Creating new perspectives since 2009

BBC: experienced Arab journalist ‘racially harassed’, rules employment tribunal

February 1, 2024 at 10:27 am

General view of Broadcasting House, the BBC headquarters in Central London

An experienced Arab journalist working for the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) has suffered from racial harassment, a British employment tribunal has ruled. Ahmed Rouaba, a journalist of Algerian origin who works for the BBC Arabic Service’s digital platform, was “racially harassed” by his colleague Safaa Jibara, without proper and necessary actions from managers and the organisation’s Human Resources department, ruled the tribunal yesterday.

In an internal disciplinary action against Rouaba in 2019, Iraqi-born Jibara described his Algerian colleague as a “violent Bedouin” and attributed alleged violence to “the fact he is from Algeria”, adding that “there is violence behind it, a Bedouin character.” The Bedouin are nomadic tribal people who have historically inhabited the desert regions, including the Arabian Peninsula and across North Africa.

The tribunal documents quoted Jibara as saying that Rouaba “can’t explain himself in a mild way. He always shouts and is nervous.” He claimed that, “This belongs to his character and his cultural character.” Jibara made his remarks during an investigation requested by BBC Arabic managers, at a meeting in which they claimed that Rouaba had behaved badly and disturbed attendees.

In a unanimous ruling, the three-member tribunal panel concluded that the words used by Jibara were “derogatory”.

READ: BBC comes under fire for mistranslating ex-Palestinian prisoner as praising Hamas

In his defence, the BBC’s lawyer argued that Jibara didn’t intend to harass his colleague. While the tribunal accepted this argument, it confirmed that he “racially harassed the claimant, as alleged,” pointing out that “the impugned words had the prescribed effect on the claimant.”

It also confirmed that the BBC “failed to give sufficient weight to the impact of the impugned words on the claimant,” and that, “Taking into account all the other circumstances in the case, it was objectively reasonable for this conduct to have had that effect on the claimant.”

Mr Rouaba explained in the court hearings how managers’ behaviour made him “living in hell”.

Mr Rouaba explained in the court hearings how managers’ behaviour made him “living in hell”.

During the year-long series of hearings, the BBC argued that Rouaba’s grievance about the impact of the racist comments by Jibara was unreasonable. However, the tribunal dismissed this argument, saying that it “does not find that the claimant was being hypersensitive or was unreasonably offended notwithstanding that these comments were not made directly to him”.

Ahmed Rouaba, 54, has more than 30 years of experience in journalism. Before joining the BBC in 2012, he worked for well-known media outlets such as Dow Jones, Al Jazeera, Bloomberg and America’s Birmingham News. He writes in Arabic, English and French.

A BBC insider source, who is familiar with tracking the performance of the published stories, confirmed that Rouaba ‘s writing has a huge impact on its audience. Another source said, “The negative effect of this racial harassment case has been felt strongly all over the place in BBC Arabic.”

A female colleague described the hardship that Rouaba has been through for long time. “His life has been like hell. We have never heard about such a huge number of ungrounded complaints and disciplinary actions against him just because he speaks out about mediocrity.” Even colleagues who were giving him support were targeted, she added.

The ruling blamed the BBC for failing to investigate Mr Rouaba ‘s internal complaints about the racial abuse properly. “It is striking that at every turn, the second respondent’s [the BBC’s] managers and HR advisers failed to apply the correct definition of harassment as set out in their own policy,” noted the tribunal.

During the hearings, Rouaba claimed that he was subjected to a “plot by the managers” to get rid of him. Jibara, he claimed, was helping the managers to achieve this objective. In one of the hearings, he alleged that he had “been harassed and intimidated for many years by a senior editor and news editor and their clique.” His belief was that the BBC condoned racist comments against him and did nothing to protect him from intimidation and racial abuse.

READ: Houthi leader slams BBC for describing group’s naval activity as ‘much ado about nothing’

The tribunal concluded that his reaction to the impugned words “cannot be divorced entirely from his firmly held view that Mr Jibara had given false evidence in the service of a plot with his managers to remove him” and this was “something which clearly exercised and distressed the claimant… The claimant perceived that these words violated his dignity, and created a degrading, humiliating and/or offensive environment for him.”

The employment tribunal now plans to hold a preliminary hearing “to list a remedy” and “make any necessary case management orders.”

A senior journalist in the BBC World Service, who asked not to be named, expressed “high hope” that the corporation will “force the Arabic service managers to reflect on this court ruling and learn the right lessons” and “review the way [that staff] are being managed.”

BBC Arabic, which closed its historical radio service last year, is going through an unprecedented change project under which it has moved about 75 per cent of its digital operation to Jordan, despite internal criticism. Staff complained that this step made BBC Arabic compromise its freedom and output. The management argues that such a step is necessary to save money and to be close to the audience in the Middle East.

The BBC did not comment immediately on the ruling. It has 42 days in which to lodge an appeal.

OPINION: Blair recommended ‘new relations’ with Iran and Syria to cut support for Hamas and Hezbollah