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Signal jammers: A nightmare for journalists covering the Pope

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Cellphone signals in Manila have been blocked as part of security precautions, creating a communications nightmare for journalists covering Pope Francis’ visit.

Reporters, photographers and videographers prepositioned eight hours ahead of the pontiff’s arrival at the Villamor Air Baseon Thursday found to their dismay that they could not make calls or send text messages at the crucial touchdown of the pope’s plane and hours after that.

The same issues were experienced Friday as Francis’ motorcade weaved through thick, cheering crowds leading to the presidential palace, where he met with President Benigno Aquino III.

One of the major providers, Globe Telecom, appealed for understanding and said it was complying with instructions from the National Telecommunications Commission.

Smart Communications, Inc. (Smart) also sent a text message to its subscribers: ”We apologize for the temporary interruption of mobile phone services last night (Thursday) which was ordered by government authorities in the interest of public safety. Please bear with us if similar situations occur in the next few days during the Papal Visit. Thank you for your patience and understanding.”

Amid the high security, huge crowds greeted Francis as his car crawled through the streets of Manila.

He leaned out the window of the blue Volkswagen hatchback to wave to cheering crowds held behind barricades on the sidewalks. His vehicle was surrounded by police vans, their lights flashing, as he headed for his first appointment of the day, a meeting with Philippine President Benigno Aquino III.

Francis has long insisted on a reduced security detail so that he can get close to the crowds, eschewing the bulletproof popemobile his predecessors used on foreign trips in favor of an open-sided car.

It remains to be seen if he will chafe at the intense security provided by Philippine authorities, who appeared to leave nothing to chance. They have good reason to go overboard after Pope Paul VI was slightly wounded in an assassination attempt during his visit in 1970 and St. John Paul II was the target of militants whose plot was uncovered days before his 1995 arrival.

About 50,000 policemen and troops were deployed to secure the pope in a country where relatively small numbers of al-Qaida-inspired militants remain a threat in the south despite more than a decade of U.S.-backed military offensives.

On Thursday, some members of a youth dance group were left crying after performing Thursday to welcome the pope.

Eight-year-old Gwen Bernardino said she was so disappointed that they could not see Francis, because they were behind taller dancers when he passed by.

“We were so happy earlier because we thought he would come near us, but that did not happen,” she said, her voice quavering as she wiped her tears. “We kept on shouting but he was already gone. I was hoping he could kiss me, and I could hug him even just for a second.”

She was among 1,200 young people from Catholic schools and parishes who danced at the arrival ceremony.

“My message to the pope is I love him very much even if I did not get the chance to see him in person,” she said.

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