CNN Whistleblower Deconstructs CNN Response to Censorship Allegations
By Amber Lyon /

Former CNN correspondent turned whistleblower, Amber Lyon, analyzes CNN’s response to a series of stories that ran in the Guardian that expose how the network is earning money from oppressive regimes in exchange for creating and airing content that casts a favorable light on the regimes.  The stories also revealed CNN International refused to air CNN’s own award-winning documentary, ‘iRevolution’, a documentary exposing the Bahrain regime’s brutal crackdown on pro-democracy protesters.

CNN uses multiple misleading and distracting public relations tactics in its response to Glenn Greenwald’s Guardian investigation, a response that fails to provide viewers with answers to the investigation’s central, most damning revelations.  

Instead of watchdogging governments around the world, CNN International is earning money from them, producing what might as well be called ‘infomercials-for-dictators’, sponsored shows and content that cast a positive light on some of the world’s most oppressive regimes.

With vague disclosures, the news organization is defrauding unsuspecting viewers and its own journalists who often risk their lives to expose those same oppressive regimes.  

The  ‘Most Trusted Name in News’ must ultimately decide whether it’s in the business of government propaganda or journalism, because despite the network’s claims of objectivity, I learned firsthand CNN is having trouble biting the hand that feeds it.  

I’ll take this time to remind network executives:

"Journalism is printing what someone else does not want printed.  Everything else is public relations."   -George Orwell

Greenwald’s investigations:

Part 1: Why Didn't CNNi Air its Own 'iRevolution' Documentary?

Part 2: CNN and the Business of State-Sponsored TV News


CNN Response:

CNN International's Response to the Guardian  




UPDATE: Here is CNN International's response to Glenn Greenwald's story in the Guardian about Amber Lyon's documentary, iRevolution: Online Warriors of the Arab Spring.

CNN International has carried advertising and sponsored content since the 1990s. The critical issue is that our editorial operations and our commercial operations are completely separate. No deal ever buys any editorial influence.

Alongside many other international news outlets, CNN International has carried a very small amount of advertising from the Bahrain Economic Development Board.

Before, during and after the production timeframe and airing of this specific documentary our editorial coverage of Bahrain has been plentiful, thorough, unbiased and frequently critical, as our previous response below underlines and any search on will attest.

CNNI's previous response after the jump.

1.  False:  CNN International did not air "its own documentary".

The Truth:  It was never intended to air on CNN International.  It was an hour-long program about the impact of social media on the Arab Spring that was commissioned for CNN US, where it ran in June of 2011.  The portion of it that concerned Bahrain lasted about 13 minutes.

Despite Greenwald’s speculation about the editorial choices that are made when operating multiple networks with different audience profiles, there is nothing unusual about this programming decision. “



I was approached by numerous CNN employees, some employed by the network for decades, who told me this programming decision was suspiciously unusual. I’ve produced numerous pieces for CNN US that did not run on CNN International, but this was different. Other factors were at play here- Bahrain was a paying customer.  

One long time executive wrote me to say:

"Why would CNNi not run a documentary on the Arab Spring, arguably the the biggest story of the decade? Strange, no?"

Combine this with all the red tape I had to cut through to get regular, day-of Bahrain stories on-air, and I launched my investigation.




 “2.  False:  CNN International ensured Amber's reporting "was never seen on television by Bahrainis or anyone else in the region."

The Truth:  Amber’s reporting from Bahrain was actually featured and promoted on CNN International.  This happened months before the full documentary aired on CNN US.   While not exhaustive, here are examples when her work was featured:

  1. April 11, 2011.  Amber’s Bahrain reporting was featured four different times across the day on CNN International .  This included a 14 minute segment that aired in European prime time where a lengthy portion of her reporting (which became part of the documentary) was shown and Amber was interviewed for nine minutes over two segments of the show.
  1. April 12/overnight April 13, 2011.  Amber’s reporting is again featured four different times.  Again, during European prime time, there is a 17 minute segment with Amber highlighting her Bahrain reporting.   A five minute segment of her Bahrain report is shown and she is interviewed and takes questions from Facebook and Twitter.
  1. April 15, 16, 17 and 18.  An entire half hour program called "Best of Backstory" is dedicated to Amber's reporting from Bahrain.  It runs five times, including a run in European prime time on April 16, 2011.
  1. Amber was thrilled with CNN International's showcasing of her work.  She said on the air:  “I was surprised. I didn't know that that many people would look at the story so positively or really thank CNN for it. I think they created a thank you Amber Lyons CNN Facebook page and I got tons of tweets and the response has really been phenomenal.”
  1. All told, CNN International featured Amber’s reporting from Bahrain at least 16 times in this one week period and it received almost 3 and a half hours of airtime.
  1. At the core of Greenwald's accusations, he casually uses references to the entire iRevolution documentary as interchangeable with Amber Lyon's reporting from Bahrain.  This is sloppy and misleading.  Only a portion of the documentary covered Amber's experiences in Bahrain, and that reporting was heavily featured on CNN International.  The other segments concerned Tunisia and Egypt.  Had Greenwald been clearer about this distinction, the underlying (and false) premise of his article would have fallen apart.”



CNN is misleading readers at best. All of the above touts of Bahrain coverage are from April 2011, the documentary wasn’t written, edited, and ready for air until June 2011.  

