21st JAMCO Online International Symposium
March 14 to September 15, 2013
Tsunami Response Systems and the Role of Asia's Broadcasters
The event was surely the first time such a massive tsunami was captured on camera in real time. The shocking images of the rampaging waves rushing toward land and then surging ashore, swallowing up homes and cars, were broadcast live across Japan and throughout the world. The swiftness with which Japanese broadcasters were able to respond in covering the disaster received high praise from abroad. However, the objective of Japanese broadcasters on such occasions—and this is especially true of NHK, as Japan’s sole public broadcaster—is not merely to communicate the extent and nature of the damage; it is also to reduce the toll from its impact as much as possible. To that end, disaster response mechanisms in Japan have been set up in which broadcasters play an integral role in disaster prevention systems alongside the government agencies involved.
Today the nations of Asia, like Japan, are working to strengthen their disaster prevention and crisis management systems. The impetus for this can be traced to the tsunami that swept the Indian Ocean in 2004. On December 26 that year, an earthquake of magnitude 9.1 occurred off the coast of Aceh province on the western Indonesian island of Sumatra that triggered a massive tsunami that first rolled ashore in Indonesia. Being nearest to the epicenter of the quake, Aceh was hit within minutes by waves exceeding ten meters in height, swallowing up entire towns along the coast. Nearly 170,000 people died in the province and vicinity. But the damage was not limited to Indonesia. The tsunami reached other countries bordering the Indian Ocean, killing 35,000 in Sri Lanka, 8,000 in Thailand, and thousands more elsewhere, for an overall death toll of some 230,000 in a dozen countries. That number already makes it the deadliest tsunami disaster in history, but the actual toll is thought to be even higher because the count does not include undocumented foreign workers.
In the case of this disaster, no alarms were sounded for those in harm’s way to seek refuge on higher ground. Even in Sri Lanka and Thailand, which were not hit until two to three hours after the earthquake, populations received no advance warning of the coming tsunami.
At the time, the countries around the Indian Ocean had no tsunami warning system, and their broadcasters were not prepared to conduct emergency broadcasts, nor even capable of doing so. In part because the earthquake occurred on the morning after Christmas and on a Sunday, and in part because of an existing state of conflict between Aceh separatists and the Indonesian government, word of the enormous devastation the province had suffered failed to reach Jakarta, the capital of Indonesia, where TV stations continued with their regular programming. As a result, the initial reports of the disaster originated in Sri Lanka and Thailand, and the world’s relief agencies first moved into action under the misapprehension that those were the hardest hit areas. The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies spoke of being hampered by a “black hole of information.”
Less than a month after the Indian Ocean tsunami, in January of 2005, a World Conference on Disaster Reduction was held in Kobe, Japan. The conference ended by voicing a shared international commitment to strengthening disaster resilience in the nations of Asia and around the world. An internationally coordinated effort to create disaster prevention systems within each country was set in motion.
Japan, too, joined in the effort to strengthen disaster resilience in the nations of Asia. In February 2005, broadcasters from throughout the region gathered in Japan for an NHK workshop on Japan’s disaster response system and the integral role broadcast media play in it. NHK has subsequently continued to share its disaster coverage expertise by welcoming delegations from overseas to our facilities for observation or training. When an earthquake takes place in Japan, the Meteorological Agency determines whether or not it is expected to trigger a tsunami, and if so, the wave’s projected height and time of arrival. NHK and other broadcasters play the crucial role of getting these alerts out to the public. In the case of major undersea quakes, NHK can also give out preliminary tsunami warnings even before the Meteorological Agency announces its determination.
Further, we consider it a vital part of our mission not merely to inform the public of any alerts issued, but to urge people to seek refuge away from coastal lowlands and river mouths with all due haste in order to reduce potential harm. Our hope is that these practices can serve as a model for other countries as they put together disaster prevention and reduction systems that fit their own particular circumstances.
In his report on the Indian Ocean tsunami, former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan noted that if there had been a regional early warning system in place in countries along the Indian Ocean when the tsunami struck, thousands or even tens of thousands of lives could have been saved, and he referred to the disaster as a wake-up call for all governments regarding the vital role such a system can play in allowing both lives and property to escape harm, reducing natural disaster losses. In the eight years since that wake-up call, exactly how much progress have the countries made in building up their disaster preparedness, and more particularly, what role are broadcasters now in a position to play in reducing the potential harm from a tsunami? How far have broadcasters come in their ability to function as part of the emergency response, and to help prevent and reduce losses when disaster actually strikes?
In this symposium, we will be examining the present state of the tsunami warning systems that were proposed for implementation in Indonesia, Thailand, and Sri Lanka following the 2004 event, along with the role that broadcasters play in those systems. We will be asking, too, about the channels of international cooperation that broadcasters in the region have been able to set up through such bodies as the Asia-Pacific Broadcasting Union (ABU). Our discussions will be based on reports from the field compiled by specialists of broadcasting across Asia. With an eye also to the lessons of the Great East Japan Earthquake, we will consider how the future should look like and what still needs to be done for tsunami disaster prevention and international cooperation in the countries of Asia from the standpoint of broadcasters.
Senior Researcher, NHK Broadcasting Culture Research Institute
Senior Researcher, Media Research & Studies Division, Broadcasting Culture Research Institute, Japan Broadcasting Corporation (NHK)
B.A., Sophia University, Department of Foreign Language
M.A., University of Leeds, Studies of International Society and Culture
Ph.D., Nagoya University, International Development
Working at NHK as a broadcast journalist since 1988, moved to NHK Broadcasting Culture Research Institute in 2011. Main research themes include disaster broadcasts, international cooperation and global trends on public media.