(MintPress) – In Bahrain — a tiny island nation in the Middle East — thousands are being systematically tortured, detained or killed due to the fact that they request a fair say in the governance of their country. Sunni suppression of the Shiite minority — emboldened by military and financial assistance from the Gulf Cooperation Council, a Saudi Arabia-backed supranational organization consisting of Sunni-based monarchies within the region — has reached a heightened level of violence and inhumanity, despite the fact that little is being said about the situation in the mainstream media.
In Part I of this series, the nature of the crisis in Bahrain — the history of the strife, the nature or lack thereof of foreign interference in the Bahraini royal family’s treatment of Shiite minority and the gravitas of the violence — was examined. In Part II, theories on why the media chooses to ignore this story is examined and questions about media neutrality are asked. At what point does the media stops reporting a story and starts becoming compliant to it?
Part I of the series can be found here.
Amber Lyon is an award-winning documentarian and journalist whose work covering Craigslist sex trafficking and the Gulf of Mexico oil spill has won her awards and acclaim. In March of 2011, CNN sent a four person team to Bahrain to produce a one-hour documentary of the protests and the use of the Internet and social media by democracy activists in the region.
Most of the pre-arranged sources for interviews were in hiding or disappeared by the time the team arrived, and those who were interviewed received severe recriminations by the Bahraini government, as did any Bahraini that assisted the reporting team. A doctor who gave the crew a tour of his village and arranged meetings with government officials found his house burned down by government agents. The crew itself was violently detained. As they explained the situation,
“Sources warned us our phones and email were likely being monitored. Even more disturbing, many of the people who had agreed to talk to us had been arrested or gone into hiding after security forces raided their homes and threatened them, according to family members or others close to them. Their alleged crime? Speaking out against the government, we were told.
“… We met men who had been shot with scores of pellets. One man, whose name we have chosen not to reveal, used a razor to cut about 40 pellets from under his skin. He told us he went to the hospital first but riot police beat him in his bed. When the military took over the hospital last month, he left and was too scared to return.
“… When we arrived at Rajab’s home, police helicopters were hovering low overhead and suddenly six military vehicles and regular trucks drove up.
“Twenty men in black ski masks surrounded our CNN team and Rajab. As the men came up to us we tried to film with a flip-cam. They immediately grabbed the camera and deleted all the images they could find.
“The masked men forced us to get on the ground at gunpoint. Rajab was pushed up against a car with his hands up. The gunmen would not show us any identification to verify who they worked for.
“We were taken to a local police station in Boudaiya, where we saw four people facing a wall wearing blindfolds and handcuffs.
“Then we were moved to another station, in Hamad Town, where we were interrogated as a group and individually. The questions ranged from why we were in Bahrain and what we were filming, to far more personal questions, such as our religion and details about our families.
“We were also told we had to sign a document, written in Arabic, supposedly agreeing to only film and ask about social media and Facebook. We refused.
“We were never hurt or mistreated, though we were accused of being liars, of having fraudulent passports, and being in the country without permission, none of which were true. After about six hours we were released when officials from the Ministry of Information came for us.
“The next morning newspapers prominently featured an account of our arrest, quoting Information Ministry officials, which was completely inaccurate. It charged that we had been working without proper identification, when in fact we had both our CNN identification and passports with us.
“Over the weekend, we learned that Rajab was referred to the military for prosecution for publishing pictures on Facebook of a man who died in police custody, whose body appeared to show signs of torture. The Bahraini government says the images were fabricated.
“After our arrest, Bahraini government minders were attached to our team at all times. We were forbidden to film tanks or military, or the Pearl Square roundabout. Instead our government minders took us to a local shopping mall.
“We were warned by government officials not to press any further, or we would be arrested again. An official with the Ministry of Information told us ‘this time we might not be able to get you free again.’”
Emboldened by what she personally experienced and by what those who tried to help her went through, she committed to documenting her report unflinchingly. Her 13-minute portion of the documentary “iRevolution: Online Warriors of the Arab Spring” — which is available on YouTube — unapologetically cast the Bahraini regime in a poor light, as torture victims tell of their treatment at the hands of government officials, government officials justifying the imprisonment of activists and the regime shooting unarmed demonstrators. “iRevolution” won multiple awards, including the 2012 Gold Medal from the New York Festival’s Best TV and Films.
