A former CNN correspondent defies threats from her former employer to speak out about self-censorship at the network.
In late March 2011, as the Arab Spring was spreading, CNN sent a four-person crew to Bahrain to produce a one-hour documentary on the use of internet technologies and social media by democracy activists in the region. Featuring on-air investigative correspondent Amber Lyon, the CNN team had a very eventful eight-day stay in that small, US-backed kingdom.
By the time the CNN crew arrived, many of the sources who had agreed to speak to them were either in hiding or had disappeared. Regime opponents whom they interviewed suffered recriminations, as did ordinary citizens who worked with them as fixers. Leading human rights activist Nabeel Rajab was charged with crimes shortly after speaking to the CNN team. A doctor who gave the crew a tour of his village and arranged meetings with government opponents, Saeed Ayyad, had his house burned to the ground shortly after. Their local fixer was fired ten days after working with them.
The CNN crew itself was violently detained by regime agents in front of Rajab’s house. As they described it after returning to the US, “20 heavily-armed men”, whose faces were “covered with black ski masks”, “jumped from military vehicles”, and then “pointed machine guns at” the journalists, forcing them to the ground. The regime’s security forces seized their cameras and deleted their photos and video footage, and then detained and interrogated them for the next six hours.
Lyon’s experience both shocked and emboldened her. The morning after her detention, newspapers in Bahrain prominently featured articles about the incident containing what she said were “outright fabrications” from the government. “It made clear just how willing the regime is to lie,” she told me in a phone interview last week.
But she also resolved to expose just how abusive and thuggish the regime had become in attempting to snuff out the burgeoning democracy movement, along with any negative coverage of the government.
“I realized there was a correlation between the amount of media attention activists receive and the regime’s ability to harm them, so I felt an obligation to show the world what our sources, who risked their lives to talk to us, were facing.”
CNN’s total cost for the documentary, ultimately titled “iRevolution: Online Warriors of the Arab Spring”, was in excess of $100,000, an unusually high amount for a one-hour program of this type. The portion Lyon and her team produced on Bahrain ended up as a 13-minute segment in the documentary. That segment, which as of now is available on YouTube, is a hard-hitting and unflinching piece of reporting that depicts the regime in a very negative light.
Amber Lyon on CNN, commenting on the March 2011 repression in Bahrain.
In the segment, Lyon interviewed activists as they explicitly described their torture at the hands of government forces, while family members recounted their relatives’ abrupt disappearances. She spoke with government officials justifying the imprisonment of activists. And the segment featured harrowing video footage of regime forces shooting unarmed demonstrators, along with the mass arrests of peaceful protesters. In sum, the early 2011 CNN segment on Bahrain presented one of the starkest reports to date of the brutal repression embraced by the US-backed regime.
On 19 June 2011 at 8pm, CNN’s domestic outlet in the US aired “iRevolution” for the first and only time. The program received prestigious journalism awards, including a 2012 Gold Medal from New York Festival’s Best TV and Films. Lyon, along with her segment producer Taryn Fixel, were named as finalists for the 2011 Livingston Awards for Young Journalists. A Facebook page created by Bahraini activists, entitled “Thank you Amber Lyon, CNN reporter | From people of Bahrain”, received more than 8,000 “likes”.
Despite these accolades, and despite the dangers their own journalists and their sources endured to produce it, CNN International (CNNi) never broadcast the documentary. Even in the face of numerous inquiries and complaints from their own employees inside CNN, it continued to refuse to broadcast the program or even provide any explanation for the decision. To date, this documentary has never aired on CNNi.
CNNi’s refusal to broadcast ‘iRevolution’
It is CNN International that is, by far, the most-watched English-speaking news outlet in the Middle East. By refusing to broadcast “iRevolution”, the network’s executives ensured it was never seen on television by Bahrainis or anyone else in the region.
