Countries with poor human rights records have spent more than $160 million in the last five years to help bolster their image and push their agendas in the United States, according to a new report by ICIJ’s parent organization the Center for Public Integrity.
Since 2010, the 50 countries with the worst records according to the Fragile States Index have paid $168 million to lobbyists, law firms and public relations specialists in the U.S. for services including phone calls to senators and members of congress, distributing press releases and organizing events with elected officials.
According to the Center’s analysis of Justice Department records, the number of active contracts these countries have in the U.S. has climbed by 40 percent since 2013.
Experts said this growth shows that these countries are recognizing the importance of changing perceptions in Washington, D.C.
Included in the list of countries pushing their agendas in the U.S. is Azerbaijan, which has paid lobbying and public affairs firm the Podesta Group $1.9 million since 2013. In return the firm has sent hundreds of emails, made dozens of phone calls, reached out to senators and members of congress, and held meetings with staff from the House and Senate Committees on foreign affairs and relations, among others.
At least one of these emails was used to laud the democratic success of Azerbaijan’s 2013 elections. Human rights group Freedom House said the elections were “marred by candidate and voter intimidation.”
In the two years that have followed, the Azeri government has increased its crackdown on freedom of speech and dissent, jailing activists and journalists alike. In September this year, investigative reporter and ICIJ member Khadija Ismayilova was convicted to seven and a half years in prison on baseless charges following a politically motivated trial.
Foreign countries are free to petition in the U.S. so long as their activities are registered with the Justice Department’s Foreign Agents Registration Unit.
But a recent report by nonprofit watchdog the Project on Government Oversight warned enforcement of the disclosure rules is lax.
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