BBC BLOGS - The Editors

When journalism comes under fire

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Jon Williams Jon Williams | 11:05 UK time, Tuesday, 21 February 2012

Earlier this month, my colleagues Paul Wood, Fred Scott and Kevin Sweeney were smuggled into Syria.

Abdullah Ghorab

The BBC's Abdullah Ghorab was attacked in Yemen

Their reports made headlines around the world - they were the only international news team in Homs as President Assad's forces began bombarding the city.

Last week, a remarkable documentary on the World Service captured the courage and commitment needed to bring such stories to international attention. But too many in our profession pay a heavy price.

During 2011, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) says 46 journalists lost their lives, covering conflicts from Pakistan to Somalia, Mexico to Libya.

Tragically, 2012 is already on course to outstrip that grim toll: a further six journalists have been killed in the first six weeks of this year.

We can never eliminate the risk of operating in places like Libya or Syria - only try to manage it to an acceptable level.

But in their annual report published today, the CPJ warns of a new risk - one that is more difficult to manage. It suggests regimes are finding new ways to censor the media and silence dissent.

During the uprisings across the Arab World, the internet has been a vital newsgathering tool.

Twitter and Facebook have been a source of information and video in places like Bahrain and Yemen, as well as Libya and Syria where the authorities have refused to allow access to the international media. But censorship is still alive and well.

In Homs, it became clear that the Syrian military were trying to jam our satellite equipment to prevent us reporting from the besieged city.

Earlier this month, we revealed how the Iranian government was trying to intimidate colleagues working for the BBC's Persian Service outside Iran by targeting family members who still live inside the country.

Passports of family members have been confiscated, preventing them from leaving Iran. Some of my colleagues have had their Facebook and email accounts hacked.

Ten days ago BBC Arabic reporter Abdullah Ghorab was attacked in Yemen, by a gang thought to be supporters of the outgoing president Ali Abdullah Saleh. His two brothers, who were with him, were badly beaten.

It was the third time Ghorab had been assaulted in Yemen, and he's also been verbally attacked by the country's deputy information minister.

Today, the CPJ warns that regimes may try to crack down further, precisely because they fear their ability to control the flow of information is weakening.

A year ago in Libya - two days after the start of the uprising that would bring down Colonel Gaddafi - an internet TV station started webcasting from Benghazi.

Long before international reporters made it to Libya, Alhurra TV (Free TV) was streaming footage online, allowing the world to see what was going on inside the country.

The authorities tried to shut down the internet to silence the station but, thanks to the ingenuity of its founder Mo Nabbous and his colleagues, government blocks were bypassed and the webcast was able to continue.

A month later, Nabbous was dead - killed by pro-Gaddafi troops in the battle for Benghazi.

A year on, those in Syria are following in Nabbous's footsteps. In Homs, activists have been using the Swedish website Bambuser to live stream pictures from inside the besieged city.

On Friday, the company said the Syrian government had blocked the site, a day after it broadcast images of an oil pipeline that campaigners claimed had been bombed by the Syrian military.

The CPJ is calling for the creation of a worldwide coalition against censorship made up of pressure groups, governments and businesses.

It's not just the BBC that faces difficulties - and not just Syria and Iran where we have problems. The internet has enabled millions to communicate more openly.

But that new-found freedom cannot be taken for granted.

Jon Williams is the BBC World News editor.

Breaking news guidance for BBC journalists

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Chris Hamilton | 14:18 UK time, Wednesday, 8 February 2012

With the rapid pace of change in digital technology, we're constantly reviewing the processes and guidance our journalists use in their jobs.

As part of that, we have just distributed some refreshed breaking news guidance to our correspondents, reporters and producers.

It says that, when they have some breaking news, an exclusive or any kind of urgent update on a story, they must get written copy into our newsroom system as quickly as possible, so that it can be seen and shared by everyone - both the news desks which deploy our staff and resources (like TV trucks) as well as television, radio and online production teams.

So what about Twitter, the micro-blogging site where millions of people, including many of our journalists, communicate via short bursts of text?

We prize the increasing value of Twitter, and other social networks, to us (and our audiences) as a platform for our content, a newsgathering tool and a new way of engaging with people. Being quick off the mark with breaking news is essential to that mission.

