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Radio Show Helps Iraqis Air Their Grievances

The call-in program is hugely popular, tackling complaints ranging from high bills to traffic jams. But the newly free media have a ways to go.

March 31, 2006|John Johnson Jr. | Times Staff Writer

BAQUBAH, Iraq — Oday Kareem knew he had made it in the new Iraq when cabdrivers began refusing to collect his fare.

"One day I took a taxi with my wife to go to Baghdad," said Kareem, a radio talk-show host who uses the on-air name Saif. Recognizing Kareem's soft but assured voice, the cabdriver shouted, "You are Saif!"

Because in the new Iraq, just as in the old, it can be dangerous to be too well-known, Kareem denied it. But the star-struck cabby persisted: "You are Saif. I know it."

As host of the popular radio show "Good Morning, Orange City," Kareem is blazing a trail in the hazardous but increasingly entrepreneurial post-Saddam Hussein Iraq. Under the feared former leader, people could be beaten within an inch or two of their lives for complaining. On his show, Kareem encourages it.

Iraqis tuning in to his show, which station managers boast reaches 1.5 million listeners from Mosul to Baghdad, have taken up the new freedom to bellyache with relish. The call-in show, which airs Sunday through Thursday from 9 a.m. to 10 a.m., is filled with the workaday problems of men and women everywhere: getting along with in-laws, finding money to pay the bills, worries about the education system.

But in Iraq, these problems are overlaid with a near-chaotic security situation in which simple tasks like going to the market entail long delays at military checkpoints.

On top of this is the danger of being caught in the crossfire between Iraqi security forces and insurgents who have infiltrated Diyala province, a mixed area that is 55% Shiite Muslim, 35% Sunni Arab and 10% Kurd.

On Tuesday, Kareem fielded complaints about the fuel shortage ("There is chaos over the gas for cars"), the high cost of telephone service ("They keep increasing the phone list price"), and the lack of a hospital in Wajihiya, a small town east of Baqubah, the provincial capital.

Citizens of the new Iraq also have mastered the time-honored art of telling public officials how to do their jobs. "We need the region chief to observe the distributing of fuel," one caller said.

Sometimes, Kareem says, he goes home to his wife with the complaining voices in his ears.

With no letup in the violence, Kareem's listeners are divided over whether things are getting better.

"Slowly -- very, very slowly," said Kareem's friend and colleague, Mohammed Yusuf Mohammed, host of a program called "We Still Have Hope."

"Good Morning, Orange City" (Baqubah's nickname, because of its orchards) airs on Diyala Radio, part of a wider effort to spawn independent media in the provinces.

In the old days, there was one media voice -- in Baghdad, said Army Maj. Mike Humphreys, who has taken on the task of kick-starting independent newspapers and radio and television production in the area around Baqubah, about 35 miles northeast of Baghdad. Even though the state-controlled media of Hussein's era are gone, local editors and station managers, whose salaries are paid by the Iraqi government, still tend to ask, "What will Baghdad think?" before making decisions.

"I'm trying to break them of that," said Humphreys, a public affairs officer for the 3rd Heavy Brigade Combat Team of the 4th Infantry Division.

Coalition forces have admitted planting positive stories about Iraq in the media to counter the news about the blood spilled in the insurgency. Humphreys says he has no editorial control over the papers or the TV and radio stations.

"Good Morning, Orange City" frequently focuses on complaints against coalition forces, and Kareem says he often questions U.S. military leaders on the air.

With the help of a local lawyer and government advisor Rokaya Allul, Diyala officials have come up with a plan to annex the Diyala Media Center building, which is owned by the state-run and Baghdad-based Al Iraqiya station.

Even so, the media are far from standing on their own feet, at least in a Western sense. The local weekly newspaper, Parlmon, published on Sundays, carries no conventional advertising. Editor Omer Aldilemy, a published poet, said the paper charged the equivalent of about 16 cents for a copy, but "sometimes we give it free."

Aldilemy stays in business only because Humphreys pays for printing and distribution out of coalition funds. To seed the advertising market, Humphreys plans to give Parlmon money to offer free ads to local businesses, such as metal door merchants and brick factories, both major industries in Diyala. After seeing how well the ads work to drum up business, the theory goes, the firms will pay to advertise.

The army is also paying to rehabilitate a 100-year-old building downtown for use by freelance journalists as well as Parlmon's 15 reporters. In addition, it will pay for a printing press so Aldilemy doesn't have to take his pages to Baghdad for printing, exposing him to the dangers of the open highway.

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