Meet the D.C. PR Firm Shilling For Fiji's Military Coup Government
Qorvis Communications – a Washington-based public relations and lobbying firm – is deeply involved in managing the online and social media activities of the military coup government of Fiji, the firm’s government filings reveal.
Nowhere on the websites and Twitter accounts in question does Qorvis disclose its involvement. The firm, which works on behalf of a number of foreign governments, declined to answer questions about its work for the Fijian government.
Fiji, ruled by a military coup government since 2006, faces serious criticisms for its spotty human rights record and has been presented with public diplomacy challenges as NGOs and trade union groups condemn the government’s behavior. Following the coup the U.S. government imposed sanctions against Fiji’s government, which is led by Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama, and says such restrictions will remain in place until a democratically–elected government assumes power.
Journalist Anne Lenzer took notice of Qorvis’ contract with Fiji in December, reporting for Huffington Post that “Fiji, Bainimarama, and his draconian decree-drafting Attorney General have since sprouted new websites, Twitter accounts, and YouTube pages, and a steady stream of PR Newswire alerts about the military’s excellence have appeared.”
Newer Foreign Agent Registration Act disclosures, filed in June, offer more details about the firm’s work on behalf of Bainimarama’s government, specifically in the social media realm. In a section of the filing titled, “Activities Conducted by Registrant on Behalf of the Government of the Republic of Fiji,” Qorvis states that it “managed social media accounts” and lists a number of websites and Twitter accounts.
While Qorvis may be unwilling to discuss its relationship with Fiji, Bainimarama openly touted his government’s decision to retain Qorvis’ services in his November, 25, 2011 budget address, as Lenzer reported.
“We are also making investments in institutions to bring them up to speed as modern government institutions,” Bainimarama said.
“We have, for example, brought in an American consultant, Qorvis Communications, to assist with training and support for our Ministry of Information — to ensure its operations take into account advances in social media, the Internet and best practices regarding the media. They will also help coordinate external communications, including promotion and packaging of various investment incentives.”
Indeed, Qorvis’ latest FARA disclosures and registration of domain names indicate that it has taken on a wide range of responsibilities in promoting the policies of Fiji’s government.
“WHOIS” lookups of domain name registration information reveal that “ecofiji.org,” “empowerfiji.org,” “travelfijitoday.org,” “investfiji.org,” and “fijigrowth.org” were registered by Qorvis employees, although the sites offer no disclosure of Qorvis’ involvement.
The FARA filing also listed three Twitter accounts — @FijiPM, @FijiAG and @FijiRepublic — under “activities conducted by registrant.” When contacted for clarification about the extent of the firm’s role in managing the Twitter accounts and websites, Qorvis executive vice president Seth Pietras declined to comment. “[O]ur policy is not to discuss the work or training we perform with our clients,” he said.
The Twitter accounts have emerged as active public diplomacy platforms for the island nation’s coup government.
In December, the Twitter accounts energetically backed up the 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.
In early December, tweets from the @FijiAG account lashed out at the ACTU, claiming, “ACTU call to place Fiji on Labor Party platform blacklist w/ Zimbabwe, Burma is absurd & devalues plight of these ppl,” and “#ACTU interested only in misrepresenting Fiji’s #open, #welcoming nation–a detriment to all Fijians.”
In a May 2012 report, the U.S. State Department commented on the Fijian government’s treatment of trade unions, observing that the country’s Essential National Industries Decree “severely restricts trade union and collective bargaining rights for workers in designated industries and corporations deemed essential to the national economy.”
According to the State Department, “The military continued to act with impunity in detaining, and in many cases abusing, persons deemed critics of the government, including journalists, politicians, trade unionists, and Methodist Church officials, ostensibly claiming authority under the [Public Emergency Regulations] to do so.”
