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.