Hill & Knowlton goes to the Maldives

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Source: Friends of Maldives

The UK office of Hill & Knowlton have worked with the Government of Maldives, largely on promoting the country as a tourist destination.[1]

On its website Hill & Knowlton boasts that staff working for travel and tourism clients have the ability to draw on other specialists within the company including its in-house crisis management team "to assist in situations where a client's reputation is threatened."[1]

Human rights and government spin in the Maldives

While the Maldives promotes itself as a desirable tourist destination, Amnesty International has issued a string of warnings and reports in 2003 and 2004 about the government's repression of the political opposition.[2] [3] [4] [5] [6]

In May 2004 the Strategic Communications Unit of the President's Office was established to provide a centralised communication system within the government. The following month, undeterred by the growing repression, Hill and Knowlton ran a two-day seminar on Strategic Communications for the Strategic Communications Unit of President Gayoom's Office.[7]

Opening the seminar the Executive Secretary to the President, Mr. Abdulla Shahid, explained that there was increasing international attention on the Maldives. While explaining the President's support for increased "transparency and openness" he noted "the importance of maintaining close coordination between press officers in each Government office and the Strategic Communications Unit."[8]

According to a press release announcing the event, it was "to orient government departments to modern practices of mass communication, highlight the important role played by improved flows of public information in promoting good governance, increase the transparency and the accessibility of public information, and strengthen arrangements for media relations in the public sector."[8]

Democracy activists in the Maldives don't view Hill and Knowlton's training of government officials in the modern art of PR so benignly.[7]

In early August 2004 thousands of people took to the streets to publicly protest against the rule of Gayoom, who has ruled the Maldives for the last 26 years. Gayoom responded to the mass protests by declaring a state of emergency on August 13. In the following crackdown approximately one hundred opposition leaders and activists -including members of parliament - were arrested, imprisoned without charge and denied access to lawyers.

"Dr Mohamed Monawar, the former Attorney General of the Maldives and an opposition party leader, and Muad Mohamed Zaki, the son of the political prisoner Mohamed Zaki, have both been beaten while in custody," Amnesty International warned.

In a mid-August media statement Amnesty International said it was "deeply concerned at reports of large numbers of injured people needing hospital treatment after the police used sticks and batons to attack them during the demonstrations".[9]

According to Amnesty International and the Hong Kong-based Asian Human Rights Commission, children have also been detained. There are fears that those detained are at risk of torture and are in need of medical attention.[10]

Hill & Knowlton's role criticised

In February 2006 a Maldives news service criticized the 'New Maldives' project launched by President Gayoom in October 2005 as "nothing more than an image make-over for an unpopular and authoritarian regime." The editorial notes that the opposition political party, the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP), has highlighted contradictions between the government's words and actions, including "government rhetoric over judicial reform while MDP Chairperson Mohamed Nasheed (Anni) is refused a fair trial" and "assertions over press freedom, while the Police Chief harasses foreign-based journalists." For several years, the PR firm Hill and Knowlton has promoted tourism to the Maldives, on behalf of the government. Hill and Knowlton plays a "seemingly central role" in the 'New Maldives' project and "remain [a] close advisor to the 'reform ministers'," according to the editorial.[1]

In June 2006, the Minister of Foreign Affairs for the Maldives, Ahmed Shaheed, confirmed that Hill & Knowlton is still helping the government polish its image. "They are observing political advancements and other changes. They occasionally check these things," said Shaheed. "They are doing several reviews for the government. ... Very recently two members of its staff were in Maldives," said Shaheed. The government of the Maldives is facing increasing criticism following the arrest of over 200 pro-democracy demonstrators in May and the trial of the chairperson of the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) Chairperson Mohamed Nasheed on charges of "sedition" and "terrorism." The Deputy Chairman of the British Conservative Party’s Human Rights Commission, Ben Rogers, said that "it seems rather questionable to me that the Hill and Knowlton people should be acting for such a government." The company is reportedly on a retainer of $20,000 per month. [2]

On the second anniversary of the murder of Maldives prisoner Evan Naseem, supporters of democracy in the Maldives went to the London office of Hill & Knowlton, where consultant Tim Fallon handles the account for the repressive government headed by President Gayoom. "We ... asked if we could see Tim Fallon to present him with the flowers. The flowers are in memory of those people that Fallon's client has murdered, tortured and abused over the past 28 years. However, Fallon would not meet us. First we were told that he was not in the building, then we were told he is 'too busy' to see us," said Sara Mahir. On its website, Hill & Knowlton boasts that "we put in place whatever is needed to help get the end result – your success" and that their work for the Maldives government has helped "avert a possible tourism boycott."[11]

