Dictators from around the world hire representatives in Washington to polish their abysmal human rights records and downplay allegations of corruption.
One of the most controversial of these consultants is Qorvis Communications, whose work includes operating a series of websites and Twitter accounts for the undemocratic governments of Fiji and Equatorial Guinea.
Equatorial Guinea’s substantial oil revenue funds “lavish lifestyles for the small elite surrounding the president, while most of the population lives in poverty,” says Human Rights Watch in its profile of the country. “The government regularly engages in torture and arbitrary detention,” Human Rights Watch adds, noting that “President Obiang and his family are the subject of multiple foreign corruption investigations.”
For example, Qorvis maintains the website of Equatorial Guinea’s Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry, an agency that is at the center of a U.S. anti-corruption and money laundering investigation.
“The Ministry focuses on the integrity and performance of the biological chain, including animals, plants, food and related sectors, and their contribution to Equatorial Guinea’s economy and well-being,” reads a statement on the ministry’s website.
The site, which appears to have been last updated in May of this year, states that it “is developed and maintained by Qorvis Communications, LLC, on behalf of the government of Equatorial Guinea.”
According to the website, “The Ministry encourages high performances in all its sectors, safe trade, and protects the natural resources for the benefit of future generations.”
But an April 2011 U.S. Justice Department civil complaint — as well as more detailed amended complaints filed in October 2011 and June 2012 — alleges that the president’s son, Teodorin Nguema Obiang Mangue, while serving as Minister of Agriculture and Forestry, inflated public construction contracts, misused public resources, and transferred millions into bank accounts he controlled.
The DOJ is moving to seize property allegedly “obtained [by Teodorin] through the abuse of public office and illegally laundered through financial institutions and businesses in the United States,” according to the complaint. But that apparently hasn’t stopped Qorvis from accepting hundreds of thousands of dollars in fees to handle the dictatorship’s public relations.
The firm’s name generally appears on material it publishes on behalf of Equatorial Guinea. The same cannot be said, however, of its work for the government of Fiji.
Fiji, ruled by a military coup government since 2006, faces serious criticisms for its spotty human rights record.
The U.S. has imposed sanctions against Fiji’s regime and says the restrictions will remain in place until a democratically elected government assumes power.
Qorvis’ government filings list a number of activities it conducts on behalf of Fiji’s rulers in exchange for a $40,000 per month fee, including managing three Twitter accounts — “FijiPM,” “FijiAG,” and “FijiRepublic.”
Those Twitter accounts have emerged as active public diplomacy platforms for the island nation’s controversial government. And nowhere on those accounts does Qorvis disclose its involvement.
In December, the Twitter accounts energetically backed up the Fijian Ministry of Information’s pronouncement that a delegation from the Australian Council of Trade Unions – a group critical of Fiji’s labor and human rights policies – was “not welcome” to visit Fiji.
Tweets from the FijiAG account lashed out at the ACTU, calling the trade union group’s criticism “absurd” and “a detriment to all Fijians.”
According to the U.S. State Department, Fiji “severely restricts trade union and collective bargaining rights for workers in designated industries and corporations deemed essential to the national economy.”
Human rights groups are critical of Qorvis’ work for undemocratic regimes like Fiji and Equatorial Guinea.
“I think it’s safe to say that a lot of PR firms would shy away from doing business with regimes that have the types of records of Equatorial Guinea because it would look bad for their reputation to be representing dictators,” said Joseph Kraus, program director at EG Justice, a Washington-based group promoting human rights in Equatorial Guinea. “But Qorvis has made the decision to work with these regimes.”
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