Pirates undergo rebranding

A Cheshire PR firm is behind a campaign to expose the cruel reality of Somali piracy, says Jamie Kenny

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Leafy Cheshire has become the nerve centre in a global campaign to expose the realities of Somali piracy.

The Save Our Seafarers campaign is the brainchild of Altrincham-based RMS PR agency, backed by a consortium of shipping companies. The campaign aims to widen public awareness of the human, social and economic costs of piracy and put pressure on national governments and the UN to act.

The campaign’s first order of business is to shift perceptions of pirates from the roguish figures of popular imagination to the hardcore villains SOS says they are in real life.

Subject to torture

“There are over 800 people being held by Somali pirate gangs as we speak,” RMS managing director Ruth Shearn told The Big Issue in the North. “And the average time they are held is eight months, during which they are held in absolutely barbaric conditions and subject to psychological and physical torture.”

Piracy off the coast of Somalia started after the state collapsed in 1990. Local fishermen lost their livelihoods as trawlers from across the globe moved in to fish the now unpoliced waters off the Somali coast. Toxic waste dumping by criminal gangs, including the Neapolitan Camorra, also destroyed local fish stocks. So the fishermen turned to the two maritime trades left available: people smuggling into the Gulf States and piracy.

Shearn: we need politicians to act

But the single ship operators of old have now transformed into ruthless and sophisticated criminal syndicates that have made an empire out of hostage taking worth several hundred million dollars a year. SOS estimates that the total cost of Somali piracy to the world economy is up to £7.5 billion.

Illicit earnings

Somali pirates are also coming increasingly under the influence of the al-Qaeda-inspired al-Shabaab militia, which taxes pirate groups up to 20 per cent of their illicit earnings to fund its war against the transitional government of Somalia.

The campaign makes extensive use of Twitter, Facebook and other social media platforms. It is based on the Save Our Seafarers website, from where people can petition their national leaders to take action – with copies automatically sent to UN General Secretary Ban Ki-Moon.

SOS went live this month and is already having a big impact, said Shearn.

“We had a phone call from the secretary to a US senator yesterday asking for his name to be removed from the list because he’d already had 2,000 emails sent via our website,” she said.

The senator’s request was turned down. “We really need politicians to act on this,” continued Shearn. “Right now, the attitude is ‘just pay the ransom’.

“Shipping companies are basically being asked to fund the gangs who are terrorising their employees. It’s got to stop.”

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