At marquee events during his first 100 days in office, President Biden cast the challenge of our times in stark terms. When the history of this era is written, Biden said at his first White House news conference, it will be about “who succeeded: autocracy or democracy?” The president reiterated that theme during his first address to a joint session of Congress. It’s apropos, because three decades after the fall of the Berlin Wall, a moment celebrated as the triumph of democratic capitalism and even “the end of history,” freedom of expression is under attack around the world, including in established democracies such as our own.
But even if Biden’s ambition to reestablish the White House as a champion of human rights is a welcome break from the Trump administration’s dictator-coddling, his efforts to pressure countries on freedom of expression are being systematically undermined in Washington, where some nations that are the worst offenders have powerful advocates. Representing those countries is a lucrative business here in the home of the First Amendment.
Sadly, there are far too many examples in the Justice Department’s foreign-agent registration database to present a complete list here. So my research assistant, Missouri journalism student Elise Mulligan, and I decided to focus on a few countries with pressing image problems when it comes to press freedoms.
Saudi Arabia: The oil-rich kingdom deserves top rank here for the enormity of both the fees and the crime involved. A few big-name influencers dropped the Saudis as clients immediately after the brazen October 2018 murder of journalist and Washington Post contributing op-ed writer Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul. But others made a different choice. Since Khashoggi’s death, some two dozen U.S. firms have picked up more than $73 million in fees for representing Saudi interests, according to reports they have filed with the Justice Department. Chief among them was the kingdom’s longtime main lobbying firm, Qorvis, which said in a statement at the time of Khashoggi’s disappearance that “we take the situation seriously” and would “wait for all the facts to become known.”
Here are some facts that have since become known: Saudi officials have acknowledged that Khashoggi was killed by a team of government agents sent to force the journalist to return to the kingdom and that his body was afterward dismembered. Five of the 15 hit men were convicted but have since had their death sentences commuted. And U.S. intelligence officials have concluded that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman approved the operation that led to Khashoggi’s murder.
Meanwhile, the crown prince continues to have his reputation as a visionary world leader burnished with news releases like the one prepared in January by Edelman hailing Neom, the futuristic city the prince has ordered up on the Red Sea. (Edelman took in $6.7 million from the Saudis since Khashoggi’s murder before completing its latest contracts in January, according to Foreign Agents Registration Act, or FARA, filings.) Or in a Hogan Lovells-produced release crediting the crown prince for “new efforts to combat extremist ideology and shut down hate speech.” This about a country that routinely makes female journalists the targets of misogynistic trolling campaigns.
Qorvis has collected more than $28 million from the Saudis since Khashoggi’s murder, filings with the Justice Department show. Firm President Michael Petruzzello has said the $18.8 million Qorvis reported receiving from the Saudis six months after the journalist’s death was for work “billed over several years and recently paid all at once.” But since then, the firm has picked up another $9 million working for the Saudis. It also has a contract to do work for the kingdom’s oxymoronically named Human Rights Commission. A bit of context: While the Saudis recently released from prison several female activists (who had asked for, among other things, the right to drive), the women are not permitted to leave the country.
Even more jaw-droppingly, some U.S. lobbying firms are producing materials flacking the Saudis’ humanitarian work in Yemen, such as a note from a Hogan Lovells partner to Capitol Hill staffers about “how the Kingdom of Saudi is leading regional efforts related to the current cease-fire and COVID mitigation in Yemen,” and a Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck flier for a Saudi-sponsored Capitol Hill conference on “protecting innocent lives” in Yemen by eradicating land mines. That all seems a bit like offering a Band-Aid to someone whose leg you just cut off, given the Saudi role in escalating Yemen’s civil war. According to the United Nations, the conflict has killed at least 233,000 people and left children starving.
The Philippines: Over the past few years, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has been busy shuttering his nation’s largest broadcaster and conducting an infamous campaign of online and legal harassment against much-lauded journalist and entrepreneur Maria Ressa (who just added the UNESCO press freedom prize to honors from the Committee to Protect Journalists, the National Press Club and many more).
