BROOKE GLADSTONE: From WNYC in New York, this is NPR's On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD: And I'm Bob Garfield. It's still unclear whether democracy will really take hold in Iraq, but at least one Western import does seem to be sticking - Reality TV. Ever since the January elections there, one of the hottest primetime attractions has been a daily hour-long program on Al Araqiya, the state-run channel set up by American occupiers in 2003. The show is called Terror in the Hands of Justice, and it features captured insurgents, or alleged insurgents, confessing to their crimes - abductions, car bombings, rape and beheadings. Sometimes they're berated by family members of victims on screen - all to drive home the point that these men are utterly contemptible, morally bankrupt, and in some cases, even sexually deviant. Steve Negus wrote about the show last week for the Financial Times, and he joins me on the line from Baghdad. Steve, thanks for joining us.
STEVE NEGUS: Glad to be here. Thank you.
BOB GARFIELD: Is the point to have a kind of Iraq's Most Wanted and to generate tips from the public? Is it to discredit and humiliate the insurgency? What are they after in airing these confessions?
STEVE NEGUS: Well, I think it's both. I mean, three months ago, you know, the insurgency was somewhat of an invisible, frightening, omnipresent force in a lot of parts of Iraq. If you were cooperating with the Americans or working with the Iraqi security forces, it felt like it was all around you, watching everything you did, and if you stepped out of line, it would kill you. What this show has done is sort of put a human face, and not a very frightening or very sympathetic human face, to the insurgency. In many parts of Iraq, the insurgents are no longer figures of fear so much as they are figures of mockery. Combine this with the success of the elections, and particularly in many Shia areas, you know, people now are much less frightened about going to the police and turning them in.
BOB GARFIELD: Is there any doubt about the authenticity of this production?
STEVE NEGUS: Personally, I think that the people who they put on television are genuine insurgents, or people who they at least suspect of being insurgents. One of my friends recognized someone who had briefly abducted him. Whether the confessions are accurate or not, is [LAUGHS] an entirely different matter. I suspect that, you know, the Iraqi police are not gentle people when they catch you, and you know, I suspect there are beatings and probably worse forms of torture are not terribly rare when you're in their custody. And in general, I mean I think, you know, once they've broken these suspects, that the suspect is going to tell them whatever the policeman wants to hear, no matter how outrageous it becomes.
BOB GARFIELD: Some reports of the prisoners who have confessed said that they have obvious bruises. In the episodes you've seen, have you seen anybody who's been clearly beaten up before their appearance?
STEVE NEGUS: I have heard that some of the prisoners have come on sporting bruises, but the prisoners I've seen, while some of them look emotionally broken, are not sporting any physical injuries.
BOB GARFIELD: Over the two months that Terror in the Hands of Justice has been on the air, have you noticed any change in the nature of the confessions in their style, in their substance?
STEVE NEGUS: Iraqis tell me that it started off as very heavy on the people coming in from Saudi Arabia or Yemen or Syria, which is very much in line with trying to present the insurgency as something perpetrated by fanatics from outside Iraq. The show itself has apparently increased the number of tipoffs that security forces are getting, so the pool of captives they have to draw from becomes ever larger and larger. I would imagine that the police probably have a preference for the insurgents who are going to be least sympathetic. More recently, the confessions have been getting wilder and wilder to the extent where you have one supposed militant sheik who's come on the air and claimed to have hosted gay orgies in his mosque under the theological justification that, because these people were fighting for a religious cause, that everything would be forgiven. So why not indulge themselves in this life, and certainly that particular episode, everybody was talking about.
BOB GARFIELD: I'm curious about the Geneva Conventions. There are specific proscriptions against humiliating prisoners. Have either the Iraqi or American officials had to defend themselves against what apparently is an explicit violation of the Geneva Conventions?
STEVE NEGUS: The US, in the Iraqi government line, I believe is that insurgents are not subject to the Geneva Convention. The US military claims that it treats captives according to the terms of the Geneva Convention, but they don't feel they're legally bound to. As far as the Iraqis are concerned, these people are criminal suspects as opposed to prisoners of war, so prisoners in an insurgency are in a gray area. Legally you can do quite a few things to them.
BOB GARFIELD: Al Araqiya is well understood to be a mouthpiece for the Iraqi government. Is there anyone who's actually watching this station?
STEVE NEGUS: Oh, yes. No, it's the one terrestrial station that everybody watches, and you know, it's not quite a mouthpiece in the same sense as like a state television in Egypt or Syria might be. I mean, it is allowed a fair amount of independence. I mean, it very much is a tool of the Iraqi government. And also, you know, the world view put out by Al Iraqiya is not so different from that of many Shias. Since the elections, the views of the Shia majority and the views of the government are coming together somewhat, and they'll probably come together even more when a Shia-dominated government is finally formed.
BOB GARFIELD: What about the Sunni viewers? They seem mostly Sunnis on television being humiliated. How is this playing among the Sunni minority?
STEVE NEGUS: Many Sunnis find it very insulting. They believe that their community as a whole is being demonized, is being, you know, portrayed as a bunch of terrorists. Several Sunni parties have called for this program to be taken off the air, and this is one of the reasons why this program is a bit of a two-edged sword. On the one hand, you know, it is effective in convincing citizens to come forward with information, but on the other hand, it further alienates the Sunni Arabs. And for the insurgency to go away, you know, the Sunni Arab community as a whole has to sort of be willing to throw in their lot with the new political system.
BOB GARFIELD: One last thing - when you go on American Idol, sometimes you get a recording contract, sometimes you get famous for 15 minutes or so; it can change your life forever. The men who have been on Terror in the Hands of Justice - what becomes of them?
STEVE NEGUS: Some of them will probably go on trial, some of them might be amnestied, but I imagine they're not exactly reaping any benefits from appearing in the near future.
BOB GARFIELD: Okay. Steve. Thanks very much.
STEVE NEGUS: My pleasure.
BOB GARFIELD: Steve Negus is Baghdad correspondent for the Financial Times.