On Dec. 1, 2013, supporters of Thailand’s opposition People’s Democratic Reform Committee launched themselves at police barricades near Bangkok’s Government House, the seat of power for the Thai government and a popular flashpoint for political protest. Black-clad police defenders walked behind a razor wire–covered barricade, readying a water cannon for action while protesters’ angry shouts mixed with the sharp pop of exploding tear gas canisters. A drone, flown by a citizen journalist standing a safe distance away from the action, recorded every second of the street battle.
Shot by a YouTube user identified only as CyberJom, the December 2013 footage of the Bangkok protests quickly became an example of drones’ potential to afford average citizens the ability to shoot revealing aerial footage with ease. More drone videos from Thailand soon followed, portraying everything from beautiful tropical beaches to massive protests at Bangkok’s Victory Monument.
But recently, Thailand’s new-to-power military junta announced new regulations that, if implemented, would make shooting dramatic drone videos like CyberJom’s an illegal activity for civilians lacking prior permission. Violating the ban would be punishable by as much as a year in prison and a fine of about $1,229. The new regulations aren’t just worrisome for Thailand’s long-beleaguered press corps—they should concern everyone who recognizes the potential of drones as an investigative reporting tool.
The drone regulations, which will be overseen by the Thai Ministry of Transport and will begin to be implemented this month, are being pitched primarily as a safety and privacy protection measure. According to the Bangkok Post, Thai Transport Minister Prajin Juntong voiced concerns about civilians using drones to spy on others and said the devices are potential threats to air traffic. He was careful to differentiate between drone uses that “aid the country’s development” and personal drones, which will be more strictly controlled. Only businesses that require photography, such as media members and filmmakers, will be permitted to use drones that carry cameras, says Thai Civil Aviation Department Director-General Somchai Phiphutwat. All drone operators will have to seek permission directly from the transport minister before they fly, including members of the media.
At first blush, the regulations seem rather reasonable, geared toward countering the indisputable safety and privacy problems the unregulated usage of drones can present. Drone regulations are necessary for modern countries that want to see this new technology responsibly used, in a way that protects the privacy rights of the general public, and that ensures that drones don’t harm anyone. (The United States is moving slowly—so slowly—toward regulation.) Some members of Thailand’s growing drone industry don’t seem too concerned. “Overall I’m not too concerned about the regulations as there needs to be laws governing such technology to prevent misuse and to create safety amongst the public,” says Bangkok drone builder and MakerZoo managing director Pattaraporn Bodhisuwan. “Drones are not entirely safe and can have huge consequences if misused.”
But in practice, the Thai regulations—if they are implemented as has been reported—will squelch drone journalism in the name of safety and privacy protections, rendering a powerful investigative tool essentially useless. Newly proposed drone regulations in other nations, such as in Australia, will likely protect the right of private citizens to use small camera-bearing drones, both for leisure and for some journalistic purposes. The Thai rules go far beyond this, and the motives probably aren’t as benign as authorities would like the public to believe.
That’s because Thailand’s decision to control the usage of drones fits in with a larger pattern of government crackdowns on freedom of speech, in the wake of a period of great political instability. The protests that CyberJom documented in his or her sensational drone video were part of a season of political unrest that would end in a May 2014 military coup, unseating the government of former Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra and ushering Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha into power. Prayuth swiftly declared martial law and suspended the Thai Constitution, while beginning a sweeping crackdown on the press, political gatherings, social media, and the Internet in general.
Ironically, given that the regulations are intended to protect privacy, Thailand’s newly proposed Cyber Security Bill would make permanent measures first introduced in Martial Order No. 29, which permits the mass surveillance of online platforms and activities—a piece of legislation that Shawn Crispin, the Committee to Protect Journalists’ senior Southeast Asia representative, has “deemed a clear and present danger to media freedoms.”
In this environment, the new Thai drone regulations look rather less like a good-faith effort at implementing safety regulations and privacy controls—although that is likely part of the motivation—and much more like another effort on the part of the government to consolidate its control over free speech and the media.
Some journalism will likely still be permitted under the new regulations, but authorities will have the final say over what is and isn’t permitted—and that almost certainly means controversial topics and political upheaval will be off-limits.
Enforcing the regulations will likely be somewhat challenging, in no small part because Thailand is already home to a number of small drone businesses and active drone hobbyists. But it won’t be impossible: journalist and longtime Thailand analyst Andrew MacGregor Marshall thinks that the junta’s willingness to use fear to carry out its goals will do the job, as it has by detaining journalists and arresting social media users. “The same is likely to happen with the new drone regulations—a few unlucky people will face harsh legal sanctions for using drones, however innocently, and this will deter others from using drones,” he says.
Finally, the regulations could prove problematic for Thailand’s technology industry, into which some small drone manufacturers and service providers have already entered the market. “These strong regulations are not justified,” says Andreas Sjökvist, country manager for drone video company Copture Thailand. “If they strive to become an open and democratic country … and become a model for less developed neighbor countries as Laos, Cambodia, and Myanmar, they should think a little bit bigger than they do now.”
Indeed, Thailand’s dangerous new drone regulations could set a precedent for other nations that are just beginning to recognize the power of drones as a journalism tool. Around the world, governments are becoming more and more aware of how drone imagery can be used by journalists and by citizen journalists to document protests, civil unrests, environmental degradation, and other controversial matters.
So goes Thailand, so (might) go the world. Journalists of all stripes should pay careful attention to drone journalism legislation in their own countries, and work with drone hobbyists to push back against governmental efforts to legislate this new practice out of existence. As freedom-of-speech-loving global citizens, we don’t want to see a potentially valuable investigative reporting tool legally taken out of our hands before we’ve even learned how to use it.
This article is part of Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, New America, and Slate. Future Tense explores the ways emerging technologies affect society, policy, and culture. To read more, visit the Future Tense blog and the Future Tense home page. You can also follow us on Twitter.