No. 6, Spring/Summer 2001
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Growth of new technology is changing the way news is covered around the world, especially in remote locations where satellite uplink doesn't exist and where bringing in equipment is difficult if not impossible. TBS spoke with two Nairobi-based journalists—Khalid Kazziha, APTN senior producer for East/Central and West Africa and Nadia Bilbasey, Africa correspondent for MBC (Middle East Broadcasting Centre)—about how satellite phones can mean better coverage of breaking news, and about cooperation in the field between news stations and news agencies.

Tell us first about the technology you're using now to feed stories from the field.

Khalid Kazziha: Over the last four years the agencies have begun introducing something called a TOKO box, which allows you to take video and audio signals, compress them, and put the output of that into a telephone called Inmarsat B, a big telephone capable of processing high-speed data. You can then call a number in, for example, London, access an ISDN line, and load the data into a TOKO box in London. It then gets decompressed and put onto Beta or any other format.

The down side is that it takes time; a minute of video takes about half an hour to transmit. It could be potentially hazardous to health because it uses strong radiation signals, so people have to be careful working around it. It's getting smaller and smaller; right now the whole package together, including editing, camera, and Inmarsat B, plus a generator, is about 200 kilograms. We're looking at ways of reducing the weight, making it even more convenient, more practical, less costly in terms of excess baggage. If you want to strip out the editing equipment out and just go straight from the camera into the TOKO box and into the phone, it's around 50 kilos. You can potentially transmit images from anywhere in the world with just 50 or 100 kilos of equipment, without the complications of earth stations, master control rooms, and with only a producer and a cameraman in the field.

TBS: Can you give us some examples of stories on which you've used the TOKO?

Kazziha: This technology has been used extensively in coverage out of Afghanistan during the hijacking, for example, and in sending out pictures during the Indian earthquake-initially there was no electricity in Gujarat province, the infrastructure had been completely devastated. It took a while for them to bring in satellite communication equipment, which weighs tons, and all the engineers. The news had to be moved quickly, people needed to know what was going on instantly. With this new equipment it's just a question of carrying and paying for your excess baggage, and flying in.

Same with the Ethiopean famine-Ethiopia has a feed point, but the front line is so far away that it would take a day or two to get from the front line to the feed point in Addis Ababa. We've used it in Guinea-Bissau, wars that no one ever thought of covering and which were not coverable before. When the war in Kosovo was cooking there were something like 50,000 refugees, and the eyes of the world were focused on the conflict. Meanwhile in Guinea-Bissau there were around 500,000 internally displaced people, a story which would never have been told without the use of this latest equipment.

TBS: Do you think it will change the way both networks and agencies cover the news or choose what gets covered, because they are technologically able to cover more? What do you think the implications of this technology are for editorial choices?

Kazziha: I don't think too much. First, all this equipment has no impact on the developed world-Europe, America, the Middle East. Second, people are still more interested in having top-quality broadcast transmissions.

TBS: How is the quality, compared to with satellite transmission?

Kazziha: It's slightly inferior to the existing satellite quality, but when you want to cover zones where there is no satellite capability, you don't have the luxury of quality, this becomes the only way you can get your pictures out. You'll notice CNN and BBC are now using live satellite video phones for standuppers out of, for example, Hainan Island with the China-US spy plane story. The video phone was used in India during the Gujarat earthquake, TOKO was used exclusively during the conflict in Sierra Leone, it's being used more and more. The important thing is not to have a lot of movement; too much movement affects the quality. It's unlikely that the person at home sitting and watching television will really notice a major difference. The broadcaster, the editor will notice that these are TOKO pictures, but it doesn't really make that much of a difference.

TBS: How many bureaus, agencies and channels use this technology?

Kazziha: Right now I know that the Associated Press and Reuters are relying on it extensively to get pictures to the thousands of broadcasters around the world. These are the two main organizations that are using these facilities, but I'm finding now that the BBC, CNN, and others are also using it.

TBS: It's more critical, obviously, to have this technology if your mission is to cover the world.

Kazziha: That's right. When we cover stories on ethnic cleansing in Indonesia, for example, a lot of small islands don't have satellite communications. It would be crazy for broadcasters to think they could delay the news for a day or more simply to ship their tapes to the nearest feed point to get the pictures out. People don't have the luxury of going back to Delhi or Bombay to feed. In Africa we find that satellite communications are available but very unreliable-and it's also cheaper sometimes for us to send with the TOKO. You can send two minutes of video for about $300.

Nadia Bilbasey: That's from the agencies' end, not for the client. Clients are charged about $1000 for two minutes of video.

TBS: You're looking at this, Nadia, from the other side-from the client's end rather than the agency's.

Bilbasey: That's right. To go back to your earlier question, I think our editorial decisions are sometimes influenced by the methods used to transmit pictures. Sometimes we don't like the TOKO, because of the lower quality--unless it's a situation in which there's no other way of getting pictures out, like a remote area in Africa. Generally speaking they prefer to use the main satellite means of communication when it exists. Between the two--TOKO, which you sometimes can't do without, and satellite communication--there are also companies like Newsforce. When they know for example that there is a war in Sierra Leone, and many journalists from all over the world are coming to cover the story, they move the entire communications setup to that place. The same in Kinshasa-we had Newsforce and European Broadcasting Union. They provide you with quality pictures for about half the price of the TOKO. Because in the end, for the client, TOKO is very expensive for poor quality.

Kazziha: But with organizations like Newsforce, it could take them a week to bring in all that equipment. They have to get a license in order to transmit. You're looking at governments that are facing a disaster, in the middle of a transition or a coup d'etat-but these organizations are required by law to have a license to transmit. Very often the minister or head of state isn't available. The flyaway satellites could be just sitting around in customs. But people still need to get the news out, today. We're able to sneak in this very simple equipment, which is compact and easy to deploy.

Besides, stations never have to send two minutes of material on breaking stories. Stations subscribe to Reuters or AP, so whatever we send via TOKO is available to them in their control rooms in London or elsewhere. So all reporters have to do is send a standupper and a voice track to the pictures AP sends. We line up our clients--CNN, BBC, MBC, Al-Jazeera, one standupper after the next--and they all use the same pictures. Which means the initiative of the correspondent can be limited sometimes by the fact that they don't have the ability to get their pictures out on breaking stories-but they always want to make sure they have presence on the ground, and that's what the TOKO allows them to do. In the initial phases of any disaster or conflict they need to show that they are there, even though they're cooperating with the agencies.

Bilbasey: And the situation can be reversed, too, such as when the war between Ethiopia and Eritrea broke out, I had my own cameraman rather than using the agency, and we had exclusive pictures that nobody had. MBC sold them to CNN and BBC, and made a deal with WTN that because they were using our pictures they wouldn't charge us for the TOKO. So there's lots of cooperation between different agencies and stations.

Kazziha: The client and agency relationship is very much give and take. On some stories my company isn't interested enough to paying the airfare and excess baggage, but a client might be interested in covering it. We might work out a deal where they pay for the expenditures of covering news, and we don't charge them the fees for hiring a cameraman. The correspondent becomes in effect the producer, and the agency the cameraman, and we're on location in a mutually beneficial arrangement. continued

Next page: News coverage that is truly local

Copyright 2001 Transnational Broadcasting Studies
TBS is published by the Adham Center for Television Journalism, the American University in Cairo