State of Virginia employing PR firm used by Middle East regimes accused of human rights abuses
In August when Bahrain’s police came under pressure to explain its interrogation of Nabeel Rajab, a prominent international human rights activist, for articles and tweets questioning whether the government had tortured its own citizens, the country’s “Ministry of Interior” issued a news advisory on the case. Its headline read “Police summon Nabeel Rajab for publishing wrong information” and it explained what Rajab had done to garner the government’s interest: “disturb public security, promote fear, affect general interests and humiliate public authorities.”
But in the U.S., a different news advisory was released to media firms and to the public — one with a more generic headline and with the reference to humiliating authorities deleted.
According to Department of Justice records, the firm behind this PR turn-about is Qorvis Communications, a United States public relations firm that provides “press and public relations services” for Bahrain and which has worked with the country since 2002. The firm also has a contract to provide similar services for the Yemeni government’s [“National Awareness Authority,”](http://www.awareness.org.ye/en/articles.aspx?id=985) a state communications arm founded by Tariq Mohammed Abdullah Saleh, nephew of the vacated President Ali Abdullah Saleh, whose regime has been repeatedly condemned for human rights abuses. In the last year, the countries paid more than $500,000 to Qorvis.
An investigation by The American Independent with research assistance provided by the Project on Government Oversight found that the state of Virginia also currently employs Qorvis’s PR services. All told, the state has had slightly more than $70 million in dealings with the company.
Virginia’s contract dates to 2007 (link), when the state awarded the firm an approximately $2 million per year contract to provide “marketing, advertising and communications” services, in addition to $18 million per year in media and production costs handled by the company. The firm’s contract was renewed in 2010, with an agreement to provide only “communications” services, and at the cost of $300,000 per year. Qorvis’s contract will be up for second renewal in April, 2012.
Since the firm’s work began, Virginia has since had record-breaking lottery sales, netting $1.4 billion during the last fiscal year — $444.2 million of which the state put towards education. Jeff Caldwell, press secretary for Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell, who appointed the head of the lottery, declined to comment on the relationship, saying “this contract predates this administration.”
Image has not been found. URL: http://images.americanindependent.com/Najeeb.jpg"Beating marks on the back of Nabeel Rajab after police attacked a peaceful protest on July, 15 005" Img via Bahrain Center for Human Rights
A portfolio of the work Qorvis provided to the state can found on Qorvis’s website. Jill Vaughn, director of communications for the lottery, said the firm “help[s] us day to day. If we have a crisis they are very helpful, and we have a lot of special projects throughout the year.” In the last year, the firm has worked on marketing events and promotions — especially for new products. Qorvis did not respond to requests for comment for this article.
Both Bahrain and Yemen have come under scrutiny of late for perceived human rights abuses. Yemen, in particular, has been censured by the United Nations for the killing of a journalist and for stifling free speech. The government of Bahrain, long seen as a U.S. ally in the region, has of late been harshly criticized. Freedom House, a human rights watchdog, issued a policy brief today titled “Killing the Messenger: Bahrain’s Brutal Crackdown,” detailing state violence and torture and calling for the U.S. to apply pressure to the country.
According to the New York Times, rights groups estimate that since protests began, “at least 34 people have been killed, more than 1,400 have been arrested and as many as 3,600 have been dismissed from jobs” in Bahrain. Earlier this fall, Doctors Without Borders and other medical groups were pitched in a fight with the country over the torture and imprisonment of doctors who had treated ailing protesters. And according to Reuters, the leader of a fact-finding mission setup by the country to investigate allegations of human rights violations now believes “torture had been a systematic, though limited, policy.”
Amateur video shot earlier this year and posted on LiveLeak appears to show protesters killed in drive-by shootings conducted by the police.
“Bahrain is taking a turn for the worse on human rights,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch, in a release this April. The Obama administration suspended and is reviewing its arms sales policy to the country after a number of U.S. senators, including Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), Richard Durbin (D-Ill.) and Senate Foreign Relations Middle East and North Africa Subcommittee chairman Robert Casey (D-Pa.) called for a cessation. Bahrain’s internal fact-finding commission, and subsequent review of alleged torture, is being closely watched by the U.S. as it determines whether to renew its arms agreement.
Virginians alerted to the dealings often expressed exasperation at the state’s use of resources. In some cases, though, the reactions were more personal.
Robert Marrow, board of trustees and chair of the government relations committee at the Adams Center, a northern Virginia mosque and one of the largest Muslim community centers in the United States, said that some of his community members fled from the regimes whose “image” Qorvis’s services are meant to enhance.
“They would oppose that if they had a say,” he said. “Their preference would be against who have made money with blood money on their hands. And if they’re going to be providing a public service they should be people who should have a somewhat higher moral standard.”
