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Prepared for Disaster

FACED WITH government attempts to prevent reporters from covering the Arab Spring, CNN senior international correspondent Nic Robertson has regularly turned to alternative technologies to get around the restrictions.

Here, Robertson speaks with George Winslow, B&C contributing editor, about those technologies.

As people look to improve their international coverage in the future, what are some of the big takeaways in terms of the technology from this year’s most impactful international stories?

I think it’s always to be prepared, the old Boy Scout expression. I have a pair of cargo pants that I often wear in summer and on one side, in one pocket I’ve got an iPhone and on the other side I’ve got a Flip Cam.

When we were outside the house of [Abdel Basset] al-Megrahi, the guy convicted of the Pan Am 103 bombing, his brother came out and I thought he was going to [bring] me and the team inside. [But] when he let just me in and not the cameraman, I was prepared [and able to record al-Megrahi with the Flip Cam] in bed, in what his family told me was a coma.

So, be prepared to lose your gear, be prepared to face the unexpected…. Be prepared so you won’t be defeated by a customs official taking away your camera, or the government turning off the phone network. There is generally a way around it, if you think about it and are prepared.

What are some of the key technologies that you’ve been using to cover the Arab Spring?

I think the biggest thing that links all the countries in Arab Spring together is that the governments have not wanted the story to get out about the efforts to overthrow them, which has meant we’ve seen customs officials confiscating equipment or governments shutting down telephone networks. And that has meant finding other ways to get the story out on Twitter or other ways to shoot the story.

For example, when we went into Bahrain in February this year, the customs officials [in the airport] went into my bags and searched them really, really thoroughly in a very professional way and they politely removed everything that had anything to do with broadcast TV—my satellite BGAN, so I couldn’t transmit back either a live feed or my video. They took away my Sony camera. They took away everything but my iPhone.

As I left the airport and headed toward the hotel, I was passing a progovernment demonstration. Because Bahrain has a good phone network and the government hadn’t shut down the phone network, I was able to stream live video [from the iPhone] through the Streambox application directly back to Atlanta.

So, [the network was] able to get an immediate feed from the country even though the customs official had taken my camera.

Then, once I got checked in to the hotel, a local taxi driver took me to the Pearl Roundabout [where the antigovernment protests were occurring] and again using the video camera on the iPhone, I was able to shoot video.

And later, at the hospital, when the Roundabout was raided by police and the injured people came [in], I filmed video on my iPhone and then uploaded it through a computer over the slow wi- fi in the hotel. So we were able to get the story out even though the government had done everything they could, or they thought they could, to stop the story. That was just one case where technology that has been around for a while really came into its own.

Egypt was a different problem. The authorities shut down the phone circuits and because the situation on the streets was very violent, it wasn’t safe to take big cameras out onto the street.

When we were in Alexandria, we were getting video on all sorts of different formats, from tiny handheld cameras to formats that were coming in from still cameras that were shooting bits of video for us. And here, technology stepped in again, because we had software that we wouldn’t have had two years ago on our laptops. It allowed us to render all these different formats so that we could edit a story on a single timeline together and send in a completed story rather than sending different clips in.

Is this technology allowing you to use small crews to be less visible in dangerous situations?

We are certainly very conscious of keeping a lower profile where there have been street demonstrations in Egypt or Bahrain or even, to an extent, in Libya.

This year, I’ve witnessed a general downsizing of equipment. Everyone has used a lot of different equipment rather than just the larger cameras that we and many other broadcasters were using in the past. And we’ve opted for smaller cameras, in many cases just to keep a lower pro! le to keep safer from crowds.

We have fallen afoul of those crowds in Egypt and other places where it is not possible to remain invisible as a television crew. But we have made a distinct effort to try to use smaller equipment, even down to using tiny handheld handycams.

How difficult has it been for you to get the hang of all this different gear so that you can use it well in high-pressure situations?

I think it is so much easier than it used to be. The app-based solutions for the iPhone, forexample, really require you to just punch the button, and it connects you through.

I was doing my broadcast on my iPhone from the lobby of the hotel the evening that MuammarGaddafi came into the hotel in March. We couldn't go live from our balcony because that would mean missing him arriving, and the camera was lined up with all the cameramen trying to get the shot of him coming in. But I was able to use my iPhone off the hotel Wi-Fi to do a live shot.

The only problem I had at that stage was that while I was sending an image streamed live from the iPhone, I was doing a briefer on my other phone at the same time, which meant both of my hands were tied up. So, as the crowd and the photographers and everyone else surged backwards as Gaddafi moved forwards towards them, I didn't have any hands to protect myself. I was upended and landed in a flowerpot.

But actually,operating the technology at a technical level has not been difficult because I think it has been made so much more user friendly than it was in the past.

We did have challenges in the Rixos Hotel in Tripoli. We were using a BGAN to stream our live shots out of there on a general basis from one of the rooms, and we would run into interference. That could have been generated by the Gaddafi regime to block the signal, or it may have been because there were too many users on the Began [satellite system sending video] on that spot at that time. That isn't clear. But being able to be inventive and use the iPhone to get around those types of issues was great.

It seems to be something of a cat and mouse game with this technology between journalists and the governments and one would assume the governments are getting more sophisticated in their attempts to restrict coverage as well.

One supposes that they will be more alert and may think about shutting off phone networks more often. Based on the public record that we use iPhones for live broadcast, they may want to take those from us.

But there are other device that would do the same things and I think it will be harder for authorities to stop things. I even joked with the Bahrain Customs official when he took my camera. I said, "Look, I still have this iPhone and it can do all these different things." And he said "You know, I haven't been told to take these from people so carry on."

It was full disclosure on my part. When we go in now or next year, they may not be so lenient. But I think you can still go to a store in Bahrain and buy anotherphone. You can take your chip out and have your SIM card in your pocket, so if your phone is taken, you can get another phone and you can use the chip in whatever phone you get.

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