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Early Start with John Berman and Zoraida Sambolin

China Officially Reports First COVID Deaths Since Easing Restrictions; Elon Musk Tweets Poll Asking If He Should Step Down As CEO; CNN Uncovers Final Hours Of 16-Year-Old Iranian Protester. Aired 5:30-6a ET

Aired December 19, 2022 - 05:30   ET



IVAN WATSON, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: But as it is, it is a kind of bewildering U-turn that the country is facing where Mainland China was locking cities down left and right. If you bumped into somebody who had COVID, you could be shipped off to a quarantine camp.

Now we have city governments that are saying hey, you contract COVID and you're a public sector worker and you don't have severe symptoms, go ahead. Keep going to work.

That is the starting U-turn that the Chinese -- the message that's being sent by the government to Chinese citizens who have been warned hey, this is a death sentence a month ago -- avoid at all costs. Shut down your business. Shut down your school. To now, hey, it's kind of life as usual. Let's just deal with it. In fact, a top official in China saying this should be compared to the coronavirus cold, not some kind of death sentence.

So lots of mixed messaging coming from the world's most populous country right now --


WATSON: -- in what will certainly be a COVID winter for China -- Christine.

ROMANS: All right, Ivan. Ivan Watson for us following it from Hong Kong. Thanks, Ivan.

All right, other quick hits around the globe right now.

Six people are dead, including the gunman, after a shooting at a condo in the Toronto suburb of Vaughan. One survivor was taken to the hospital. No word on a motive for those killings.

Thirty-one crew members are missing from a Thai navy ship that sank in the Gulf of Thailand. Officials say strong winds tilted the ship causing water to shut down the electrical system. Winds now are hampering rescue efforts.

Kim Jung Un's North Korea claims it launched a final stage test for its first spy satellite. The space development agency says it will finish preparations for that satellite by April.

All right. Elon Musk says he'll step down if Twitter tells him to. And a 16-year-old girl's death remains a mystery amid protests in Iran. Why it's also raising new questions about security on social media.



ROMANS: So, Elon Musk putting his fate in the hands of the Twitterverse. Musk tweeted a poll Sunday asking Twitter users to vote whether he should step down as chief executive. He says he will abide by the poll's results. This is two months after Musk's controversial purchase of Twitter for $44 billion, taking it private.

So far, the 12-hour poll has attracted more than 14 million votes. Fifty-seven percent say yes, 43 percent say no.

And there might be a lot of Tesla shareholders who want that yes. Tesla's stock down 57 percent this year. Some concern among Tesla shareholders that Elon Musk is distracted with his Twitter purchase and should get his focus back exclusively on the electric carmaker.

All right. As Iran cracks down on protests and hacks into their social media accounts, the death of a 16-year-old activist, called a suicide by the government, may be something far more sinister. A CNN investigation has uncovered the final hours of Nika Shahkarami, a protester who died after a September demonstration in Tehran.

Let's go to CNN's Katie Polglase live in London. And Katie, what really happened to this girl?

KATIE POLGLASE, CNN INVESTIGATIVE PRODUCER: Well, Christine, on September 20, Nika was at the forefront of the protests, standing on bins chanting for the crowds, and then she disappeared. And we found evidence indicating she was then detained by the Iranian authorities.

But there's another key piece of evidence, and that's her Instagram account. It also went down the very same night she disappeared. And so, we dug into that to see if it would lead to any fresh clues as to what happened to her. Take a listen.


POLGLASE (voice-over): Moody, reflective. Like many teenagers, Nike Shahkarami considered her Instagram page a safe space for self- expression. But her death on September 20 during protests in Iran turned her into an icon and her Instagram page into a blank slate. Who disabled it and why became yet another mystery surrounding what happened to her.

CNN previously revealed evidence suggesting Nika was detained at the protests shortly after this video was filmed, but the Iranian authorities have always denied any involvement in her disappearance or death. Now, CNN can exclusively reveal that Meta, Instagram's parent company, investigated Nika's account after she disappeared, concluding they, themselves, were not involved in disabling it. In other words, it was either Nika herself or crucially, someone with access to her account that took it down.

