Former Obama campaign manager Jim Messina spoke last year at a government communications forum sponsored by the United Arab Emirates (UAE), a country that has been widely criticized for cracking down on free speech, according to reports.
Messina participated in the second annual “Government Communication Forum” last March hosted by Sheikh Sultan bin Mohammed al-Qasimi, a member of the UAE’s highest governing council and ruler of the Sharjah Emirate.
Messina reportedly spoke about the importance of governments communicating with citizens and grassroots activists on a local level. He managed President Barack Obama’s 2012 campaign and is a former White House deputy chief of staff.
“Technology has completely revolutionized the way people communicate; hence, government communications need to reflect prevailing trends,” he said during the forum. “The basics for government communications is clarity in messaging, speed in communicating it, and making sure it gets delivered where the people are. You will find that social media is able to deliver on all three criteria.”
However, human rights groups have criticized the UAE’s record on freedom of expression, raising questions about Messina’s decision to speak there.
Human Rights Watch said in its 2014 UAE report that the country has detained political dissidents, tortured them, and sentenced them to prison terms of up to 10 years.
The group also said authorities arrested Emirati national Khalifa Rabia last July after he tweeted support for political detainees. A government-linked television channel accused him of “affiliation with secret cells” a day after his detention.
Additionally, the pro-democracy group Freedom House has noted the hypocrisy of UAE leaders on social media usage.
While leaders like Dubai ruler Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum are avid users of social media, authorities arrested 29-year-old U.S. citizen Shezanne Cassim and his friends last year for posting a satirical video about Dubai youth on YouTube. Cassim was allowed to return to the United States after serving nine months in prison and paying a fine of about $2,700.
Authorities apprehended Cassim based on a 2012 cybercrime law that criminalizes online criticism of the UAE’s rulers and calling for unlicensed demonstrations. Freedom House has rated the country “not free” when it comes to Internet freedoms.
Charles Dunne, director of Middle East and North Africa programs for Freedom House, said in an email that it is important for U.S. officials, former or current, to emphasize the importance of free speech when speaking with other governments about communicating with citizens. U.S. officials like Messina can “legitimize abuses both in what they say and don’t say,” he said.
“Advising repressive regimes on how best to use social media to communicate, without the context that these media should be free, strikes me as mercenary at best,” he said.
He added that the criminalization of Internet speech challenging rulers is a worrying trend across the Middle East, citing charges against former Egpyt parliamentarian Amr Hamzawy.
Hamzawy, a friend of Dunne’s, was charged with “insulting the judiciary” in Egypt after he criticized the convictions of 43 pro-democracy workers last year on Twitter. Dunne was one of the workers convicted and sentenced to five years in prison.
A spokesperson for the Harry Walker Agency, which arranges Messina’s speeches, did not respond to a request for comment about his participation in the Sharjah forum.
A source close to Messina told Politico in a recent profile of the political operative that just because he gives a speech “doesn’t mean that Jim condones everything that any individual group has done or said or would do.” The source said Messina earns payments “in the mid-five figure range” for each speech.
Messina, who has become increasingly involved in corporate as well as political spheres, has also given speeches to the American Petroleum Institute’s board of directors and an oil-company sponsored conference in Azerbaijan.
Organizing for Action, the nonprofit advocacy group that pushes Obama’s policies and is led by Messina, has taken a staunchly anti-oil stance in contrast to his speeches. It has launched a campaign to “call out” climate change “deniers” in Congress and promoted regulations that would limit the carbon emissions of U.S. power plants.