In other instances, the Twitter accounts portray Bainimarama’s coup government as reform-minded guardians of Fijian democracy and in complete support of the Constitutional Commission tasked with drafting Fiji’s constitution in advance of elections scheduled for September, 2014. But news reports indicate that Bainimarama has been less supportive than the Twitter accounts suggest.
In August, Fiji’s constitutional reform process hit a snag when international news agencies reported that Bainimarama had accused Constitutional Commission chairman Yash Ghai of undermining the commission by meeting privately with local NGOs and opposition politicians.
Bainimarama blasted Ghai, suggesting that the commission should only take input from parties willing to speak at public hearings and that private meetings with opposition groups might politicize the Commission. On August 16, the AFP published a storyheadlined, “Fiji leader tells constitution boss to stay out of politics,” detailing Bainimarama’s displeasure with Ghai’s statements advocating for greater political freedoms in Fiji. Bainimarama reportedly accused Ghai of falling under the influence of opposition politicians and trade unions.
On August 31, women’s rights groups in Fiji reported that earlier in the month they wereprevented from publishing a newspaper advertisement critical of the independence of the constitution-making process. The ad challenged the non-negotiable constitutional principles issued by Bainimarama’s government, the government’s insistence on immunity provisions for coup perpetrators, and the “continuing restrictive atmosphere in which the independent news media must operate.”
The groups claimed that Fiji’s two daily newspapers refused to publish the advertisement after the groups refused to soften language critical of the government. Shamima Ali, a Fijian political activist and member of the Fiji Human Rights Commission and Coordinator of the Fiji Women’s Crisis Centre told Radio New Zealand International that plainclothes police were in attendance while people presented submissions to the Constitutional Commission.
But Fiji’s Qorvis-linked Twitter accounts paint a different picture. Over the month of August, @FijiPM, @FijiRepublic, and @FigiAG played an active role in promoting news articles, often published by the government owned Fiji Broadcasting Corporation, portraying the government as supportive of the constitutional process.
A sample of @FijiPM tweets in August included:
- August 12: “Women urged to present submissions to the #Constitutional #Commission: http://ow.ly/cZMrr #participate #vote @UN_Women @Women_Win @UNDP”
- August 14: “PM #Bainimarama encourages #thoughtful #productive #constitutional #participation for the betterment of #Fiji: http://ow.ly/cYaNu @hrw”
- August 15: Focus on one person, one #vote, one #value as you #engage in the #constitutional process! @fijiembassydc @UNDP@CAPAction #GuidingPrinciples
- August 22: “Let’s be clear: NO restrictions on submissions made to #Constitutional Commission: http://ow.ly/d0Wac @fijiembassydc @democracynow”
- August 22: “#Constitutional #commission will hear public submissions as independent entity; promote #transparency, #accountability: http://ow.ly/cIE5c “
The @FijiPM account also touted the inclusiveness of the Constitution Review Commission and its superiority to previous, failed, attempts at constitutional reforms, tweeting, “Previous #constitutional #consultations did not include all people:http://ow.ly/d6laa #empowerment @un @statedept @fijiembassy.”
The tweets, like many of those issued by accounts linked to Qorvis, frequently target their messages to Twitter accounts affiliated with the U.S. State Department and the United Nations, both institutions which have been critical of Fiji’s military coup government.
“Obviously the Fijian government feels the pressure in being isolated by the international community because of its abuses against the whole range of people, including the media and others,” T. Kumar, director of international advocacy at Amnesty International USA told The American Independent. “The Fijian government is going to find it very difficult to build their image in Washington. … Until they correct their actions it’s not going to work.”
Qorvis’ management of such accounts, without disclosing their involvement on the Twitter accounts or websites, would fit with the consultancy’s history of being less than transparent in the work done on behalf of foreign clients.
Last December, investigative journalist Ken Silverstein revealed how a Qorvis employee blogged and tweeted about the violent suppression of demonstrations in Bahrain without disclosing his ties to Qorvis, which represents Bahrain.