• Documents reveal party to pay firm $25,000 per month
• Fawad says firm engaged to communicate party’s viewpoint in US media

WASHINGTON: The Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf’s (PTI) US chapter has hired a public relations firm to improve its image in the United States, where it has been portrayed as anti-America since April, when party chairman and former premier Imran Khan accused Washington of backing efforts to overthrow his government through a no-confidence motion.

Following his ouster in April, Mr Khan and his party have been running a systematic campaign on the narrative that the US backed “local abettors” to topple his government through a conspiracy, and install an administration of its choice.

However, this latest move suggests that the party is looking to carry out damage control following its leader’s campaign, vilifying the US to win over popular support in Pakistan.

“This is an agreement between a PR firm, not a lobbyist, and a group of US citizens,” Sajjad Burki, the PTI chairman’s focal person for the US, told Dawn. “We are not lobbying for PTI Pakistan, and certainly not within the US administration.”

The agreement, signed on Aug 1 between David Fenton of Fenton/Arlook and attorney for PTI USA Salman Ravala became effective on Aug 9. It points out that PTI USA “is not supervised, owned, or controlled by any foreign political party, but will in certain instances be directed by a foreign political party in Pakistan”.

The PTI USA will pay the firm $25,000 per month, “collected from PTI supporters who are legal US residents”, Atif Khan, another PTI official, in Dallas, Texas, told Dawn.

The documents filed on Aug 9 showed the party had engaged Fenton/Arlock LLC to support the PTI’s “goals for good relations with the United States and the Pakistani diaspora in the US”.

The documents appear to lend credence to reports that the party was trying to mend its ties with the Biden administration after relentlessly accusing it of backing efforts to overthrow the PTI government through a “conspiracy”, which includes backing the Pakistan Democratic Movement that is in power in Islamabad.

Under the agreement, the New York-based PTI USA is the principal client of the PR firm, which has been hired for six months to manage the party’s public and media relations.

The same firm has previously represented the Pakistan embassy in the US for a brief period while the PTI was in power. Former prime minister Imran Khan also had dinner at Fenton’s in 2019 when he visited New York to attend the UN General Assembly session.

Both agreements – with the PTI USA and the embassy – are available on an official US website as public documents. The documents have been made public under the US Foreign Agents Registration Act, on a website controlled by the Unit of Counterintelligence and Exports Control in the US National Security Division, which falls under the Department of Justice.

A document filed on March 26 shows the firm had been contracted to work for the embassy from March 21 to Sept 20, 2022. But an embassy official told Dawn the contract was cancelled in May after the ouster of the PTI government.

Under the agreement, the firm was providing public relations services to the embassy, which included distributing information to and briefing journalists; placing articles and broadcasts in the respective media; arranging interviews with representatives and supporters of Pakistan; advising on social media efforts; and other such PR services.

For this, the firm was charging $30,000 a month, plus expenses.

Usually, when such a contract is cancelled, the hiring party is required to pay the entire amount specified in the agreement.

A US lawyer, who requested not to be identified because he was not involved in the case, told Dawn that “there’s nothing illegal in either agreement. Foreign governments and parties often hire PR persons and lobbyists in the US. It’s not unusual”.

The lawyer also said the amount mentioned in the two documents – $25,000 and $30,000 per month – “are peanuts. Other embassies and organisations pay much more”.

Under its agreement with the PTI USA, “Fenton/Arlook shall provide public relations services, including but not limited to distributing information to and briefing journalists, placing articles and broadcasts, arranging interviews with representatives or supporters of PTI, advising on social media efforts and other such public relations services”.

Until recently, the PTI USA publicly promoted Mr Khan’s claim that a US State Department official had threatened to topple his government in a lunch meeting with the then Pakistani ambassador Asad Majeed Khan.

But since last month, the party has been trying to rebuild its ties with the US, and it is alleged that recently the PTI chairman held a video call with US Ambassador in Islamabad Donald Blome.

‘Seeking pardon from US’

Meanwhile, the ruling PML-N was quick to avail the opportunity to take on PTI chief Khan over the ‘hypocrisy’.

“I have never had any doubts that Imran Khan has a hundred faces. What he poses and professes is a smoke screen. Behind this smoke screen is the face of an egomaniac, narcissist & selfish person. He is now begging the USA by all means whether by sending emissaries or engaging lobbyists,” federal minister Ahsan Iqbal said in a tweet on Friday.

Federal Minister for Climate Change Sherry Rehman also urged the PTI to tender an unconditional apology for what she called misleading the nation through its fake and concocted narrative to target its political rivals.

At a media briefing in Islamabad, she said the PTI had quietly hired an American lobbying firm to improve its ties, perception in the US and enhance its advertisements.

“You have repeatedly perpetrated propaganda against the US and befooled the nation under your fake narrative,” the minister stressed. “What kind of hypocrisy is this that the entire nation was engulfed in hoax propaganda and this party secretly hired a lobbyist firm to improve its projection in the US?”

She also questioned the claims of some PTI leaders that the agreement was meant for the PTI’s advertisement in the American media, saying: “Why do you need advertisements in the US?”

In the same breath, Ms Rehman also claimed that during the recent visit of the US ambassador to Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, the PTI had held talks with him, and Imran Khan allegedly secretly spoke to him too.

“You are not going to improve Pakistan’s image rather your own party’s in the US. Who is imported now, as you have been accusing all other political parties of being foreign assisted?” she remarked.

However, in his party’s defence, former PTI minister Fawad Chaudhry tweeted in response to a journalist’s tweet that he had asked for an Urdu translation of the agreement “so that some incompetent journalists and ministers understand that it’s not a lobbyist firm, but a media relations firm that the PTI USA has engaged to put its point across in the media. It’s the job of these firms to develop a relationship between the media and the party”.

Zulqernain Tahir in Lahore and Jamal Shahid in Islamabad also contributed to this report.

Published in Dawn, August 13th, 2022

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