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Information Saves Lives

Commentary: The people who need information the most often are left in the dark

Viewers around the world have had a large supply of news about tragedies such as Haiti’s earthquake, but the people who need information the most often are left in the dark.

While the international media informs those of us on the outside about what is happening inside the disaster zone, it is the local media that play an equally important role providing the people of Haiti with the life-saving information they so desperately need. Where to find food, shelter and medicine? How to find missing family and friends?

In times of emergency, information has the tremendous power to calm. In poor, developing countries like Haiti where radio is the primary source of news, the ability of information to save lives was on full display since the Jan. 12 earthquake.

As one long-time resident of Haiti told the Associated Press, ‘‘Radio stations are holding the country together.”

Unprecedented effort

As the crisis in Haiti continues, there has been an unprecedented effort by local media and international media assistance NGOs to get damaged radio stations back on the air with vital information for the survivors of the quake. There are currently some 20 radio stations now broadcasting with plans to jointly produce a daily humanitarian information program.

In coordination with a new umbrella group Communications with Disaster Affected Communities (CDAC), international media assistance organizations like Internews, Association Mondiale de Radiodiffuseurs Communautaires (AMARC), International Media Support (IMS) and others are donating work space, studio equipment, and other resources to assist journalists and stations with equipment grants and stipends.

Major IT, technology, and media companies and NGOs like Telecoms Sans Frontières, Ushahidi, the Thompson-Reuters Foundation, InSTEDD, Net Hope and Frontline SMS are donating money, equipment and expertise to use the latest digital technologies to locate missing persons, map areas of destruction and collate and distribute humanitarian information.

When the tsunami in 2004 destroyed Banda Aceh, half of the journalists in the city were killed and most radio stations destroyed.

Within days, working with other Indonesian media organizations, Internews was able to bring in engineers, radio trainers and portable “suitcase” transmitters, which the surviving local journalists could use to provide vital humanitarian information.

Local journalists in Haiti, like the ones in Aceh, are suffering the same trauma as the rest of the affected population — missing and dead loved ones, their own houses damaged or destroyed, and days without food or water. They, too, need our support so they can return to work.

Recognize and support

In recent years, international aid agencies like USAID have begun to recognize and support local media and international media NGOs who are among the crucial first responders, getting radio stations back on the air and providing the practical information that affected populations need to survive.

Likewise, overarching responders like the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs have successfully pushed for coordinating the myriad information needs of the hundreds of synergistic organizations that converge on a disaster site to render help.

Haitians are living through an unimaginable nightmare. Hundreds of thousands are in desperate need of food, water, medicine and shelter. To build their way out of this devastation, Haitians need the critical information that will allow them to make the most of the aid they are receiving and take back the responsibility of restoring their communities.

As we provide food and medicine and shelter, we can neither forget nor abandon the dedicated and brave local journalists whose information saves lives. With every deadline met by a Haitian journalist today, a lifeline is thrown to their listeners, viewers and readers.

Mark Frohardt is head of humanitarian media with Internews. Contact him through Internews’ Web site