Journalists covering the Arab Spring often times they found themselves in danger situations. The subject itself risks their reputations, livelihoods and sometimes ever they lives by speaking out. Such was the situation in Bahrain when journalist Amber Lyon shot her documentary “iRevolution: Online Warriors of the Arab Spring” produced by CNN. Now Lyon says she is the victim of censorship.
Tell us about your experiences in Bahrain? How did it all come about that you were selected to go there and report?
I was working at documentary investigative unit at CNN. That unit has been dissolved, that’s why I’m no longer with the network. And we had gone over there to do a documentary on social media and how it had galvanized the Arab Spring. And while we were there, one of the countries we focused on was Bahrain. So we were in Bahrain reporting and happened to notice the Saudi troops entering the country and really created a massive police state and activists were going missing, our sources were going missing. They had militarized the hospitals, we have seen ambulance drivers who were beaten, doctors, journalists and protestors as well. So we shifted our focus on human rights’ abuses in this country and while we were there filming these abuses, crew was violently detained by Bahraini security forces at machine gunpoint. But we were able to actually get out with some of this video and bring it back and start airing that on CNN.
Where did your dispute with CNN begin?
It happened first – and I know CNN will say that it already did lots of Bahrain stories, and that’s true – when we first returned I went on air quite often to really urgently inform the public of what was going on, because some of the people were at that time being tortured. And I got on air very frequently and easily at the beginning. But then phone calls started coming in from Bahrain and also from the numerous PR companies representing Bahrain. And eventually I started noticing that these PR statements were being added into my reporting by editors in order to give Bahrain’s side of the story. But in many situations that was just propaganda. So it started concerning me. It also became more and more difficult, because these were stories on air and I had to cut out some much of red tape. It almost became ridiculous and so time-consuming that it was difficult to get Bahrain covered on air. Three months later we finished our documentary in June and it aired on CNN U.S., but didn’t air on CNN International. And that’s where this dispute on censorship raised. When it comes to black and white of the situation here is that after it didn’t air on CNN international, I began an investigation and found out that CNN is taking money from regime in order to create sponsored content.
Let’s go back. You said that your documentary did, in fact, air on CNN, but not on CNN International. Was there an agreement that it’d be aired on CNN International? Because in their defense they said that they never intended to air it on CNN International. What was your understanding?
My understanding was, of course, a lot of documentaries didn’t air on CNN International. And that’s a great and easy excuse. That being said, the entire documentary was filmed overseas with this audience in mind. And if you count employee’s salaries and everything else, documentary was well over 300,000 to produce and if it was free content, we would just have given CNN International. What really prompted me was this long-time CNN executive contacting me, writing me, meeting with me, calling me, telling me he needs to look into this, telling me that something suspicious is going on. And when I started looking into it, I found out that Bahrain is actually a paying customer at CNN. Bahrain is giving CNN undisclosed amount of money to create positive content. CNN may say that it’s independent. But you watch some of this content and tell me what you think! They’re going live on Bahrain’s pearl divers at a time when the country is going through horrific human rights’ abuses and majority of the people are revolting! And they’re taking money not only from Bahraini regime – Kazakhstan, Georgia, numerous amounts of countries in exchange for creating these hour-long-plus programs that viewers don’t know are being sponsored by actual regimes. Regardless of whether they say they censor that Bahrain documentary or not – this network calls itself “the most trusted name in news” – and they’re taking money from regimes in exchange for content! That crashes all journalistic ethics.
CNN’s response was that alongside many other news’ organizations, they have a very small amount of advertising from the Bahrain Economic Development Board. What you’re saying here is much heavier charges. Do you think that foreign governments are effectively influencing CNN’s coverage and American news outlets have effectively been convinced to air positive stories about countries because of monetary issues?
Of course! It’s blank and white. You watch this content! In some cases they have government officials disguised as experts in these reports. Watch the report on Georgia! Watch the report on Bahrain! It’s not editorially independent or it’s a lot rosier than news typically is. We, as journalists, re supposed to be watchdogs on government. And how can you be a watchdog on a paying customer? You watch the CNN i-List program that was paid for by Bahrain. It’s CNN i-List. You can go on YouTube and see the commercial. Not once our viewers notified that this is actually a paid-for commercial content. And as an unassuming viewer, you don’t know that you’re being fed propaganda on the “most trusted name of news”. And I feel that it’s not only defrauding viewers, it’s also defrauding journalists. I was never told that they were taking money from the very regime that I was investigating!
