CNN Won’t Say If It’s Running Undisclosed PR for a Gulf Dictatorship

CNN’s ‘Dubai Now’ section has been publishing, as straight news, scores of cartoonish puff pieces for the UAE, an absolute dictatorship that imprisons journalists and activists.

CNN has a travel vertical called “Dubai Now” that focuses exclusively on how wonderful, fun, progressive, tolerant, and innovative the Gulf dictatorship of the United Arab Emirates is, and the outlet won’t say if the articles are paid PR for the Emirati regime. Puff pieces for UAE are not exclusively under the “Dubai Now” vertical, but most are, and a review of CNN’s UAE “travel” coverage over the past 10 months would lead any reasonable observer to conclude CNN is running PR for the UAE:

Of the above 106 articles that have been published since the beginning of November 2020, 105 are not disclosed to be ads or sponsored content of any kind. Only one, “Dubai gives a glimpse inside its Expo Sustainability Pavilion,” includes a somewhat cryptic “Editor's Note” informing the reader that “CNN's series often carry sponsorship originating from the countries and regions we profile. However, CNN retains full editorial control over all of its reports.” But it’s not clear what this means, or if it could be read as an admission the UAE was paying for the content. (Looking beyond this 10-month window, we were able to find at least one article published in February 2020 that includes this same disclaimer.)

The other 105 did not have this disclosure, or any other disclosure––they were, by all accounts, presented as straight news written by real, ostensibly neutral reporters. 

Reading what “our sponsorship policy” CNN links to in its handful of disclosed UAE puff pieces, one finds this pro forma statement:

Parts of CNN’s coverage beyond the daily news are produced as Special Reports, which attract sponsors who pay to associate their products or services with the editorial content. When this happens, you will see “In Association With” next to their logos in banners at the top of pages on our website and hear it referenced during commercial breaks on television. At no stage do the sponsors have a say in which stories CNN covers, which people CNN interviews or how we present our editorial content on television or our digital services, nor do sponsors review or approve any content before it airs or is published. The editorial content is commissioned and produced solely by CNN editorial staff or external contractors approved by CNN editorial. It is produced to CNN editorial guidelines.

But no such “In Association With” is seen in any of the UAE PR pieces written for “Dubai Now” nor in articles in the border Travel vertical. Let us set aside the dubious claim that “CNN retains full editorial control” over what is clearly an infomercial for an absolute dictatorship—or questions of how articles for which they did not have “full editorial control” would read any differently, this pro forma statement indicates that CNN, at some point, thought it needed some type of disclosure but only vaguely alluded to a sponsor, then moved on and removed even this vague disclaimer from all subsequent UAE puff pieces altogether. 

The UAE is an absolute dictatorship accused of numerous human rights abuses. According to Amnesty International, the UAE does not hold fair elections (or any elections at all) and imprisons dozens of activists and journalists. “More than 25 prisoners of conscience remained in jail on account of their peaceful political criticism,” the organization wrote in a 2020 review of the country. The country engages in arbitrary deprivation of nationality, unfair sham trials, has no equal rights for women, criminalizes homosexuality, and systematically abuses migrant workers

Little mention is made of these human rights abuses in any CNN reporting over the past year. CNN did run a handful of straight reported articles outside of its“Dubai Now” and related travel verticals that touched on unflattering stories about the UAE, namely covering the potential kidnapping of Princess Latifa, daughter of Prime Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al-Maktoum. These articles sometimes note vague “human rights abuses,” but frame them as accusations and don’t specify what they are. One June 2021 article about China’s “growing reach” in the Muslim world briefly mentions how the UAE was deporting Uyghur Muslims back to China on behalf of the Chinese government. 

But overwhelmingly, the UAE has been shown in a glowingly positive light. A survey of all of CNN’s UAE coverage in that time period can be found here. The vast bulk of it—hosted in the outlet’s ”Dubai Now” and related “travel” vertical—can only be described as puffery for the regime. 

This isn’t the first time CNN has run PR for oppressive Gulf regimes. In 2012 it was revealed CNN was running infomercials for the Bahrain regime through its CNNi vertical, killing a documentary to avoid upsetting its arrangement with the dictatorship. 

The Column emailed Emily Kuhn, Senior Director of Communications for CNN Digital Worldwide, and Paul Ferguson, Manager of News Technology Integration, for comment to see if CNN could confirm or deny “Dubai Now” is a paid partnership with the UAE or any UAE-affiliated entity. Or if, perhaps, CNN producers and reporters just really, really liked what the UAE was up to independent of any financial consideration. CNN did not respond to multiple email requests for comment before publication. If the outlet does respond we will publish these comments in an update. 

Regardless of motive, running over a 100 puff pieces for an absolute dictatorship is at odds with CNN’s outward brand of tolerance and being a self-proclaimed defender of a free press. CNN has featured countless preening editorials on the sanctity of free speech and human rights, and condemned as tyrants the leaders of countries like Venezuela. No such editorializing can be found targeting the UAE. CNN President Jeff Zucker, during the Trump years, constantly promoted himself and his network for standing up for free press under the hostile Trump administration. CNN’s in-house “chief media correspondent” Brian Stelter has numerous segments railing against “creeping authoritarianism.” A Forbes write up proclaimed that Stelter’s was “defending journalism’s role in a democracy, the importance of an international free press and, at the core of it all, truth.” But even when prodded on Twitter, Stelter—the alleged defender of “journalism’s role in a democracy” and “international free press”—would not address CNN’s bizarre puffery for the UAE regime. 

In his 2019 speech accepting the “First Amendment Award” from Radio Television Digital News Association (for which CNN is a sponsor), CNN President Jeff Zucker highlighted how he and CNN courageously sued then-President Trump for taking away the White House press credentials of CNN reporter Jim Acosta. An event that, according to Zucker, “quite literally” put his reporters’ “lives at risk.”  This sentiment is at odds with running puff pieces for a regime that, in 2018 actually imprisoned Jordanian journalist Tayseer al-Najjar for three years for “insulting the state’s symbols.” According to Human Rights Watch, the conviction was based on “Facebook posts written before he moved to the UAE to work as a culture reporter for Dar newspaper in April 2015. The trial judgment also cited comments he allegedly made to his wife on the telephone that were critical of the UAE.” According to Reporters Without Borders, the UAE is 131st in the world in press freedom out of 195 countries, with a score of “0.” 

It would seem that if Jeff Zucker and the high-minded defenders of Truth at CNN are genuinely concerned with free speech they could, first and foremost, stop running propaganda for one of the world’s most anti-free-speech governments.

A guest post by