[Dehai-WN] BBC: Should Africa employ lobbyists?

[Dehai-WN] BBC: Should Africa employ lobbyists?

From: Berhane Habtemariam <Berhane.Habtemariam_at_gmx.de_at_dehai.org>
Date: Tue, 18 Oct 2011 23:20:02 +0200

Should Africa employ lobbyists?

* 18 October 2011 Last updated at 11:57 GMT

A number of African governments accused of human rights abuses have turned
to public relations companies to salvage the image of their countries.

The BBC's Focus on Africa magazine asked two experts whether "reputation
management" is mostly a cover-up for bad governance.


Thor Halvorssen is president of the New York-based Human Rights Foundation
and founder of the Oslo Freedom Forum.

For Public Relations (PR) companies and their government clients,
"reputation management" can be a euphemism of the worst sort. In many cases
across Africa, it often means whitewashing the human rights violations of
despotic regimes with fluff journalism and, just as easily, serving as
personal PR agents for rulers and their corrupt family members.

But they also help governments drown out criticism, often branding
dissidents, democratic opponents and critics as criminals, terrorists or

Today, with the preponderance of social media, anyone with an opinion, a
smart phone and a Facebook account can present their views to an audience
potentially as large as any major political campaign can attract.

This has raised citizen journalism to a level of influence unknown
previously. Yet, this communication revolution has also resulted in despotic
governments smearing not just human rights advocates, but individuals with
blogs as well as Twitter, YouTube and Facebook accounts. This undermines the
power and integrity of social media.

And as PR firms help regimes "astroturf" with fake social media accounts,
they do more damage than just muddling legitimate criticism with false
comments and tweets linking back to positive content - they also make the
general public sceptical about social media.

It is no surprise that ruthless governments that deny their citizens basic
freedoms would wish to whitewash their reputations. But PR professionals who
spin for them should be exposed as amoral.

For instance, Qorvis Communications, a PR and lobbying firm in the United
States, represents Equatorial Guinea - among other allegedly repressive
governments - for a reported $55,000 a month. The firm is said to have
amassed more than $100 million by helping their clients with "reputation

By burying opposing public opinions or spinning false, positive stories of
stability and economic growth on behalf of President Teodoro Obiang Nguema's
brutal regime, the firm is seriously hampering the progress of human rights
in the country.

In response, Qorvis says that customers with troublesome human rights
records are a very small part of its client base, and that these governments
are using Qorvis as a means to be heard in the "court of public opinion".

Washington Media Group, another American PR firm, was hired in 2010 by the
Tunisian government. The autocracy was subsequently described in various
media outlets as a "stable democracy" and a "peaceful, Islamic country with
a terrific story to share with the world". Only after the regime's snipers
began picking off protesters did Washington Media Group end its $420,000

'Limited engagement'

When a PR firm spins a dictator's story, it does not just present a
different viewpoint, as the firm might want you to believe; rather, it
undermines the resources from which people can draw opinions. If a website
or magazine commends the government, how is an average citizen to know for
certain if the information is accurate or true?

Many firms that operate, or have done, on behalf of kleptocracies in Africa
are based not only in the US but also in the United Kingdom. They include
Bell Pottinger (Hosni Mubarak's Egypt), Brown Lloyd James (Muammar Gaddafi's
Libya) and Hill & Knowlton (Yoweri Museveni's Uganda).

There are likely many more that continue to do this work under the cover of
corporate secrecy. When firms get caught or criticised for their activities
many say it is "limited engagement" for only a few months or that the task
only involved "tourism" or "economic progress".

If, for instance, a firm served the questionable government in the
Democratic Republic of the Congo they would probably insist they are
"consultants" helping to create "economic opportunity" and, no doubt,
providing a "guiding hand" to the current president as he improves the lot
of the Congolese poor.

Yet the spin doctors most probably ignore the fact that President Joseph
Kabila's security forces killed Floribert Chebeya, arguably the DR Congo's
leading human rights defender, and likely "disappeared" his driver (he is
still missing). Only after an international uproar were the policemen
directly responsible for the killing brought to justice.

Meanwhile, political opponents routinely disappear, journalists are arrested
for criticising the government and any comprehensive human rights report
contains appalling anecdotes and painful analysis about a country with
little judicial independence and respect for the rule of law.

PR agents do not create "economic opportunities" - they alter reality so
that certain deals and foreign aid can flow faster and in larger quantities
- all the while being rewarded handsomely.

'Briefcase bandits'

Africa's spin doctors (mostly American and European) deliberately choose to
represent what the Free Africa Foundation's George Ayittey so refreshingly
describes as "Swiss-bank socialists", "crocodile liberators", "quack
revolutionaries", and "briefcase bandits".

Mr Ayittey - a former political prisoner from Ghana - pulls us a lot closer
to the truth.

If the mainstream media adopts Mr Ayittey's language, the free governments
of the world would be forced to face the truth and take necessary steps to
tie their aid and trade deals to democratic reform for the benefit of
Africa's population.

Sunlight is the best disinfectant, and we must combat the work of firms that
provide "reputation management" to oppressive states by exposing their role
in abetting injustice.

Those firms may want to consider atoning by volunteering for the civil
society groups, human rights' defenders and economic opportunity
organisations working to make Africa free and prosperous.


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Received on Tue Oct 18 2011 - 17:20:03 EDT
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