Photography/ Todd Eyre
Back in Auckland, Al Jazeera anchor and journalist Elizabeth Puranam talks live TV, life in Doha and being trolled online.
Puranam has been at Al Jazeera for four years, based in the Qatari capital Doha. The international news juggernaut, which recently celebrated its 20th anniversary, has come a long way since the George W. Bush administration wrote it off as a mouthpiece for Islamic terrorists (and since, according to a notorious memo, Bush pondered bombing its headquarters until Tony Blair dissuaded him). Since Al Jazeera English launched a decade ago, it has become one of the three biggest international news organisations, along with the BBC and CNN. “There was a really big perception change. People could understand it and see how good it was,” says Puranam. Now there are 65 global bureaus and a fantastically diverse workforce. “Our newsroom is amazing because it’s filled with journalists from all over the world. When I have to quickly know about what’s happening in Mauritania or something, there’ll be someone in the newsroom from Mauritania who can give me the context and tell me exactly what’s going on.”
Puranam was born in the Mahatma Gandhi Hospital in Hyderabad, India, then came to Auckland with her family when she was 10, where she lived in Avondale, then Glen Eden, then Piha. (“I’m a total westie,” she says.) She didn’t go to journalism school, but studied politics and media at university instead. She worked at TVNZ in the captioning department before transferring to the newsroom to monitor the police and ambulance radios and foreign newswires. Then TV3 offered her a job on their news desk. She quickly found herself anchoring midday news bulletins.
She had always wanted to work at Al Jazeera, studying Arabic and even writing essays about it while at Victoria University. She got in touch with the channel, offering to work in any capacity at all; they flew her to Doha for a screen test, then offered her a job as an anchor. Having only done a modicum of presenting for TV3, she says of her first time on air, “My God, it was so terrifying.”
She has since covered the Gaza wars of 2012 and 2014; the hunt for the Boston marathon bombers; the Rabaa al-Adawiya massacre in Egypt; the terror attacks in Paris. “The hardest part of the job is when there’s really big breaking news that you have to roll on for hours without a script – any time there are mass casualties and dealing with the information as it’s coming in.” Is it difficult not to swear, scream, weep? “It’s funny because at the time you’re not [emotional] because it’s a job, but I’ve definitely come home and bawled my eyes out.”
Aside from the laser-like focus required to broadcast live outside a busy newsroom, while all 10 people in the control room natter away to her and each other in her earpiece, she says there are often other, more urgent, challenges. “I remember when I was presenting our coverage of Paris, maybe three hours into it the control room had to ask our correspondent to just talk without stopping after I asked her a question so I could go to the bathroom. They were using a satellite connection that could fail at any time.”
Offscreen, her life is “very much an expat lifestyle”. Qatar has a population of over two million, most of whom live in Doha, but only about a fifth are locals (many are South Asian labourers). And in Puranam’s experience, they aren’t crazy about befriending transient immigrants. So, although she learned to read and write in Arabic, she says she never gets to use it. She worried at first about dressing appropriately, but is more pragmatic about it now. “It is a Muslim country and it’s a conservative Gulf country, so there are rules around how you’re supposed to dress. You’re not supposed to show your knees when you’re out. You’re not supposed to wear things that are strappy. But that’s more during the day in public places, at the mall and stuff like that – anything goes when you’re out in the clubs.”
Because of Qatar’s convenient location next to several continents, she travels a lot, especially to her birthplace of Hyderabad, which is four hours away. On a trip there in August last year, she travelled up to Kashmir to write a feature article about the violent protests against Indian rule. Al Jazeera has had a somewhat strained relationship with India for the past few years because, for reasons India hasn’t revealed, it has denied Al Jazeera staff visas to work in the country. But, Puranam says, “I really, really felt like I needed to be there.” So she travelled to Kashmir under her own steam.
Initially, there was a fantastic response to her story. “Kashmir hasn’t got a lot of attention in the international media because there’s Syria and there’s Iraq and there’s Yemen. So a lot of people, especially Kashmiris, were really happy that an international organisation would go and do a very long feature.” But, after Hindu nationalists in India discovered the story, she was bombarded by trolls. “The mildest [messages] were that I’m stupid and I’ve got no idea what I’m talking about, and what do you expect from Al Jazeera, it’s a Muslim terrorist network. Then there was hate-filled abuse of Muslims and threats to me, saying I better be careful next time I step into India, that I deserve to have my citizenship revoked. Then rape threats.”
None of this has put her off reporting though. In fact, she would like to be out of the confines of the studio more often. “I really miss being out in the field reporting. I feel like I have to do it while I’m young and don’t have any children.”
As for the current chaotic state of worldwide journalism, Puranam says not even the mighty Al Jazeera has been immune. Because of Qatar’s dependency on oil, a recent drop in prices has not been kind to the state-funded broadcaster. “Everyone’s feeling it. No one’s exempt. We’ve had huge cuts. There have been layoffs. There’s always a hiring freeze but for the most part we are still functioning.”
Puranam was back in New Zealand over summer, primarily to meet her new niece, but also to spend time with family, catch up with friends and soak up some Aotearoan rays. “I haven’t been home in over two years and it is my first New Zealand summer in four years, so I’m pretty excited.”