Journalism in the Public Interest

Bahraini ‘Reformers’ in Washington, Courtesy of American Spinmeisters

The tiny Persian Gulf country is using American flacks to undermine support for the opposition.


A protester gestures to police as they shoot tear gas during a standoff after a mourning procession in the village of Mameer, Bahrain, on Jan. 24, 2012. (Caren Firouz/Reuters)

Earlier this month, a group of three young Bahrainis arrived in Washington to talk about reform in the small Persian Gulf nation, which has been rocked by Arab Spring protests for the last year. The delegation, including an NGO worker and a tech entrepreneur, both Western-educated, represented "the leading voice for change and reform" in Bahrain, as an email message from one of the group's representatives put it.

But these weren't leaders of the protest movement that has challenged the country's ruling Sunni monarchy. They were members of a "youth delegation" put together by a top American public relations firm, Qorvis, which has been working with Bahrain to shore up the country's image in the United States.

The youth delegation's modestly pro-reform message was mixed with sharp criticism of the opposition in Bahrain and complaints about negative media coverage in the U.S.

Last year, in the early weeks of Bahrain's violent crackdown on the largely Shia opposition protests, the minister of foreign affairs inked a contract with Qorvis to provide public-relations services for $40,000 per month, plus expenses. One of the largest PR and lobbying firms in Washington, Qorvis employs a number of former top Capitol Hill staffers and also works for Bahrain's close ally, Saudi Arabia. The firm's work for Bahrain came under scrutiny last year when it defended the government's raid last year on a Doctors Without Borders office in Bahrain. Also in 2011, a Qorvis official wrote pro-regime columns in The Huffington Post without revealing his affiliation with Qorvis.

Bahrain is an important American ally in the gulf, and its capital Manama is home to the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet. An independent commission found late last year that the government had systematically tortured detainees and used excessive force to put down the protests. While the unrest has fallen from the headlines, Bahrain continues to suppress protests, sometimes violently. And while Bahrain has promised reforms, Human Rights Watch today released a report finding "egregious violations of fair trial rights" in cases brought against opposition activists.

The Obama administration has largely stood by Bahrain, offering muted criticism while continuing to sell arms to the government, though one weapons package remains on hold.

To counter negative press, Bahrain has made a major public-relations push in the U.S., employing Qorvis and several other firms. The youth delegation dispatched to Washington, on the anniversary of the start of the protests, is the latest part of that effort.

In meetings and public appearances, the three-member Qorvis delegation has criticized opposition protesters as violent agitators.

"The message of this delegation was, things over here [in the U.S.] are portrayed so unfairly," said Cole Bockenfeld, an official with the Project on Middle East Democracy who met with the group in mid-February and has been critical of Bahrain's government. The delegation members said they "represent the silent majority that is very moderate but wants to see limited and stable reform."

The Qorvis-organized group also argued that youth coalitions involved with the opposition "are a fringe group of rioters and vandals," Bockenfeld said.

The Bahrainis in the delegation were all educated in either the United States or Canada, according to their bios. One member founded a tech company that develops web and mobile applications; another works for the Bahrain branch of an NGO called Young Arab Leaders; and the third is a media specialist for the government's Information Affairs Authority.

Qorvis did not respond to our requests for comment.

The firm's pitch, written by staffer Adam Croglia, framed the delegation as representing the pro-reform community in Bahrain. Here's an email from Qorvis sent to one policy analyst in Washington:

But the delegation instead seemed to focus on criticizing the opposition and decrying American media coverage.

Delegation members, for example, attended a panel discussion on Bahrain on Feb. 15 at Freedom House in Washington. In the Q&A after the initial discussion, delegation member Ebtisam Khalifa Bahar, who works for the Information Affairs Authority, said:

"I tell you this: The protesters are not peaceful. I know this because I live next to a village where I see it, smell it and hear it every single day. Molotov cocktail petrol bombs being thrown in front of my home, at my car. ... I do have the same grievances that they have. I do want better jobs. I do want better reform in the government."

Bahar then challenged an official on the panel from the Bahrain Center for Human Rights.

"I think you are betraying the Bahraini voice because you are omitting my voice. … I want my country back the way it was, before all this hoopla started."