Rev. Eddy Aliff, executive director for the Virginia Assembly of Independent Baptists, said that Baptists would likely share that concern, and that he believes the state should “be putting money in the proper places to individuals who truly need that help, and I think that is how most of us who are Baptists would view it.”
Some saw it simply as a business dealing gone awry. “Virginians on a whole are slightly right of center. which means they’re more fiscally conservative than not,” explained Quentin Kidd, chair of the Department of Government at Christopher Newport University.
For Imad Damaj, president of the Virginia Muslim Coalition for Public Affairs, the business fundamentals don’t add up. “My suggestion is to the state of Virginia is to look into this company and see if you can do business with another one that is not doing these things,” he said. “It is morally right and from a business perspective it is right.”
The Project on Government Oversight, a watchdog group that looks into the effective use of taxpayer resources and which provided The American Independent with records of Qorvis’s PR work for Bahrain, urged transparency on the issue. Ben Freeman, a national security fellow, said, “Virginia residents, whose money is used to pay Qorvis, have a right to know that the company also works to control the media spin for governments that many believe to be guilty of human rights violations.”
Qorvis has repeatedly come under the spotlight for its employment by autocratic regimes, beginning in 2002 when the company was hired by Saudi Arabia in the wake of 9/11 for the purposes of improving the country’s image after it was revealed the majority of hijackers had been of Saudi origin. While a number of firms perform this type of work, often the transactions go more smoothly. Three of the firm’s partners soon left Qorvis out of discomfort with the relationship. Shortly after, the FBI searched the company’s offices.
That scenario repeated itself this spring when more than a third of the firm’s partners left amidst concern about Qorvis work for Middle East regimes with troubled human rights records. “I just have trouble working with despotic dictators killing their own people,” a former Qorvis insider told The Huffington Post.
According to that same insider, Qorvis’s Geo-Political Solutions (GPS) division has a ‘”black arts” program responsible for creating fake blogs and websites that link back to positive content, “to make sure that no one online comes across the bad stuff.”
Last month The New York Times, commenting on the work of foreign relation firms such as Qorvis in Bahrain, reported about a surge in Bahraini trolls — social media users who “cajole, harass and intimidate commentators and journalists who write about the protests in Bahrain and the government’s response.” Guardian writer Brian Whitaker, who has extensively analyzed the firm’s PR techniques, including in some of the documents referenced in the beginning of this article, blogged how Qorvis attempts to present Bahrain as a tolerant country.
The firm’s founder and CEO, Michael Petruzzello, told the Huffington Post that complaints about clientele are “ridiculous” and disingenuous, asserting that the firm’s work with international clients preceded the tenure of departing partners. And the firm’s clients also include household names such as the Dance Institute of Washington, The Washington Post, Intel and the Rosslyn Business Improvement District, according to the firm’s website.
Department of Justice files confirm that news releases issued on behalf of the “Bahrain Ministry of Interior” are issued by Qorvis. Those newswires often reach a wider U.S. audience, such as this release posted by the Sacremento Bee.** **
Other examples of the firm’s work include a press release dated June 24 that describes the sentencing of 21 individuals convicted of plotting to violently topple Bahrain’s government and of the country’s commitment to fair judicial process. CNN covered the same event noting that Britain’s foreign office minister for the Middle East, Alistair Burt, was “extremely concerned” over the sentencing and the nature of many of the charges. “It is deeply worrying that civilians are being tried before tribunals chaired by a military judge, with reports of abuse in detention, lack of access to legal counsel and coerced confessions,” he said.****
This July, Bahrain had its “National Dialogue,” a program by the state that attempts to achieve national unity on issues of politics and religion. Days before this year’s “Dialogue,” U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Michael Posner visited Bahrain to encourage the government to speak with dissenters. But the Shia-oriented al-Wefaq, the largest political opposition group in Bahrain and one of the most fervent protest voices in the country, and the General Federation of Bahrain Trade Unions, withdrew, claiming their concerns, including the rehiring of fired workers, had been ignored in the talks.****
At that time, Qorvis issued a glowing press release on behalf of the Kingdom of Bahrain saying, “All the participants are actively debating the issues.” On the same day, Reuters published an article quoting a more inclusive choice of voices: “To reach a complete solution to the big problems, you have five minutes to speak? What is that?” asked Sayed al-Mousawi of the main Shi’ite opposition group Wefaq, quoted in the article. “Is this dialogue?” Two days later, Qorvis issued another press release, praising a “second successful day.” ****
On the ground in Bahrain, however, the results of the talks have been less than successful. Last week, according to the New York Times, Ali Hassan al-Daihi, the 70-year-old father of an al-Wefaq leader, died after being beaten by police officers the night before. In an extensively blogged post, The Times explained how mourners to his death were forbidden from returning to a symbolic square. It also showed video of police vehicles charging protesters and of a Bahrani police’s statement about its using its vehicles that way: “These allegations don’t have an iota of truth, being baseless,” the official said.**