From the Editors
[The following statement was issued by Bahrain Watch on 23 August 2012.]
Bahrain Government Hires 18 Western Companies to Improve Image After Unrest
New Project to Track Govt Spin Campaign Shows Over $32M Spent on PR
The Government of Bahrain has spent or allocated at least US$ 32.5 million for the services of eighteen different London and Washington DC based companies, to improve its image in the Western media, since the start of pro-democracy protests last February. This according to a new project called PR Watch <http://bahrainwatch.org/PR> launched on Thursday by research and activist group Bahrain Watch. The ongoing goal ofPR Watch is to monitor and document the activities of each public relations company working for Bahrain's government.
When Arab Spring-inspired protesters took to Bahrain's streets in February 2011, security forces responded with a bloody crackdown, killing two protesters in the first two days and over 60 to date in the ongoing unrest. Although coverage in the Western media was relatively limited, it shone a spotlight on the Government's darker side: torture and police abuse, sectarian discrimination, and the concentration of political power in the ruling family and its allies. Its carefully-cultivated facade of tolerance and progressivism under threat, the government turned to an array of Western public relations (PR) and PR-related firms.
Using information primarily from media reports and official government documents, PR Watch uncovers how these companies have sought to transform the narrative about Bahrain in the Western media. The information is organized and presented on a website: <http://bahrainwatch.org/PR>. While PR Watch has identified eighteen different Western PR-related companies receiving payments or contracts worth at least $32.5 million since February 2011, these figures are based only on publicly-available information. Actual spending by the Bahraini government on PR is likely to be considerably higher.
Among the eighteen firms hired are some of the biggest names in Western PR, such as London-based Bell Pottinger, and Washington DC-based Qorvis Communications. Both have been previously criticised for PR contracts with other repressive governments.
In general, the activities undertaken by PR companies on behalf of the Bahraini government include:
Writing and placing op-ed pieces supporting the Government in Western media outlets, while exerting legal pressure on outlets that publish critical pieces
- Contacting Western journalists about the political situation in Bahrain
- Creating seemingly independent websites and social media accounts to influence public opinion
- Arranging meetings with influential Western government officials
While this is part and parcel of the regular PR trade, some companies, such as DC-basedPolicy Impact Communications, play a more dubious role. To skirt rules barring lobbyists from paying for US Congressional travel, Policy Impact established a non-profit front organization that funded a visit to Bahrain by Representative Dan Burton. The same group also organized a trip to Bahrain for Representative Eni Faleomavaega. Both Congressmen made statements in support of the government while in Bahrain, and upon their return to the US.
In general, activities by PR companies seek to promote the following myths about Bahrain's political situation:
- The country is not ruled by an autocrat, but by an enlightened monarchy shepherding its subjects towards democracy;
- The opposition protesters are wolves in sheep's clothing who may be calling for democracy, but are actually backed by Iran and want to impose a Shia theocracy;
- Any violence carried out by security forces against protesters is always only in reaction to violence carried out by protesters, labelled as "terrorists" or "vandals";
- Torture and police abuse is not systematic, but is the result of just a few bad apples rather than the orders of any senior officials;
- The government has made amends for any mistakes it made last year.
The findings of the PR Watch project directly contradict a statement made by Bahrain's Minister of State for Information in July 2012, in which she characterized claims that the government has hired Western public relations companies as "one of the fabrications among the fabrications of the Opposition to tarnish the image of Bahrain."
"That the Bahraini government is pouring so much money into Western PR firms suggests it cares more of its international image, than it does ending the ongoing human rights violations against its own citizens," said Bahrain Watch member Marc Owen Jones. "PR companies protecting the image of the Bahraini government simply offer excuses to those who should be pressuring the Kingdom for reform, accountability and social justice."
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