Ampara, Disaster Management, Media and Communications

The Publicity Baby

Abilash Jeyarajah looks like any other ordinary toddler, living with his family in a small village near Kalmunai in the Ampara district of Sri Lanka. But life was not so ordinary for him a little over two years ago, when the tsunami literally swept him into the limelight. At that time, Abilash was more widely known as Baby 81, the famous four month old who was torn from his mother’s arms when the tsunami struck and was later found among the debris and wreckage. He was brought to Kalmunai Hospital and as his identity was unknown and he was the 81st person to be admitted, he became known as Baby 81.

In the weeks following the disaster, many were still trying to trace their friends and relatives. Parents who couldn’t find their children searched high and low in hospitals and welfare centers in desperation. Several showed interest in Abilash and one other person made a claim for the baby. But after a court ruling and a DNA test, Abilash’s identity was confirmed and he was reunited with his parents. Many others were not so fortunate. In Sri Lanka, children made up around 40% of those killed by the tsunami and a staggering 4000 lost one or both parents.
Meanwhile, the media, particularly the international media, were not through with Abilash’s story just yet. A week after the family was reunited, the Jeyarajahs were invited to the USA to appear on the popular talk show ‘Good Morning America’ in order to tell their story, following an international media whirlwind surrounding the so called ‘celebrated orphan.’ The media has come under fire several times over the past two years over its coverage of the tsunami and the recovery process. While it has been responsible for bringing to light issues of corruption and mismanagement, it has also been accused of political partisanship, inaccurate reporting and sensationalism. In this case, the story was blown out of all proportion with reports of a custody battle for Abilash taking place between nine parents who all claimed the baby, something that the authorities in Kalmunai have always denied. But the media’s involvement has also had long lasting detrimental effects on Abilash and his family. It seemed like a dream come true, and being under the impression that their trip to The States would be a turning point in their lives, they felt that it would open doors of opportunity for them. But when they returned to Sri Lanka they found that they had been terribly mistaken. According to Abilash’s father, It turned out that everyone was under the impression that they had benefited financially from the trip and were therefore marginalized in the local relief effort: “When I ask help from an organization here they say that it is no use for me, as I have money. Those who lost houses have been given houses. Although I was displaced I didn’t receive 250,000 Rupees to build a new one. I built this house, as I was afraid. But because we didn’t receive the 250,000 Rupees from the government, the organization stopped constructions mid way.”

There is no denying that media is big business and in order to compete, it must feature stories which people can relate to; it must add faces to the facts and pull at a nation’s heartstrings in order to succeed. For this, the Jeyarajahs fitted the bill perfectly. When the rest of the world was having difficulty in grasping the enormity of the Asian tsunami, the media showed them faces, tears and reality to balance out the disbelief that the tragedy swept over the world. But how this is achieved has ethical boundaries, and the line distinguishing the beneficiaries in this case is very clear and calls media morals into question once again. ABC News, the company behind ‘Good Morning America’ received high viewer ratings and extensive publicity, while the Jeyarajahs received a 2 week holiday followed by a return to homelessness, poverty and with no means of rebuilding their lives. Abilash’s father, a barber by profession, is now managing as best as he can in order to support his family. Complete recovery from the tsunami is yet to be achieved in the Kalmunai district, largely due to unavailability of land, tension between the mixed ethnic population and political unrest.

The Jeyarajahs’ trip to the USA was no doubt an unforgettable one, but one that is now tainted by the injustice that they were merely used before being cast conveniently out of the spotlight, without any thought for future consequences. For them, the American dream most certainly did not come true.