BROOKE GLADSTONE: From WNYC in New York, this is NPR's On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD: And I'm Bob Garfield. On December 26th, 2004, an earthquake under the Indian Ocean spawned a tsunami that left huge swaths of death and destruction across South and Southeast Asia. One of the most severely devastated areas was the province of Aceh in northwestern Indonesia. Long one of the most isolated places on earth, it had been torn by civil war for years and was a difficult and dangerous place to be a journalist. Today, 12 months after a catastrophic natural disaster, Aceh is rebuilding and so is its press. Kathleen Reen, South and Southeast Asia Regional Director of Internews, has been visiting Aceh since 1999 and she joins us now from Bangkok. Kathleen, welcome to On the Media.
KATHLEEN REEN: Thank you very much.
BOB GARFIELD: Describe, please, the general state of affairs in Aceh in terms of the press before the tsunami.
KATHLEEN REEN: Before the tsunami, the printed press and the broadcast outlets were severely restricted in every possible way, in their coverage, their distribution and their ability for reporting news and information and making that available to the general public. The environment for the media there was restricted in a manner that led to the media participating in a degree of self-censorship, mostly driven by fear.
BOB GARFIELD: The tsunami obviously devastated much of the media in Aceh as journalists died and stations and printing plants were destroyed. In the aftermath of the catastrophe, what were the conditions for just getting the news out?
KATHLEEN REEN: The conditions were abhorrent for absolutely everyone in Aceh after the tsunami and the media was absolutely no exception in that regard. There were, before the tsunami, about 20 radio stations, a fairly strong local newspaper based in the provincial capital of Banda Aceh, and the state broadcaster, all of whom were deeply affected. So with significant numbers of people killed, there was no real community of journalists or of skilled professionals who were able to function.
BOB GARFIELD: And yet a year later, not only has the Acehnese press recovered, it's actually thriving. What's the environment now?
KATHLEEN REEN: It's extraordinary. It's certainly beyond our expectations. Today we've got 35 plus radio stations and we're still counting. There's also been an updating technologically, as well, of the main newspaper. Serambi was operating on a different set of printing presses and had a different scheme of distribution. Today international investment, both technologically, but also the reinvesting in local staff and training, has created a more professional environment for journalists and media professionals to operate in.
BOB GARFIELD: Well, on the subject of foreign investment, after the tsunami there was and continues to be this vast influx of relief organizations and international aid of various kinds, which has created an economic bubble. Will the Acehnese media be able to survive when the aid organizations pull out?
KATHLEEN REEN: The investments really need to continue for the next five to ten years before we see a healthy, more independent economic environment. We're really in a phase now where rebuilding has to continue, and traditional markets and more modern markets, including advertising markets, need to be developed. We're seeing some first indications that local markets with advertising are suggesting that there is room for a healthy commercial media to exist. We're seeing local businesses and restaurants starting to advertise.
BOB GARFIELD: Now, a robust free press is both a reflection of and a promoter of a healthy political system and democratic values. What has changed in the political status quo in the last year, and to what extent can we credit the media boom for helping sustain it?
KATHLEEN REEN: Well, one of the most extraordinary breakthroughs has been the birthing of a peace agreement, which was signed in Helsinki on the 15th of August this year. And so far, so good. I think it's probably naïve to suggest that the tsunami is singularly responsible for it, but it's definitely been a critical catalyst, and at the degree of crisis that was leveled on Aceh and on Indonesia, has reordered the entire political and social environment to give the kinds of margins and latitude for discussions to actually take place.
BOB GARFIELD: Elsewhere in South Asia, conditions have not so dramatically turned around. I'm thinking of Sri Lanka, for example.
KATHLEEN REEN: I think if we're taking a comparative look at what's happened in, let's say, in Indonesia compared to other parts of predominantly South Asia that were affected, we haven't seen those kinds of breakthroughs. But nor did we see the same level of devastation. I think the important thing to consider also is the location of the conflict itself. The tsunami in Sri Lanka, for example, hit the south. The real debate and the real conflict is in the north and the northeast of the country. One of the effects of the tsunami in Aceh is that it really hit home. It hit a conflict at home, it hit a community at home. And it's right there that the question and the chances for peace are being addressed.
BOB GARFIELD: Well, Kathleen, thank you very much.
KATHLEEN REEN: My pleasure. Thanks for the opportunity, and thank you for your time.
BOB GARFIELD: Kathleen Reen is a regional director for Internews, a non-governmental organization that trains journalists and promotes independent media in the developing world. She spoke to us from her home in Bangkok. [MUSIC UP AND UNDER]