Spinning Bahrain, the Qorvis way

It emerged last month that the American public relations firm, Qorvis, has signed a $40,000-a-month contract with the government of Bahrain to spruce up the kingdom's tarnished image.

Heading the firm's Bahrain operation is Matt Lauer, listed by Washington Life magazine earlier this year as "one of the most influential people under the age of 40" in the US capital.

A former State Department official, Lauer joined Qorvis in 2004, bringing with him "some of the most cutting edge tactics of public diplomacy", according to PRNewswire. 

"What we have done at Qorvis is develop an agile and nimble force of public diplomacy practitioners to provide demonstratable progress and geopolitical solutions for our clients," Lauer was quoted as saying. "We are loyal to our clients and our clients are loyal to us. This because our clients can actually witness the progress we make for them."

So what progress has Qorvis made so far towards rehabilitating Bahrain's repressive regime? 

The past week has brought a stream of press releases, all proclaiming good news about Bahrain and presumably drafted by Qorvis on the government's behalf:

  • Bahrain's Ambassador to the United States Acknowledges the Tenth Anniversary of September 11, Reaffirms Strong Bi-Lateral Ties (Sept 11)

  • Bahrain Prepares for the New Academic Year (Sept 9)

  • Bahrain's Government Continues to Move Forward With Reforms (Sept 8)

  • Bahrain Establishes National Audit Court to Combat Corruption (Sept 8)

  • Bahrain's National Dialogue Draws Support from Turkish President (Sept 7)

The basic message, then, is that Bahrain remains a steadfast ally of the United States, that it is pressing ahead with reforms as calm returns and (if we are to believe the Turkish president) is working for peace and stability in the Middle East.

None of this appears to have fooled the Washington Post, however. In an editorial on Saturday, it called on the Obama administration to take a firmer line with Bahrain – so Qorvis plainly has an uphill struggle on its hands.

Lauer has also posted a few of his own notes about Bahrain on Twitter (where he describes himself in his profile as a "passport carrying truth teller" who enjoys cocktails). 

On August 12, he tweeted:

"Attended a fascinating Iftar @BahrainEmbDC. Imam, Reverend, and Rabbi all gave talks on the commonalities of faiths."

press release on the same day gave a little more detail. The imam and the rabbi at the embassy's iftar were both recruited fromClergy Without Borders – an inter- faith organisation which may not have realised it was being used for the regime's PR purposes.

One of Lauer's aims, apparently, is to promote Bahrain as a tolerant country. In an email to PRNewser last month, he wrote:

"The government [of Bahrain], as a whole, has worked hard to protect the rights and freedoms of people from all religious backgrounds and ethnicities ...

"Bahrain is unique, and is a multi-faith and multicultural society. The government strives to preserve this tolerant characteristic. We help communicate the positive work the government is undertaking."

So the embassy iftar might be viewed as an example of Bahrain's tolerance – except that the religious problem in Bahrain is not really between Muslims, Christians and Jews, but between different kinds of Muslims (a Sunni minority rules over a marginalised Shia minority). Needless to say, the imam who attended the iftar, Yahya Hendi, is a Sunni – though one who has expressed tolerance for Shia Islam too.

An interesting example of spinning negative news about Bahrain can be seen by comparing two press releases: one issued by the information ministry in Bahrain, the other circulated on PRNewsire in the US (presumably by Qorvis).

The information ministry press release announced that a man named Nabeel Rajab had been questioned by Bahrain police for publishing "incorrect news" on the internet in a manner "that was likely to disturb public security". 

The US version emphasised that Rajab had been "summoned openly and in full accordance with Bahraini law. He was not arrested or detained, and he left the police offices within one hour."

Not only that. The US version went further and sought to justify the authorities' action:

"The government of Bahrain has become increasingly concerned that unconfirmed and potentially incendiary information could incite fear and anger that might lead to public disturbances and even violence.

"The government of Bahrain supports the freedom of its citizens to express their political opinions and acknowledges that opinions from many different individuals and groups can play a positive role in the national reconciliation process. The government, however, is deeply concerned that unconfirmed rumors or incendiary information issued by any well-known organization or individual could create a dangerous situation in which lives and property are placed at risk."

Neither press release bothered to mention that Rajab is president of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights (and in that capacity has been a target for systematic harassment by the regime).

In a similar vein, on August 3, Jill Grozalsky of Qorvis circulated an email to journalists defending an armed raid on the premises of Médecins Sans Frontières in Bahrain and the arrest of one of its staff.

The background to the raid (not mentioned by Ms Grozalsy) was that the regime had been harassing doctors who treated injured protesters, and some of those injured had been avoiding hospitals for fear of arrest.

MSF explained: "Since February, when demonstrations began in Bahrain, MSF has seen almost 200 injured and ill patients who did not seek care in health facilities because they feared being arrested for any involvement in the protests or for any affiliation with the protesters."

The Bahrain regime took exception to MSF's activities and decided to crack down, on the pretext that it was "operating an unlicensed medical centre".

Ms Grozalsky of Qorvis then informed the world's media that Bahrain was merely being "vigilant" in protecting its citizens from unauthorised health services:

"While the government of Bahrain routinely welcomes international humanitarian organizations, Bahrain cannot allow any such organization or individuals involved with such an organization to breach Bahraini law. In an area of such fundamental importance as public health services, the Government of Bahrain has a duty to be vigilant in licensing those authorized to provide health services and likewise a duty to investigate those who do so without a license.

"The criminal process is underway and Mr Mahdi [the arrested man] will be accorded the full rights under Bahraini law."

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 11 September 2011.