Speaking of CNN’s own journalists, one of the things they said in their answer to your charges they said, “Look, we have had lots of coverage on what’s going on in Bahrain! We’ve sent numerous reporters there, lots of whom are fluent Arabic speakers.” Did you ever feel suppressed with some people pointing you out not to say some things about Bahrain in terms of when you spoke out?
Like I said, the propaganda statements were added to my reporting and I had to be softer with my language in regard to referring to Bahrain regime. I had to call it “a government” which makes it sound to the U.S. that it’s democratic. And there were various situations when it was more difficult to cover the Bahrain stories than other stories I was reporting on. When we were in Bahrain it was the time of intense crackdown on protestors when Saudi troops entered and really started grounding these protestors one by one. Bodies were being just dumped out. Security forces were going from neighborhood to neighborhood blocking out the opposition. That was a critical time to get the coverage on Bahrain and we were one of the only crews in the world in the country. So, our coverage was vital. After we left in March, CNN didn’t send another crew back until June.
You mentioned the difficulty in covering, in having to change the language from “regime” to “government” and what that does. In response to that, CNN was saying that they were trying to get the other side, that journalism always gets both sides of the story. How do you get both sides of the story if your reporting is showing what you’ve seen and obviously it’s very compelling and you have a lot of dramatic stories to tell – is there fair other side? And who do you present the other side in a fair way?
That’s difficult and tough. Journalistically though it’s not journalism, what they were doing – they would write a page-long criticism of my journalism pretty much slamming it calling it unethical. They put this statement on their website and linked it to my videos. Stuff like that is propaganda. It’s not journalism! And I noticed that regime systematically called these protestors “Iran-backed” and “terrorists” and “extremists”. And they used these three words over and over. They even didn’t care what the story is about. They just wanted these words in the stories so that the American public is fed that word over and over and ultimately begin to believe that these protestors are terrorists or extremists. And I saw this systematic use of propaganda similar to the way the American public was fed “weapons of mass destruction” leading to Iraq war. This is a systematic was to try to influence public opinion. And I saw them doing that. And I didn’t want it to be included in my reporting, but was forced to. And that’s dangerous – no matter how eccentric the statements are, if they’re repeated over and over, people begin to take them in their minds as truth. You talk to anyone who studies psychology. And that was dangerous for me, because I felt that they were trying to delegitimize these protestors very systematically. And I don’t think that in journalism we should allow this. We should prove our statements. And I had no proof that these protestors were terrorists! Everything I had seen was the protestors terrorized by the government and by the regime. Until I can’t prove my statements, I won’t put them in my reporting, because that’s just propaganda.
You talked about these editors and other senior people at CNN who urged you to look closer into what was going on. What did they do? Did they leave? How did they respond to what happened to you and to your reporting?
I only had positive response. But that being said, I don’t know if anyone left. I know that it bothers them. I know there’s a lot of talk among my old colleagues. Whether any journalist will come out in the future – I don’t know, but now I’m the only one.
What are you going to do to go forward? How are you going to approach your contracts with media outlets to ensure you can uphold journalism standards and ethics that you want?
I’m not going to have any more contracts with media outlets. I’ve worked in the mainstream media in the U.S. for 10 years. And I was systematically censored at almost every outlet I worked at. And right now the state of the mainstream media in the U.S. is journalistically scary. And I think that the problem is that we have too many executives who are businessmen making decisions, we don’t have journalists making decisions with journalistic values on the bottom line. And a lot of these corporations don’t want to lose a dollar and they just want to please everyone. They don’t take stances they should be taking journalistically. So I will not be working with any media outlet. I’m working now with other journalists, New York Time reporters, other journalists who feel the same way, with whom we are trying to come up with a solution
Ultimately, someone has to pay you a salary, money has to come from somewhere. There’re other places to work at. Perhaps, it’s not answering to a dollar. Do you think there’s a way to go? You can be an effective journalist, get paid, have a livelihood? What do you think would work?
I can’t trust anyone anymore. I’m an idealist. I have old-fashioned journalistic ethics and I’ve seen it crashed too many times working with other outlets. I’m just working now with other journalists and starting my own thing. And I also do a lot of photography. So I’m making money from that. I’m working on a book A Photographic Essay of Protests in the U.S. You know, I’ll be fine! But I refuse to work for another outlet, because in the end everyone has some kind of agenda. And unfortunately, it’s usually not considering the public good and the American people and what they need to hear. Unfortunately, people stand to criticize Americans. If you travel overseas, you’ll mention that. These poor people are constantly seeing lies by the media and how do they know what to believe? Most of them can’t afford to travel to see the truth like we can as journalists and it’s a shame. As journalists, we’re beginning to step up in this country and take back the media. For me the only way is to do my own thing.