Maryam al-Khawaja took the stage at the Oslo Freedom Forum last Tuesday and stunned the audience with her experiences of government violence in the Kingdom of Bahrain. She described the killing of student protestors, the torture of democracy advocates, and how human rights defenders are "disappeared." Maryam also detailed how troops from a neighboring dictatorship, Saudi Arabia, rushed into Bahrain to prop up the crown prince's regime.
Ali Abdulemam, a renowned Bahraini blogger, was also invited to the Oslo Freedom Forum. Ali was imprisoned by his government in September 2010 for "spreading false information." After being released on February 23, he enthusiastically accepted his speaking invitation and plans were made for his travel. And then he disappeared. No one has seen or heard from him since March 18.
Beyond disappearing bloggers and rights activists, Bahrain also tries to disappear criticism. The government has been aided by a coterie of "reputation management" experts, including professionals from the Washington, D.C., offices of Qorvis Communications and the Potomac Square Group, in addition to Bell Pottinger out of their offices in London and Bahrain.
Within minutes of Maryam's speech (streamed live online) the global Bahraini PR machine went into dramatic overdrive. A tightly organized ring of Twitter accounts began to unleash hundreds of tweets accusing Maryam of being an extremist, a liar, and a servant of Iran. Simultaneously, the Oslo Freedom Forum's email account was bombarded with messages, all crudely made from a simple template, arguing that Maryam al-Khawaja is an enemy of the Bahraini people and a "traitor." Most of the U.S.-based fake tweeting, fake blogging (flogging), and online manipulation is carried out from inside Qorvis Communication's "Geo-Political Solutions" division.
The effort is mechanical and centrally organized, and it goes beyond the online world. In fact, right before Maryam was to give her speech, she noticed two young women in the crowd who stalk her speeches and heckled her a few days earlier at an event in the U.S.
More so than intimidation, violence, and disappearances, the most important tool for dictatorships across the world is the discrediting of critics like Maryam. For instance, Uyghur activist Rebiya Kadeer is accused of terrorism by the Chinese government, Cuban poet and former political prisoner Armando Valladares is called a "subversive" by the Castro regime, and Human Rights Watch's Jose Miguel Vivanco is branded a CIA agent and "Pinochet supporter" by the Venezuelan government. In each case, the accusations are bogus but their repetition has an impact. The tactic is universal.
The Human Rights Foundation (HRF), the organization that produces the Oslo Freedom Forum, has been described by the Cuban state media as a CIA front, labeled "imperialist" by the Ecuadorean president, and declared "enemies of the state" by the Venezuelan propaganda machine. Rather than addressing criticism head-on, the method is to shoot the messenger.
Oppressive governments are threatened by public exposure, and this means that it's not just human rights defenders but also bloggers, opinion journalists, and civil society activists who are regularly and viciously maligned.
Just as Maryam al-Khawaja was smeared by the Bahraini government's PR campaign as a "terrorist" during this year's Oslo Freedom Forum, Venezuelan media executive Marcel Granier was falsely branded as an "enemy of democracy" by Venezuela's propagandists and their allies at the 2010 Oslo Freedom Forum. Much as Maryam was followed by hecklers and "astroturfers," Granier was libeled by paid PR agents of Hugo Chavez in order to discredit him and his message --that the Chavez administration is a threat to freedom of speech.
These examples illustrate how dictatorships are today able to enhance their skill set and prolong their "communicational hegemony" (as one elected thug calls it) by hiring PR firms to whitewash their records. These companies specialize in burying evidence of human rights violations deep under rosy language about stability, economic growth, and commitments to help the poor. Their efforts also infect sources deemed reliable by many journalists, such as Wikipedia. Numerous governments have paid editors to whitewash their digital reputations.
In May 2010, the Tunisian government hired the Washington Media Group to help its public relations. After inking the half-million dollar contract, the company praised Ben Ali's kleptocratic autocracy as "a stable democracy" and a "peaceful, Islamic country [with] a terrific story to share with the world." They dropped Tunisia as a client only after Ben Ali began picking off protestors with snipers -- one week before he fled.
A fawning article on Syria's first lady, Asma al-Assad, appeared in Vogue magazine less than a month before her husband's government brutally put down pro-democracy protestors. How did Asma, wife of a medieval dictator, score a puff piece in Vogue? The fashion magazine article noted that she was accompanied during her interviews by a "high profile American PR" flack. (The uproar caused by the sycophantic Vogue profile was such that its PR people have succeeded in disappearing the piece from their website.)
Even dictators are entitled to a voice in global public opinion, but those who spin for brutal killers -- like those running Equatorial Guinea and Libya, for instance -- should be exposed as amoral and unperturbed by abetting injustice and repression.
Qorvis Communications, for instance, represents dictators from Equatorial Guinea, Saudi Arabia, and Yemen and has made more than $100 million dollars by helping their many clients battle negative public opinion or bury the truth under a mountain of fluff journalism. This is mercenary work, fighting actively against human rights advances and on behalf of criminals like Equatorial Guinea's Teodoro Obiang. Qorvis exec Matt J. Lauer styles himself as a PR wonderboy rather than as what he is: an accessory to human rights violations. By virtue of whitewashing the Obiang clan's reputation he is engaged in criminal facilitation of the Obiang conspiracy including grand theft, larceny, money-laundering, influence-trafficking, murder and other Obiang activities that would keep any principled PR professional awake at night.
Washington's most notorious lobbyist for tyrants was the late Edward "von" Kloberg, who unapologetically and flamboyantly represented Saddam Hussein and dictators from Romania, the Congo, and Burma (among dozens of others). Kloberg was so venal he became a caricature -- even trying to score business with North Korea's Kim Jong Il. Kloberg knew his work was a spectacle and he admitted he was shameless. These other firms do no different, yet try to mask their work by contracting with innocent sounding government bodies. For example, Bell Pottinger worked for the "Economic Development Board" of the Bahraini government, and its work for Aleksander Lukashenko was not specifically detailed.
While Maryam al-Khawaja was bravely giving her speech at the Oslo Freedom Forum, Qorvis staff were busy in their plush offices on Connecticut Avenue helping to distract people from her revealing talk and trying hard to disappear concern over the disappearance of Ali Abdulemam. Meanwhile, the money keeps rolling in.
Thor Halvorssen is president of the New York-based Human Rights Foundation and founder and CEO of the Oslo Freedom Forum. Follow him on Twitter and on Facebook.