Reality TV, Iraqi Style: Giving Leaders An Earful

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Ala Muhsin hosts the popular Iraqi TV call-in show 'Hotline' i

Ala Muhsin hosts the popular TV Iraqi call-in program Hotline. Above, during a recent show, he encourages a caller who has a question for Iraq's interior minister, Jawad al-Bolani, who is shown on-screen. Corey Flintoff/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Corey Flintoff/NPR
Ala Muhsin hosts the popular Iraqi TV call-in show 'Hotline'

Ala Muhsin hosts the popular TV Iraqi call-in program Hotline. Above, during a recent show, he encourages a caller who has a question for Iraq's interior minister, Jawad al-Bolani, who is shown on-screen.

Corey Flintoff/NPR

One of the most popular programs on Iraqi television is a call-in show that allows viewers to take their problems directly to the highest government officials. The show, called Hotline, offers an unprecedented chance for ordinary Iraqis to confront their government.

Recently on the Hotline set at a studio in Baghdad, host Ala Muhsin welcomed as that night's guest one of the most powerful men in the government: Jawad al-Bolani, the minister of the interior, who controls Iraq's national police.

The minister was televised live from the Interior Department, seated at the head of a long conference table with at least 20 of his top police commanders.

Muhsin was respectful of his guest, but he interrupted when the minister, who is also a contender for prime minister in the next election, began what sounded like a campaign speech.

"We've got callers on the line," he told Bolani. Muhsin has his own constituency of viewers, and on this night the audience was even bigger because the show was being picked up by 14 other Iraqi satellite channels.

Muhsin is a portly, professorial veteran of more than 35 years in Iraqi broadcasting — not exactly the model of a popular TV star. But for 90 minutes on Thursday evenings, his audience is among the biggest in the country.

Most of Hotline's calls and e-mails are from viewers expressing particular problems — on this night many having to do with compensation for men who were killed or injured serving with the police.

Um Mohammed is the mother of a young man who applied to join the police force last year. She called the show and explained that her son was waiting with some other police recruits when a suicide bomber attacked them. Her son was wounded in the arm, she said, and two of his cousins were killed.

Now the young man has recovered. Mohammed said her son still wants to join the police, but police recruiters seem to be ignoring his applications. She said he desperately needs the job to help support a family of 15, including the children of his two dead cousins.

After consulting with his commanders, the minister assured her that his department will always take care of its own, and he promised that the police will enroll Mohammed's son and do all they can to help his family.

The solution came just in time for a commercial break.

The viewers' questions come through a small office at the TV station — a telephone and computer boiler room — where three young men try to field hundreds of backed-up phone calls.

Raid Haddad explained to a caller that even if her message could not be passed along to the minister on that night's show, all the phone messages and e-mails would be delivered to him in a couple of days.

After the show, a visibly tired Muhsin marked the end of long week. He follows up as many of the appeals as he can, he said, and often meets personally with people who want help. Getting visible results is the key to the success of the show, he said.

The host won't let a caller hang up the phone until he has gotten a satisfactory answer from the minister.

It is a style that even the government officials are finally getting used to. But some government ministers are hesitant to come on the show, especially those who fear being confronted about poor performance, Muhsin said.

Hotline hasn't done much yet to tackle allegations of corruption that swirl around many Iraqi government ministries, but audience reaction to the show suggests that it could be whetting the public's appetite for government accountability.

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