U.S. consultant drops Tunisia as client, citing rights abuses

Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 15, 2011

A U.S. consulting firm has dropped the government of Tunisia as a client, saying it was troubled by the country's "approach to important civil rights and civil liberties issues."

The move by Washington Media Group is somewhat unusual in the world of foreign lobbying and consulting firms, many of which specialize in representing often unsavory regimes and despots.

The decision last week came amid worsening violence in the North African country's capital, Tunis, where at least 21 people have died in clashes with government security forces. Human rights groups say the actual death toll is at least three times that high.

Tunisia's prime minister announced Friday that President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, whose autocratic rule has been the focus of the protests, had stepped down from power. Some news reports said Ben Ali had fled the country.

Documents filed with the Justice Department show that Washington Media Group signed a $420,000 annual contract last May to be a consultant for Tunisia, which has paid $315,000 so far. The firm formally severed its ties in a letter dated Jan. 6, according to the records, which are required under the Foreign Agents Registration Act.

"It was clear to us the Tunisian government was not going to implement the recommendations and work product we provided," said Washington Media Group President Gregory L. Vistica, a former journalist for The Washington Post and other news outlets. "We felt on principle that we could not work for a government that was shooting its own citizens and violating their civil rights with such abuse."

Officials with the Tunisian embassy could not immediately be reached for comment Friday.

U.S. lobbying and media firms have frequently faced scrutiny for representing oppressive regimes. Former Clinton administration counsel Lanny Davis came under fire for agreeing to represent incumbent Ivory Coast President Laurent Gbagbo in his bid to retain power following a disputed election in November; Davis announced in late December that he had severed the contract, which paid him $300,000.

Washington Media Group says in its termination letter that it "provided communications counsel on, among other things, human rights, press freedoms and censorship of the Internet" and had also developed Tunisian Web sites.

"[We] have demonstrably improved the online perception of your government," Vistica wrote in a letter to Tunisian Communications Minister Samir Abidi. "However, it has been and remains our view that improving your nation's image in the United States or elsewhere can only be accomplished if the reputation sought is consistent with the facts 'on the ground.' "

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