insight - Sohail Rahman

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Occupation - News Anchor & Correspondent – Al Jazeera English news

A face recognised by many, award-winning journalist ‘So Rahman’ is known for ‘breaking the news’ and not just presenting it.

His caring nature and determination led him to where the average correspondent wouldn’t set foot. Moving from Manchester to Doha, Sohail Rahman’s ability to put fear aside has taken him far – but is it far enough for him?

You have worked for some of the world’s largest TV networks. How did it all begin?
I was always fascinated by television and show business – the glitz, the glamour, and the big celebrity spectaculars aired in the UK when I was a child. Perhaps influenced by my military father’s love of photography and my mother’s obsession with Bollywood films of the 1940s and 50s, it is not hard to see how I got bitten by the broadcasting bug. A degree in film and television from The University of Westminster, Harrow College in 1991 was my springboard to an internship as a trainee researcher with the BBC in Wales. I ended up as a producer and PSC Director before arriving at ITV Granada in Manchester in 1995, where I worked on a regional news programme as a reporter, learning my craft as a journalist over ten years.

News, crime, holiday shows, and special projects, like the 50th anniversary programmes commemorating Independence for India and Pakistan, all came my way. Speaking five languages and having family connections to both countries in South Asia was very useful. My body of work over this period of time culminated in winning the prestigious Royal Television Society Award (RTS). During this period I was approached to host a whole range of major network television shows in the UK, including debate programmes as well as the national news, making me the first British Muslim man to do so for ITV. Noticed by the Al Jazeera Director of News in 2004, I was invited to join the company in November 2005 as a news anchor and correspondent based in Doha.

How does your experience with Al Jazeera differ from your previous one with Granada?
The experience has been wonderful, challenging and sometimes dangerous, yet very different from the regional news stories I had been used to covering. These first four years with Al Jazeera have seen me interview presidents and prime ministers, cover general elections in Pakistan and Bangladesh, as well as major events such as the assassination of former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto in December of 2007, the state of emergency in Bangladesh in December of 2006, the Taliban uprising in Swat Valley in October of 2007, and the horrific attacks on Mumbai in November 2008. The list of events has been varied and they have all become dates to note for our future history books.

You are highly recognised for your exclusive coverage in danger zones during extremely sensitive periods. How are you able to focus on your mission as a reporter when your life is constantly at risk?
Why do we as news people put ourselves in such dangerous situations? It’s a question friends and family ask me all the time. It’s not for the thrill but for the love of the job. If you want to understand the story then you have to speak to those who it affects at the grass roots level. Conflict begins with disillusioned or disgruntled people. We either meet them before a conflict or we see the effects of their anger during an incident, like Mumbai.

Whatever the reason, be it fate, destiny, good luck, or simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time, I’ve been able to witness these historical moments. I think I’m just humbled to have been able to tell the story and leave in one piece. My only sadness is leaving the people it affects behind to pick up the pieces.

Having worked with the television sector for over 20 years now, do you think this medium has changed much over the past two decades?
Telling the story has become much quicker over the near 20 years I’ve been in the business. The advent of the internet, mobile phones, and now social networking makes the ability to help gather news from a range of sources so much quicker – and it is still developing. The industry is evolving daily, and changes to technology continue to affect the way international news organisations like Al Jazeera gather their information, accurately sourced and double-checked. Nevertheless you still need a cameraman, and I work with the best.

What effects have your exposure to charitable foundations through BBC’s Children in Need, and as ambassador for The Prince’s Trust, had on you?
It is not always about building up your career. There are many people who have helped me get to where I am today from within the industry, be it the BBC, RTE Ireland, Channel Four (UK), or CNN, but the support of friends and family has been crucial in my success. My father was a war hero fighting for the Indian Air Force during World War II, a true gent and the best role model a son could hope for. He has always encouraged me to give back to the community as much as I could when the community has helped me so much. In his later years my late father suffered with Alzheimer’s and I have to this day continued in my efforts to raise funds for the society in Britain looking for remedies that could potentially delay the onset of a disease that affects millions across the world. When hosting some events in the past my fees have gone directly to the charity.

I see myself as being very lucky to be where I am, and if my fame can help others, then great. The Bihari children I visit and help in Bangladesh are the third or fourth generation of refugees caught up in camps established after the liberation war from Pakistan in 1971 when Bangladesh, formerly known as East Pakistan, was created. School books and pencils are an essential tool their parents can barely afford.

I’m very proud to be an ambassador for The Prince’s Trust set up by Prince Charles. The organisation aims to help adults who’ve fallen out of mainstream society, or haven’t been given the opportunities they would have hoped for – given a second chance by building their own businesses. It’s all about giving people hope and a sense of belonging to a community.

Do you think that Qatar is emerging as a political hub for the region?
I see that here in Qatar. As a child I was a stamp collector and the largest in my collection came from this very country. Talk about fate and destiny putting you in a place you never expected. This tiny Gulf nation strives to improve itself at every level. You see it in the way Doha is expanding in sport, media, education, and health sectors for its own people and those it can share its facilities with from less fortunate backgrounds.

That extends to the man at the top. You have to take your hat off to the Emir and the government who continue to play an important role as honest brokers in some of the world’s longest standing and politically divisive issues, be it the Palestinian–Israeli conflict or the factions fighting in Sudan, to name but two. Qatar is trying to make a difference, trying to work the problem out with the parties at the heart of the trouble. Others may disagree, others might say the cards to solving the problems may be held by politically bigger international players… but regardless, at the end of the day it’s about making a difference. It doesn’t really matter who we are, big or small, we can all make a difference.

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