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Annual Review 2004/05
A year in review - Iraq and the Middle East
Security remains a daily concern in Iraq
Security remains a daily concern in Iraq


In the second year since the fall of Baghdad to US-led forces, the future of Iraq continued to dominate global as well as regional news headlines. During the run-up to the country's first multi-party elections for 50 years in January 2005, many areas were effectively controlled by insurgents. The BBC provided detailed coverage from all parts of the country on radio and online.

Elsewhere in the Middle East, major news stories included the death of Yasser Arafat and its implications for relationships between Israel and the Palestinians; the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri and Syria's withdrawal from Lebanon following huge street protests.

When Iraqis went to the polls in January 2005, BBC correspondents reflected events nationwide as an estimated eight million people turned out to vote. Close co-ordination between Arabic and English news teams gave the BBC an edge in its coverage of the elections, one of the year's toughest news assignments. The BBC's network of local Arabic reporters across the country provided a crucial insight on the ground.

'The World Service was able to cover the Iraqi elections in a unique way,' says Liliane Landor, Editor BBC World Service News Programmes. 'We seamlessly combined our coverage in English and Arabic and were able to broadcast from parts of Iraq that were closed to most media organisations. We covered the width and breadth of the country, reporting from Najaf and Falluja as well as Baghdad and Basra.'

The BBC played a special role as an independent observer for people in Iraq itself. More than 3.3 million people now listen there to the BBC in Arabic. A new FM transmitter network has greatly improved reception in Baghdad and six other major cities.

The BBC's election coverage drew a graphic picture of how voters defied the threat of violence in many parts of the country. 'People told me they were participating to make their voices heard, even if the situation was difficult,' says Mohammed Hussein, who reported from Najaf. 'They said they were not afraid of the insurgents. Some of them were carrying white banners in the shape of a hand palm as a sign of defiance. A lot of women turned out and their numbers dwarfed those of the men. I saw very old people struggling to walk and blind people being led to the polling stations.'

In Baghdad, Caroline Hawley described how large numbers of people came out to vote despite suicide attacks. 'Militants did what they could to carry out their threats to disrupt the poll, but it was also very evident there was a lot of enthusiasm for the vote,' she says.

Turnout was much lower in Falluja, where insurgents had threatened to behead anyone casting a ballot. There was a trickle of voters. 'I witnessed some persons, all of them or most of them are men, because only men have returned to Falluja leaving their women behind,' reported Fadel al- Badrani. 'Meanwhile, sounds of explosions were coming from the outskirts.'

Arabic producer Khalil Osman covered the election as part of a group of journalists, including BBC colleagues, embedded with British forces in southern Iraq. 'It was a great opportunity to witness history in the making and to see how people from various BBC branches and services can work together in the field,' he says.

In Iraq itself, the threat of violence grew. 'Coverage has become more difficult over the last year because of the security situation,' says Hosam El Sokkari, Head of the BBC Arabic Service. 'Baghdad itself is a dangerous place to work, and in Falluja we relied on people from the area during the elections. Because they are Iraqis and speak the language it is easier for them than for a foreigner.'

Security remains a daily concern. 'The first consideration is always security,' says World Service Assignments Editor Peter Burdin. 'The main risks are kidnapping or being caught up in the bombings, although there have been direct attacks on BBC vehicles, too.' The dangers faced by journalists in the Middle East region were further highlighted when BBC Security Correspondent Frank Gardner and cameraman Simon Cumbers were shot in a gun attack in Riyadh. Cumbers, 36, died from his injuries.

Trust and objectivity

In a year when the Arabic Service launched a new morning show and revitalised its reporting, the BBC's ratings for trust and objectivity, which were hit by the Iraq War, recovered markedly. In Egypt, a survey showed the BBC is regarded as the most objective international broadcaster. Special coverage focused on major events throughout the region. Highlights included Saudi Arabia's first municipal elections, the death of Palestinian president Yasser Arafat and its aftermath, in addition to coverage of Iraq.

Head of Arabic News and Current Affairs Fouad Razek was present amid the chaotic scenes at President Arafat's funeral, as tens of thousands of mourners surged around the coffin.'I went to Ramallah to cover events live and get reaction from people in the street,' he says. 'With so much competition from television we aimed to create a distinctive kind of "radio with pictures".' When Mahmoud Abbas became the new PLO Chairman he gave the Arabic Service its own interview in recognition of its importance in the Arab world.

In Lebanon, BBC correspondents provided vivid on-the-spot accounts when hundreds of thousands of demonstrators held rallies in Beirut a month after the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. Beirut reporter Nada Abdelsamad talked to pro- and anti-Syrian demonstrators to give a first-hand account of developments. 'This was the year when the mood on the street changed things in a way that has never happened before in the Arab world,' says Fouad Razek. 'We were there to report it.'

Interactive programming is widening the debate for Arab audiences. Every weekday Nuqtat Hiwar (Talking Point) provides a popular forum for radio listeners and online users to air their views. 'We broaden the agenda by not only covering political events but also social and economic issues that affect people's lives,' says Hosam El Sokkari. 'Not everything is about war and kidnapping. For example, we cover issues such as the position of women in society.'

The BBC's new Cairo bureau made an increasing contribution to Arabic programming. BBC World Service's first overseas office to employ fully digital studio equipment, it went live in June with a six-hour broadcast to the Arab world.

Listeners in the United Arab Emirates were able to tune in to BBC broadcasts in English on FM for the first time. Significant progress was made in improving audibility in the sensitive regions of Bethlehem, Jerusalem and the West Bank. A new local partner, Radio Bethlehem 2000, began broadcasting BBC programmes in Arabic and English on FM 12 hours a day. 'We launched the new service on the day Yasser Arafat died,' says Jerry Timmins, Head of BBC Africa and Middle East Region. 'It meant that listeners in Bethlehem and across the West Bank area could hear the news unfold from Ramallah to Paris and Cairo, live from the BBC.'

Special programmes on BBC World Service in English explored issues underlying relationships between the Arab world and its neighbours. Highlights included A Year in the Arab-Israeli Crisis, Islam's Furthest Frontier, France and the Arab World, The Arab Crisis and Young in the Arab World.

More than 3.3 million people now listen to the BBC in Arabic, in Iraq. A new FM transmitter network has greatly improved reception in Baghdad and six other major cities.
Major news stories included the relationship between Israel and the Palestinians At President Arafat's funeral, tens of thousands of mourners surged around the coffin An estimated eight million Iraqis defied threats of violence and calls for a boycott to cast ballots in Iraq's first free election in over 50 years
BBC - Many voices, one world
A year in review
Iraq and the wider Middle East
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