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Bangladesh hires US lobbyists for image building

Lobbyists have been hired to improve Dhaka's image that has been tarred by reports on human rights abuses and Islamist militancy.

india Updated: Apr 11, 2006 11:27 IST
Indo-Asian News Service
Indo-Asian News Service

The Bangladesh government has appointed high-powered lobbyists in Washington to improve the country's image that has been tarred by recurring reports on human rights abuses, corruption and Islamist militancy.

Three US lobbyists - an individual and two firms - have been appointed to arrange high-level interactions with the US government and build a "positive and correct image" of Bangladesh among the US policymakers, the Daily Star reported.

The firms, The Washington Group and Ketchum Washington (TWG/K), will get a monthly retainer fee of at least $45,000 in addition to "certain out of pocket expenditure" that TWG/K will incur in connection with the services.

It is not clear from documents how much the individual lobbyist, Richard L Benkin, will get, the Bangladesh Observer said in a special report.

The main opposition Awami League (AL) has condemned the move as "a corrupt practice".

Foreign Minister Morshed Khan countered the charge saying that the AL had itself appointed a US lobbying firm, Alcalde Fay, on August 26 last year for arranging a seminar by the US Institute of Peace on "Rise of terrorism in Bangladesh".

He said that the lobbying firm was appointed to convince 16 US Senators and Congressmen to urge US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to raise Bangladesh's human rights situation in the United Nations, the Bangladesh Observer reported.

The government-appointed lobbyists have recommended an early visit to the US by Prime Minister Khaleda Zia and have "promised" an address by her to the UN General Assembly, "a rare honour, which in turn would stimulate high visibility media opportunities".

"The latter would certainly include delivery by the prime minister of a major address at the National Press Club in Washington", the list of objectives furnished by the lobbyists reads.

They also promised "to endeavour to convince the President (George W Bush) to add Bangladesh to his itinerary" during his visit to South Asia. Bush did not visit Bangladesh last month when he visited India and Pakistan.

The lobbyists have also been assigned to ensure "balanced reporting on Bangladesh" through mainstream media.

"Using the combined talents of TWG/K we would develop and implement a multi-faceted public relations, media and education plan to strengthen the image of Bangladesh in the US. We would seek to dispel misconceptions about alleged human rights abuses, corrupt government practices and Islamist militancy," the lobbyists said in their work objectives.

Based on their "close relationships" with senior officials in the Bush administration, the lobbyists also promised to work for increased US aid, assisting the government to get funding from the Millennium Challenge Account anddebt relief.

They also promised support the government in its dealings with the World Bank, IMF and the UN, establish free trade arrangement with US, give high priority to arranging for senior level military to military exchanges and exploitation of joint training opportunities.

They said they would be able to "open doors at the senior levels" of major US corporations such as Bechtel, General Electric, Lockhead Martin and Wal Mart to interest them in projects of importance to the government.

The contract signed on October 31 last year for an initial period of six months between the Bangladesh embassy in Washington and the lobbyists, however, said "efforts will be made" to keep the pocket expenditure within $750 a month. The contract will be evaluated after the expiry of the first 90 days.

The contract, documents of which have been made available to The Daily Star, has been done "after months of negotiation in Washington and kept out of public knowledge."

Signed by Shamser M. Chowdhury, Bangladesh ambassador to the US and John D Rafaelli, chief financial officer of The Washington Group, the contract said the lobbyists should rebut and contain negative reporting on Bangladesh and its government in the US media, academic circles and think tanks.

In its effort to improve Bangladesh's public image, the lobbyists promised placement of positive news and feature articles in newspapers, magazines and national journals and arrangement for the Bangladesh ambassador in US to appear on national television news shows originating in Washington.

The TWG/K while pitching for the task has promised a long list of tasks that include supporting the government in establishing and maintaining the "closest possible" relations with the White House and the Congress.

"The interests and objectives of Bangladesh must be communicated to and understood by the president and his advisors on an ongoing basis," The Washington Group said in its objective that was submitted to the US Department of Justice. The US laws require lobbyists to register with the justice department and disclose their interests.

Saber Hussain Chowdhury, political secretary to Awami League chief Sheikh Hasina, pointed out that the lobbyists had not been tasked to help the Bangladesh economy like gaining a higher quota for textile exports to the US.

First Published: Apr 11, 2006 11:27 IST