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10 January 2005

A new medium comes of age

Tsunami 3: Internet bloggers have already made their mark in Iraq. Now, as disaster hits Asia, they

By Paul O'grady

Fourteen years ago, during the first Gulf war, CNN became the primary source for breaking stories, chang- ing how news was presented and ending the supremacy of traditional networks such as the BBC and NBC. Now the Asian tsunami looks like becoming a similar landmark for the weblogs (“blogs”, as they are known) and CNN is among the dinosaurs.

Blogs first gained a foothold as sources of news in the weeks following 9/11, and continued to gain prominence during the war in Iraq (through the work of bloggers such as Salam Pax) and the US elections in 2004. The phenomenon has been called “citizen journalism” – the creation of a news stream by a large number of everyday internet users working independently.

Now, as the effects of the disaster have unfolded, blogs have repeatedly beaten other media to the punch, providing the instant information that anxious relatives and rescue teams need. Blogs have several advantages over old media: location, speed, freedom – both from bureaucracy and fixed print times. What the international networks present as “breaking news” has often been distributed in blog form hours earlier. There are downsides, too: for independence and variety, read lack of quality control and, at times, inaccuracy; and blogs still cannot rival old media for in-depth analysis of events and their consequences.

But for swift and vivid information, they are hard to beat. One of the bloggers is Morquendi, a young Sri Lankan who is a member of a group blog named Dogs Without Borders. This was initially intended as a forum to discuss relations between India and Pakistan, but is now focused on the tsunami and its results. With internet access disrupted, Morquendi sent text messages describing the situation in Sri Lanka to fellow group members, who then published them in the blog. They contain graphic accounts of events as they unfolded before his eyes. The group’s editor, the Indian writer Rohit Gupta, said: “I can’t even begin to imagine the psychological state he was in when he was sending us reports and doing the relief work at the same time. He was caught between being a journalist and being a human being.”

Blogs have now begun to incorporate video footage, as well as text and photos. Cheese & Crackers, a site owned by Jordan Golson, a 21-year-old American student, is one of dozens of locations hosting amateur videos of the disaster – his site has racked up 640,000 hits. In several cases, web servers have crashed as internet users search for video material. Collaborative information sites such as Flickr and Wikipedia have generated many photos documenting the devastation. They have also been used to post pictures of the missing by friends or relatives – for example, a picture of a Swedish toddler found alive in Phuket was seen online by his uncle, who then arrived to claim the boy.

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Blogs have proved invaluable, too, in co-ordinating relief efforts. Apart from benefiting from local knowledge, blog networks can disseminate information far more quickly than large-scale NGOs, in some cases turning relief lead-times of weeks into a few hours. One of the most influential is the South East Asia Earthquake and Tsunami blog. Dina Mehta, one of those involved, explains: “[For] anyone who says, OK, I want to come and do some work in India or in Sri Lanka or Malaysia, this is the sort of one-stop-shop that they can come to for all sorts of resources – emergency help lines, relief agencies, aid agencies, contacts for them, etc.” She wishes that the governments of the region would take advantage of the power of blogs: “Imagine if they had this resource available to them, if there was a disaster, how quickly you could funnel aid in, and get people to help.”

Blog extracts

“I wanted to see what was going on and see if I could help. There is no beach on the Marina beach; it is filled with water. Throngs of people are leaving there homes. And, I saw dead bodies floating around. It is sad. Really sad.”

02.27, 27 December, posted by Nanda Kishore, Sri Lanka,

“Home was hit by tidal wave . . . practically lost everything . . . family is fine . . . thank god . . . *lost of words to rant* to all out there . . . appreciate what you have . . . even the smallest things and event that u consider irrelevant . . . cause after this mishap . . . well . . . view’s on life has change a lot for me . . . * sigh * back to cleaning up and getting home back on its feet.”

11.10, 27 December, posted by Ronnie Tan, Malaysia,

“We watched people pile over 25 bodies one on top of the other . . . If they find a body in the swamp then they make a noose with a small wire, toss it around a foot or an arm or any other protruding part of the body, then drag it along to . . . the other bodies, and just dump it . . . [they] built a pyre over them and set fire to it.”

04.39, 31 December, posted by Morquendi, ChiensSansFrontiers blog

“The Galle road has officially reopened this mornin . . . it will now be easier to reach all coastal areas . . . Cleaned up the salvation army centre and a school yesterday . . . cleaning houses today . . . Hope still . . . remains. All we have to do is keep the faith.”

14.03, 5 January,

From the website of the government of Sri Lanka

List of Items urgently required for Relief work in Batticaloa

01) Machinery & Equipments

1 Water bowsers 05
2 Water pumps 50
3 Bulldozers 06
4 Double cabs 15
5 Lorries 10
6 Generators (5KV) 10
7 Generators (0.6KV) 25
8 Loaders 06

02) Temporary sheets

1 Tarp sheet – 300 Units
2 Tents – 20,000 Units

03) Other non-food items

1 Lanterns 10,000 Nos
2 Mats 50,000 Nos
3 Bed sheets 50,000 Nos
4 Clothing (male, female, children) and kitchen utensils for 46,000 families

04) Items for infants

1 Milk foods 10,000 Nos
2 Feeding bottles 10,000 Nos

05) Medicines

1 Paracetamol tablets 100,000
2 Paracetamol syrup 50,000 vials
3 Amoxycillin tablets 100,000
4 Amoxycillin syrup 5,000 vials
5 Bactrim tablets 50,000
6 Bactrim syrup 5,000
7 Hydrocortizone skin ointment 10,000 tubes
8 Chloromphenical skin ointment 10,000 tubes
9 ORS 25,000 packets
10 Gauze roll 5,000
11 Savlon 5,000
12 Cottonwool rolls 5,000
13 Phenegen tablets 10,000
14 Phenegen syrup 5,000 vials
15 Normal saline 50,000 litres
16 Hartimors solution 10,000 litres
17 TCL 100 barrels

14.05, 1 January,posted on

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