Prepared for Disaster

CNN’s Nic Robertson lays out the any-meansnecessary approach to global coverage

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

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

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

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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