It seems as though our obsession with image over substance in the West has not gone unnoticed by the world’s autocrats and dictators. As the Guardian has reported, London has become a major center for PR firms employed by states with, let’s say, not quite commendable human rights records who want to be seen as progressive, stable democracies (without actually having to go through the headache of becoming an actual democracy). And its working.

Rwanda, where in the run up to this month’s election the opposition has been contending with threats and assassinations, is perhaps the biggest PR coup. Sure journalists may be getting murdered and opposition leaders are being gunned down, but President Kagame has a Twitter and Facebook account, so surely he must be a progressive, forward thinking kind of guy, right? Most Western governments—including the US and UK—seem to think so.

The absurdity of the situation is not limited to Rwanda, though. As Francis Ingham of Public Relations Consultants Association says, “Autocratic governments are realising they need to be more sophisticated in the way they act rather than just telling people how it is.” Because God forbid a government should tell people “how it is”! Apparently Ingham’s idea of sophistication is as follows: say you’re a government whose members have been accused of war crimes and genocide. You may think the “sophisticated” thing to do would be to hand over those members to an international tribunal to face justice for the crimes they’ve been accused of and for the government to look into how to prevent such atrocities from happening again. Well, if that’s how you’re thinking, then you’re probably not working in PR. The better thing to do is to pretend that such crimes never happened and instead stick to those happy sounding talking points like peace, prosperity, and enterprise, just as Sri Lankan president Rajapaksa did in an article that was pitched to the Guardian by PR group Bell Pottinger: “We are ready to engage positively with anyone and everyone around the world who wishes to help us achieve our dream of a united and prosperous land and enable Sri Lanka to take its rightful place in the world as an island of unsurpassed beauty, enterprise and now peace.” Unfortunately, a UN war crimes investigation doesn’t quite fit into Rajapaksa’s PR message of peace and prosperity.

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Brian Stewart, one of Canada’s most respected journalists, has written a condemnation of the Harper government’s campaign against Canadian human rights and foreign aid NGOs. For decades, these NGOs have received funding from both Liberal and Conservative governments and depend on this government funding to survive. Harper, however, has been less accommodating than his predecessors. For some time now, the Harper government has been “de-funding” groups that dare to criticize the government. The government, of course, claims that this de-funding has nothing to do with political differences, but because the NGOs failed to focus on the three priorities of foreign aid: children and youth; food security; and sustainable growth. But as Stewart points out, “it was just last fall when the auditor general complained that Canada’s foreign policy priorities, or “themes,” have been reshuffled five times in the last 10 years, producing an astonishing 12 different themes in all.” If the government can’t decide what it’s foreign aid priorities should be, then maybe they should let NGOs decide for them. But, of course, this has nothing to do with what areas of international development NGOs are deciding to focus on, it has to do with this government’s unwillingness to put up with critical debate. As Stewart ominously states, “I wonder how we will be able to judge anything in this field in the future with any confidence if independent voices are silenced and independent information dries up out of fear of government retaliation.”