Amid the chaos, Iraqis turn to TV, Web to be heard

McClatchy NewspapersDecember 17, 2010 

BAGHDAD — Amid political gridlock, endemic corruption, infrastructure breakdowns and persistent violence, ordinary Iraqis often feel that the chaos drowns out their voices. On television and online, however, there's plenty of space to be heard.

"There's a problem with the sewage system in the Hurriyah neighborhood," one Baghdad resident reported via a glitchy cell phone line recently on "Hello Iraqiya," a new morning call-in show on the state-run Iraqiya channel.

"We are teachers who were accepted for graduate studies, but the Education Ministry hasn't given us permission to leave yet," said a caller from Najaf, in the country's south.

Long-suffering Iraqis have many words to describe their government; "accessible" and "responsive" aren't among them. Stymied by red tape and lacking formal mechanisms, many are taking to TV shows and websites to air complaints about their government, from the heartrending to the humdrum, and by the thousands.

"Once again, your Highness the Minister," began a particularly acid letter to the national security minister that was posted this week on Kitabat.com, a popular Iraqi website. "We find ourselves compelled to write to you not through official channels ... but through media outlets that you consider blasphemous." The letter went on to accuse the security services of a long list of abuses, including illegal imprisonment, torture, sectarian bias and corruption.

The missives aren't expected to produce results, experts say, but they fill up a substantial portion of the media space in a country where unemployment is rife, one in four people lacks clean drinking water and political leaders have taken more than nine months to form a government since parliamentary elections in March.

"They are desperate for an outlet for their frustrations," said Ibrahim al Marashi, an expert on the Iraqi media who teaches at IE University in Madrid. "I have never heard of a case of a government official following up on one of these calls."

Yet people call and write in huge numbers. Letters to the editor take up full pages in Baghdad's daily newspapers. Last month, when "Hello Iraqiya" was pre-empted for a week for the Gulf Cup of Nations soccer tournament, the producers received more than 1,400 e-mails.

During a recent live broadcast, the hosts shared an e-mail from a man named Abdul Hussein, from Babil in central Iraq. In 1989, he applied to the Ministry of Agriculture for a tractor for his farm. Despite paying for it in cash and renewing his request in 2003 and 2005, he had yet to receive it.

"He says — and he has every right to say this — that even if he had received one bolt at a time, he would have the whole tractor by now," said one of the program's two hosts, Mohammed Hussein Abdul Raheem. In the studio, his co-host and the men behind the cameras chuckled at the sarcasm.

The comments on Iraqiya are relatively tame. The state-owned channel, despite a $500 million U.S. investment aimed at making it a PBS-style public broadcaster, is widely seen as pro-government. While its slate of programming purports to connect individuals with their leaders — via "You and the Official," in which officials answer viewers' questions, and "Open Encounter," which features political leaders interacting with a studio audience — the tone of the programs is brisk, upbeat and nonconfrontational.

Over the past year, a more freewheeling channel, Baghdadiya, scandalized Iraq's political class with "Baghdadiya and the People," a live program in which a young correspondent, Minas Suheil, visited different parts of the capital and asked people's opinions of their government. The interviews were raw and often heartbreaking.

Last month, however, Iraqi authorities shut down Baghdadiya, accusing it of violating professional standards after it aired the demands of terrorists who killed dozens of Christians in an assault Oct. 31 on a Baghdad church. It had ranked consistently among the most popular channels in Iraq.

"Judging by the popularity of some of these shows, I think people are definitely looking for a voice," said Theo Dolan, an expert on media in the Middle East at the U.S. Institute of Peace in Washington. "People have a lot to talk about. I'm not sure that voicing their complaints via the media has necessarily resulted in better services, but this takes time."

On "Hello Iraqiya," government officials frequently appear as guests, but their stock answer to complaints is: "Go to the ministry to resolve your problem." The co-hosts, two of Iraq's best loved comic actors, preside over the calls with avuncular earnestness but never push the officials for details.

One morning, after several callers voiced questions about jobs in the Oil Ministry, a senior official named Asim Jihad dialed into the program on his cell phone. He proceeded to run through the complaints with brutal efficiency:

"Let Majid come to deal with his case," he said of a law student who called asking about getting a job as a driver.

Of a man who complained that he was fired so that his supervisor could hire a relative, Jihad said, "I just called the oil company. He can go there to solve his problem."

He ticked off three other complaints by instructing them to visit the local ministry office.

It's no surprise, then, that Iraqis have a saying to compare the dictatorship they lived under before the 2003 U.S.-led invasion with the uncertainty they now face: "Under Saddam, you didn't talk and a thousand ears listened. Now you can talk all you want, but no one listens."

(McClatchy special correspondents Laith Hammoudi and Mohammed El Dulaimy contributed to this article.)

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