|The Beslan school siege in Russia left more than 340 people dead, many of them children
Two major events stood out in a year of turbulent change. In November
2004, Ukraine's presidential elections sparked turmoil as hundreds of
thousands of people took to the streets to protest about reported vote
rigging. Two months earlier, the Beslan school siege in Russia left more than
340 people dead, many of them children. The BBC's news teams in Russia
and Ukraine provided the latest information and analysis for people in the
region and around the world.
The Ukrainian presidential elections of 2004 were a dramatic turning
point for a country at the crossroads in its relationships with Russia
and western Europe. In November, the official count indicated a victory
for Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych backed by outgoing President
Leonid Kuchma. But observers alleged widespread vote rigging.
Opposition candidate Viktor Yuschenko, visibly suffering the effects of
what was later confirmed to be dioxin poisoning, launched a campaign
of street protest and civil disobedience. He was duly elected after a
second vote in what became known as the 'orange revolution' because
of the flags carried by demonstrators.
The BBC reported from eastern Ukraine, the stronghold of support for
Yanukovych, as well as from Kiev. 'As an international broadcaster we had
an obligation to get the story right about these dramatic events,' says
Olexiy Solohubenko, Executive Editor, EurAsia. 'Things started to develop
in an absolutely unprecedented way after the first ballot. It would have
been easy to believe the whole country was supporting Yuschenko
because his were the colours of the flags on the streets of Kiev. To give
the wider picture we quickly sent correspondents such as Jonathan
Charles to Donetsk and Crimea and Sarah Rainsford to eastern Ukraine.
'We strove to achieve balance despite the difficulties,' he adds.'We
obtained interviews with Yuschenko himself and key representatives of
Yanukovych as well as comments from President Kuchma.'
Services for Ukraine itself were stepped up in partnership with the national
FM network Radio Era, including additional news bulletins and evening
programmes to review the day's events. The BBC Ukrainian online site
recorded a large rise in page impressions during the elections, on top of an
average monthly figure that had already trebled from the previous year.
The elections generated widespread concern in Russia, where President
Vladimir Putin had backed Yanukovych. 'Russia feels vulnerable,' says Steve
Rosenberg, BBC correspondent in Moscow. 'Many here are still struggling to
come to terms with the loss of empire. This is why Ukraine is so important:
a country in a key strategic position to Europe, bigger than France and right
on Russia's doorstep. Moscow is keen to keep Ukraine looking east. So in
this election it backed the man who promised to do just that – Viktor
Yanukovych received the very public support of President Putin.'
In Russia, like other international broadcasters, the BBC has faced a major
challenge in retaining radio listeners. But the sharp decline of recent years
has been halted. Online traffic is up 60%. 'In Russia there is growing
antipathy to the outside world and dislike of the west and western media,'
explains Behrouz Afagh, Head of EurAsia Region. 'It goes hand in hand
with domestic politics becoming much more nationalistic and inward
looking. That is making it harder for the BBC to make an impact. We
have responded by making major improvements in our programming
and distribution. We launched a brand new two-hour morning show
from Moscow and are bidding for FM frequencies in 11 cities with a major
Russian partner, Radio Max.'
Reporting from Beslan
Reporting from the Beslan school siege placed exceptional demands on
BBC Russian reporters. 'It was a very difficult story for them to cover,' says
Behrouz Afagh. 'They had to balance the emotional impact of what had
happened and the very strong feelings back in Russia with the need to
maintain balance and distance.'
During the siege, when Chechen separatists stormed Beslan's No. 1
School in Russia's North Caucasus region and took more than 1,000
children and adults hostage, the first priority was to get reporters on the
spot quickly. 'Our reporter Kiryl Sukhotski was telling the story live from
Beslan by the evening,' says BBC Russian Head Sara Beck. 'We had an
agonising period as he was separated from the main team during the
initial confusion and gunfight. To everyone's relief he was back in contact
soon and was then rarely off the air for the next 48 hours.'
News programmes were extended in a range of languages. There was
12 hours of continuous coverage in English keeping audiences up to date
with immediate events while analysing the context and likely repercussions.
The quality of the coverage was recognised with the Sony News Output
Award in the UK. BBC Russian reporters provided on the spot help
for all BBC news programmes, including domestic outlets. The BBC's
online audience in Russian trebled and online teams in London and
Moscow dealt with a flood of comments and enquiries. A record of
more than 8,000 emails was received by the BBC Russian website.