Institutional

Last updated: 11 june, 2009 - 13:28 GMT

Reporting the conflict in Gaza

AFP/Getty

The conflict in Gaza was the biggest reporting challenge in the Middle East, where the audience for BBC Arabic's multimedia interactive news and information service grew rapidly.

BBC World Service was at the heart of the story during the conflict between Israel and Hamas in Gaza. The challenge was to provide accurate and impartial information from both sides in conditions that were difficult and dangerous.

For the first time during a major conflict, audiences in the Middle East, around the world and in Gaza itself could watch BBC Arabic news and interactive programmes on television and online as well as listening on radio.

The number of users of click bbcarabic.com hit an all-time high in January.

BBC Arabic provided the only opportunity for Arab audiences to have equal distance from all parties involved with the story. We did not spare anyone from scrutiny, even ourselves.

Hosam El Sokkari, Head of BBC Arabic

In Gaza itself, a limited telephone survey, conducted immediately after the shelling stopped, revealed that 58% of those polled had listened to or watched the BBC during the crisis.

High ratings were given for trust and impartiality.

During the conflict, when foreign correspondents were being prevented from entering Gaza by both Israel and Egypt, BBC News correspondents were deployed on the borders and at Israeli towns targeted by Hamas rocket attacks.

The local Arabic team at the BBC's Gaza bureau were able to continue reporting from inside the territory.

"We complemented our reporting by getting people on the phone in Gaza and running special editions of the interactive programme World Have Your Say," says Liliane Landor, Editor News and Current Affairs.

"That is how we brought it down to people's lives and the impact it was having in the region and across the world".

"It was a very emotional issue and we reflected that whilst doing what we do best, which is trying to remain totally impartial and objective."

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Safety concern

Safety of the BBC's Gaza bureau staff and their families was a major concern.

There was anxiety that the BBC office would be targeted by Israeli forces, who claimed Hamas had taken the building.

BBC Arabic correspondent Shahdi Al Kashif

Although media organisations were prevented from crossing into Gaza during January's conflict, BBC Arabic maintained a presence there with correspondent Shahdi Al Kashif reporting throughout.

The local team worked under constant pressure.

BBC Arabic reporter Shahdi Al Kashif feared for his family after the windows of their house were blown out.

BBC News producer Rushdi Abu Alouf became part of the story when his home was surrounded and hit by three tank shells. After 16 hours in the building he escaped with his family, carrying his four-year-old child over his shoulder.

"They did a remarkable job," says Hosam El Sokkari, Head of BBC Arabic.

"Without our locally recruited people on the ground we would not have been able to sustain the output and provide our audiences with information."

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Multimedia coverage in Arabic

The Gaza conflict was the biggest test so far for BBC Arabic's multimedia service.

Less than a year after launching its new television channel, BBC Arabic was gearing up to increase its airtime from 12 to 24 hours a day when Israel began its offensive.

Transmissions were extended to cover key moments, such as the UN Security Council resolution urging an immediate ceasefire.

Listening in Gaza

The availability of BBC Arabic on FM helped to keep people informed during the conflict and its aftermath. The BBC has FM relays in Gaza, Ramallah and Hebron, and a partner FM station, Radio Bethlehem 2000. A telephone survey conducted in Gaza showed the continued importance of radio during the crisis, when power supplies were restricted. Of those polled, 40% had listened to BBC Arabic radio during the crisis, 27% had watched BBC Arabic television and 10% had accessed bbcarabic.com (the combined total of 58% having used any BBC service).

The service moved to a full 24-hour schedule on 19 January, when five new presenters from across the Arab world joined the team.

The multimedia interactive programme Nuqtat Hewar (Debating Point) provided an opportunity for radio, television and online audiences to discuss every aspect of the conflict, including the BBC's decision not to broadcast the Disasters Emergency Committee Gaza crisis appeal.

"The Gaza story was not just about Israel and Palestinians, it was also about Arabs and their different ways of dealing with the crisis," says Hosam El Sokkari.

"BBC Arabic provided the only opportunity for Arab audiences to have equal distance from all parties involved with the story".

"We did not spare anyone from scrutiny, even ourselves."

There was a five-fold increase in traffic to bbcarabic.com's mobile Wap site during the conflict, demonstrating the importance of recent linking agreements with mobile phone operators, including Vodafone Live in Egypt, Orange in Jordan and Zain in Bahrain.

In Saudi Arabia, video news bulletins are available via operators STC and Mobily.

Breaking news alerts are offered via mobile operators as a subscription service in Bahrain, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, UAE, Yemen and the Palestinian territories.

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Race to protect the Gaza bureau

Shortly after the building housing the Reuters news agency and several other media organisations was hit by an explosion, Israeli officials began repeating the story that Hamas had infiltrated the BBC's Gaza bureau. They maintained its journalists had been taken hostage, making it a legitimate target. Adding to the tension, BBC Arabic reporter Shahdi Al Kashif had just brought his family to the building to seek refuge in the basement after several days of moving them from one house to another. On the phone to Israeli spokesmen, Hosam El Sokkari, Head of BBC Arabic, made desperate efforts to prevent the bureau being attacked. "I asked our reporter to go live on air with the camera, to go outside and show audiences that there was no military activity in the area around the building," he says. "It was a very scary few hours".


Hearing all sides of the story

BBC Middle East Editor Jeremy Bowen travelled throughout the devastated Gaza region immediately after the conflict, reporting for programmes including BBC World Service's click Assignment.

He interviewed Israeli-trained Dr Izzeldeen Abuelaish at his home in Gaza, which had been hit by Israeli tank shells, killing three of his daughters and a niece.

"As Dr Izzeldeen stood in the wreckage of his family's life, I asked him if he still believed in peace," reported Bowen. "He said he did, and so did his Israeli friends, but their army and those who gave it orders did not."

Bowen also talked to Israeli friends of the Palestinian doctor, living a short drive from Gaza.

Shaul Geffen told of life within range of the Hamas rockets, the "horrible feeling that you are a target". He insisted that Israel's attack was necessary, though he wished it were not.

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