Here's video of the exchange, courtesy of Freedom House:

Not that this is defensible, but is there any government that doesn’t have lobbyists and PR firms in Washington?  The return on investment would seem to be better than with an embassy, certainly.

But I’m surprised that there’s attention on Bahrain’s (relatively transparent) whitewashing of recent events, but total media silence (other than a relatively minor EFF post) on the apparent government tracking (through her satellite phone) and execution of reporter Marie Colvin in Syria.  There’s a lot more meat to that, once you ask (as the EFF does) what technology they would have used to do the tracking.

Qorvis and Obama’s algae energy solution are the same thing, slick scum.

Look I’m a Bahraini,we all want reforms yes.I have a huge group of Shiite friends and all Sunni friends love our King and ask for reform.but the western media specially NICK KRISTOF only listen to the minority Shiite which by the way is supported by the Iranian/Syrian regime.
Truth will come out soon u wait Nick

Sorry but what exactly is the point this article is trying to make? The young people representing their opinion are Bahraini’s, they are as entitled to express their point of view as much as the Molotov throwing kids, who are given acres of international media space. By the way, these young people do represent the majority opinion in Bahrain and with or without international PR firms, it’s about time the media took note.

Peter Snowden

Feb. 28, 2012, 3:43 p.m.

The Syrian government’s use of cell phone tracking technology to seek out and murder Marie Colvin and her photographer smells like a big story.  Who provided them with this technology?

Anybody besides me regret the fact that the Republicans sided with the Islamic OPEC nations and Big Oil against the American people and the United States of America from the ‘73 OPEC oil embargo forward?  Is a lot of hypocritical acts involving the United States that are the direct result of Republican success at defeating conservation and alternative energy research measures rather than evidence of corruption or duplicity on the part of Democratic Congresses and Administrations. 

What can you do about the American blood we shed in the Middle East…the corruption we tolerate and even participate in…the oppression we look the other way from…the weapons purchases that threaten Israel…or even the funding of terrorism as long as the Republicans can and are eager to hold the scimitar of dependency upon oil at America’s throat?

Fatima Bunafoor

Feb. 28, 2012, 4:36 p.m.

The point of the article, for those who “did not” get it is that this “independent” group of youth came to the United States on the week of the anniversary. Their names were sent directly by the Bahraini embassy in DC to different organizations, they were brought here by Qorvis, as discussed above, some are employed by the government, are responsible for inciting hatred between Sunnis and Shiites and targeting HR and anti-government activists. So do not say that this is an independent delegation that came here to view moderate issue when all they talk about is how violent the street is rather than discuss the REAL issues with the Bahraini government, the role of the Bahraini media “IAA” in inciting hared, targeting people publicly as there is a long record of that (Btw, Ebtisam Khalifa Bahar, my cousin, works for IAA) and the findings of the Bassiouni report. I am a Sunni and I do not believe that the Bahraini government has any legitimacy left. So, claims that this is an Iranian backed movement, with only “minority” Shiites and that they simply want to overthrow the government is an old record that needs to be re-evaluated by government propaganda personnel and such PR companies.

So this Bahraini group turns up and supports the government.  I suppose their spin is supposed to be worse than the spin that the people who want to be the future government are putting on the story of Bahrain?

Maybe we should get into a war to “free” Bahrain the way Iraq has been “freed” for “our guys” to step in and govern.

The fact that these guys are in the US courtesy of their government and, worse, a PR agency, doesn’t mean that they are not telling their own stories about the country that they live in.  That they are all western-educated probably speaks more to seeking someone whose accent is not too thick than any other reasoning.

Maybe they’re worth listening to for another perspective?

Ebtisam Khalifa Bahar

Feb. 29, 2012, 5:18 a.m.

I’m the Bahraini that spoke up and got quoted on your article. With all due respect, I do not see the harm. I am a citizen and it is my right to speak up no matter what to whoever I want because the subject matter is my country.

We spoke with no red tape no censorship no nothing. We told the people we met our concerns and needs, we sought help to create a strong NGO base that gives the silent majority we represent a platform to work and help mend the broken pieces.

The differance is, we work within the system, using the existing tool, we associate ourselves with fellow bahrainis, we continue from where we stopped, we still have faith and HOPE in our people more than anything. We are responsible for our shortfalls in a time of difficulty, we urge everybody else to be responsible for what they did and work to fix it.