We're fortunate to have a technology that allows our journalists to transmit text simultaneously to our newsroom systems and to their own Twitter accounts.

But we've been clear that our first priority remains ensuring that important information reaches BBC colleagues, and thus all our audiences, as quickly as possible - and certainly not after it reaches Twitter.

UPDATE 9 February 1330 GMT
To clarify any misconceptions, this guidance isn't about telling BBC journalists not to break stories on Twitter.

It's about making sure stories are broken as quickly and efficiently as possible to our large audiences on a wide range of platforms - Twitter, other social networks, our own website, continuous TV and radio news channels, TV and radio bulletins and programmes across several networks.

Equally that we can deploy the resources we need to tell that story on some of those platforms - reporters, TV trucks - as quickly and efficiently as possible.

We have a large, worldwide pool of correspondents, reporters and producers. So we're fortunate to have technology that allows them to get text into the BBC newsroom system and to their own Twitter accounts at the same time.

But when the technology isn't available, for whatever reason, we're asking them to prioritise telling the newsroom before sending their own tweet.

We're talking a difference of a few seconds. In some situations.

We absolutely understand the value of breaking news on Twitter, both in terms of our very successful branded activity like @BBCBreaking, and in terms of our individual journalists, who become sources of news for their followers. This guidance is absolutely compatible with that.

But it should be remembered that we are talking current guidance, not tablets of stone. This is a landscape that's moving incredibly quickly, inside and outside newsrooms, and the breaking news guidance - like our overall social media guidance - will evolve as quickly.

The harassment of BBC Persian journalists

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Mark Thompson Mark Thompson | 12:05 UK time, Friday, 3 February 2012

For those working for the BBC Persian service, interference and harassment from the Iranian authorities has become a challenging fact of life.

I am hugely proud of how they deal with that relentless pressure, and their unswerving commitment to delivering high quality, impartial journalism.

They arguably have the most difficult jobs in the BBC. They carry them out with unstinting dedication and in the knowledge that their work makes a critical difference to the lives of millions who crave access to free and accurate information, in a part of the world where it is scarce and extremely precious.

In recent months, we have witnessed increased levels of intimidation alongside disturbing new tactics. This includes an attempt to put pressure on those who work for BBC Persian outside Iran, by targeting family members who still live inside the country.

We remain extremely concerned about these actions by the Iranian authorities and the latest case only serves to underline this.

Last week the sister of a BBC Persian member of staff was arrested. She was detained and held in solitary confinement on unspecified charges at Evin Prison in Tehran. Although she has now been released on bail, her treatment was utterly deplorable and we condemn it in the strongest possible terms.

It is just the latest in a campaign of bullying and harrassment by the Iranian authorities, putting pressure on the BBC for the impartial and balanced coverage of events in Iran and the wider region.

It follows the repeated jamming of international TV stations such as BBC Persian TV, preventing the Iranian people from accessing a vital source of free information.

In recent months a number of relatives of members of BBC Persian staff have been detained for short periods of time by the Iranian authorities and urged to get their relatives in London to either stop working for the BBC, or to "co-operate" with Iranian intelligence officials.

In other instances, passports of family members have been confiscated, preventing them from leaving Iran. This has left many BBC Persian staff too afraid to return to the country, even to visit sick or elderly relatives. Some have had their Facebook and email accounts hacked.

In addition, there has been a consistent stream of false and slanderous accusations against BBC Persian staff in the official Iranian media, ranging from allegations of serious sexual assault, drug trafficking, and criminal financial behaviour.

It has also included claims that staff have converted from Islam to Christianity or Baha'ism - potentially a capital offence in Iran as it is considered to be apostasy. This has put our staff, who in most cases left their families behind to come to London and work for the BBC, under immense pressure.

This issue is wider than the BBC - other international media face similar challenges. But it is behaviour that all people who believe in free and independent media should be deeply concerned about.

The BBC calls on the Iranian government to repudiate the actions of its officials.

We also ask governments and international regulatory bodies to put maximum pressure on Iran to desist in this campaign of intimidation, persistent censorship and a disturbing abuse of power.

Mark Thompson is BBC director general.

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