Despite this, CNN only aired it once, on June 19, 2011 at 8 p.m. It never aired on the program’s sponsor, CNN International, despite the program costing more than $100,000 to produce. CNNi denies not airing the program, saying that — despite not being shot in America and despite only being shown once — it was meant for the U.S. domestic market. After Lyon was laid off from CNN in an unrelated restructuring move, she tweeted three times about the episode, complaining how the censorship was devastating to herself and her crew.
She also wrote, “A proponent of peace, @nabeelrajab risked his safety to show me how the regime oppresses the [people] of #Bahrain.”
The next day, a CNN business affairs office representative contacted Lyon’s agent and informed him that Lyon’s severance payments and insurance benefits would be immediately terminated if Lyon ever speaks publicly again of this matter or speaks negatively about CNN.
CNN has refused to talk about this or has denied it uncategorically.
CNNi is the largest English-speaking news outlet servicing the Middle East. After the 2008 fiscal crisis, CNN lost many of its corporate sponsors, forcing the network to seek revenue from different sources. One of these sources are arrangements made “in association with” the government of a country in order to promote the positive economic and political climate of the sponsoring nation. These produced programs, which constitute CNNi’s “Eye on” series (i.e., “Eye on Georgia,” “Eye on the Philipines,” “Eye on Poland,” etc.), are all designed for propagandic — and not journalistic — purposes.
However, the disclaimer attesting to this is hard to see, if present at all. In six-point gray font, the disclaimer from the “Eye on Lebanon” site reads (as it appears on the site), ”CNN’s Eye On series often carries sponsorship originating from the countries we profile. However CNN retains full editorial control over all of its reports.”
CNN’s sponsorship policy states that:
“[P]arts of CNN’s coverage beyond the daily news are produced as Special Reports, which attract sponsors who pay to associate their products or services with the editorial content,’ but claims that ‘at no stage do the sponsors have a say in which stories CNN covers.”
Bahrain is one of CNN’s biggest customers. CNN has been in business with Bahrain, producing “sponsored news” programs with the government, since 2008. New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen explains:
“The value of what CNN is trying to do to be this consensus news product around the world – not just in the Western economic club but around the world – has many serious consequences. One of the consequences is that it puts you into business with ruling regimes in order to get on the air. Of course, there’s a relationship between what you broadcast, what you put out as news and the likelihood of getting accepted by regimes.
“The nature of this business leads directly to harmlessness in news. That’s the way to understand CNN.”
“CNN sources say the network has bowed to considerable pressure on its editors. Israeli officials boast that they now have only to call a number at the network’s headquarters in Atlanta to pull any story they do not like.”
Lyon once reported about the pressure the Bahraini government placed on CNN. “It became a standard joke around the office: The Bahrainis called to complain about you again.” Lyon was also told that “the Bahrainis also sent delegations to our Abu Dhabi bureau to discuss the coverage.”
In light of nearly full journalistic censorship in Bahrain, and a lack of interest from the United States and — by extension — the United Nations, the Shiite protesters have been forced to make their plight known in unique ways. On May 29, human rights activist Abdulhadi al-Khawaja ended a 110-day hunger strike. Protesting his imprisonment, al-Khawaja chose to start eating voluntarily because doctors were force-feeding him and because Nabeel Rajab, the head of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, was released from incarceration.
Hunger strikes have become a powerful tool toward drawing international attention. On Oct. 13, five medics went on a hunger strike to protest their arrests for involvement in 2011’s anti-regime protests. They were among the 20 arrested Shiite doctors and nurses who worked at the Salmaniya Medical Complex in the capital during the month-long uprising. On April 18, an online call for a global hunger drive was put out:
“Bahrainis approved in many ways that they created the most peaceful civilized Arabic revolution,it started on 14th of Feb around two months now and no one could witness violent actions …
“This peaceful civilized movement has been suppressed brutally. And that was not enough for the criminal Bahraini regime and the Saudi nasty invader … what they planned for and what they are doing now is a decadent sectarian, ethnic cleansing. More than 25 martyrs were killed; four of them were killed under the brutal torture in custody. There are more than 500 detainees that no one knows what the situation they are living in detention is, 30 of them are women, and 116 of them are kids, all of them were arrested because they had a mouth that wanted to speak for freedom …
“Me, you, anyone of your family might be with them in any moment … just being one of the people who passed by a protest one day is an enough reason to be arrested, save the detainees lives and save yourself from being arrested …
“One more time Bahrainis will prove to the whole world that they are peaceful civilized people; they are going to raise their demand through a hunger strike this time, join it pro-freedom protest against the unjustness in Bahrain …”
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