The disaster forced the Indonesian government to lift its ban on international reporters entering the Aceh province.
Many of the local reporters who battled for years against government restrictions were not there to report first hand the devastation. Most of them perished along with the tens of thousands crushed by the killer waves.
The Indonesian journalists’ organisation, the Alliance of Independent Journalists (AJI), was one of the first to make an international appeal through the Brussels-based International Federation of Journalists to sister unions throughout the world.
AJI officials have set up an emergency centre in their headquarters in Jakarta to assess the fate of journalists and assist their families. They estimate that most of the 100 staff members of Serambi Indonesia , the Aceh region’s only daily newspaper, are missing and the newspaper’s offices and presses in Banda Aceh washed away.
Among the dead they identified three of their members and believe that another eight are still missing. Overall, around 200 journalists and media staff are missing, believed dead, throughout Northern Sumatra.
The AJI general secretary, Nezar Patria, himself lost 20 family members in the disaster.
Journalists at Serambi were renowned for their bravery in reporting a violent civil war that has engulfed the province of Aceh for the last twenty-five years. Founded in the early 1990s, the newspaper has for years been one of the only sources of information from the war-ravaged region, as foreign journalists have been banned by the government from covering the separatist rebellion there. Its journalists routinely faced violent attacks, threats, and intimidation from both sides of the conflict between Indonesian military forces and the separatist Free Aceh Movement.
In a message to all of its members in more than 100 countries, the IFLJ said it was in contact with its affiliates in India, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Malaysia, and Indonesia in an effort to assess the impact of the catastrophe upon the media community.
Eddy Suprapto, president of the AIJ, said: “Like every section of the population, journalists and media staff and their families have greatly suffered, and local media have been wiped out.”
? Six days after the disaster, the Associated Press reported Serambi Indonesia was back in circulation.
“Cholera is threatening our refugees” read the banner headline of the first edition, a slimmed-down version printed in Aceh Province’s second largest city, Lhokseumawe, and distributed free.
Also on the front page was a telephone number and message urging employees to call in to let editors know they are alive.
“We were badly hit, but the spirit of our journalists got this edition out,” Ismail Syah, the paper’s Lhokseumawe bureau chief, told AP. “We need to give information to the people and allow our employees to get in touch with us”
The NUJ has set up a special assistance fund in conjunction with the IFJ to help media workers and their families whose lives have been devastated by the tsunami tragedy.
NUJ general secretary Jeremy Dear said: “We’ve been inundated with members wanting to do something to help their fellow journalists who have been affected by this terrible tragedy.
The NUJ has urged all its branches to make a donation and written directly to 12,000 journalists urging them to support the appeal. Dear said: “I hope companies will play their role too and at least match any donations given by their staff.”
Donations, made payable to IFJ Safety Fund, should be sent to Jeremy Dear, General Secretary, NUJ, Headland House, 308 Grays Inn Road, London WC1X 8DP. Payments by credit card can be made by calling the NUJ on 020 7278 7916.
By Jim Boumelha