Should Africa employ lobbyists?

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.

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

Thor Halvorssen Thor Halvorssen has published extensively on the subject of lobbying

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 extremists.

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.

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It is no surprise that ruthless governments that deny their citizens basic freedoms would wish to whitewash their reputations”

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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 management".

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 contract.

'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?

President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Teodoro Obiang Nguema is accused of leading a brutal regime in Equatorial Guinea

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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