You are making using using a PR look like a huge crime. Doesnt ProPublica use one? Didn’t any of those respected panelists at Freedom House use one? Doesn’t any government in the world, including the ones you like or don’t like, use one?

I want to send my point accross and express what I, as a Human and Bahraini, feel and go through everyday to everyone. if that way to express is using a PR firm, so be it.

You’ll see a comment posted by Fatima Bunafoor. She’s my cousin, my family, but we have totally opposing views. If she has the right to express, then so do I, even if you like her view and don’t like mine.

I chose to live in Bahrain, my country, and trust me, there are more aspects to life here than hearing the overconsumed broken record hearsay of claims of extensive torture, blood, and 24/7 crackdown on people.

@Ebtisam Khalifa Bahar:  The question isn’t whether or not you are comfortable with what you do; your conscience, your life, your loved ones, and your countrymen and women will harvest the rewards - if that is what they are - of your words and actions.

The question is whether America - whether the American people - should accept your words as truth and look no further.

I’m American and I have lived in Bahrain for quite some time. I work for neither the Bahraini government, DOD, or any US government agency. I can wholeheartedly say that the claims of blood running in the streets are a myth fed to our country by a certain collective with an agenda. To put it in domestic terms, it would be like saying ICE prosecution and detention was a grave human rights violation worthy of sanctions. Everybody knows problems exist but is it really on that scale? No. That is exactly the case here. A hack job is being committed against this country and it’s shameful that people refuse to objectively view the overall situation. I remember when the protests and encampment first began (across from my old residence). There were several interest group with legitimate grievances. I firmly believe their movement was hijacked by subversive elements who still are steering the conversation in a manner which serves only themselves and surely not the people who they supposedly represent. Yet anyone from the silent majority, shia or sunna,  who speak of this are government operatives somehow involved in a nefarious plot to “oppress the people.”

Sometimes you have to fight fire with fire and I see absolutely nothing wrong with these individuals giving an alternative perspective. It would serve you well to consider their viewpoints.

Past is prologue:  How PR sold the war in the Persian Gulf (1990 edition)

I think its funny that some of the posts on here are so obviously from the same PR firm that sent these 3 lackeys to spread the spin of the Bahraini dictators.

The majority of the people in Bahrain want the same thing everyone everywhere wants, the right to choose who will rule them.  These 3 ‘moderates’ who are talking about ‘reform’ want exactly the opposite, they want the current dictator to stay in power in Bahrain, even after he has tortured and murdered innocent civilians as well as doctors and nurses who gave them medical treatment.  That’s what ‘reform’ is after all, it’s the new term for ‘stability’, which means pacify the population while keeping the ruling regime in power.

He has as much right to say in power as Mubarak, Assad, Abdul-Aziz, al-Thani, et. al.  That is to say, no right whatsoever to the claim of being the legitimate ruler of anyone.  The only difference between any of them is that some of them are bigger criminals than others.

@JoePa Hamas won in a democratic vote. Do you believe they are the legitimate representative of the Palestinian people? If you do then you are at odd with our government. I refuse to accept that the majority of Bahrainis want Al Wefaq at the helm. Why would they? Name one piece of worthwhile legislation they have tabled. One. What, fighting against women’s rights vis-a-vis the family law?

The only solution I can see is for USA reporters representing all points of view to have unlimited access to the citiizens and obtain their opinions. Then publish these opinions in the media they represent.
It is important to see various opinions just as we see in American politics.

Mariam Al Khawaja has under her wing a network of highly skilled, well paid and connected NGO’s working the international media. This is comparable if not better than employing a PR agency. These three young Bahraini’s have as much right to air their opinion as Al Khawaja, in fact more so, Mariam Al Khawaja does not live in Bahrain and relays her often sketchy account of the situation via third parties. Her credentials as a human rights activist are somewhat dubious and if truth were told she is a political activist. If I lived in the US and had never been to Bahrain I would probably believe Al Khawaja because she sings the right tune and is well rehearsed. Being super critical of our Government is her right but I don’t believe it gives her the right to distort the reality of opinion on the ground in order to ‘enforce’ regime change with foreign support. Our unrest was and still is a domestic issue, with the majority wanting to work with the Government and reform it, without violence, civil unrest or dramatic and sweeping change. Al Khawaja has her own political agenda which has conveniently found itself swept along under the umbrella of the ‘Arab Spring’.

