KBDI refuses to delay airing of Guantanamo torture documentary

A waterboarding simulation depicted in the documentary 'Torturing Democracy.' about the Guantánamo Bay detention center.
A waterboarding simulation depicted in the documentary

Even as Barack Obama has vowed one of the first acts of his presidency will be to shut down Guantánamo, and even as the topic has been raging in Congress, many Americans will have to wait until the day after George W. Bush leaves office to watch a documentary detailing the horrific policies of his regime.

Though PBS stations across the country have shied from airing “Torturing Democracy”, Colorado’s KBDI Channel 12 wants viewers to know it isn’t hesitating to share the provocative documentary with its viewers.

“The documentary is phenomenal; this is just pure journalism,” says Marcia Simmons, director of marketing and communications for Denver-based KBDI Channel 12. Simmons says she’s been floored by reports that other PBS stations haven’t found time to schedule it until the day after Obama is sworn in.

“We aired it the night before the election and we got good feedback and we got bad feedback — people either love it or they don’t love it, but this was a really good program,” Simmons says.

The station, which broadcasts all over Colorado, aired “Torturing Democracy” twice before the election and plans to show it again on Wednesday, Dec. 17, at 9 p.m .

The 90-minute documentary, produced and written by Sherry Jones, examines interrogation methods that were used by the CIA before migrating to the United States military at Guantánamo Bay in Cuba and other locations.

It also features in-depth interviews with former Guantánamo detainees and senior military and government officials who fought the policies, and details the internal debate within the Bush administration over whether the U.S. government should opt out of the Geneva Conventions to avoid future prosecution for war crimes.

Among those interviewed were Richard Armitage, the former U.S. deputy secretary of state, who provides a compelling description of being waterboarded during his military training and confirms the torturous reality of such practices.

“’Torturing Democracy’ recounts how the Bush White House and the Pentagon decided to make coercive detention and abusive interrogation the official U.S. policy on the war on terror,” writes journalist Bill Moyers, who has gotten involved in efforts to promote the documentary. He calls it “profoundly journalistic and profoundly affecting.

“This one will go into the record books for historians and teachers and others who look back to ask, ‘What did we do?’”

Following its Dec. 17 broadcast on KBDI in Colorado, there will be 30-minute panel discussion moderated by Aaron Brown of “Wide Angle.”

The national controversy over the airing of “Torturing Democracy” has been written about sporadically in recent months. On Oct. 15, The New York Times detailed the difficulties that Jones has had in getting the documentary broadcast in a timely fashion. Though the documentary has been aired on a “grab bag” of PBS stations across the country, including in New York, the network itself decided on a national air date of Jan. 21, the day after Obama is sworn into office.

Since then Jones, with the help of Moyers, has appealed to stations individually for earlier broadcast times — notably they haven’t been successful in convincing the PBS station in Washington, D.C, according to the Times.

Says Jones: “Since it is a story about policy, driven from Washington, that is something I wish were different.”

“It’s been very frustrating,” she says. “There’s something of a public discussion going on and there’s reporting that ought to be out there.”

PBS officials cite several factors that prevented airing it earlier in the summer and fall, including the scheduled broadcast of the animated sitcom “Click & Clack’s As the Wrench Turns,” the late summer political conventions and a desire not to compete against the Olympics, according to the Times.

The difficulties come as the tide has most certainly turned on public opinion of the treatment of the detainees. Obama has promised one of his first acts as president will be to move Guantánamo detainees to the U.S. — including potentially to the federal supermax prison in Colorado for legal hearings and trials.

Just last week, Jane Mayer’s gripping book “The Dark Side: The Inside Story of How the War on Terror Turned Into a War on American Ideals,” was listed by the NYT Book Review as one of the 10 best of 2008. Mayer served as a consultant during the production of “Tortured Democracy.”

The difficulties in getting the documentary aired — on PBS stations of all places — has led to speculation about deeper motivations.

One of the most insightful observations comes from Scott Horton, the noted human rights attorney, who wrote about the controversy in an Oct. 24 commentary published in Tina Brown’s blog The Daily Beast.

This spring, PBS’s distinguished Frontline series aired a mildly critical account of the lead-up to the Iraq War entitled “Bush’s War.” As the airing of the program was announced, the Bush Administration proposed to slash public funding for PBS by roughly half for 2009, by 56 percent for 2010 and eliminating funding entirely for 2011.

Did PBS get the message? Perhaps.

Horton noted PBS’s subsequent reticence in airing “Tortured Democracy” — at least until Bush has left office — and suggests that “PBS appears to be suffering from acute corporate indigestion over [Jones’] work.”

In Colorado, Simmons says viewer response ranged from people writing in to thank the station for airing it, to others saying, “How dare you air this after 9-11?”

“We thought it was very important to air it,” Simmons says. “The whole package put such a face to what’s happened in Guantánamo, and hearing the stories of people who were in there, well, it’s really hard to describe. It’s the kind of thing that makes it hard to go to sleep.”

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