CNNi’s decision not to broadcast “iRevolution” was extremely unusual. Both CNN and CNNi have had severe budget constraints imposed on them over the last several years. One long-time CNN employee (to whom I have granted anonymity to avoid repercussions for negative statements about CNN’s management) described “iRevolution” as an “expensive, highly produced international story about the Arab Spring”. Because the documentary was already paid for by CNN, it would have been “free programming” for CNNi to broadcast, making it “highly unusual not to air it”. The documentary “was made with an international audience as our target”, said Lyon. None of it was produced on US soil. And its subject matter was squarely within the crux of CNN International’s brand.
CNNi’s refusal to broadcast “iRevolution” soon took on the status of a mini-scandal among its producers and reporters, who began pushing Lyon to speak up about this decision. In June 2011, one long-time CNN news executive emailed Lyon:
“Why would CNNi not run a documentary on the Arab Spring, arguably the the biggest story of the decade? Strange, no?”
Motivated by the concerns expressed by long-time CNN journalists, Lyon requested a meeting with CNNi’s president, Tony Maddox, to discuss the refusal to broadcast the documentary. On 24 June 2011, she met with Maddox, who vowed to find out and advise her of the reasons for its non-airing. He never did.
In a second meeting with Maddox, which she had requested in early December to follow up on her unanswered inquiry, Lyon was still given no answers. Instead, at that meeting, Maddox, according to Lyon, went on the offense, sternly warning her not to speak publicly about this matter. Several times, Maddox questioned her about this 18 November 2011 tweet by New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, demanding to know what prompted it:
When I asked CNN to comment on Maddox’s meetings with Lyon, they declined to respond on specific details and said he was not available for interview. Instead, they made the following statement:
“The documentary ‘iRevolution’ was commissioned for CNN US. While the programme did not air in full on CNN International, segments of it were shown. This differing use of content is normal across our platforms, and such decisions are taken for purely editorial reasons. CNN International has run more than 120 stories on Bahrain over the past six months, a large number of which were critical in tone and all of which meet the highest journalistic standards.”
Despite Lyon’s being stonewalled by CNNi, she said facts began emerging that shined considerable light on the relationship between the regime in Bahrain and CNNi when it came to “iRevolution”. Upon returning from Bahrain in April, Lyon appeared on CNN several times to recount her own detention by security forces and to report on ongoing brutality by the regime against its own citizens, even including doctors and nurses providing medical aid to protesters. She said she did not want to wait for the documentary’s release to alert the world to what was taking place.
In response, according to both the above-cited CNN employee and Lyon, the regime’s press officers complained repeatedly to CNNi about Lyon generally and specifically her reporting for “iRevolution”. In April, a senior producer emailed her to say:
“We are dealing with blowback from Bahrain govt on how we violated our mission, etc.”
“It became a standard joke around the office: the Bahrainis called to complain about you again,” recounted Lyon. Lyon was also told by CNN employees stationed in the region that “the Bahrainis also sent delegations to our Abu Dhabi bureau to discuss the coverage.”
Internal CNN emails reflect continuous pressure on Lyon and others to include claims from the Bahraini regime about the violence in their country – even when, says Lyon, she knew first-hand that the claims were false. One April 2011 email to Lyon from a CNN producer demands that she include in her documentary a line stating that “Bahrain’s foreign minister says security forces are not firing on unarmed civilians,” and another line describing regime claims accusing “activists like Nabeel Rajab of doctoring photos … fabricating injuries”.
Having just returned from Bahrain, Lyon says she “saw first-hand that these regime claims were lies, and I couldn’t believe CNN was making me put what I knew to be government lies into my reporting.”
Bahrain’s PR offensive
As negative news stories of its brutal repression grew in the wake of the Arab Spring, the regime undertook a massive, very well-funded PR campaign to improve its image. As reported by Bahrain Watch, the regime has spent more than $32m in PR fees alone since the commencement of the Arab Spring in February, 2011, including payments to some of Washington, DC’s most well-connected firms and long-time political operatives, such as former Howard Dean campaign manager Joe Trippi.
One of the largest contracts the regime had was with the DC-based PR firm Qorvis Communications. As Time reported last November, the firm, which also does extensive PR work for Bahrain’s close allies, the Saudi regime, “has a branch dedicated to rehabilitating the reputation of unsavory governments, a niche practice that has seen great demand in the wake of the Arab spring”.
