Interviewing another journalist reminds me of the fabled Irish tendency to answer a question with a question. It’s all about deflection and keeping your cards close to your chest. Plus, Al Jazeera anchor and former Aucklander Elizabeth Puranam says, it’s a great way to avoid talking about yourself. “You’re a journalist for a reason. I don’t know any journalists that like answering questions, unless they’re in it for themselves because they’re an egotist.”
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
Right Elizabeth Puranam, right, at her parents’ Auckland home with her father Charles, nephew Abhijeet, sister Ruth and niece Alesha.
Back in Auckland, Al Jazeera anchor and journalist Elizabeth Puranam talks live TV, life in Doha and being trolled online.
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
Having only done a modicum of presenting for TV3, she says of her first time on air, “My God, it was so terrifying.”
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 statefunded 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.”
“Kashmir hasn’t got a lot of attention in the international media because there’s Syria and there’s Iraq and there’s Yemen.”