Iraqi TV personality takes on a perilous job: Giving a microphone to the masses

By Leila Fadel
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, October 28, 2010; 11:55 PM

BAGHDAD - On a recent morning, as Minas Suheil and his crew set up their cameras in the working-class area of Bab al-Sharji, people instantly swarmed the Iraqi television personality.

They thrust documents into the air, wailed about unpaid pensions, welfare, violence, government corruption and missing children.

"We want to get your voices to the prime minister and the president," he told them. "Just wait, in a few minutes we'll be live and you can tell them your problems."

Suheil, 31, has hosted the hour-long "Baghdadia and the People" show since it started a little more than a year ago. The program is broadcast live across Iraq six mornings a week and replayed at 6 p.m.

Its concept is simple. Suheil holds a red microphone and Iraqis speak to him and their nation about their suffering, the lack of services, jailed family members, dead children, abuses by Iraq's security forces and a government that still hasn't formed nearly eight months after Iraq's parliamentary elections.

"The anger before the elections was enclosed in hope. Now it is open rage," Suheil said. "This rage will get to a point where it can no longer be controlled. It's dangerous."

Despite the considerable shortcomings of democracy in Iraq, over the past few years Iraqis have become emboldened to openly criticize their leaders. More often than not, though, it is to no avail.

The nation's government is ranked the fourth most corrupt in the world. Iraq's security forces are infamous for abuses; many prisons are well below international standards; and inmates often are mistreated.

On a show this month, Mohammed Hassan stared into the camera and wept. His teenage son stole a bag of potato chips. The boy is in jail, and the police are threatening to detain him for 15 years.To visit his son, Hassan must pay a bribe he can't afford.

"I don't have money to pay them," Hassan said as tears streamed down the lines on his worn face. "The Iraqi judicial system is like a dog that wags his tail to the rich and bites the poor. My son is from the poor, and he's being bitten."

As Ali Jumaa, an unemployed man, waited his turn to speak, he explained the appeal of Suheil's show. "This is the people's voice to the government," he said. "He goes everywhere and they see the suffering, not like others who try to pretend everything is fine."

Just before filming began this day, people walked up to Suheil, kissing him on the cheeks and posing for pictures taken with cellphones. "God bless you," they murmured. "God protect you."

But Suheil's work comes at a steep cost. Although Iraqis have a semblance of freedom of speech, journalists work under serious threat from insurgent violence and from the Iraqi officials they criticize. The Committee to Protect Journalists lists Iraq among the 12 countries where crimes against journalists most often go unpunished.

Most nights, Suheil sleeps at the station, and he has received thousands of threats. Several journalists at the channel have been killed since they began broadcasting. Iraqi security forces have beaten Suheil numerous times for filming on the streets or for criticizing specific officers, he said. Just in the past month, police officers struck him twice, he said.

One threat came from an official close to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who told Suheil that he would cut him up and throw him to the dogs, he said.

"The politicians tell me, 'You are the instigator against the government,' " he said. "Every day we go different routes to our location and keep it a secret until the last minute. Sometimes we get warnings and change our path."

The independent Baghdadia satellite channel, which is extremely critical of the Shiite-led government, is owned by an Iraqi businessman and broadcasts out of Cairo, with an office in Baghdad.

The channel is perhaps most famous for the episode involving former employee Muntathar al-Zaidi, who threw both of his shoes at President George W. Bush during a news conference in 2008 in an outburst of anger over the aftermath of the U.S.-led invasion. He was imprisoned and later released.

"We embarrass" the politicians, Suheil said about his show. "They need to be embarrassed. We don't limit the people. They can say whatever they want against the government, the prime minister and the corruption."

Every morning he starts with similar words to his audience and the political elite, many of whom live inside the heavily protected Green Zone, home to many embassies and government buildings. The area is off-limits to most Iraqis, sealed off by towering walls and checkpoints.

"This camera is a bridge between the citizen and the official. The official cannot walk around in the streets or alleyways," he says to the camera. "He is only available inside the Green Zone and cannot pass the concrete walls. We, through this camera, will pass this wall to put the citizen directly before the official."

Behind Suheil, in Tayaran square, a man made tea for passersby. The street was clogged with rush-hour traffic. Garbage littered the sides of the road. Twisted electricity cables hung over the street and vendors hawked their goods. Suheil held out the red microphone and the deluge of grievances began.

A woman who spends her days begging in the streets with her two young children screamed in front of the camera, pleading for food and shelter.

"My husband left me, and I don't have a place to go," she said.

The complaints continued. Gangs are kidnapping people in southeastern Baghdad. Inebriated Iraqi soldiers raided homes and arrested scores of men in the mostly Sunni district of Fadl. No jobs, no electricity and no government services.

"Call the United Nations, call all the effective countries, and all the human rights organizations who told us to go and vote," one man yelled. "Tell them to give us our share of the oil. We are imprisoned behind concrete walls like wild animals. These cages are not fit for humans."

Suheil stopped broadcasting at 8:30 a.m. and headed back to the studio.

"I can handle it more than others can," he said, referring to the sadness he witnesses every day and the threats that come with his job. "The Iraqi officials cannot go to the houses and open the fridge of their people and see there is nothing inside. They have no access to their people."

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