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Annual Review 2004/05
A year in review - The Indian Ocean tsunami
As fears of a second tsunami grew, there was an overwhelming need for accurate information
As fears of a second tsunami grew, there was an overwhelming need for accurate information


The second biggest earthquake in recorded history erupted off the coast of northwest Sumatra on Boxing Day 2004. The devastating tsunami it unleashed cost the lives of more than 200,000 people across a vast area from Sri Lanka and Indonesia to the Maldives and the coast of Africa. It proved to be one of the biggest news stories BBC World Service has had to report in decades.

The BBC's services in English and regional languages brought vital information to audiences and connected communities through radio and the internet. Thousands of people accessed the BBC's online services to trace missing relatives and friends.

'It was an extraordinary story', says Phil Harding, Director of English Networks and News. 'I think one that many of us in the news business had not faced in our entire working lives. That made the initial judgements about it very difficult, and the scale of it was almost impossible to comprehend to start off with.

'But once the scale of the disaster became apparent, the BBC was in a unique position in being able to deploy so many correspondents so quickly. Having correspondents in the regions that were affected meant that we were able to give an insight into the scale of the disaster and the human reaction to it at a very early stage.Through special Talking Point programmes people were able to connect from the various areas and other parts of the world and talk about their experiences.'

The BBC played a crucial role in bringing information to the devastated region. Its services in Indonesian, Hindi, Somali, Sinhalese and Tamil, as well as English, are highly regarded. Surveys carried out during the year in Indonesia and India confirmed its rating as the most trusted and objective international broadcaster, with approval ratings rising significantly. But the task of reporting the tsunami was unprecedented. In the worst hit areas there were immense logistical difficulties as communications, power and water had been cut off.

'Some areas, crucially the Indonesian province of Aceh and the Nicobar Islands, were very difficult to get through to, with little information coming from the authorities,' says Sabir Mustafa, Executive Editor in the Asia Pacific region. 'Our reporters in the field proved their worth, particularly in the difficult north and east of Sri Lanka and in Aceh.'

Menuk Suwondo, Head of the Indonesian Service, tried for four days to contact the BBC's partner stations in Aceh, which had broadcast BBC programmes on FM before the tsunami. At last, she received a text message from Achmad Uzair, a reporter with partner station Prima FM. 'I am alive but the rest of the team are missing', it read. As more people from local FM stations were located, the BBC helped by replacing damaged equipment and providing satellite dishes and receivers.

'One of the BBC's local reporters succeeded in arranging transport. Soon four stations, including a new partner, were on the air. To make it possible for homeless people to listen, 500 badly needed radios were distributed to refugee camps along Aceh's western coast.

'It was a really difficult time for all of us because we could put faces to some of the numbers, and members of staff had families that were affected,' says Menuk Suwondo. 'Our Jakarta reporter was the first one on the scene in Aceh and, at a refugee camp, he was surrounded by children asking him to help find their missing parents.'

Tamil editor Thirumalai Manivannan was called at 3am by the wife of the service's reporter in Trincomalee on the eastern coast of Sri Lanka. Water had entered the town and most of the houses by the coast had already flooded. 'My first concern was about the safety of the correspondent and his family', he says. 'But it was not possible for them to leave as almost all the roads were flooded. As the day progressed it was clear that this was an unprecedented calamity to hit the region, not India and Sri Lanka alone.'

The BBC was able to put the disaster in context for people throughout the affected regions. 'I think our ability to give a really comprehensive picture of the story was really important. We had correspondents reporting from every affected country at one stage or other,' says Mary Hockaday, Editor of World Service News and Current Affairs. 'That meant we could connect people who were affected directly with each other and let people know what was going on elsewhere, and we could also, of course, connect people listening all round the world – and we know what an extraordinary global response there was to this disaster.'

In the wake of the tsunami, tens of thousands of emails were received from anxious friends and relatives of people caught up in the disaster – 25,000 by the English language 'Have Your Say' website in the first week alone. The internet became a lifeline. A number of families were able to trace their loved ones through comments and appeals that appeared on special message boards.

Presence on the ground

The BBC's presence on the ground underpinned the quality of news coverage from stricken areas. Rachel Harvey was one of the first correspondents to reach Aceh, the closest land to the epicentre of the earthquake. It was an area she had visited over the previous two years, reporting on the conflict in the troubled province between separatist insurgents and the Indonesian government. 'I'd never seen anything like it before,' she says. 'It was absolutely catastrophic. In the space of 20 minutes I counted 10 trucks filled with bodies arriving at just one mass grave on the outskirts of town.'

Roland Buerk gave a first-hand account of the horror from the south coast of Sri Lanka. He was in bed when the tsunami hit the beach outside his room. 'There was no warning and we did not see it coming. We were swept along with motorbikes and cars, bits of wall and the ruins of buildings. It was not a question of swimming for your life. The tsunami was too powerful for that.'

In Thailand, Kylie Morris witnessed the impact on tourists as well as local people. 'At a makeshift morgue there were more than 300 bodies, mainly of foreign tourists. Photos of the dead were posted outside. Forensic teams are arriving and volunteers offer counselling for those whose sad search comes to an end.'

As fears of a second tsunami grew, there was an overwhelming need for accurate information as Charles Haviland reported from Nagapattinam in southern India. 'Five days after the tsunami there was total panic here. Vehicles travelling into Nagapattinam were met by a surge of humanity and traffic coming the other way, fleeing inland. The panic was fed by official warnings compounded by rumours. Home ministry officials had said another tsunami might take place because a new earthquake was being predicted in the Indian Ocean.'

The range of the devastation affected communities far from the epicentre of the earthquake. In Somalia, Adam Mynott reported how the tsunami had shattered a fishing community more than 7,000 km away. He found Mohammed Awor picking through the wreckage of his shop. 'Even though the wave had lost much of its power, a three-metre wall of water crashed through Mohammed's home, destroying everything. He and many of his friends were out at sea fishing at the time. Nineteen people in Hafun were killed. Dozens were left without anywhere to live.'

Listeners become journalists

The scale on which listeners contributed eyewitness reports reached a new level in the aftermath of the tsunami. In Sri Lanka, for example, where the Sri Lankan Broadcasting Corporation went off the air and the BBC was unable to contact anybody for some time, listeners provided a lot of information. 'I think this is something new that is happening in broadcasting,' says Phil Harding. 'The dividing line between listener and journalist is blurring and in many cases now our listeners are becoming our journalists.'

Online services continued to provide detailed information and analysis in the months following the tsunami. 'People have been continuing to tell us their stories through pictures, through words and through voice clips,' says interactivity editor Santosh Sinha. 'We want to make sure that the first anniversary on 26 December 2005 isn't the first time that we return to the story.' Through its services for the region, BBC World Service will enable people to share experiences of rebuilding their lives long after the initial headlines have faded.

'Having so many correspondents in the regions that were affected meant that we were able to give an insight into the scale of the disaster and the human reaction to it at a very early stage.'
Vehicles travelling into Nagapattinam were met by a surge of humanity Indonesian Service reporter Maskur Abdullah interviews a refugee in the west Aceh town of Meulaboh Achmad Uzair (left), a reporter with the Indonesian Service's partner station Prima FM and the Indonesian Service Desk Editor, Liston Siregar, among the wreckage of Radio Prima FM in Banda Aceh
BBC - Many voices, one world
A year in review
The Indian Ocean tsunami
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