Bahrain’s PR machine threatens free speech

The Bahraini government spends thousands and thousands of dollars on PR companies every month. Their purpose of using such companies is simple: to project a positive image of Bahrain while also tempering any negative press coverage.

One such company is Qorvis, a Washington D.C. Based PR firm that receives a monthly stipend from the Bahraini government of 40,000 USD. They operate by attempting to influence journalists or opinion makers through the strategic placement of favourable reports defending the actions of the Bahrain government. Their methods range from circulating articles on outlets such as PR Newsire, to emailing journalists directly in order to defend the actions of the regime.

Some PR companies are also suspected of engaging in more clandestine activities, such as creating sock puppet accounts on Twitter to spread pro-regime propaganda. The revelation that BGR Gabara, yet another British PR firm reportedly working for Bahrain, planned to organise a Twitter campaign on behalf of Kazakh children exacerbated such concerns. Given that the US government are also involved in such sock puppetry, there is no reason the private sector won’t seek to profit from it.

Another dimension of PR work is minimising negative publicity. For example, the Guardian recently took down an article from its Comment is Free section after a British PR firm representing the Bahrain International Circuit made a complaint. The article, which Dragon Associates argued contained “considerable inaccuracies”, threatened to derail Bahrain’s plans to host the F1 Grand Prix this year. It has yet to be put back up, either in its original or altered form.

Perhaps the most worrying players in the murky world of PR are the likes of Olton, a British intelligence firm who officially have a contract with the Economic Development Board, but who also appear to work for Ministry of the Interior. As well as providing “reputation management”, their software is reported to be able to identify “ringleaders” through using social media such as Twitter and Facebook. Given that dozens of students were dismissed from university based on evidence garnered from their Facebook profiles, many are demanding to know who is doing the watching.

The threat posed by unscrupulous PR companies to freedom of speech should not be underestimated. It is bad enough that they distort the public sphere in exchange for money, yet it is the rise of companies like Olton that is the most alarming, for when does intelligence gathering become ‘evidence’ gathering? Furthermore, when does “reputation management” involve facilitating the silencing of those narratives that oppose the desired rhetoric of the paying client?

Marc Owen Jones is a blogger and PhD candidate at Durham University. He tweets at @marcowenjones