Giving Ordinary Iraqis a Voice
A fascinating article on the emergence of talk radio in Iraq.
AGHDAD, Iraq, Aug. 26 - A housewife calls to talk about a broken sewer pipe. A student calls to talk about a lost love. A shopkeeper calls to say what he thinks of the violent insurgency that has swept his country.The following bit is something I wish some people would pay attention to, as much as it disagrees with the take on things they find ideologically agreeable.
The callers have reached Iraq's first talk radio station, Radio Dijla, which opened in April and has been putting Iraqis' opinions directly on the air, mainlining democracy from a two-story villa in central Baghdad for 19 hours a day.
In all, about 15 private radio stations have sprung up since the American occupation began, but Dijla, Arabic for Tigris, is the first to serve only talk. The station is one of the most listened-to in Baghdad, according to its employees, a claim that appears to have merit, judging by its broad following among the city's taxi drivers, housewives, students and late-night listeners, who tune in to a night talk show about relationships.
The station receives an average of 185 calls an hour, far more than it can handle, according to its owner, Ahmed al-Rakabi, who said he planned to purchase more telephone lines to accommodate callers.
Most calls are about the nuts and bolts of life. Many public services have not recovered since the American occupation began more than a year ago. Daily power failures persist. Piles of trash are heaped on city streets. In poorer areas, leaky sewage pipes taint water supplies.
"Iraqi citizens have big problems, but nobody listens to them," said Haidar al-Ameen, 34, a businessman, who listens to Dijla while driving. "If I have no gun, there is no one who is going to listen to me. The government has no time to listen."
The station forces the government to make time. Local and federal officials come as guests and are grilled by listeners. The talk shows result in uncomfortable situations, which would have been unheard of in the time of Saddam Hussein, when government officials were royalty and ordinary citizens were mere supplicants who were easily ignored.
Beyond easing the frustrations of daily life, the station provides a real chance for Iraqis to talk publicly about politics for the first time in decades. Listeners' calls open a window onto the lives of Iraqis, whose opinions often go unheard in the frantic pace of bombings, kidnappings and armed uprisings."The Iraqi people have spoken, the bastards!" It looks like I might have been unto something with my "anecdotes", doesn't it? How it is that people who claim to be "liberal" insist on taking the Iraqi masses for fools unable to see terrorist intimidation for what it is, I don't know. The persistence of the delusion that the angriest and most anti-American voices are necessarily the most "authentic" reminds me of nothing so much as the fond daydream of many antiglobalization "activists" that theirs is a voice which speaks for the Third World masses; in both cases, Westerners with axes to grind with their own societies confuse their grievances with the concerns of the people for whom they claim to care.
"After 35 years of people not being able to say what they wanted, we need something that can translate our feelings," said Imad al-Sharaa, a news editor at the station.
One such program was broadcast June 30, the day before Mr. Hussein first appeared in court. The program director and host, Majid Salim, asked listeners what they wanted to see happen to him. The answer was something of a surprise for Mr. Salim.
"Most people wanted him executed," Mr. Salim said.
Another time, he asked listeners what they thought about the insurgency that has roiled Iraq, claiming most of the energies of the new interim government of Prime Minister Ayad Allawi and putting the American occupation in danger of failure.
"We asked them, is it terrorism or is it resistance," he said. "A very large proportion, almost 100 percent, said terrorism. They did not like it." (emphasis added)