Interview with Steve Chao – winner of ‘Best Current Affairs Presenter’ and ‘Best Current Affairs Programme’

101 East: Afghanistan’s Billion Dollar Drug War, a programme by Al Jazeera English, took home two shining trophies from the recent Asian Television Awards held at Suntec City, Singapore on December 3, 2015. The programme, which won ‘Best Current...

101 East Afghanistan Al Jazeera ATA e-Newsbuzz Current Affairs Presenter producer reporter Steve Chao


101 East: Afghanistan’s Billion Dollar Drug War, a programme by Al Jazeera English, took home two shining trophies from the recent Asian Television Awards held at Suntec City, Singapore on December 3, 2015. The programme, which won ‘Best Current Affairs Programme’ and ‘Best Current Affairs Presenter’, saw Steve’s investigation into one of the most hostile terrain dealing with a substance that has plagued some of human’s worst addictions.

Steve Chao – senior presenter, reporter and producer of the programme has spent close to two decades on the frontlines in the world’s hotspots. He covered news from the surrender of the Taliban in Kandahar, Afghanistan following the September 11, 2001 attacks; from the grounds of the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster; earthquakes in Haiti; terror attacks in Mumbai, climate change at the North Pole; to the 2011 tsunami and nuclear disaster in Japan.

This year alone, the multi-award winner has also received recognition bagging gold for ‘Best Correspondent’, ‘Best Investigative Report’ and ‘Best Current Affairs’ at the New York Festivals International TV & Film Awards.


Congratulations on winning the ‘Best Current Affairs Presenter’ and ‘Best Current Affairs Programme’ for 101 East: Afghanistan’s Billion Dollar Drug War.  What are your thoughts on winning these two categories?

We were out of this world excited.  By themselves, these awards are incredible honours, but to win both in one year is beyond anything we could have imagined.  I can think of all the great journalists that have been recognised for their work by the Asian Television Awards (ATA), and for us at 101 East to be included among them is just amazing.  A humble thank you from our team.


What does 101 stands for?

Bold, investigative, and behind the scenes.  These are the mantras of good journalism that we at 101 East have tried to uphold, while covering current affairs in the incredible region that is Asia.  We try our best to shine a light on injustice, to give voice to those who rarely get a chance to speak out, and to hold power to account.  I think we are all in agreement that in Asia, there is a big need for more hard-hitting journalism, and we try to do our small part.


Going to a rough terrain like Afghanistan can be tough for many especially for a film crew. What are some of the safety measures and preparations taken in order to enter the country as well as throughout your stay with your film crew in Afghanistan?

Ensuring that our crews get in and out of tough regions like Afghanistan is always priority number one.  Another priority is also ensuring that the people we work with on the ground in war-torn regions are also well protected, during the shoot, and also afterwards.

A lot of it is about pre-planning.  Before any shoot like this, we check in with our sources on the ground to get a lay of the land, and to better understand the security situations in the places we will be filming.  We assess whether we need extra security personnel to maintain our safety.  We also always have exit strategies for every day while we are on the shoot.

Many of our crews also have years of hostile environment training, which helps us better prepare and anticipate events when things go wrong – and they at times do.  Which is what first aid kits, and backup escape cars are all about.

The biggest advice I was given by a steely-eyed veteran journalist years ago is to stay low key.  I remember his words clearly as we waited for a flight into Afghanistan in 2001: “If no one knows you’re there, then there’s little’s chance you’ll get yourself into some deep sh*(.“  They are words to live by.


Filming in foreign terrains where diversity within culture and communication are some of the aspect that may led to disastrous effect, what are some of the toughest challenges faced in the process of filming, presenting and producing this programme?

Disaster is an apt phrase.  In the filming of Afghanistan’s Billion Dollar Drug War, we ventured deep into Taliban territory with smugglers, we entered opium-growing areas run-in part by heavily armed drug syndicates – so many things could have gone wrong.

The challenge in each of these places was how to make sure that we weren’t spotted, and that we didn’t out the people who helped us get in.  To stay below the radar, meant that we ourselves needed a healthy understanding of local culture.  Thankfully, I’ve been covering the war in Afghanistan since 2001, and have spent a great deal of time on the ground in this country.  Our crew often wore local clothes to better blend in.  We kept away from places where we could be easily spotted in public.  And, when we did meet people in tribal regions, we made sure that we weren’t committing cultural faux-pas that would offend them and put our people at risk.

Knowledge=survival.  And more importantly, knowledge of the culture helps us tell a more accurate and powerful story.  There’s a reason why many frown on “parachute” journalism.  And it’s why I’m a firm believer in spending time in regions/countries to truly get to know the cultures there. And, when we do, our crews can better avoid “disaster”.


How has it been different filming 101 East: Afghanistan’s Billion Dollar Drug War to the other programmes which you have produced in the past?

101 East produces 52 shows a year.  We cover a wide spectrum of stories, from chasing down notorious wildlife traffickers, to following K-pop artists as they try to “make it”.  As you can imagine, each programme has its own challenges.

In Afghanistan’s Billion Dollar Drug War, the level of danger was the biggest concern, especially as we were exposing an illegal industry in a lawless land, where there is very little accountability.  As a result, we often had only one go at filming in an area.  Once we’d been there, word would at times get out that a film crew had been shooting there.  And in southern Afghanistan, that kind of talk increases the change of being kidnapped, or killed.  This meant that we really had to plan our shoot days.  And also be patient when interviewees backed out.

The issue with all of this is that we were trying to film a crop of opium over the course of a growing season.  And that meant timing it right to ensure that we were there when the first crops were sprouting and then when the opium was being harvested.  As you can imagine, getting accurate information in territory held by the Taliban is extremely difficult.