'People have the right to know how much money is spent on lobbyists'

Ali Riaz

The US imposed sanctions on 10 December on seven serving and former Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) officials on charges of violation of human rights.

Since then, government loyalists have been saying that BNP appointed lobbyists and spread propaganda to instigate Washington to take such steps.

Denying these allegations, BNP said they did not appoint any lobbyist. Rather, the government appointed lobbyists in the US, spending taxpayers' money to hide their various criminal activities.

The war of words between the two parties continues over the issue of appointing lobbyists.

Ali Riaz, distinguished professor at Illinois State University in the USA, talks to Prothom Alo over phone as to how the lobbyist firms work, how US lawmakers view the activities of lobbyists and what happens if the lobbyists fail.

The job of lobbyists is to inform the lawmakers and influence them. Their main goal is to reach those who work at the offices of lawmakers.

Q :

What is the main task of a lobbyist? How many lobbyist firms are there in the USA and with whom they are registered?

Lobbyists on behalf of an organisation or a country present their clients' statements to the US lawmakers. They can present statements to the government and the people, place advertisements and carry out publicity. However, their main task is to reach lawmakers.

These organisations that deal with with the internal affairs of the US, within the federal government, have to register with the Office of Clerk of the House of Representatives and the Secretary of the Senate.

And those who represent foreign clients have to register with the law ministry or the National Security Division of the Department of Justice.

The law under which this registration is compulsory is the Foreign Registration Act or FRA. The law was introduced in 1938. The thing the lobbyist firms cannot do is carry out financial transactions, they cannot give money to any lawmaker. There are about 12,000 lobbyist firms in the US. The number of those who represent foreigners is 875.

Q :

Who monitor these lobbyists? Are the lobbying firms legally bound to disclose all information?

The justice department monitors those who lobby on behalf of the foreigners. But we have to keep in mind that others also keep vigilance on them. For example, Open Secrets is an organisation. This is a civil society organisation. The reason behind the vigilance is that the US has interests with those for which the lobbyist firms work. These are applicable in those cases in which a certain country is represented. If there is any objections against the country, certainly they will be under close watch. These persons or organisations are bound to share all of their information with the justice department. They even have to provide the list of expenditure.

Those who lobby on behalf of foreign organisations can register with the Congress under the lobby affairs act. The law is the Lobbying Disclosure Act. If anyone is lobbying on behalf of the foreign government or political parties, he or she has to register under the FRA. Despite this, there are allegations that lobbyists on behalf of many countries use the benefit of lax vigilance. As a result, a move is on to amend FRA Act.

The information the media in Bangladesh is disclosing is not from their own investigations. This is available publicly. These issues were not discussed until the sanctions were imposed.

Q :

Are the lobbyists successful in most of the cases? What steps are taken if they fail?

It depends on what you mean about success. Their main task is to reach lawmakers and influence them. Their main goal is to reach those who work at the lawmakers' offices. They could be lobbying so that a law is not applied. Despite that, is the law is applied, the lobbyists have nothing to do.

Q :

How do the lawmakers and general people in the US view the task of lobbyists?

Those who lobby for the internal affairs of US, they mainly assist the lawmakers, they finance for their electioneering or collect money for election candidates. As a result, they are not vocal about this. The lawmakers are highly sensitive about the lobbyists who work for foreign countries. It does not seem that the general people are very aware of lobbyists.

Q :

What procedure do the countries follow in appointing lobbyists when the US imposes sanctions on certain persons and organisations? Do the countries appoint lobbyists or follow diplomatic channels to solve it?

In general, the lobbying firms are not easily supposed to work with these persons or organisations. But you know the power of money. So we have seen many lobbying firms have taken up clients. Many incidents took place during the tenure of Donald Trump, persons or organisations who came under the US sanctions appointed lobbyists and influenced people who were loyal to Donald Trump. Lobbying firms worked in favour of Chinese companies, Russian millionaires and even the Congo president Joseph Kabila. Some have been able to exert influence. In case of sanctions on the state institutions, diplomatic steps are most effective.

Q :

There is a belief worldwide that Israeli lobbyists influence the foreign policy of the US. How do you view this?

The influence of Israel on the US foreign policy is massive and there are many reasons. Various organisations are working for this. In fact, Political Action Committee (PAC) works for this significantly. American Israel Public Affairs Committee is highly influential. They are not lobbying firm, they are an association and their influence is massive. But there are lobbying firms for Israel. They can exert influence as the lawmakers have already taken position in favour of Israel.

Q :

What do you think about the tug of war between Awami League and BNP over the appointment of lobbyists in the US?

The information the media in Bangladesh is disclosing is not from their own investigations. This is available publicly. These issues were not discussed until the sanctions were imposed. There are exceptions. In November 2018, journalist Kamal Ahmed wrote an article about this in Prothom Alo. But at the time, nobody showed interest. There are attacks and counter attacks over the issue now as the government is trying to prove that sanctions have been imposed as a result of BNP's lobbying. The government claims that misinformation has been provided to the US. But there is no proof. On the contrary, Awami League did not think their efforts of the past would be disclosed. The aim of the ruling party is to make other's guilty.

Q :

How will this controversy over the issue of lobby between Awami League and BNP end?

This controversy will end when a new issue will come in the politics. Do you know why? It is because what has been done cannot be changed. But two issues have already surfaced, that should be understood. Bangladesh government earlier appointed lobbying firms to present the image of the country positively, now they are saying they will appoint lobbying firms. The question is if there was a free flow of information in the country, the government would not have to appoint lobbying firms. The local and foreign media would publish those. Another matter is that there is a lack of clarity whether the lobbying worked at all for which public money was spent. The citizens have right to know as to how much money has been spent. The taxpayers have right to know for what purpose the money has been spent and who benefited from it.

*This interview, originally published in Prothom Alo online edition, has been rewritten in English by Rabiul Islam.