Amid a violent crackdown on a popular uprising, Bahrain paid CNN to get favorable coverage, says a former reporter who believes her documentary on the protests there was censored by the network.
Former CNN journalist Amber Lyon made the documentary more than six months ago. It was aired domestically in the US, but never made it to CNN international, raising claims that the management pulled the plug on the story. RT spoke to Lyon to get the full story of what happened.
RT: You feel your documentary should have been aired internationally. Why?
Amber Lyon: I’ve created a lot of documentaries for CNN that didn’t air internationally. Most I feel should’ve been aired internationally because seasoned, decades-long employees have approached me after it wasn’t aired and told me this should’ve been aired on CNN International and told that they felt that something strange was going on and that I should investigate it. And that’s where it was uncovered that we felt that this documentary was censored, because Bahrain was actually a paying customer for CNN. Bahrain is paying CNN to create content that shows Bahrain in a favorable light. Even though CNN says its content is editorially independent Bahrain can affect that – what we’ve seen with that documentary not airing and also with the constant struggle I had at CNN to get Bahrain coverage, accurate coverage of the human rights abuses on-air while I was there.
RT: CNN prides itself as a bastion of excellent journalism and impartiality, but in this case have they let themselves down?
AL: What CNN is doing is they are essentially creating what some people have termed “infomercials for dictators.” And that’s the sponsored content that they are airing on CNN International that is actually being paid for by regimes and governments. And this violates every principle of journalistic ethics, because we’re supposed to be watchdogs on these governments. We are not supposed to allow them to be a paying customer as journalists. And that’s the issue here – that CNN is feeding, then, this propaganda to the public and not fairly disclosing to the public that this is sponsored content.
For example CNN has been doing these programs for Georgia, Kazakhstan, also as we said Bahrain. One of the programs that they aired for Bahrain was called Bahrain i-List and had a CNN reporter Richard Quest lie from Bahrain for one full week. He was live at the racetrack at one point. There were mentions on his page about pearl diving and all the happy sides of Bahrain. But hard to find were the actual accusations from the majority of the Bahrain people that this regime needs to get out and that this regime is abusing and torturing doctors and journalists. Also difficult to find [were] accurate, simple disclosures on the CNN site and on this video telling viewers that this video you’re watching on this news channel – the most trusted name in news – is being paid for by this regime.”
RT: You witnessed first-hand some heavy-handed tactics in Bahrain while you were making this report. Can you tell us about that?
AL: We were able to kind of dodge our minders and sneak into some of the villages and actually see these atrocities – patients who had run out of hospitals that were shot with birdshot, ambulance drivers who were beaten. And as we were heading back out of these villages we were violently detained by security forces in Bahrain. About 20 masked men with machine guns, who then tried to erase all the video that they found, and luckily my female producer and I were able to hide some discs in our bras and we were able to actually get out of the country with this content. You can imagine Bahrain’s surprise when we got back to the US and this content was airing on CNN, and right after that is when the phone calls started coming into the network complaining about me and trying to get my coverage off the air.
There is constant demonization of Syria, Iran and other countries on the US mainstream media, but similar atrocities are happening in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia and I think this is an overall really harmful to journalism [sic] theme of these mainstream outlets following in the steps of US government and kind of shadowing how the US government feel about these areas.
You are very hard-pressed to find criticizing [sic] going on of Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, but you just see it all day long, demonization of Iran and Syria. This is dangerous to the American public because they are not being given the accurate story and accurate picture of our foreign policy and what’s happening in these other countries, and I fear that we are starting to see a constant demonization of Iran on US networks in what appears to be a systematic matter. For many of us, journalistically, that are noticing this, we are fearing [that] we are going to head into Iraq Number Two, except this time it’s with Iran.
Note: Bahrain denied Lyon’s allegations in a statement, saying they never purchased media space during the period of unrest. Officials also pointed out that, while the documentary was not meant for CNN International, the channel continues to cover the Bahrain uprising, frequently from a critical perspective.
The documentary is “a complete misrepresentation of the realities on the ground” not representative of the majority’s views or the government’s response to the unrest, the country’s Information Affairs Authority told RT.
CNN International argues that its editorial and commercial operations “are completely separate.” In response to the Guardian, it admitted that the channel carried “a very small amount of advertising from the Bahrain Economic Development Board,” but denies the deal has ever bought any editorial influence.
It also insists that Amber Lyon’s Bahrain reporting was featured several times on CNN International and says her documentary was a part of a bigger program on the Arab Spring, which was commissioned for CNN US.