And as recent reporting by The Intercept revealed Iran's highly sophisticated system for phone hacking, it raises the question of whether social media platforms can keep accounts secure.

When protests erupted in Iran, Nika began using Instagram as a diary for her activism, but this online activity may have ended up working against her.

After Nika's death, the Iranian states began publishing evidence, like this CCTV footage, attempting to clear the state of any involvement in her death. First, they said she was pushed from this building. Then she fell from it. Next, they referenced suicidal messages in documents extracted from Nika's mobile and Instagram conversations. It was an open acknowledgment they were accessing her phone and her social media accounts.

But she's not alone. As flames engulfed the notorious Evin prison in mid-October, inside was Negin. She was accused of sharing activist posters like these on Telegram, the encrypted social media platform. We've changed her name for her safety.

Her words are read by an actor. "I think they already had my Telegram chats because they often talked about it. There were certain photos. I had shared relatively political photos. They would show me the photos from that Telegram to claim I was the admin, but I kept denying it."


POLGLASE (voice-over): She says the Iranian authorities had obtained these chats despite not yet having Negin's phone. She believes they hacked her account and she now faces six years in jail.

POLGLASE (on camera): While in prison, the Iranian authorities reactivated Negin's Telegram account. She says it was to see who tried to contact her and reveal the network of activists she was in touch with.

And the same tactic may have been used with Nika's Telegram account, as weeks after her death two of her friends noticed her account was back online. It disappeared shortly after.

POLGLASE (voice-over): Nika's family are still reeling from her death. One close family member told CNN authorities are still refusing to return her phone.

The Iranian authorities have not responded to CNN's request for comment.

While Meta said they couldn't share specifics on Nika's account but they confirmed they did not originally disable it.

Telegram told CNN, "In every case they had investigated, the device had been confiscated or the user had unwittingly made such access possible by not setting a 2-step verification password or using a malicious app impersonating Telegram."

Still, questions remain as to whether Meta, Telegram, and other tech companies are doing all they can to protect their users as the world wakes up to the increasingly tech-savvy ways regimes, such as Iran, are using to monitor and hunt down activists.


POLGLASE: Now, these platforms, Instagram and Telegram, are incredibly popular in Iran. Ninety percent of Iranians use Instagram. That's out of a population of 86 million people. So it's a vast number of people and users that could be directly impacted if their government is potentially accessing their private messages and their conversations.

And, of course, these platforms are also for everyday life -- for everyday communication for chats with friends and family. And since the protests, they have then become incredibly important for activists for mobilizing support and organizing demonstrations. And so, if there's any indication that they're no longer secure that's, of course, of incredible concern.

ROMANS: All right, Katie Polglase. Thank you. Some really important reporting there. Thank you so much for that.

All right. It could soon be lights out for those compact fluorescent light bulbs. And new hope that the housing market slump could soon be over.



ROMANS: All right. Your Romans' Numeral this morning -- there it is -- five. Mortgage rates have fallen for five weeks in a row -- relief. Mortgage rates had doubled in the Fed's rate hike spree to fight inflation. The average 30-year fixed-rate mortgage, 6.31 percent last week. A year ago it was 3.12. What that could mean for the housing market in a moment.

Looking at markets around the world, Asian markets are lower this morning -- any year-end cheer dampened by the realization higher rates are likely in store for 2023. In Asia, Talk Japan is considering a two percent inflation target.

And on Wall Street, stock index futures looking to find footing after a tough week. The Dow slipped last week more than 1 1/2 percent. The S&P and Nasdaq down more than two percent.

The S&P 500 -- this is -- most likely reflects what's in your 401(k). It's down nearly 20 percent for the year, on track for the worst loss since the financial crisis of 2008.

It's the final full week of the year. On deck, consumer confidence, home sales, jobless claims, a GDP revision, and the Fed's favorite inflation gauge. And speaking of inflation, gas prices falling a penny overnight. The national average now $3.14 a gallon.