In an October 2006 overview of the changes occurring in the Maldives, a cluster of islands to the south-west of India, Meera Selva sketches how the repressive President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom is failing to respond to the either the democracy movement or the growing influence of a Islamic fundamentalism. "The government is aware that the problems facing ordinary Maldivians may affect its tourism industry, but its response has been cynical rather than hopeful," Selva writes. Tim Fallon from Hill and Knowlton's London office has been working for Gayoom's government to prevent a tourism boycott emerging in response to controversy over police brutality and the lack of multi-party elections. Hill & Knowlton is reportedly on a £13,000 (US$24,000) a month retainer. Speaking on BBC Radio, Maldives democracy activist Jenny Latheef said "I don't know why Hill & Knowlton would support somebody like that. He's a dictator, a brutal dictator."[12]

Subsequently, the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) has called for the termination of Hill & Knowlton's contract defending the repressive government of the Maldives. The MDP have calculated that the PR firm has been paid $800,000 over almost three years. "According to World Bank figures, $800,000 is enough money to pay for the salaries of 290 Maldivian secondary school teachers for a whole year," the Acting MDP President Ibrahim Hussain Zaki stated in a media release. [3] In response to recent media coverage of Hill & Knowlton's role in the Maldives, Tim Fallon posted a note on his blog defending his work as leading to "seismic" changes in the Islamic nation. Dozens of readers of his blog aren't buying his story.[13] "Why on earth would you help a brutal dictator who has murdered his own people? This shows what kind of a company Hill & Knowlton really is," wrote one. [13]

H&K's Wikipedia spin on the Maldives

According to the WikiScanner program, which matches anonymous IP edits made on w:Wikipedia to the corporation, organization or government agency assigned that IP range, Hill & Knowlton's UK office made edits to the Wikipedia article "w:Politics of the Maldives." [4]

Among the H&K changes are the following: [5]

Political parties in Maldives was not allowed, though the constitution allowed it, until June 2005.

was changed to:

Prior to June 2005, the Maldivian political system was based around the election of individuals, rather than the more common system of election according to party platform. In June 2005, as part of an ongoing programme of democratic reform, new regulations were promulgated to formally recognise political parties within the framework of the electoral system.

And the following two paragraphs were completely removed:

Even though political parties can be formed, according to the constitution of the Maldives, no parties have been registered as such, possibly because President Gayoom has systematically suppressed any and all political activity in the Maldives. His use of election rigging and imprisonment of political activists have all ensured that he went unchallenged for over 26 years in office. President Gayoom routinely uses torture, propaganda, and censorship as a means to cling on to political power.
Independent news media is non-existent. The three running dailies are controlled by cabinet ministers of President Gayoom.

Websites on the Maldives

SourceWatch resources

References

  1. 1.0 1.1 "Travel and Tourism," Hill & Knowlton UK website (accessed via Internet Archive, June 8, 2008).
  2. "Republic of Maldives: Repression of peaceful political opposition," Amnesty International Report, July 30, 2003, ASA 29/002/2003 (accessed June 9, 2008).
  3. Amnesty International, "Maldives: Repression of political opponents must stop", News Release, 30 July 2003 (accessed June 9, 2008).
  4. *Amnesty International, "Maldives: President must act now to end the cycle of systematic repression", News Release, 23 September 2003 (accessed June 9, 2008).
  5. *Amnesty International, "Maldives: Reforms will gain no credibility unless prisoners of conscience are released", News Release, 28 January 2004 (accessed June 9, 2008).
  6. *Amnesty International, "Maldives: Yet another crackdown on peaceful political activity", News Release, 13 February 2004 (accessed June 9, 2008).
  7. 7.0 7.1 "Hill and Knowlton PR multinational - interesting links," Maldives Culture weblog, June 14, 2004 (accessed June 9, 2008).
  8. 8.0 8.1 "Seminar on mass communication and media relations begins today", Media Release, June 2, 2004.
  9. Amnesty International, "Maldives: peaceful demonstrators beaten and detained", News Release, 13 August 2004.
  10. "Rights bodies want Maldives to release reformists", New Kerala.com, September 10, 2004.
  11. *"Police Presented With Flowers On Anniversary Of Evan’s Death", Minivan News, September 19, 2006.
  12. Meera Selva, "Stormclouds over the Indian Ocean: Behind the veil in the Maldives", The Independent, October 5, 2006. *"Tim Fallon Swamped By Critics", Minivan News, October 9, 2006.
  13. 13.0 13.1 Tim Fallon, "Hill & Knowlton and the Maldives", Collective Conversation (Hill & Knowlton blog), October 6, 2006.

External links

Background information on human rights in the Madlives

Articles & blog posts By Hill & Knowlton's Tim Fallon on their Maldives work

General articles