|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.
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.'
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.