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Reality TV, Iraqi Style: Giving Leaders An Earful
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Reality TV, Iraqi Style: Giving Leaders An Earful

Iraq

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And we turn now to one TV show that's found a big audience in Iraq. It's a call-in program that allows viewers to take their problems directly to the highest government official. The show, it's called �Hotline,� offers an unprecedented chance for ordinary Iraqis to challenge their government.

NPR's Corey Flintoff visited the �Hotline� studio in Baghdad.

(Soundbite of music)

COREY FLINTOFF: Tonight's guest is among the most powerful men in the government. It's Jawad al-Bolani, the minister of the interior who controls Iraq's national police. The minister is televised live from the Interior Department, seated at the head of a long conference table with at least 20 of his top police commanders.

The host, Ala Muhsin, is respectful, but he's not impressed. In fact he interrupts when the minister, who happens to be a contender for prime minister in the next election, begins what sounds like a campaign speech.

(Soundbite of TV show, �Hotline�)

Mr. JAWAD AL-BOLANI (Minster of the Interior, Iraq): (Foreign language spoken)

Mr. ALA MUHSIN (host, �Hotline�): (Foreign language spoken)

FLINTOFF: Ala Muhsin has his own constituency of listeners and tonight's show is being picked up by 14 Iraqi satellite channels. The show already has a caller on the line. Her name is Um Mohammed, and she's the mother of a young man who applied to join the police force last year.

Ms. UM MOHAMMED (Caller): (Foreign language spoken)

FLINTOFF: Um Mohammed says that her son was waiting with some other police recruits when a suicide bomber attacked. Her son was wounded in the arm, she says, and two of his cousins were killed.

Now, he's recovered and Um Mohammed said he still wants to join the police, but police recruiters seem to be ignoring his applications. She says he desperately needs the job to help support a family of 15, including the children of his two dead cousins.

Mr. AL-BOLANI: (Foreign language spoken)

FLINTOFF: The minister says his department will always take care of its own, and he promises that the police will enroll Um Mohammed's son and do all they can to help his family.

The solution comes just in time for the commercial break.

(Soundbite of commercial in foreign language)

Ala Muhsin, himself, spends the break going over lists of the callers who are waiting on the line. He's 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 a Thursday evening, his audience is among the biggest in the country.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. MUHSIN: (Foreign language spoken)

Most of �Hotline's� calls and e-mails are like Um Mohammed's - individual problems, many having to do with compensation for men who were killed or injured serving with the police.

Mr. MUHSIN: (Foreign language spoken)

FLINTOFF: Those appeals come here, to a crowded office at the TV station where three young men try to field hundreds of backed-up phone calls.

Mr. RAID HADDAD: (Foreign language spoken)

FLINTOFF: Raid Haddad explains to a caller, that even if her message can't be passed along to the minister on tonight's show, all the phone messages and emails would be delivered to him in a couple of days.

Mr. HADDAD: (Foreign language spoken)

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

Mr. MUHSIN: (Foreign language spoken)

FLINTOFF: He says he won't let a caller hang up the phone until he has gotten a satisfactory answer from the official.

It is a style that even the officials are finally getting used to.

Mr. MUHSIN: (Foreign language spoken)

FLINTOFF: Ala Muhsin says that some government ministers are hesitant to come on the show, especially those who fear being confronted about poor performance.

(Soundbite of music)

FLINTOFF: One thing that �Hotline� hasn't tackled much are the allegations of corruption that swirl around many Iraqi ministries, but audience reaction to the show suggests that it could be whetting the public's appetite for government accountability.

Corey Flintoff, NPR News, Baghdad.

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