Iraq TV call-in show gives glimpse inside ISIS-held Mosul
Erbil - As evening approaches in Iraq’s northern city of Erbil, TV presenter Bakr Mahmoud Mahdi prepares to go live with a show called Freedom Studio, which he says allows victims of war to vent.
His callers — and there have been fewer of them lately — are civilians inside the city of Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest, who describe what life is like under the rule of the Islamic State (ISIS).
On a recent broadcast, a woman who identified herself as Umm Nour called from Mosul.
“God willing there is not a lot left and I hope that the watchers can pray for those inside Mosul to overcome Daesh,” she said, using the Arabic-language acronym for ISIS. Most callers dial in to complain about life under ISIS rule, Mahdi said.
“There is a crisis in terms of food supply, there is a fuel crisis and there is a crisis in the inhumane way the Daesh thugs treat the people of Mosul,” he said.
Multiple call-in shows such as Mahdi’s have provided a rare line of communication for some of the estimated 1 million people living in ISIS’s last urban bastion in Iraq. Now, as Iraqi forces push closer and the militants begin enforcing a ban on phones and the internet, those voices from inside Mosul are falling silent.
“This programme is like a breath of fresh air for the families of Nineveh,” Mahdi said, referring to the province that includes Mosul. “Through it they can call and through it the families who are trapped in Nineveh can give news to those who are displaced and vice versa.”
The show’s channel, the private Nineveh TV, opened in 2013 and has been airing several such shows each day. Mahdi said his broadcasts can also be viewed inside Mosul, giving residents a taste of the outside world.
While militants have been cracking down on communication tools, those reachable inside Mosul say at least some residents are able to access TV through satellite dishes and can pick up outside radio stations in parts of the city.
Mahdi usually goes from one phone call to another very quickly, giving words of encouragement to those calling in. He averages about 90 calls during each 2-hour show.
Mahdi, who is from Ramadi, said he can empathise with the callers’ struggles since he has been through it himself in his own city. Ramadi was freed from ISIS militants earlier in the year.
While the show receives callers from Mosul, those numbers have started to drop because of harsh punishment by ISIS. On a recent day, most callers were displaced people from Mosul who wanted to send messages of hope to those trapped in the city. There was also a lot of praise for the Iraqi and Kurdish forces.
One displaced resident, identifying himself as Salah, said he wanted to send a message to his family still there.
“I want to tell the families in Nineveh that we are coming to save you from these Daesh thugs,” he said. “We are fighting against criminals. We are coming for you.”
Mosul has been under ISIS rule for more than two years. The fight to retake it is expected to be the most complex yet for Iraq’s military.
As paranoia spreads among ISIS fighters in the city and facing an all-out assault backed by sophisticated US weaponry, Mahdi said they have begun to severely punish anyone found to have a cell phone or internet connection, seeing them as colluding with the enemy.
The battle picked up momentum recently, with state-sanctioned Shia militias joining the offensive to the west of the city as part of a plan to encircle the area and cut supply lines from neighbouring Syria. Other Iraqi forces, aided by US-led air strikes and heavy artillery, drove ISIS from the town of Shura, south of Mosul, where militants had rounded up civilians for use as human shields.
Two weeks into the offensive, most of the fighting is taking place in towns and villages far from Mosul’s outskirts. With the operation expected to take weeks, if not months, thirst for news from inside the city grows.
Another caller, Abu Barek, urged his family to be patient.
“If you hear my voice, there is not a lot left,” he said. “Please stay home until freedom comes.”
The Associated Press