Baby 81: The Asian Tsunami’s big ‘non-story’

When many journalists chase the same unfolding story, it’s common for them to acquire the ‘herd mentality’. This ‘media pack’ can sometimes lose sense of direction, perspective — and even the truth.

A good example is the story of a Sri Lankan baby who grabbed world media attention for a few days as a “celebrated” Tsunami orphan.

The four-month-old boy, Abhilash Jeyarajah, was picked up by a neighbor who found him under a pile of garbage soon after giant waves lashed Kalmunai on 26 December 2004. The man handed over the child to the Kalmunai hospital. The parents, who also survived the waves, later found their child.

That should have been the happy ending for that family — but it was not to be.

Newspapers, television and news agencies reported how squabbling broke out among several couples over “Baby 81” — as he was dubbed by hospital authorities in Kalmunai, going by the admission number. As many as nine couples who lost their infants in the tsunami all claimed he was theirs — or so the story was spread by the news-hungry media who had descended on tsunami-hit Sri Lanka in their hundreds.

Photo courtesy Reuters

Even the usually cautious New York Times carried the story, referring to him as a “celebrated orphan”.

The story assumed a momentum of its own. One leading American TV network invited the baby and his parents to visit the US to be their studio guests and tell their ‘story’.

It was only many weeks later that the truth began to emerge.

Police denied nine couples had claimed him as their own. Kalmunai hospital authorities confirmed that only one couple had come forward to claim the baby. The man who handed over the child to hospital told police that he had known the child was that of his neighbors — there was no dispute about the parentage.

“Because it had a miraculous escape, a lot of people showed interest in the child, but they never said they were the parents,” chief inspector W. C. Wijetilleka was quoted as saying. “Only one couple claimed the child. No one else has come forward to make a legal claim.”

“As far as the police and the courts are concerned, only one couple is claiming the child,” inspector Wijetilleka said. “We have reported the facts to court and the judge ordered the hospital to release the child to the parents.”

The story was fuelled by the hospital’s initial reluctance to release the boy until he was well enough. The couple then petitioned the court, which ordered on 12 January 2005 that the baby be given to them. DNA tests, presented to court on 14 February 2005 confirmed their claim as biological parents.

Read Lanka Business Online account of what happened: Baby 81 – the story with nine or more lies

Read Reuters AlertNet guest blogger Glenda Cooper’s recent update on the Baby 81 saga

This non-story was discussed during the Asian regional brainstorming on Communicating Disasters that TVE Asia Pacific and UNDP organised in Bangkok, Thailand, in December 2006.

“The young couple was at the centre of endless media coverage for several weeks,” Asoka Dias, Station Director of MTV/MBC Network, Sri Lanka, told our meeting.

He added: “This created public impression that they also received a great deal of money and other help, which was not the case. They have had to relocate to a new neighbourhood, and are struggling to lead normal lives.”

Read the meeting report of Communicating Disasters

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