Pressure Mounts on CNN to Disclose Business Relationship with UAE

16 activist groups sign open letter calling on CNN to come clean about any financial partnership ahead of the Gulf dictatorship’s #Expo2020

By Adam Johnson
Oct. 1, 2021

A new report from Responsible Statecraft’s Eli Clifton and a pressure campaign from a collection of activist groups has put CNN’s sycophantic coverage of the UAE in the spotlight as the media outlet prepares to be “the official broadcaster for Expo 2020 Dubai” set to kick off hours from now.

Clifton, following reporting from The Column documenting CNN’s PR fluff for the UAE, reached out to CNN to request comment on any potential partnership with the Gulf monarchy. “CNN did not respond to the questions,” Clifton reports.

Despite the outlet’s silence, as Clifton lays out, “production and distribution of sponsored content for clients in Dubai falls under the Foreign Agent Registration Act, a statute requiring registration for entities within the United States serving ‘as a foreign principal’s public relations counsel, publicity agent, information-service employee, or political consultant.’”

Responsible Statecraft notes that CNN sometimes offers vague references to sponsored content but never says what is and isn’t, nor is the vast majority of their puffy UAE coverage labeled as such. The “network’s opacity about its relationship with the Expo and Dubai tourism,” Clifton writes, “may pose an ongoing challenge for efforts to distinguish its independently produced journalism from state-sponsored content promoting a sanitized image of an undemocratic nation with a problematic human rights record.”

This afternoon, on the eve of Expo 2020, a collection of human rights, pro-democracy, and anti-war groups wrote an open letter to CNN demanding the outlet “reveal their relationship with UAE monarchy and report on UAE’s war in Yemen during Dubai Expo coverage.” The letter read, in part:

“We are deeply troubled to learn that CNN will be an official broadcaster for “Expo 2020 Dubai,” beginning this October 2021. The monarchy of the United Arab Emirates, together with the rulers of Saudi Arabia, have committed horrific human rights violations in Yemen, where they have caused vast levels of suffering for millions of Yemeni civilians.

The UAE and Saudi governments use high publicity propaganda events, like this October’s UAE “Expo 2020 Dubai” and Saudi Future Investment Initiative, to attract investment and build political clout despite their brutal human rights records. This is why we urge you to 1) reveal the financial and contractual terms of your relationship with the UAE monarchy and the “Expo 2020 Dubai,” 2) reveal all financial and contractual terms for your “Dubai Now” promotional content, and 3) commit to reporting on the UAE’s terrible human rights violations and their use of events like the “Expo 2020 Dubai” for propaganda purposes, in your coverage of the UAE Dubai Expo.  If CNN will not meet these requests, we call on you to withdraw as an “official broadcaster” for the UAE Dubai Expo immediately.”

The letter was signed by Freedom Forward, Action Corps, Baltimore Nonviolence Center, Center for International Policy, Health Alliance International, Hands Off Yemen, Human Rights Sentinel, ReThinking Foreign Policy, Win Without War, and the Yemen Relief and Reconstruction Foundation. Other groups joining the effort are Project Break the Cycle, MENA Rights Group, and Democracy for the Arab World Now (DAWN), founded by the late Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018, right before he was murdered by UAE-ally Saudi Arabia

Executive Director of Freedom Forward, Sunjeev Bery, who hosted the open letter, will be following the Expo closely and documenting CNN’s softball converge:

On Sept 17, the European Parliament voted to boycott UAE’s Expo 2020, citing UAE’s human rights violations. As the Jerusalem Post reported:

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“Husain Abdulla, Executive Director at European Center for Democracy & Human Rights (ECDHR) said in a statement, “This resolution is an important step toward holding the UAE government accountable for its ongoing systematic human rights violations against its own citizens and its utter disregard to international law.

The UAE government has embraced an array of tactics to whitewash and cover its horrible human rights record, one of the leading methods being Dubai Expo 2020. Today’s vote by the European Parliament urging businesses and European member states to withdraw from this blood-tinted expo is a victory for human rights in the UAE, Europe and everywhere.”

These human rights violations don’t seem to be of any concern to CNN, which has engaged in minimal critical reporting on the absolute monarchy since it began publishing puff pieces on the UAE starting last year. When asked repeatedly on social media if he’d like to comment on the allegations, CNN’s chief media correspondent Brian Stelter has not responded. Neither did any CNN and Time Warner reps who The Column and Responsible Statecraft reached out to for comment.

It remains to be seen if anyone from CNN or Warner Media will respond to the open letter put forward by the human rights and democracy organizations. Meanwhile, CNN’s Becky Anderson continues to report out puffery for the regime.

To get a sense of CNN’s UAE coverage over the past year, republished from our original report below is 106 articles breezily promoting the dictatorship, 105 of which have no disclosure of any kind that the content is paid sponsorship.

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