By Faris Couri, editor of the BBC Arabic Service
It is no secret that recent Arab uprisings have placed enormous burdens on the shoulders of BBC Arabic journalists responsible for reporting news from the region.
Covering the Arab world is not always an easy task – we need to mix sensible caution with a dose of courage in covering political issues that attract so many disputed views among Arabic-speaking audiences.
Our guiding principles are the BBC’s values, its editorial guidelines, its ethical code, which are our reference points to maintain impartial, balanced and accurate reporting.
Across the Arab world – whether it’s Tunisia, Yemen, Egypt or Libya, Bahrain, Syria and Iraq or the many other countries in the region – we know that audiences want access to objective and independent news, far removed from an agenda that favours one party, religion or sect against another. That is why audiences are turning to BBC Arabic.
Last year, our latest figures show that overall audiences to BBC Arabic have risen by more than 17% to a record high of 25.3 million adults weekly. That includes a big surge of 2.9 million in Saudi Arabia and 2.7 million in Egypt, where TV viewers in particular turned to the BBC to better understand the events happening in their own country. Our radio audiences are also holding up despite the reductions in transmission. Online is proving to be more of a challenge, but we are working hard to understand the needs of digital audiences and those for whom social media plays an increasingly important part in their lives.
In 2011, following the fall of the Mubarak leadership, we watched as ordinary Egyptians carried banners saying “Thank you, BBC!” But meeting the high expectation of audiences has a price and sometimes it’s been a heavy one.
March 2011 brought a strong reminder of the risks that our staff face in covering the news – one of our reporters was arrested and tortured by Muammar Gaddafi’s forces during the Libya uprising. In early 2012, our reporter in Yemen was beaten and received death threats from supporters of the outgoing president.
We are also challenged by those who disagree with our coverage. In countries such as Syria and Bahrain, BBC Arabic has been accused of bias.
The criticism comes from opposition and government alike. It may be a valid argument to say that getting criticism from both sides, in the case of Arab world certainly, is an indication of balanced coverage.
On Syria, for example, we had a series of documentaries looking at the civil war from a number of perspectives.
The first one, exploring what it’s like to work for a Syrian television channel that’s the mouthpiece of the government, was the butt of criticism and threats from Syrian opposition quarters. We followed it up with a programme charting a day in the lives of six Syrian women, five of whom were anti-government activists.
In our day-to-day news coverage, presenting a variety of voices from Syria is essential to us. And that is what distinguishes BBC Arabic from many media outlets in the Arab world which promote political views and agendas, and that is what we are determined to keep.
BBC Arabic marked its 75th anniversary in January. Arab politicians and ordinary people have expressed their appreciation of our track record of impartiality and trusted news. I am confident that the coming years will see further achievement on all our platforms – TV, radio and online.