CNN's Effusive Coverage of Kazakhstan Is Quietly Sponsored by Its Subject

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A special report on this oil-rich, former Soviet republic includes interviews with "experts" who are actually current or former government employees.
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A CNN reporter in Kazakhstan visits an oil purification plant, calling it "the symbol" of the "strong and vibrant" economy. (CNN)

The Republic of Kazakhstan is not the sort of country that you hear about much in American media. Newspapers and TV networks have limited space, after all, and with so much happening in places like China and the Middle East, the dealings of this land-locked former Soviet territory don't rate as much ink or airtime. Still, Kazakhstan's story is significant and often entertaining -- it's a big, rapidly modernizing, resource-rich nation sandwiched between Russia and China -- so it was an unusual treat to discover that CNN International is devoting an entire special report to the country. The network's first-ever live broadcast from Kazakhstan would seem to be a small but important landmark moment for CNN International, bringing its enormous audience into contact with a corner of the world they might otherwise never experience. But there's more than meets the eye to this cheery series, and some apparent overlap in mission and tone with the Kazakh government's recent, high-profile lobbying campaign.

"Eyes On Kazakhstan," a half-hour collection of nine short segments that first aired this weekend and runs again once or twice a day through Wednesday, brings viewers into contact with a part of the world about which they might otherwise read or learn very little. The show mostly focuses on the country's booming energy industry and its opportunities for foreign investors, though also explores, for example, indigenous Kazakh sports,. But, if you go online to watch the clips on oil mining or read about the changing capital city, you might notice a disclaimer at the bottom of the article that reads, "CNN's Eye On series often carries sponsorship originating from the countries we profile. However CNN retains full editorial control over all of its reports."

The show's website discloses the state-owned sponsors, but not if viewed from the U.S.

Sponsorship is nothing out of the ordinary -- you might notice ads running alongside this very post -- but it turns out that there are some unusual things going on with CNN International's Kazakhstan series. You'd have to know the country pretty well to spot them, which I don't and didn't. But a Central Asia-based consultant named Myles Smith did, pointing them out in a post on EuriasaNet.org (disclosure: as an Atlantic partner site, EurasiaNet articles frequently appear on TheAtlantic.com).

The first thing that Smith found is also perhaps the strangest. He writes that both the website and TV-only promotional teasers say that the program is "in association with" a firm called Samruk-Kazyna and the Astana Economic Forum. Oddly, it doesn't actually name either of these groups, merely displaying their logos, which Smith recognized. Samruk-Kazyna is a massive, state-run holding company that manages national assets and resources worth tens of billions of dollars. The Astana Economic Forum, also state-run, lists "attracting potential investors and partners to help facilitate development projects" as an official goal.

Browsing the Eyes On page and watching the clips myself, I could find no indication of who was sponsoring the program or even that it had sponsors at all, other than the vague note about "sponsorship [often] originating from the countries we profile," which doesn't clarify if that means the country's government or just companies that happen to work within that country.

I was baffled. Not that Kazakhstan's state-owned firms would "sponsor" a report on their country -- which could be kosher if the sponsors were clearly identified and if they had no effect effect on the actual news coverage -- but that I couldn't find any disclosure myself of the sponsorship. I reached out to a U.S.-based EurasiaNet editor, and he couldn't, either. But he got in touch with his colleagues back in Central Asia, and it turned out that the "Eyes On Kazakhstan" page looked slightly different when they loaded it. Their version shows the "in association with" disclaimer (screenshot here), while Americans see nothing.

This was one of the things I asked about when I got in touch with CNN International. "All campaigns have the ability to geo-target different advertisements to different regions in the world," a press representative told me, though the "in association with" line looks more like a disclaimer than an advertisement. "It's not visible in the U.S. because the U.S. is not a target market." She confirmed that Samruk-Kazyna and the Astana Economic Forum are sponsors and didn't dispute their links to the Kazakh government.

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Max Fisher is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic.

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