It was the day after a particularly gruesome car bombing in downtown Baghdad and Iraqi government spokesman Laith Kubba was selling optimism.
At a news briefing in the fortified Green Zone, the soft-spoken, British-educated Kubba asked Iraqi reporters to cover the country’s progress as aggressively as they do the gore. “What will images of pools of blood or families suffering from the loss of a loved one prove?” he asked.
Many of the reporters weren’t biting. Rosy stories about repainted schools or improved police training often clash with a grimmer reality.
“Where are the good things the government has accomplished?” Al Parlaman newspaper writer Hassan Nasir Dahash demanded later, detailing the lack of electricity at his home.
Such a question from a reporter would have been unthinkable under Saddam Hussein’s regime. But in the hurly-burly Iraq that has emerged since his fall in 2003, dozens of newspapers, television channels and radio stations have created something approximating a Western-style media environment in which leaders and opinion makers must compete for coverage.
As a result, newly minted politicians tussling over the country’s draft constitution now tirelessly spin journalists. Mosques, some of which drive the political agenda as much as elected leaders do, have opened their own media centers. Insurgents, who are using their bloody exploits to undermine faith in the political process, have set up websites.
And the government, forced to fight for coverage, is struggling to find new ways to control the message that reaches the public.
“We are all trying to figure out what the Iraqi street, what the average Iraqi citizen wants,” said Hiwa Osman, a former BBC reporter who serves as media advisor to President Jalal Talabani.
Nowhere has the competition been fiercer than on the second floor of the Baghdad Convention Center, where U.S. and Iraqi officials hold briefings for journalists from dozens of Iraqi and foreign news organizations.
During last month’s debate over the draft constitution, which will go before voters next month, the charter’s framers created an Iraqi version of a spin room at the center, where they could come day and night to press their points.
There, amid video cables strung across stained brown carpet and planters transformed into ashtrays, solemn negotiators emerged from closed-door meetings in ones and twos to deliver an update or a sound bite to reporters. Sometimes, a delegation paraded in front of a bank of television cameras to stake out a new negotiating position.
In the beginning, Kurdish and Shiite Muslim leaders, who control the transitional government, proved most adept at selling their message, said Faisal Abdullah, a political reporter for the government-controlled Al Sabah newspaper.
The Shiites emphasized their years of suffering at the hands of minority Sunni Arabs. Kurdish officials, who Abdullah said were particularly skillful at passing information to journalists in off-the-record chats, single-mindedly pushed their demands for autonomy.
“The Sunnis found themselves pushed aside,” Abdullah explained. “When they saw this, they tried extra hard.”
Led by Saleh Mutlak, a chain-smoking agricultural contractor whose colorful quotes put him on TV screens across Iraq and the world, Sunni leaders succeeded in making their complaints the focus of much of the news coverage of the draft constitution.
Away from the Green Zone, others have been busy plotting their media strategies as well. The conservative Sunni Muslim Scholars Assn. has turned one wing of Baghdad’s largest mosque into a fully staffed media center with an auditorium for news conferences. Even the insurgents have developed a sophisticated Internet campaign, producing newsletters, news releases and downloadable video of their attacks.
For the government of interim Prime Minister Ibrahim Jafari, the task of making headway in this media maelstrom has fallen largely to Kubba.
The graying, 50-year-old former civil engineer who left Iraq to study in Britain has spent the last six years at the National Endowment for Democracy in Washington. He returned to Iraq in April and has discussed everything from insurgent attacks to the progress of reconstruction projects during a series of news briefings.
Reporters often seem more interested in asking about the slow pace of rebuilding, delays in executing convicted murderers or other apparent government shortcomings. Kubba fields the questions patiently, acknowledging bad news, gently suggesting alternative interpretations or begging understanding from the sometimes combative media.
But the professorial spokesman confesses that he is often outgunned.
What passes for the information agency’s “war room” is a set of dimly lighted offices on the fifth floor of a moldering building that once housed Hussein’s Weapons Development Ministry.
Its two dozen employees usually walk up because the elevator is so slow. Steps are cracked, windows missing glass.
One man prepares the news releases, another runs a website that is still missing multiple links. Photos and video are produced from a trailer parked behind the building. Almost all the employees leave work by 5 p.m. to get home before darkness makes travel too dangerous.
Kubba said his office was working on several new media strategies, and he has spoken of new rules to control media outlets that incite violence or slander citizens.
“I believe that there is a line to be drawn,” Kubba said in an interview, pointing to smaller publications that he said have openly advocated sectarian violence. “Either the press will regulate itself or responsibility will have to be imposed on it.” But talk of more controls is not winning the government many more fans.
Even Dan Senor, who spent months trying to sell good news to the American public as a spokesman for the U.S. authority that used to govern Iraq, said Kubba’s complaints might be so much crying in the wind.
“You can’t spin Iraqis about whether their lives are getting better,” Senor said. “The first thing to do is to actually make their lives better.”