Just as a note, Amnesty International doesn’t seem to share the rosy (“there are some problems, but not so bad”) view of Bahrain that our Bahraini posters seem to.

It appears that opposing viewpoints must be acceptable to the government to be represented, lest their adherents go to jail for either terrorism or “inciting hatred of the regime,” with torture entirely possible.  Activisits are apparently denied the right to travel without explanation and migrants are often abused.

Reporters without Borders has a few articles that suggest that reporters that speak out against the government aren’t seeing much recourse when they’re “mysteriously” beaten and otherwise attacked on the streets.

It’s possible that this is a substantial improvement, but even so, I’d personally have to take comments like Juffair’s that it’s not so bad with a grain of salt.  I won’t accuse anyone of lying, but I will suggest that those in privilege may well not see the problems, especially when under a regime that actively hides opposing viewpoints.

Alternatively, perhaps this represents a significant improvement from some hellish environment in the recent past.

@John I welcome you to Bahrain anytime. I’ll even give you a personal tour of the areas where the RIOTING, because that is exactly what it is, occurs nightly. Judge for yourself. Obviously you may view it differently than I do.

@John. Prevented from traveling? I commute between Bahrain and Abu Dhabi twice per week, on numerous occasions I have had the dubious pleasure of sharing my flight with Nabeel Rajab, a very vocal and outspoken opponent of the government and colleague of the panelist Mariam Khawaja and didn’t he recently jet off to the US to collect an award. Look I’ve lived in Bahrain for 24 years, the place is smaller than Fort Worth, it is impossible to ‘miss’ what is actually happening here, like a small town, everyone is connected and it is patronizing of posters living outside to lecture both Bahraini’s and foreign residents of what is going on. Migrant workers are the target of violent attack from the rioters. Where do you get your information from? Our company Asian driver was assaulted by group of youths because he lives near their village, some of theses protesters are nothing more than hooligans with a dollop of racism thrown in to boot. Whether you like it or not, the majority here do not share the view of Mariam Al Khawaja or yourself. They want more housing provided, jobs, much like the US. They see an opposition party that has no credibility as it promotes sectarian violence and a group of kids called the February 14 Movement who actually orchestrate violent attacks on just about anyone crossing their path. There are 525,000 Bahraini’s on this island, give these people a break will you? They are not government flunkies paid to have an opinion, it is their country not yours and if they prefer to move forward this way rather than yours, who are you to tell them what to do.

Paul, I guess take it up with Amnesty International.  I’m only summarizing what I see in their 2011 review of Bahrain, which you can find by web search faster than a link will get posted here.

I’m not saying you’re wrong, just reporting what a traditionally-reputable third party has to say.

I don’t have a view, yet (no matter how many you ascribed to me in your comment), and am just putting together pieces.  Frankly, neither side sounds particularly credible, honestly.

As for accusations of being “government flunkies” (your words, and I won’t suggest anything about any poster, and if you think I have, I apologize for the confusion), it IS suspicious to suddenly see several self-proclaimed experts posting for the first time on an article of interest.  It’s a heck of a coincidence, everybody showing up on a relatively (and undeservedly) obscure news site.

It’s not evidence, but it does smell funny and resembles the effect of China’s “50-cent Party” or GIYUS’s Megaphone responses.  That goes double when the article is about the people who agree with you spending a pile of money on public relations.

Qorvis is a sham company that props up illegal dictatorships. Their clients kidnap, torture, beat and kill opponents. Qorvis represents Fiji, Equatorial Guinea, the Palestine Liberation Organization and Bahrain. All of these regimes have been guilty of crimes against their citizens. Qorvis has blood on their hands for doing this. Their legitimate clients should be aware of how unseemly Qorvis can be in pursuing and working on foreign clients with criminal agendas.

Qorvis and Bahrain: “Blatant Disregard for Public Trust”

This article raises numerous red flags for me as a public relations professional and, now, public relations professor.

Key among the values upheld by ethical public relations professionals and espoused in the Public Relations Society of America’s “Code of Ethics” is that of “honesty”…presenting truthful information on behalf of clients or employers.

