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Sri Lankan journalist Feizal Samath recounts the trials and tribulations of covering one of the worst natural disasters in recent history and reviews local and international media’s treatment of the subject
Colombo --- Joss sticks are lit near rows of dead bodies. A woman wails for a lost relative. A young boy peers into a camera, oblivious to the fact that he has lost his parents in Sri Lanka’s worst natural disaster.
While journalists struggle to find “politically correct” words to describe the tragedy in a country that has struggled through strife and chaos for the past 21 years, the media certainly has come of age since its coverage of the last natural disaster in this country.
The biggest natural calamity to hit Sri Lanka before the tsunami was a cyclone in 1978 that tore up the eastern coastal regions of Ampara and Batticaloa, killing some 1,000 people.
I covered that eastern tragedy more than 25 years ago in a time when only a handful of newspapers and a few radio stations were in existence in Sri Lanka. There was little the media could do at that time, even though the world understood our plight and poured in relief supplies, some of which didn’t suit the circumstances.
This time around, there are ample top television channels and radio stations, up to the mark not only in reporting events but in steering relief efforts and repeatedly carrying pictures or names and details of missing people. The media has turned the entire nation into a relief and rehabilitation centre.
There is also a competitive spirit--channels compete against each other to get the best ratings. There has been television and radio coverage all day and night, the kind of coverage only seen during a national election. Newspapers, not to be outdone, chipped in with striking headlines such as “River of Death,” “Sea terror,” “Black Sunday” and “River of Tears,” and were replete with stories that tugged at one’s heart strings.
Journalists have crisscrossed the countryside in search of moving and compelling stories from survivors. Some were almost caught up in the swirling waters like AP photographer Gemunu Amarasinghe, who had to abandon his jeep to help some victims caught in tide. Thankfully, he is safe now.
But it is clearly the foreign press, flown in on virtually empty flights that were sent to bring back stranded tourists, who came up with most of the best, human-interest stories. Many of these were reproduced in local newspapers.
There were stories of heroism in the face of adversity--a guesthouse keeper virtually pushes his guests into a boat for safety and somehow struggles to higher ground; a father clings onto a tree with his child not letting go even though he can feel a force equivalent to some 15 men trying to pull him away.
During the first two days of the crisis--Sunday and Monday--the media focus was essentially on the southern part of the country where countless numbers of tourist hotels and buildings were mostly razed to the ground. Television channels ran picture after picture of the destruction in the mostly-Sinhala majority south while little was spoken about the north and eastern areas where most of the Tamils live.
Lack of television coverage from those areas was, in part, due to the fact that there were fewer journalists in the area who had cameras to record the tragedy. Pictures are gradually coming in, however, the coverage is still mostly concentrated on the southern and western regions. This is a serious flaw in the media coverage because the northern and eastern regions were the worst hit, bearing the brunt of the killer waves.
Some images were fleeting but will remain etched in the minds of many TV viewers. Children crying for their lost parents; scores of cars, buses, trucks floating on gushing waters; vehicles stacked on each other; rows of bodies waiting for mass burials; railway lines torn and twisted; trees uprooted; horror-shock foreign tourists wearing sarongs after losing all their belongings and being helped to relief centres, thousands of victims clutching their most valuables, including family photographs, TVs, radios, etc and dry rations.
Even for hard-nosed journalists like us, who have traversed the length and breadth of this country reporting on the war and brutal killing that has cost the lives of close to 100,000 people in the past two decades, it was extremely difficult to sit down and describe the brutality of the surging sea that swallowed scores of people, without shedding a tear or two.
As international relief pours in, so do scores of foreign journalists flying in droves for probably the biggest international story of the year since Iraq was invaded by US-led allied troops.
The Sri Lankan government took some time to get its act together and, as usual, the official information flow was poor. Rumours of more tsunamis triggered panic in some areas, unnecessarily stretching the resources of journalists and media groups. Quite often journalists were sent on wild goose chases, following imaginary reports or gossip of another tsunami.
Government officials kept repeating ad nauseam the unlikelihood of another tsunami wave, but most people were reluctant to believe these statements, annoyed that the government didn’t have early warning systems in the first place.
Sunday’s newspapers last week are kicking their heels in disappointment; many ran flashback 2004 series recalling major events of the year on December 26th. The biggest event, however, was one they were too late to include.
In retrospect, the Sri Lankan media performed a tremendous job--often setting aside competition and gains and indulging in an atmosphere of cooperation. In this day and age of competition even in a crisis, this is very admirable.
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Feizal Samath has been a journalist for 25 years and has worked with local newspapers and international news agencies covering general news, sports, business and economics, and social and development issues. Currently Business Editor of the Sunday Times of Sri Lanka, he is also a correspondent for foreign newspapers and agencies. A former Bureau chief of Reuters, Colombo, he also served as deputy bureau chief Reuters, Mumbai during a 13-year stint with the news service.
The views expressed above are those of the author and are not necessarily those of AsiaMedia or the UCLA Asia Institute.
Date Posted: 1/3/2005
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