Reporting from Iraq is “one of the most dangerous environments for journalists”, says Al Arabiya News Channel anchor Souhair al-Qayssei.
Al-Qayssei is among the most prominent Iraqi news presenters in the region, with experience fronting political hard-talk programs and debates in her years working at the Al Arabiya News Channel.
In an interview with Inside the Newsroom, she looked back on her time working from her native country.
“The psychological pressure is huge, but sometimes the joy of the work and enthusiasm makes you forget the job’s difficulties,” she said.
Al-Qayssei is now based in Dubai, where she presents a news segment called “Nashrat al-Rabiya” (The 4pm Bulletin).
She was named a Red Crescent Goodwill Ambassador in 2008. She was one of the first journalists to hit the streets of troubled Al-Sadr city in Iraq, after the Al Arabiya News Channel became the first Arabic media outlet to enter the city during shelling in the same year.
Another achievement by Al-Qayssei was her exclusive interview in 2010 with Jermaine Jackson, brother to the late King of Pop Michael Jackson, which gave Al-Qayssei an international followership and fans beyond the Middle East.
Al-Qayssei also moderated the live political debate “The Race to the Parliament” during Iraq's elections in 2010. The show was a platform on which candidates debated political issues related to Iraq following the toppling of former President Saddam Hussein.
Al-Qayssei debuted her first news segment on Al Arabiya while she was still undertaking her Bachelor’s degree in dentistry. She told Inside the Newsroom about the major milestones in her career, and what it is like to be a journalist from conflicted Iraq.
Q. You originally studied as a dentist. How did you decide to make the drastic change to media?
I’ve always had a passion for media, so it wasn’t really a transition as much as it was a complete pursuit of my passion. By the way, I completed my studies while working at Al Arabiya.
Q. How did it feel to be the youngest news anchor in MBC when you started your career in 2004?
I tried to look older and sound older in my voice. I didn’t want to look like a student, but I realized later that part of why the audience accepted me was due to the my perceived innocence and spontaneity. More importantly, starting young meant that I had to work on myself and I would literary spend hours every day researching and reading up; I still do that because gaining viewer trust is a responsibility.
Q. Which news segment did you present back then?
The first news segment was at 4am in the summer of 2004 on Al Arabiya.
Q. How were you chosen to present the show “From Iraq”? Do you consider it a turning point in your life, as it is Al Arabiya’s oldest program?
“From Iraq” is the first talk show I ever presented, from 2006 until 2010. It came during a very critical time in Iraq. Before then, Iraqis weren’t used to watching courageous talk shows in which politicians are held accountable. No media figure dared confront an Iraqi politician under the single-party system; as such both the program and I became household names in Iraq.
People still remember some interviews from the show, such as the one with the parliament speaker who quit shortly after the episode was broadcast.
Q. How did you handle the responsibility of being a Red Crescent Goodwill Ambassador?
It makes me proud, but it was risky. I was chosen for this honourable position in 2008, so I entered al-Sadr City to distribute humanitarian aid. The city was being shelled by American and Iraqi troops due to disputes with the Shiite movement.
I filmed a report about the city. Al Arabiya was the first Arabic channel to enter al-Sadr City, and I was the only journalist who managed to do that, as the situation was difficult due to sniper fire and random shelling. I couldn’t finish the tasks of the Iraqi Red Crescent because the government banned it from working for a certain period of time.
Q. Did it take you a long time to prepare for presenting a live political program such “The Race to Parliament” in 2010?
“The Race to Parliament” was very important as it came before the Arab Spring brought changes in the region. It was the first American-election style debate in the Arab world. I was happy that I was chosen by Al Arabiya to present it. It was a difficult experience too. We presented it daily for more than a month. We suffered from security threats in Baghdad all the time.
The New York Times and other dailies wrote about the program. The show was distinguished for its very brave debates that no other Arabic program had witnessed before. I’m proud of “The Race to Parliament.” Its viewership in Iraq was high, as citizens watched politicians fiercely debate in an attempt to gain audience votes.
Q. One Iraqi politician you interviewed memorably pulled out a gun on air. How did you react to that?
This was during “The Race to Parliament” in 2010 while covering the first pluralistic elections in Iraq. The incident sparked a lot of controversy. The guest was a member of the Integrity Committee in parliament, and a candidate as well. He brought the gun with him, and said he found it in a market, and that it had an engraving saying it was a gift from the prime minister.
He added that Nouri al-Maliki was distributing arms like gifts, just like Saddam Hussein used to do. Frankly, I wasn’t affected much and I resumed the debate as the gun wasn’t loaded. When I remember the incident today, I smile and thank God it wasn’t loaded.
Q. What are the challenges of reporting from Iraq, and what is your outlook for the country?
Presenting any program or report from Iraq, particularly from Baghdad, means you’re working in the most dangerous environment for journalists. The psychological pressure is huge, but sometimes the joy of the work and the enthusiasm make you forget the job’s difficulties.
We must remember Al Arabiya reporters who were killed by terrorism. God bless them. We won’t forget them. We miss them. Our dear Atwar Bahgat was killed in cold blood, and others were killed in the bombing of Al Arabiya's office [in Baghdad] in 2010. When I think of the fact that I worked in the most dangerous environment in the world, I thank God that I’m still alive.
Q. You currently host “Nashrat al-Rabiya” or the 4PM bulliten, what can you tell us about it?
It has great popularity. I’m glad I was chosen to present it. There’s a lot of interaction with the audience via social networking websites. We tackle the most important Arab developments, in addition to special coverage of Gulf affairs.
Q. You are based in Dubai now. Do you miss presenting the show from Iraq?
Of course, I miss working in the field, and I miss presenting shows from there.