By Michael Galvis
In December 2010, Mohamed Bouazizi, a Tunisian street vendor, set himself on fire in protest of harassment he suffered at the hands of local government officials. His self-immolation was a catalyst for the Tunisian Revolution and the wider protests of the Arab Spring. Impacting countries across the Middle East and in North Africa, the Arab Spring is a series of ongoing mass protests and demonstrations instigated by dictatorships and monarchies, political corruption, human rights violations, extreme poverty, lack of freedom of speech and other matters.
For Tunisia, Bouazizi’s self-sacrifice was an act of defiance that helped end the reign of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali’s 23-year presidency in early 2011.
That same year, similar protests led to the end of other long-standing presidencies, either through force or through peaceful resignation. Perhaps the most well known presidential step-down was in Egypt, when President Hosni Mubarak resigned after 18 days of protests, ending his 30-year reign.
But one small country impacted by the Arab Spring has largely gone unnoticed. There, protestors have been met with torture, mass arrests, systematic use of tear gas and the militarization of hospitals.
Investigative journalist and former CNN reporter Amber Lyon says the protests and government brutality in Bahrain, a tiny island country nestled across the Strait of Hormuz and between Iraq, Iran and Saudi Arabia, is emblematic of the faults of mass media.
Her documentary, iRevolution: Online Warriors of the Arab Spring, highlights the brutality of the Bahraini government. Yet while the documentary was funded by CNN and brings to light severe human rights violations in Bahrain, it never aired on CNN International.
“It was difficult getting any coverage on Bahrain,” Amber told Blindfold, “our documentary was released and we were told it would not be airing on CNN International, which was surprising to me because this was the biggest news story of the decade and they had already paid for the documentary.”
Around the time of the Arab Spring, Bahrainis were feeling the momentum of protests and decided to hit the streets in demand of reform.
But Bahrain has been ruled by the Al Khalifi royal family for two centuries. In seeing how other nations’ rulers had been run out of power, the royal family’s regime responded with a heavy hand, resulting in thousands of arrests and dozens of deaths.
“They militarized hospitals, they beat up ambulance drivers. They actually came in and took doctors out of surgery — as they were performing surgery — and threw them in jail. We even met patients who were self-treating bullet wounds because they had fled these hospitals. And then there’s videos online of [the regime] shooting and killing protestors in broad daylight.”
For the documentary, Amber and a film crew traveled to Bahrain to interview doctors, patients and other civilians on the continuing civil unrest.
Her crew was also met with violence. Several days into filming, they were held at gunpoint by masked men…
But many interviewees were arrested or went into hiding prior to the crew’s arrival in fear of retaliation from the regime. Some that did interview with Amber faced violence, criminal charges and loss of employment.
Her crew was also met with violence. Several days into filming, they were held at gunpoint by masked men, had much of their footage deleted and were taken to a police station to be interrogated for nearly six hours.
Upon completion of iRevolution, the documentary aired in the U.S. and received a positive reception.
“They did let us go on air and right away start talking about everything that was happening in Bahrain. It was really easy in the first week to get on air with Bahrain coverage.”
Then the documentary stopped appearing. Amber suspected her documentary had been pulled due to shoddy reporting. But then leaders at CNN contacted her with concerns about the lack of airtime for the documentary.
“I started investigating and that’s when Glenn Greenwald uncovered [that] the Bahrain Economic Development Board had been paying CNN for positive content. I went and started watching their coverage of Bahrain…They showed this regime as being pro-human rights and pro-democracy and that was the opposite of what I was seeing on the streets. It didn’t add up.”
Later, Amber learned the PR companies working for the regime had presumably complained to CNN about iRevolution.
And while Amber does not have “black and white proof,” she says this is not her first encounter where a media outlet has censored a story in order to keep advertisers content.
“I’ve dealt with it my entire career in mainstream media. It’s why I decided I need to be independent. I will not work for anyone else because my entire career I’ve had to deal with this censorship. And it’s unfortunate because [media outlets] are blurring the line between propaganda and news.”
Meanwhile there is little incentive for the U.S. government to step in Bahrain. The royal family is friendly toward the U.S and has allowed its military to establish a naval base there. It is one of the most strategic bases the military has to check on Iran.
But in the past decade, the U.S. government has presumably done more than turn a blind eye to Bahrain. It has sold more than a billion dollars worth of weapons to the country.
Such a move has fueled the regime in their violence toward peaceful protestors who have largely advocated for democracy and rights.
Amber worked to expose CNN as well as bring national attention to these issues.
“Tax dollars are going straight to these brutal dictators,” she said, “And I believe people sitting at home in Iowa deserve to know the truth.”
And while iRevolution faced hurdles in exposing the brutalities of the regime, it has seen recognition elsewhere.
The documentary won a 2012 New York Festivals International Television and Film Gold Medal Award. Amber and segment producer Taryn Fixel were finalists for the 2011 Livingston Award for Young Journalists.
No longer with CNN, Amber continues advocating for honest media and nonviolence toward protestors, specifically in the U.S. She believes the U.S. government is growing increasingly violent toward protestors.
Her book, “Peace, Love, and Pepper Spray,” chronicles American activism, depicts the militarization of U.S. police forces and shows their brutality.
You can learn more about Amber Lyon and her work at www.PeaceLoveandPepperSpray.com.