Drone journalism calls for media ethics | Sunday Observer

Drone journalism calls for media ethics

The controversy over the use of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), commonly known as drones for media coverage has hit the news during the past few weeks, generating diverse opinion over media ethics and responsibility of the media personnel when using drone cameras to cover events like protests and other functions attended by VVIPs.

It was after the arrest of a drone camera belonging to a private media institution, to cover a protest in Mirijjawila, Hambantota, that the Government Information Department issued a notice to media institutions that people using drones must adhere to the regulations promulgated by the Civil Aviation Authority and get their prior approval for the use of such drones.

The arrest of a videographer attached to private TV station, covering a Kapruka Pooja, after the drone fell onto the base of the Ruwanweli Mahaseya, that once again raised concerns about the usage of drones in places of religious worship and of historical value.

Drone cameras

The incident took place after Police announcing that anyone operating drone cameras should get police approval to cover such events. In addition, in a place like Ruwanweli Mahaseya they should take the permission of Atamasthandhipathi to use a drone camera to cover religious functions.

These incidents have created an extensive debate in society about promulgating regulations over the use of drones, especially, for the purpose of media coverage since it raised concerns about safety, security, protection, ethics and the freedom of the media.

This situation and the debate about the use of drones have been looked at positively by certain segments of society, while some people sense politics behind the move to curtail the freedom of journalists, taking cover under such incidents to suppress media freedom.

But, it is evident the Civil Aviation Authorities across the globe have imposed regulations of this nature regarding the usage of drone cameras or drones, as it has raised concerns about safety, security and issues of infiltration on the privacy of individuals, after the use of drones became poplar across the globe after 2011 and 2012.

Sri Lanka also relaxed the ban imposed on the import of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles after the end of the war in 2009, ensuring that there is no major terrorism threat in the country.

According to the regulations promulgated by the Civil Aviation Authority, unless otherwise authorized by the Director General of Civil Aviation in writing, a pilotless aircraft shall not be operated in any part of Sri Lanka.

The operation of UAVs are prohibited, on or over any movement area of an active aerodrome; or on or over any active runway strip area; on and over assembly of persons or public gatherings; or to cover congested areas; or along or over roadway or railway; or below or above open electricity power lines; or within proximity to communication towers; national park, protected areas or security establishments, without approval.

Also, a pilotless aircraft must not be operated; above any property unless explicit prior consent has been obtained from persons occupying that property or the property owner; and causing safety or security hazard to third persons or property.

Director General, Civil Aviation Authority of Sri Lanka, H.M.C. Nimalsiri, told the Sunday Observer that the CAA promulgated the implementing standards as the pilotless aircraft has raised many issues relating to safety, security, privacy and environmental concerns.

“We have issued an implementing standard giving effect to the already existing regulation which require these pilotless aircraft to obtain approval from the Civil Aviation Authority. In addition, we want everyone to come and show the equipment to us and we will observe them; and we want the operator to obtain approval from us having shown his ability to operate the equipment safely”, he added.


These implementing standards require all drones other than the drones which are less than 200 grams to obtain the CAA approval. The website of the CAA carry all regulations that have to be adhered to when using drones.

The CAA will have many approaches on regulating the use of drones.

“We will inform all manufacturers that they should program the device in such a way, that in areas identified as prohibited, the equipment would not be able to fly. We call it the geo concept. That means no drones will be allowed to operate within five miles of an airport. Once we coordinate with the airport and send it to the manufacturer they will program the device in such a way that the drones imported to Sri Lanka will not be able to be operated within such restricted or prohibited areas”, he added.

“We will not ban it as we know the benefits and that it is productive and helpful towards development, if used properly. But, if it is in the wrong hands it can cause adverse effects to the safety, security and privacy of the people”, he added.

Asked whether they have paid special attention to the usage of drones for media coverage, Nimalsiri added, if the drones are operated within the guidelines we have set, we have no objections.

“For such coverage, for drone cameras, in addition to our approval, certain other approval will be required. We will not allow any drone to be operated over any populace area or public gathering. If the media wants it for other purposes, of course, they can operate it provided the safety and security requirement is adhered to and with the approval of the local Police. We have very limited staff and we have no capacity to regulate everything everywhere”, the DG, CAA added.


“Once these drones are registered we want these people to keep the police informed. So, the Police should be aware as to what kind of drones would be operated in the particular locality. Otherwise, if something happens nobody would know what has happened”, he said.

But, unlike regulating the fixed wing aircraft and helicopters, regulating the use of drones will face problems as there is no way of monitoring their movements.

“After we give the initial certification they can take the drone to their home garden and start flying and even the person operating it would not be known to us. Sometimes, the person capable of flying it will get the approval. We have to face practical issues of this nature when implementing regulations”, he added.

He said, the CAA has promulgated these regulations in coordination with the Defence Secretary and the IGP and they have already given us their contact points and are aware about the regulations. But, I don’t know whether details have been passed down to the local Police, yet”, Nimalsiri added,

“But, we propose to educate all involved, including media personnel so that their concerns will also be taken into account”, he added.

Worldwide, such things are emerging. Everybody is trying to find out the potential risks and ways of mitigating them. We too are in the learning curve.There are a series of measures and we intend to conduct a workshop to educate all those involved.

Secretary, Photojournalists’ Association, Sanka Vidanagama, commenting on the issue said, these regulations existed both, locally and internationally, but they had to be highlighted when the laws are violated by certain journalists.


“We agree there should be a regulatory mechanism regarding the use of drones because internationally, such regulations exist. We cannot operate drones as we wish. There are tendencies that some electronic media institutions are trying to deploy such drones even in high security zones, during protests. Such regulations have to be imposed due to the irresponsible way of using drones. Even at the fire that broke out at the Salawa Ammo Army camp, the use of drones was raised. In such a situation we cannot use drones in high security areas. It is not allowed anywhere in the world. Personally, I agree with imposing such regulations”, he added.

“I think there is no problem of using a drone to cover protests, but we have to consider the locations, whether it goes through a high security zone. When we request permission from the local Police, they are aware of locations where it should not be used and places where we can use”, he added.

“But these regulations and laws have to be relaxed during disaster coverage. The use of drones is more effective when covering disasters so that journalists need not risk their lives at such times. At the same time there is no possibility to wait for the the approval of Police to cover such disasters. Therefore, the law has to be relaxed in such situations”, he added.

President, Sri Lanka Working Journalists’ Association, Lasantha Ruhunage, said, there is no issue about imposing such regulations but the way they are imposed should be considered.

“All these regulations are relevant when covering certain incidents. The ethics about covering protests and guidelines on the safety of journalists was raised when a journalist was allegedly assaulted by the Navy Commander when the reporter was covering a protest at the Hambantota port. The issue regarding the use of drone also was raised following the protest in Mirijjawila, Hambantota. Therefore, we feel there are certain agendas behind all these moves. If these regulations are brought in good faith, it is good, but they should not be imposed for the sake of covering up other issues”, he added.