Yesterday’s announcement that UNESCO’s board had approved a $3 million award in life sciences research funded by Equatorial Guinea raised eyebrows in the human rights community. The decision to approve the prize puts Equatorial Guinean President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo’s interests “above UNESCO’s basic principles of human rights and good governance,” said a statement issued by seven civil society groups, including: Human Rights Watch, Global Witness and the Committee to Protect Journalists.
“Whether it’s ever awarded or not, the vote in favor of a US$3 million international prize for life science sponsored by a government that fails to invest sufficiently in basic health care at home is a cruel joke,” said Tutu Alicante, an Equatorial Guinean lawyer who runs the human rights group EG Justice from exile. “The UNESCO board members who backed this prize have sold out the organization’s principles and have tarnished UNESCO’s reputation.”
But the process of defending Obiang’s public image rests solidly on the shoulders of Qorvis Communications, a Washington based PR, communications and lobbying firm which, for a hefty $60,000 per month retainer (plus expenses), has been working overtime since May 2010 to portray the Equatorial Guinean president as a human rights-minded political reformer.
A December 2011 Qorvis Federal Agent Registration Act (FARA) filing [PDF] details the extensive PR blitz conducted on behalf of Obiang. Among other activities, Qorvis made an active outreach effort to major media outlets over the past year:
But Qorvis didn’t just try to influence the news coverage of the NYT, AP, CNBC, and Washington Post. They also produced their own press releases to put a positive spin on Equatorial Guinea’s notoriously corrupt government. Qorvis, in their FARA filing, takes credit for nearly 40 press releases [PDF] touting Obiang’s supposed democratic reforms and humanitarian projects in Equtorial Guinea. Press releases issued by Qorvis included: “President Obiang Improves Equatorial Guinea’s Political System;” “President Obiang Urges Unity And Solidarity In Africa;” “Obiang Reveals Plans For Nationwide Electrification;” “President Obiang Stumps for Constitutional Reforms;” Obiang Calls For Economic Development As Key To Democracy In Africa;” and “Equatorial Guinea Launches National Campaign for Constitutional Reforms.”
Reading Qorvis’ press releases, it’s hard to believe that Equatorial Guinea holds the distinction of ranking among the “worst of the worst” in Freedom House’s survey of political and civil rights [PDF], or that Reporters Without Borders labeled Obiang a “predator” of press freedom. But Qorvis, which also represents human rights offenders like Fiji’s military government, and the kingdoms of Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, appears to be in the business of whitewashing the records of human rights abusers, for the right price.
In response to our post, Qorvis Partner Greg Lagana issued the following written statement:
The government of Equatorial Guinea is very aware of criticism over conditions in the country. While it recognizes that many criticisms made against it are legitimate, it believes that its efforts to improve the situation in the country have gone unrecognized. Those efforts include an ambitious infrastructure-development program, the establishment of an ICRC presence in the country to help improve law enforcement and corrections, and efforts to develop human capital through improvements in the education system and use of international exchanges. They have asked Qorvis to help them tell a more complete story.
As for the UNESCO prize, the government of Equatorial Guinea made an offer to fund a prize to promote study of life sciences in Africa. This is consistent with its policy of using some of its income to support international humanitarian causes. When objections arose over the name of the prize, President Obiang agreed to withdraw his name. His position is that he conceived of the prize to encourage scientific research, not to memorialize himself, and that his commitment to promote scientific research in Africa through UNESCO has not wavered through this process.
All communications products that Qorvis Communications develops for the government of Equatorial Guinea are clearly identified as produced by Qorvis.