While mortgage rates have slipped, they're still much higher than a year ago. Housing prices remain high in many parts of the country.

What's the outlook for both buyers and sellers heading into the new year? We have the expert for that, Bess Freedman, CEO of the real estate firm Brown Harris Stevens. It's a company with 3,000 agents in Florida, New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut. Bess, so nice to see you this morning.

BESS FREEDMAN, CEO, BROWN HARRIS STEVENS: Good morning, Christine. Great to see you.

ROMANS: OK, a little bit of a gut check here. There -- we're talking about the housing downturn, right? It's the only place in the economy you can really see those higher mortgage rates definitively working. But prices are still rising in many cases. They're not falling outright. It's sales that are falling.

What's happening here?

FREEDMAN: I mean, I think what we're seeing in some areas -- and remember, all real estate is so local -- is that there is a lot of demand in some places, like in Palm Beach and certain areas of Connecticut. And therefore, the supply is tight and the prices have gone up because the demand is increasing.

But other places it's not the case. And I think we are seeing prices starting to come down where there's ample supply, and buyers are sitting on the sidelines.

ROMANS: Yes. Even -- prices start coming down but mortgage rates are higher than they were a year ago. So that mortgage rate part of the scenario.

The Mortgage Bankers Association has this forecast. Five point four percent mortgage rate by the end of next year. You can see if that were to happen, maybe the peak is in -- what -- how important are mortgage rates? You're like yes, I really want it to be 5.4.

FREEDMAN: I mean, I hope that that's the case but I do know that the sum of what we don't know is greater than what we do know, right? I mean, nobody can macro forecast what will be. But rates are coming down. That's a good thing. They're still historically low.

And we have to see what happens with inflation. Has it peaked? Are we going to enter a recession on '23? Economists are thinking it might be a mild one. Will the war end?

All of these things would be great and then rates may go down further, but it's hard to say right now. I feel like we're in a little bit of a changing market and I want to be cautiously optimistic.

ROMANS: Yes. There's a really good piece in The Wall Street Journal this morning about how this is not the downturns of years past. And certainly, we rebuilt the system and the foundation of the system after 2008-2009 and the housing crash, so that's good news for everybody.

But I'm wondering what you think about the demand -- or the supply part of this problem. A lot of people -- there just aren't enough homes for sale.


FREEDMAN: That's right. I mean, that has been the case for a while and so some people are sitting on the sidelines. And because prices are still high, as you just alluded to, people are waiting to see. And so, it's going to take a little bit of time to capitulate, to get prices to come down, to get people back into the market.

But as I always say, buying a home -- it's a necessity for many people.

ROMANS: Right.

FREEDMAN: It's for consumption. It's the best investment. It's the best way to create intergenerational wealth. And I think that we just have to wait and see what's going to happen. But I am optimistic moving into '23. I think it's going to be slower, as it is right now, but that's to be expected.

I mean, last year was the year of FOMO, right?

ROMANS: Right.

FREEDMAN: And now, it's the year of we've got to save. We've got to see what's going to happen. I think people are very guarded right now, as well they should be.

ROMANS: You know, those years of three percent mortgage rates were not normal, folks, right?

FREEDMAN: That's right. That was not normal at all but people got used to that. They were celebrating, they were excited, they were buying. But now, this is -- we've shifted and I'm not surprised by what's going on right now considering inflation rates and the war. I think this was to be expected.

ROMANS: All right, Bess. Nice to see you. Thank you.

FREEDMAN: Great to see you.

ROMANS: All right.

The big finale for the House January 6 committee. Are criminal referrals against former President Trump on the way? Now just hours away.

And a state of emergency in El Paso, Texas due to a surge of migrants. How officials are preparing for those numbers to soar. That's ahead on "CNN THIS MORNING."

(COMMERCIAL) [05:55:54]

ROMANS: A big box office debut for James Cameron's "Avatar" sequel.


Clip from 20th Century Studios "Avatar: The Way of Water."


ROMANS: So, "Avatar: The Way of Water" taking in $134 million in its opening weekend, easily the number-one movie in the U.S. Still, it fell below pre-release projections. Cameron has suggested the film needs to make $2 billion worldwide to break even.

