Thursday, October 28, 2010

Listen Up!

Video courtesy of the Washington Post.

File this under Less Than Shocking: Today's Washington Post reports that an Iraqi television show that empowers citizens to share their concerns about life in Baghdad is popular. The program, called Baghdadia and the People, invites Iraqis to contribute to the public discourse.

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."

The idea that Iraqis -- or anyone, for that matter -- would appreciate having an opportunity to address their leaders and help shape the narrative of their day-to-day lives, is hardly surprising. What is surprising is how little U.S. public diplomacy does to contribute to initiatives like this, particularly in the realm of broadcasting.

I co-wrote a paper last year discussing this lacuna in U.S. public broadcasting efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq. While some aspects of U.S. engagement in Iraq and Afghanistan are collaborative, U.S. radio broadcasts are often not. As the almost exclusive generator of messages in this context, the United States reinforces existing power dynamics, treating radio audiences, for the most part, as passive recipients of information and not co-creators.

Over the past two decades, new Arab media sources have created an environment in which the public has greater agency in framing and interpreting the news. Programs like Baghdadia and the People and the analytical offerings of Al Jazeera and its imitators create a space for people to frame issues in the public sphere. The United States has been trying to navigate this environment in the post-9/11 world with broadcasts that more closely resembled the unreliable state media programs of the mid-twentieth century than their more popular, populist successors.

It's a shame, really, because there is clearly still a need for bottom-up broadcasting in Iraq.

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