In order to fulfill this crucial guideline, we pledge to conduct our business embracing both “free flow of information” and “disclosure of information.”

In its trifecta of blatant disregard for these ethical standards, Washington, DC-based public relations firm Qorvis has chosen to represent a government whose brutal treatment of its own citizens continues to incite vocal public outrage.

The Public Relations Society of America decries actions such as this that cast a dark shadow on a profession that is justifiably proud of its members’ honest and forthright communications on behalf of clients or employers.

Not only do we hold ourselves individually to high standards of conduct; we strive in our day-to-day activities to “work to strengthen the public’s trust in the profession.”

Qorvis’ leaders have chosen to willfully ignore all precepts of ethical public relations practice and to manipulate…without shame…public opinion and perception through subterfuge and deceit.

The PRSA Code of Ethics delineates what comprises ethical public relations and its guidelines could be condensed to a single statement: “Do the right thing.”

Deceiving the public on behalf of a client whose actions are regarded by the public at large as despicable is by no stretch of the imagination “the right thing.”

Kirk Hazlett, APR, Fellow PRSA
Associate Professor of Communication, Curry College, Milton, MA
Member, Board of Directors, Public Relations Society of America
33 Maiden Lane, New York, NY
.(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)

@Kirk. Just to clarify - there is a Code of Ethics for Public Relations?  You guys are doing a really bad job getting the word out about it, given that the public thinks PR is spin-doctoring and never letting the truth get in the way of a good (well-paying) client.

Dare I suggest that the Public Relations Society of America should hire better PR?

Since when is propublica obscure? This site has been on my radar since the Memorial Hospital story won a Pulitzer.

@John. Actually the article was mentioned in the Middle East blogg by The Guardian newspaper. You are quite correct, I wouldn’t have known about this had it not been for the link provided, I’m sure this is the case with others posting on this page. Apologies for the insinuation that referenced ‘government flunkies’. The term is applied to anyone who doesn’t agree with the biased reporting from the US media and has an interest in sharing their point of view, isn’t that what some on this column are stating about the three young people involved? I know it may be hard to appreciate from your side of the globe but Bahraini’s in general see a huge discrepancy in the way Khawajah depicts the situation and the reality. She is frankly patronizing to the young Bahraini( about the same age I guess) and despite her non stop whooing of every Congressman she can latch on to, she had never made an attempt to converse on a one to one with fellow citizens from her own country, in fact she avoids it. Last year she spoke at a forum in Sweden( can’t remember the date, getting old! ) and insists that the organizers remove a few Bahraini’s from the room because she didn’t want to be heckled or face questions. Listen to other Bahraini’s, give them attention and respect regardless of their point of view

@Paul Lamb:  You seem remarkably well informed about Khawajah’s activities…I am particularly fascinated by the fact that you are aware of her interactions with U.S. Congressman.  Would you mind revealing that the Bahraini media source that has been keeping your nation so well informed?

@ibsteve2u what’s up with the stannery? If you get on Bahrain’s twitter feed Al-Khawajah and her minions run it. She posts a blow by blow of who she meets with and subjects covered almost in a boasting manner. Check for yourself. She’s a media operative if there ever was one.

@ibsteve2u what’s up with the conspiratorial overtones? If you get on Bahrain’s twitter feed Al-Khawajah and her minions run it. She posts a blow by blow of who she meets with and subjects covered almost in a boasting manner. Check for yourself. She’s a media operative if there ever was one.

@Juffair:  Strike a nerve, did I?  You see it is unusual for an American residing offshore to devote so much time to following a citizen of another nation when that citizen is operating outside of the nation that American is in.

Unless they have a business or…professional…interest in the actions and effects of that foreign citizens efforts.

At least, that was the case in all of the foreign countries I’ve been in….

Let me broaden that explanation a bit:  It is particularly unusual for a non-attached American citizen with even a modicum of common sense to leave a physical or electronic trail associating them with the activities of a citizen of another country when that American is in that other country and that foreign citizen is pursuing a path that the government of the foreign country judges to be inimical to its interests.

Particularly when the government of the country that American is in (and so that American is quite…touchable) is known to be expending significant sums following those electronic trails:

@ibsteve2u She is waging a PR campaign against the country I reside. I wish I never had to hear that chick’s name again but unless I plan on never using twitter or viewing the Bahrain feed that is really not going to happen.

