The former Pakistani prime minister, Benazir Bhutto, was at a rally campaigning ahead of parliamentary and provincial elections when she was assassinated in an attack on 27 December 2007. It was the most challenging news event in 12 months of major stories in Pakistan, following Bhutto's dramatic return from self-imposed exile in October, the declaration of a state of emergency a month later and the presidential elections in February 2008.
"Throughout the year Pakistan was a huge global story," says Mohammed Hanif, Head of BBC Urdu. "Our multimedia service in Urdu played a crucial public service broadcasting role in Pakistan itself and we were an international hub for news, multimedia content and debate."
News teams in English, Urdu and other regional languages moved quickly to cover the assassination and its aftermath. A special edition of the Urdu evening news and current affairs programme, Sairbeen, was produced and presented from Islamabad within 90 minutes of Benazir Bhutto being pronounced dead. The programme was the first to air her last speech, made at the rally.
"This was possibly the biggest story that BBC Urdu had to cover in decades and they did it with the highest level of professionalism and competence, even though they were dazed, like others, by the enormity of the story," says Nazes Afroz, Regional Executive Editor, Asia Pacific. "It was a quintessential BBC programme about a huge breaking story. It needed to be informative, not speculative. It captured the mood of the country without getting emotional and encompassed all possible angles. Our network of reporters made it possible to report from almost every corner of the country with authority."
In English, special programming combined reports of the day's events with analysis and reaction from Pakistan and around the world, including information provided by the BBC Urdu news team. BBC staff overcame transport problems and blackouts. The former Islamabad correspondent, Owen Bennett-Jones, was in place to cover the election run-up. "Owen stood out in the way he was able to cover a story that he knew intimately, explaining it and talking to the right people," says Liliane Landor, Editor World Service News and Current Affairs. "He succeeded in getting an interview with Benazir Bhutto's husband, which was outstanding."
"Our multimedia service in Urdu played a crucial public service broadcasting role in Pakistan itself and we were an international hub for news, multimedia content and debate."
Owen Bennett-Jones's coverage of these events in Pakistan was recognised at this year's Sony Radio Academy Awards. He received the Gold Award for News Journalist of the Year and Newshour, on which he is a presenter, also won Gold. To cover the unfolding story, bbcurdu.com switched to rolling news with a dedicated website, images and videos. An all-time record of 2.9 million page impressions was recorded in 24 hours and the interactive team handled thousands of emails, comments and personal insights. The site is the largest Urdu news site in the world, receiving around 32 million page impressions a month. It was one of the first to offer video content in Urdu.
A successful online campaign was mounted in early 2008 to encourage people to access the BBC Urdu site for news.
There were difficulties in maintaining FM news broadcasts in Pakistan. A service broadcast on two networks, launched in June 2007, was disrupted and the BBC was taken off the air when the state of emergency was declared, although shortwave services were unaffected. The growth in traffic to the BBC Urdu website reflects the value audiences in Pakistan and around the world place on the BBC in times of crisis. The BBC provided a vital service while access to media was restricted during the state of emergency.
"We were always aware of the danger"
"Nothing has devastated me more than this has. It's not that it was not in our minds. We were always aware of the danger Benazir faces. But somehow we were hoping that we would succeed and they would not, the terrorists and the people who back the terrorists... But, alas, it wasn't so." Benazir Bhutto's widower, Asif Zardari, gave an interview to Owen Bennett-Jones at the Bhutto family home in Sindh Province following his wife's death. Weeks earlier the Newshour presenter and former Islamabad correspondent had been aboard Bhutto's flight home from self-imposed exile. "She really did have guts," he reported in From Our Own Correspondent, "which is why even those Pakistanis who despaired of her failings are shocked this weekend – shocked and appalled at her brutal death at the hands of a nameless fanatic."
Expansion in Islamabad
At the end of 2007, upgrade work at the BBC's Islamabad bureau was completed. The new facilities mean the bureau is permanently networked and 'online' with Bush House in London. Brand new studios, with radio and TV capacity, mean full programmes or packages can be produced in Islamabad for BBC World Service broadcast and there is a new phone-in facility, allowing for increased audience participation. As well as the BBC Urdu reporters and staff, members of the BBC Arabic team are also based there along with BBC Newsgathering reporters.