Qorvis often led the way in complaining to CNNi about its Bahrain coverage. An internal email from CNN at the beginning of 2012, seen by the Guardian, records the firm’s calling to complain about excessively favorable mentions of Nabeel Rajab, who had been arrested and charged over an anti-regime tweet, and was just this month sentenced to three years in prison for an “illegal demonstration”.
The long-time CNN employee said that “iRevolution” was vetted far more heavily than the typical documentary:
“Because Amber was relatively new in reporting on the region, and especially because of the vocal complaints from the Bahrainis, the documentary was heavily scrutinized. But nobody could ever point to anything factually or journalistically questionable in Amber’s reporting on Bahrain.”
In response to several inquiries, Bahrain’s Information Affairs Authority refused to say whether they had complained to CNNi about Lyon and “iRevolution”. A spokesman, Fahad A AlBinali, instead offered only a generic statement that “on occasion we contact media outlets to provide correct information or a balanced view of the subject,” and, he claimed, when doing so, they are simply trying “to help ensure that coverage of Bahrain is accurate and unbiased”. Subsequent attempts to obtain specific answers from the authority about the regime’s complaints to CNNi about “iRevolution” and Lyon went unanswered.
After Lyon’s crew returned from Bahrain, CNN had no correspondents regularly reporting on the escalating violence. In emails to her producers and executives, Lyon repeatedly asked to return to Bahrain. Her requests were denied, and she was never sent back. She thus resorted to improvising coverage by interviewing activists via Skype in an attempt, she said, “to keep Bahrain in the news”.
In March 2012, Lyon was laid off from CNN as part of an unrelated move by the network to outsource its investigative documentaries. Now at work on a book, Lyon began in August to make reference to “iRevolution” on her Twitter account, followed by more than 20,000 people.
On 16 August, Lyon wrote three tweets about this episode. CNNi’s refusal to broadcast “iRevolution”, she wrote, “baffled producers”. Linking to the YouTube clip of the Bahrain segment, she added that the “censorship was devastating to my crew and activists who risked lives to tell [the] story.” She posted a picture of herself with Rajab and wrote:
“A proponent of peace, @nabeelrajab risked his safety to show me how the regime oppresses the [people] of #Bahrain.”
The following day, a representative of CNN’s business affairs office called Lyon’s acting agent, George Arquilla of Octagon Entertainment, and threatened that her severance payments and insurance benefits would be immediately terminated if she ever again spoke publicly about this matter, or spoke negatively about CNN.
When I asked CNN specifically about this alleged threat delivered to Lyon’s agent, the company declined to confirm or deny it, commenting:
“In common with other companies we do not discuss internal personnel matters.”
Responding to Lyon’s charge of censorship, CNN’s spokesman replied:
“CNN International has a proud record of courageous, independent and honest reporting from around the world. Any suggestion that the network’s relationship with any country has influenced our reporting is wholly and demonstrably wrong.”
It is true that CNNi can point to numerous recent reports describing the violence against protesters by the regime in Bahrain. Given the scope of the violence, and how widely it has now been reported elsewhere, it would be virtually impossible for CNNi never to broadcast such reports while still maintaining any claim to credibility. But such reports required far more journalistic courage to air in the first half of 2011, when so few knew of the brutality to which the regime had resorted, than now, when it is widely known. Moreover, CNNi’s reports on the violence in Bahrain take a much more muted tone than when it reports on regimes disfavored by the US, such as Iran or Syria.
More importantly, the tidal wave of CNNi’s partnerships and associations with the regime in Bahrain, and the hagiography it has broadcast about it (see the accompanying commentary on the relationship between the network and the regime), appear to have overwhelmed any truly critical coverage.
But CNN’s threat had the opposite effect to what was intended. Lyon insists she never signed any confidentiality or non-disclosure agreement with CNN in any case, but she is sanguine about any risk to her severance package. “At this point,” Lyon said, “I look at those payments as dirty money to stay silent. I got into journalism to expose, not help conceal, wrongdoing, and I’m not willing to keep quiet about this any longer, even if it means I’ll lose those payments.”