UK-based PR companies such as Bell Pottinger and M&C Saatchi have been hired by the government of Bahrain to improve its image in the Western media, according to a new report from monitoring and advocacy group Bahrain Watch.

The report claims the government, which is dominated by the Al Khalifa monarchy, has spent over $32 million (£20 million) on 18 different UK and US PR companies since the start of pro-democracy protests in February 2011, and the subsequent bloody crackdown by security forces which has killed at least 60 people.

Among the companies to have been engaged by the Bahrain government are British firms M&C Saatchi and Bell Pottinger, which have received contracts worth £10 million and £7.5 million respectively.

Other companies to have carried out work for the Bahrain government included Dragon Associates, G3, Gardant Communications, New Century Media and Big Tent Communications.

The activities include writing and placing opinion pieces supporting the Bahraini government in Western newspapers, exerting legal pressure on outlets that publish critical pieces, contacting Western journalists about the political situation in Bahrain, and arranging meetings with Western government officials.

"The government-preferred narrative included claims that only a few dozen people were protesting, that the government was committed to reforms, and that violence carried out by security forces was a reaction to ' vandals' or 'terrorists", said Marc Owen Jones, member of Bahrain Watch.

"[The narrative] also stressed the importance of the US/UK's relationship with Bahrain to contain the expansion of Iran."

Bahrain Watch also asserts that the PR firms hired by the Bahrain government claimed that protestors were "wolves in sheep's clothing who may be calling for democracy, but are actually backed by Iran and want to impose a Shia theocracy".

Jones described such claims as a "blatant distortion" as there is "no evidence" that Iran has orchestrated the pro-democracy protest in Bahrain.

The findings from Bahrain Watch contradict a statement made by Bahrain's minister of state for information, which dismissed claims that the government had hired Western public relations companies, maintaining it was "one of the fabrications among the fabrications of the Opposition to tarnish the image of Bahrain".

Is The Guardian's Comment free?

Owen Jones also reported that British PR firm Dragon Associates, which has a contract with the Bahrain International Circuit (BIC) where the country's controversial Formula One Grand Prix race takes place, forced the Guardian to take down a piece in its Comment is Free section entitled "'Bahrain has failed to grasp reform, so why is the Grand Prix going ahead?

The PR firm argued that the article, which stated that abuses had occurred on the premises of the BIC, implicated the head of security at the BIC, and so was potentially libellous.

However, the name of the BIC's head of security was also cited in a witness testimony which appeared on the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights website.

"Clearly Dragon Associates were able to convince the Guardian that the testimony might not be credible enough to survive a law suit," Owen Jones wrote on his blog.

The piece stated that BIC head of security tortured at least one of the company's employees on the premises. It was reinstated on the Guardian's website "just after tickets for the Bahrain Grand Prix went on sale," Owen Jones said.

Another of the PR firms involved, Bell Pottinger, was involved in an investigation published by The Independent in December 2011, which revealed the existence of a team who edited negative coverage of their clients on Wikipedia. As a result, the Wikipedia entry for both John Yates and John Timoney, Bahrain's police consultants recently hired by the government, was made more positive on 1 December the date Timoney's appointment was announced.

In February 2011, having come under scrutiny for its contracts with Bahrain, Bell Pottinger suspended some of its collaborations. However, in May 2011 the PR firm was awarded a contract worth $199,000 by Bahrain's Information Affairs Authority for an undefined period of time. Other contracts followed.

"That the Bahraini government is pouring so much money into Western PR firms suggests it cares more of its international image, than it does ending the ongoing human rights violations against its own citizens," said Owen Jones.

"PR companies protecting the image of the Bahraini government simply offer excuses to those who should be pressuring the Kingdom for reform, accountability and social justice."