At the same time, the blue-chip communications and public relations firm BCW Global has collected fees of more than $1 million for providing assistance to the nation’s central bank, headed by a Duterte ally. The work includes a glossy 70-page pamphlet (including plenty of photos of Duterte) touting the Philippine economy to investors, as well as news releases that highlight the accomplishments of “President Rodrigo Duterte’s economic team” and his “reform agenda.” All of that is intended to encourage investment in a country whose leader has drawn widespread condemnation for encouraging thousands of extrajudicial killings.
China: Global rainmakers Squire Patton Boggs continue to represent Beijing’s interests in Washington for a retainer of $55,000 a month, according to the firm’s most recent contract, dated last July. The firm’s January filing with the Justice Department reported payments of $330,000 from the Chinese Embassy for the previous six months of work, which included advice on “U.S. policy concerning Hong Kong, Taiwan, Xinjiang and Tibet,” among other places where Beijing has been trying to muzzle dissidents, and “matters pertaining to human rights,” according to the firm’s latest filing with the Justice Department’s foreign-agent registration database.
Chinese officials have been sanctioned by the U.S. government for human rights abuses against the country’s Muslim Uyghur minority in Xinjiang and against Buddhists in Tibet, among other concerns. They’re also no friend to journalists, unsurprisingly: The prison sentence handed to Hong Kong news publisher Jimmy Lai became the latest headline in China’s crackdown on press freedom. The most recent report from the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China documents the expulsions of at least 18 foreign correspondents and numerous attempts to intimidate reporters working in Hong Kong and mainland China. Most concerning are the detentions of Chinese nationals, some of whom have been held for months with no word about the charges against them or their condition.
Of course, it is hopelessly silly to be writing any of this with an expectation that it’ll change this behavior. Anyone can lip-sync the patronizing lecture on realpolitik that Washington’s foreign policy establishment deploys to edify the ignoramus idealist who thinks Americans should stand up for our own values.
Former senator Norm Coleman — who, as a senior adviser for Hogan Lovells (post-Khashoggi murder take from Saudi Arabia: $6.8 million, according to records the firm has filed with the Justice Department), has been working his Hill contacts on the Saudis’ behalf — delivered a version of this lecture in interviews immediately after Khashoggi’s disappearance. The murder was “not a good deal at all” and “there needs to be accountability,” he said, but the “strategic relationship” between the Americans and the Saudis must be maintained: Iran must be contained. Israel must survive.
There are variations on this theme for almost every bad actor on the world stage: The Philippines is a strategic base for U.S. operations in South Asia. China? Think of all those customers for our soybeans and our movies! And, at various times, Washington has tried to enlist all three countries as allies in the war on terrorism.
But if we can’t stand up for free speech, life and liberty, what, exactly, are we fighting for? May 3 was World Press Freedom Day, which the United Nations has set aside to celebrate the work of journalists in promoting democracy, accountability and the rule of law. It seems a fitting moment to consider how socially and politically acceptable it has become in this country is to undermine all those things.
The firms that lobby for Saudi Arabia, the Philippines and China did not respond to repeated requests for comment. It would be interesting to ask them how they square their work for those clients with the work they like to highlight: accounts such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Alzheimer’s Association (Qorvis); campaigns for worthy causes, such as the video Edelman made for Ikea to support equal rights for women (sadly lacking in Saudi Arabia). But it’s worth pointing out this work because these clients, along with other reputable brands that these lobbying firms represent — for instance, Major League Baseball’s commissioner’s office and the California State Teachers Association (Hogan Lovells) and Coca-Cola (BCW) — might want to think twice about being in the same stable as thugs like Rodrigo Duterte and Mohammed bin Salman.
It takes more than a president to support democracy. We all need to examine our wallets as well as our consciences and consider how each of us are standing up for it. Or — wittingly or unwittingly — are not.