A right to petition
Foreign countries’ rights to petition the U.S. government are legally protected the same way domestic clients’ are, although compared to domestic lobbying, their activity faces a much higher level of disclosure with the Justice Department.
American University government professor James Thurber said the uptick in activity by foreign governments shows they are discovering the importance of lobbying and “changing perceptions” in the U.S. capital.
“These other countries that have very specific problems of human rights — they’re discovering how Washington works,” Thurber said.
Maran Turner, the executive director of Freedom Now, an organization that advocates for the rights of prisoners of conscience, or people imprisoned for religious or political beliefs. She’s observed public relations campaigns by foreign governments becoming “more and more commonplace,” she said and she’s found it “incredibly frustrating and very worrying and very upsetting.”
Turner’s work often involves bringing attention to specific cases of international political prisoners, but it’s hard to compete with the work of public relations and lobbying firms on behalf of the countries in question on Capitol Hill, she said.
In Equatorial Guinea, President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo seized control in a military coup in 1979. Despite the country having Africa’s highest gross domestic product per capita, the majority of its 740,000 citizens live in poverty.
The latest State Department report on human rights in Equatorial Guinea documents routine torture by police, arbitrary detentions and politically motivated kidnappings and killings. An increase in violent crime largely came from military and national security forces, according to the report.
Alicante now runs EG Justice, a nonprofit that raises awareness of the country’s human rights abuses and promotes accountability, civil liberties and rule of law by working with institutions like the United Nations, the African Union and governments in Europe.
Alicante has come across dozens of press releases written and distributed by Qorvis/MSLGroup praising the supposed good things happening in his country, he said.
“Equatorial Guinea Reports Significant Reduction in Poverty and Improvements in Health” is the headline for one released in September. “Women In Equatorial Guinea Have Strong Leadership Role In Government And Business, Say Top Women Political Leaders” reads another from August.
Alicante said his small operation is no match for the multimillion-dollar communications firm.
Alicante had one interaction with the PR professionals, he said. While organizing a roundtable discussion on Equatoguinean human rights in Washington, D.C., several years ago, he invited the ambassador for Equatorial Guinea to attend and respond.
On the morning of the event, he received a call. Qorvis let him know that the ambassador could not make it, but the firm would send an employee in her place.
Ketchum and Russia
Qorvis/MSLGroup is second only to Ketchum, a public relations and marketing agency, in terms of how much money it’s received to represent human rights violators in recent years.
Together, Russia and its government-owned natural gas company, Gazprom, paid Ketchum more than $40 million from 2010 to 2014, about $3.5 million of which was dispersed to legal and lobbying firms in subcontracts. President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman said earlier this year that the contract ended with Ketchum because communications work could not be successful with “anti-Russian hysteria” and a “hateful environment” prevalent in America.
Ketchum used media outreach, websites and press releases to paint Russia as a prime investment destination. “Invest in Moscow: Education, Healthcare and More,” read one headline. Others referred to “sustainability in Russia’s economic development.” In September 2013, Ketchum “placed” a much talked about New York Times op-ed, penned by Putin himself to discourage the United States from taking military action in Syria.
Ketchum and the Russian Embassy did not respond to requests for comment.
Andrea Prasow, deputy Washington director of Human Rights Watch, advocates for global human rights issues before the government. Beyond seeking to shape public opinion, foreign entities also often try to influence policy, she said.
The firms’ approaches are typically two-pronged: counter and downplay their clients’ human rights violations and highlight U.S. interests, she said.
“One of the challenges is that the United States has interests with a lot of these countries,” she said. “That’s why there isn’t a very clear and definitive rejection of involvement with countries that are sort of the worst human rights abusers.”
For Equatorial Guinea, a country that at one point exported two-thirds of its oil to the United States, there is much at stake. In last year’s U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit, President Barack Obama included President Obiang in a White House dinner while excluding other autocrats who lead Zimbabwe, Eritrea and the Central African Republic.
Representation of foreign clients faces stricter regulation and more extensive disclosures with the Justice Department than that of domestic clients. Anyone working to influence U.S. policy on behalf of a foreign client, whether by lobbying or engaging in public relations, must register with the Foreign Agents Registration Unit of the Justice Department and disclose the contract, details of all political activity and any distributed materials.
Passed in 1938 in response to German propaganda agents active in the United States prior to World War II, the Foreign Agents Registration Act sought to illuminate the sources of influence aimed at public policy and opinion.
There is widespread non-compliance with filing deadlines, and many registrants fail to include required disclosure language about who prepared any distributed materials, according to a report last year by the Project on Government Oversight, a nonprofit government watchdog group.
Report co-author Lydia Dennett said enforcement of the law is lax.
“The fact that the Department of Justice doesn’t enforce them as much as they could definitely hurts the transparency angle, which is the whole point of the law,” Dennett said.
Justice Department national security spokesman Marc Raimondi said in an email that the Foreign Agents Registration Act Unit regularly monitors online and print media “to identify individuals and entities that may not be in compliance with the Act.
“When questions regarding possible noncompliance come to the attention of the FARA Unit, by any means, it takes appropriate steps to seek compliance with the Act,” he said. This means inspecting and contacting current and potential registrants about the obligations under the law, he said.
During the past 10 years, the Justice Department has brought four criminal cases relating to willful violations of the Foreign Agents Registration Act, three of which resulted in a conviction or guilty plea, Raimondi said.
Foreign principals spend nearly a half-billion dollars annually to try to influence U.S. policy and opinion, according to a Project on Government Oversight estimate. Domestic lobbying, by comparison, has totaled about $3.25 billion for each of the past two years, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
Qorvis/MSLGroup has received more than $20.6 million since 2010 working for governments with poor human rights records, according to the Center for Public Integrity review of Justice Department disclosures.
Since 2010, Libya, Bahrain, China, Sri Lanka and others that rank poorly for human rights in the Fragile States Index have turned to the firm for representation.