But it’s conversations like this one which allow people back home to start to view this situation less in the absolute terms of black/white right/wrong, that simplified but flawed worldview us Americans love so much. Rather, when more viewpoints get presented it paints a picture which is much more complex and varied than certain parties would like to make it out to be.

Don’t take it from me. Go read the Bahrain wires on wikileaks, paying particular attention to the analysis of the Al-Wefaq islamist party.

Ibsteve2u. Back from lunch to read of your ‘conspiracy theories’. Ms Al Khawaja’s activities are a matter of public record, we are all able to read! She is promoting HERSELF first and foremost. Of course I am interested in this country and what is said, I have lived and worked here for more than two decades, my children were born and went to school here, their friends are Bahraini’s, they are now adults and live abroad but they still consider it home! And what exactly is your relationship to this country?

@Juffair:  Me, I wouldn’t have any reason to care about what goes on in Bahrain or any other Middle Eastern nation - that is, beyond humanitarian concerns - except for the fact fact (as I noted above) America’s Republicans chose to side with the OPEC nations and Big Oil against the American people and the United States of America in the aftermath of the 1973 OPEC oil embargo.

That had unfortunate side effects:  Whenever I buy gas, I am funding the governments of the Middle East.  Too often, in turn, those governments use my “petrodollars” to oppress their own people…to buy arms which which they threaten each other and Israel…to fund nuclear research programs which, when viewed in the light cast by the totalitarian governments which control those programs, are perceived as a threat to global stability and human life.

So while I would concur that everybody in the world should have the opportunity to express their own opinions, I know that America’s oil dollars are often used to fund propaganda efforts designed to ensure American support for oppressive governments in the Middle East.  While I expend not insignificant funds to find a way to wean America from oil ( in order to break the chain of violence that is oil dependency, I think it also behooves every American to carefully weigh what they see on the web.

And to bring attention to those information sources that may be…suspect.

@Paul Lamb:  Late lunch…it was 4:00 PM in Manama at the time of your posting. 

If and when my last posting clears ProPublica’s moderators, my “relationship” to Bahrain will be explained.  It is tenuous, and I do what I can to sever it entirely.

Weekend in the Gulf my friend and unless there is a law against it we can take lunch as late as we want. It’s your prerogative to sever links with Bahrain, whatever they are and for whatever reason. This should not stop any one else living here from expressing a point of view which is shared by many others. The article on this forum brought into question the right of three young citizens to express their opinion, the article insinuated that they were a mouthpiece for the Government and their PR agency.  Others on this forum question the validity of Al Khawaja and her integrity, myself included and would respect her more if she engaged in discussion with her own people once in a while. And for heavens sake, stop the ‘i speak for Bahrain’ tag line, she speaks for herself.

@Paul Lamb:  Who said the government of Bahrain’s voice should be silenced?  All anybody has said - all this article was designed to ensure - is that the individuals who control a voice should be properly identified.

You yourself feel that you have a right to “question the validity of Al Khawaja and her integrity” that right to be limited to those who support the government of Bahrain?

Ibsteve2u. I concur, however, I know quite a few young Bahraini’s who would appreciate an opportunity to have the same platform as Ms Khawaja but because the international media have no interest in hearing their opinion, they are marginalized and labelled pro government, as if anyone not agreeing whole heartedly with the gospel according to khawaja, is automatically suspect and open to scrutiny. Wrong on many levels. And as suspicion and mistrust is leveled at the Government by the US media, equally anyone claiming to represent the opposition should be scrutinized by the same media. Start with Al Wefaq. One last point, could Ms Khawaja explain how a group of her ‘pro democracy activists’ terrorizing people exiting Church in Manama today ties in with peaceful democracy for all. Bye from Bahrain.

Just wondering.. How much is “Paul Lamb” being paid to sell his soul?

Arguing with such people is not even worth the trouble because it’s so obvious that they have no intention to actually THINK for themselves.. Just to spread lies and move on to the next site they’re supposed to fill with pro-government crap.. I really feel sorry for people like him..

Many thanks to ibsteve2u who, unlike me, is patient enough with the likes of Paul to explain basic common sense..

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