The first "Avatar" is the highest-grossing film ever -- remember, earning nearly $3 billion. But it wasn't over a weekend. That was a long burn.

Also, there's some concerns about COVID in China might have kept the Chinese box office down a little bit.

All right, when a simple thank you note won't do. While filming the next "Mission: Impossible" movie in South Africa, Tom Cruise took a moment to thank the fans for watching his "Top Gun" sequel while jumping, naturally, from an airplane.


TOM CRUISE, ACTOR: Are you coming?


CRUISE: OK. We'll see you down there. (Jumps out of plane).

Hey, where was I? Oh, yeah, thank you for supporting "Top Gun: Maverick." As always, thank you for allowing us to entertain you. It truly is the honor of a lifetime.


ROMANS: That's 60-year-old Tom Cruise.

"Mission: Impossible -- Dead Reckoning Part One" comes out in July. Clearly, he does all of his own stunts.

All right, the Raiders stunned the Patriots with one of the most improbable endings you will ever see.

Andy Scholes has this morning's Bleacher Report. Hey, Andy.


You know, there were three games --

ROMANS: That's right. SCHOLES: -- that ended on a walk-off touchdown yesterday, but the one in Vegas between the Patriots and Raiders is being called the dumbest play in NFL history.

So, the game was tied at 24 with three seconds on the clock. It looked like the Patriots and Raiders were headed to overtime. New England hands the ball off to Rhamondre Stevenson, who slices through the Raiders' defense for a big game.

But then, for some reason, he decided to lateral the ball to Jakobi Meyers. Meyers runs backwards and throws a backwards pass across the field. It's picked off by Chandler Jones, who stiff-armed Mac Jones and then took it the other way for a game-winning touchdown with no time on the clock.

Vegas shockingly won that one 30-24.

After the game, Meyers taking responsibility for the blunder.


JAKOBI MEYERS, NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS WIDE RECEIVER: Just trying to do too much and trying to be a hero, I guess you'd call it. And I didn't seen the dude back there and tried throwing the ball. Like I said, I was just doing too much. I should've went down with the ball.

JOSH MCDANIELS, LAS VEGAS RAIDERS HEAD COACH: Probably the insane ending I think I've ever been a part of, but we'll take it.


SCHOLES: All right. In Houston, the Texans giving the Chiefs all they could handle. This game would end up going to overtime.

Davis Mills scrambling right here for Houston, but he's going to fumble the ball. The Chiefs are going to end up with it at the bottom of that pile. And in the very next play, Jerick McKinnon, for the Chiefs, is going to take it 26 yards to the house.

So, Kansas City wins 30-24 to clinch the AFC West for a seventh- straight season. That's the longest streak in any of the big four U.S. sports leagues.

All right, meanwhile in Jacksonville, the Jags coming back from 17 down in the third quarter to force overtime with the Cowboys. In O.T., Dak Prescott was trying to get it to Noah Brown. He couldn't bring it in. But Rayshawn Jenkins able to catch it before it hit the ground and takes it 52 yards for the pick-six touchdown to win the game for Jacksonville to keep their playoff hopes alive.

The Cowboys, however, did still clinch a playoff spot because the Commanders lost to the Giants. It was a controversial ending to this one. The Commanders were on the goal line trying to tie the game in the final minute. Brian Robinson scores.

But the official called receiver Terry McLaurin for illegal formation for not being on the line. But you can see McLaurin talked to the official before the snap. And he said after the game even asked the official and he said he was good. But then he still flagged him.

The Giants would hold the Commanders out after that -- after that penalty to win the game 20-12.

Tom Brady and Joe Burrow squaring off for the first time yesterday, and Brady had the Bucs up 17-0. But then it all fell apart. Brady turning the ball over four times.

Burrow, meanwhile threw four touchdowns in the game. The Bengals scored 34 unanswered. They'd win it 34-23.

The first time in Brady's 23-year career that he lost at home after leading by at least 17. He was 89-0 before yesterday.