new technological revolutions that could improve virtually every aspect of our lives, create vast new wealth for American workers and families and open bold new frontiers in science, medicine and communications,” said the president.

Drone industry experts say sales growth has been phenomenal.

“In the past eight months, nearly 850,000 drones were registered by the FAA [Federal Aviation Administration],” said Brett Velicovich, president of a Washington area drone firm and author of the new book Drone Warrior. “That compares to only 350,000 airplanes sold over the past 100 years.”

Drone concerns

Velicovich said his greatest worry is that governments such as the United States don’t seem to fully appreciate the potential security threat posed by the new generation of cheap, powerful drones in the hands of terrorists.

“Groups like ISIS see how cheap this technology is and how capable it is and how far they can fly away from the remote and the type of payloads you can put on it and so the security implications come from these people and organizations that would try and do us harm,” he told VOA. “They see how readily available the technology is, how cheap it is, and how far it’s come just in the last few months.”

The United States has long been a leader in the use of military drones, and a multi-billion-dollar drone sale is reported to be up for discussion early next week when India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi pays a visit to the White House.

Reuters reports that India is pushing to buy a naval variant of the Predator drone, which manufacturer General Atomics says can be used for wide-area, long-endurance maritime intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions. It can stay in the air for up to 27 hours and can fly at a maximum altitude of 15,000 meters.

Science & Health

UN: Treatment, Not Prison, Way to Deal With Global Drug Epidemic

The United Nations reports about 250 million people, or 5 percent of the global adult population, used drugs in 2015, and of those, about 29.5 million suffered from drug-use disorders, including addiction.

The World Drug Report 2017  launched Thursday by the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) said that opioids were the most harmful drug type, accounting for 70 percent of drug-linked health problems worldwide.  

It said opioids, including heroin, legal painkillers, such as morphine, and synthetic drugs like fentanyl were responsible for many premature drug deaths. 

“In many parts of the world, we observe an increasingly complex relationship between the use of heroin and synthetic opioids,” Aldo Lale-Demoz, deputy executive director of UNODC, said.

Lale-Demoz said that poly drug use — the use of two or more psychoactive drugs — a common feature of both recreational and regular drug users, “as well as the cross-over between synthetic and traditional drugs pose increasing public health challenges and produce highly negative health and social consequences.”

Injecting drugs

Of the 12 million people who inject drugs worldwide, the report found that 1-in-8, or 1.6 million people, is living with HIV and more than half or just over 6 million are living with hepatitis C, while around 1.3 million are suffering from both diseases.

Despite the many health problems afflicting drug users, the report noted that only 1-in-6 people seeking help have access to drug treatment programs.

Lale-Demoz observed that many countries preferred to deal with drug problems by throwing users in prison, which he said exposed them to many infectious diseases.

“The standard of care, which is provided to those who are incarcerated should be equivalent to the care received by those outside the prison system, with appropriate continuity of care between prison and the wider community,” he said.

“Most importantly, we know that alternatives to incarceration for drug offenses of a minor nature actually help reduce the spread and burden of infectious diseases in prison and ultimately within the wider community,” Lale-Demoz added.

Luiz Loures, deputy executive director of UNAIDS, agreed with this assessment noting that “criminalization and health do not go together.”

Loures warned that an injecting drug user who is on the police radar would be reluctant to seek treatment for HIV or another illness for fear of being caught. He said this drives the disease underground, which is dangerous.

“It does not help for the person and it does not help for society. There is plenty of evidence that when you criminalize, the impact on health is negative,” he said. “In my view, one of the major problems today is exactly this confusion between criminalization and access to health. I think that is really not helping, in fact that is fueling the drug use epidemic globally.”

Among its other key findings, the report notes amphetamine use accounts for a large share of the disease burden globally.  It said the cocaine market has expanded with the largest number of consumers found in North America and Europe.

The report said global opium production had increased by one-third in 2016 mainly due to higher opium poppy yields in Afghanistan.

Thriving business

Chloe Carpentier, chief of the Drug Research Section at UNODC, told VOA that the Taliban was behind this thriving business.

“We estimate that about $150 million were made by them only in terms of taxing the drug business in 2016, and their revenue would be between $150 and $200 million per year and the drug business would account for about half of what they make per year,” Carpentier said.

Authors of the report concluded that “without the proceeds of drug production and trafficking … the reach and impact of the Taliban would probably not be what it is today.”

The report noted that organized crime groups were reaping huge profits from the multi-billion-dollar drug trade, generating between one-fifth and one-third of their revenues from these illicit sales.

One of the aims of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals is to significantly reduce such illicit financial flows.

“Drug profits is what drives traffickers and, therefore, identifying the flows related to these profits and the channels where they are invested and laundered can effectively counteract them,” the UNODC’s Lale-Demoz said.

Ultimately, however, he said drug control was less a law and order issue, and more a matter of personal and public health.  

“Sending people to jail, punishing people for minor drug offenses has not worked,” he said. “In fact, it is highly detrimental. It only increases the possibility of all sorts of social dislocations — violence, crimes, stigma and also the spread of diseases.”