It was the regime’s response to my Bahrain reporting immediately upon my return to the U.S. during this one week in April, that sources say led to the eventual censorship of the documentary by CNN International in June 2011.  




3.  Misleading:  Amber and her crew were the principal vehicle for CNN’s coverage of Bahrain in 2011.

The Truth:  Amber went to Bahrain for a documentary to be aired on CNN US.  Programming executives at CNN International did not even know she was there until she began tweeting from Bahrain.  This was because Amber failed to follow CNN policy when traveling to and reporting from areas in turmoil. “



CNN is trying to distract the reader from focusing on the real issue- the money CNN earns from repressive regimes in exchange for creating and airing content that makes the regimes ‘look good’.

CNN is trying to assault my character, using the ‘kill the messenger’ tactic, one of the most obvious responses to a public relations crisis.  If CNN International was unaware four CNN staff members had entered Bahrain during a time of intense turmoil, there are much bigger fish to fry.  The correspondent does not bear the blame.



CNN Cont’d:

“In fact, by the time Amber arrived in Bahrain, CNN already had been covering the unrest in Bahrain for many weeks.  By mid February 2011 CNN had already deployed several of its most well respected international correspondents to report on the unrest and the government's violent response, including Nic Robertson, Arwa Damon, Rima Maktabi and CNN International Anchor Hala Gorani.  *Damon, Maktabi and Gorani are all fluent Arabic speakers.”



CNN International’s ‘most well respected international correspondents’ were not in Bahrain at a time when protesters arguably needed their watchdog skills the most- during an intense crackdown in late March 2011.

When we entered the country in late March 2011, we were the only CNN reporters in Bahrain, and one of the only international television crews in the country witnessing the crackdown.   Bahraini and Saudi forces had militarized the country’s hospitals, tortured doctors, patients, journalists, and were using UN-approved crowd control weapons to suffocate protesters in tear gas and fill their bodies with birdshot.

*I may not speak fluent Arabic, but I am fluent in identifying and investigating human rights abuse issues and in watchdog journalism.  My work has been honored with 3 Emmy Awards, an Edward R. Murrow, and I was nominated last year as a Livingston Award finalist for young journalists for the second time for my Bahrain reporting. 




4.  False:  CNN avoided covering events in Bahrain “in the first half of 2011.”

The Truth:   CNN had multiple, top level international correspondents reporting from Bahrain as early as mid February 2011.  These extraordinary reports and the multiple features of Amber’s reporting in April alone prove the falsity of Greenwald’s claim.”



CNN did have correspondents in Bahrain in February 2011 at the start of the revolution, but the reporters were later assigned to other locations.

When we entered Bahrain in March 2011, we were the only CNN crew in the country.  After we left the country on April 3, 2011, CNN did not send another correspondent back to the Bahrain until mid June 2011, despite numerous requests from me to return to the country report on the dissolving human rights situation.    




5.  False:  CNN pulled its punches in its reporting on the situation in Bahrain in 2011.

The Truth:  CNN International ran more than twenty stories in February 2011 that were critical of the situation in Bahrain, including a piece by CNN Anchor Hala Gorani that spoke directly to the carefully managed public image of Bahrain and how that compared with harsh realities of life for those in the Shiite majority who are excluded from the government.  Indeed, during the months leading up to the US airing of the documentary, CNN produced and aired 40 separate packages critical of Bahrain and the events unfolding there.”



Once again, the stories CNN references are from February 2011.  The ‘iRevolution’ censorship allegations refer to June 2011.    


CNN:6.  False:  There was something scandalous about a requirement that the documentary include a response from the Bahraini government.

The Truth:   Seeking and publishing a response from the subject of a story is Journalism 101.”


CNN calls this ‘Journalism 101’.  I call it ‘Propaganda 101’.  

My duty as an investigative journalist is to be a watchdog who finds and exposes the truth to the people, not to ‘be fair’ and habitually include responses from oppressive regimes.  

Including responses that you know are not true undermines the truth, and adds potentially dangerous propagandistic side effects to your reports- think ‘weapons of mass destruction’.  CNN repeated that U.S. government-provided response phrase to viewers an indefinite number of times leading into the Iraq war, even though CNN could not independently verify the veracity of the statement.

There’s a psychological effect that even if viewers hear something they know to be false, if it’s repeated enough, they begin to categorize it in their minds as truth.  

Bahrain uses these propaganda tactics by continually referring to protesters as ‘terrorists’ , ‘iran-backed’, even though there’s no evidence to prove the veracity of either claim.

My scripts in particular were held up in edit for relatively long durations as CNN meticulously awaited Gaddafi-esque Bahrain regime responses.  

The regime said journalist Karim Fakhrawi died of liver failure while in police custody, even though his body bore horrific signs of torture. (

The regime accused protesters of using makeup to fake wounds, linking to a video that activists later point out was filmed in Iraq for a movie in Iraq. (

CNN went as far as posting links underneath my online stories to a regime-crafted report entitled ‘CNN Report on Bahrain Flawed’. The unedited government reports accuse my work of being unbalanced and biased.  

( )

CNN did not inform me they posted those Bahrain response links underneath my work, nor offered me the chance to add the truth.  

Once the pattern of CNN bookending my work with government propaganda became inevitable, I began to wonder if it was better for the plight of Bahrain’s pro-democracy protesters if I just quit reporting on Bahrain for the network altogether. 

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