Journalism and technology: the use of drones for news gathering in Africa

Drone, in midflight
Published Date
December 13, 2023

Journalism has rapidly evolved over the years thanks to advancements in technology that have produced new tools and techniques for news gathering and dissemination. “Data, drones, and phones are the key to Africa’s media future,” according to an article by Stephen Abbott Pugh, then an ICFJ Knight international journalism fellow and engagement strategist with Code for Africa in 2016. To date, data journalism and artificial intelligence have taken center stage in discussions on the impact of technology on journalism.   

But, drone journalism,’ which is the use of drones or unmanned aerial vehicles for news gathering, is on the rise across the African continent. Drones can be useful tools for obtaining aerial images and news footage of areas that would otherwise be difficult to cover, such as those struck by natural disasters and conflict zones. 

Drone footage allows journalists to gather footage from otherwise inaccessible areas, which can be invaluable for fact-checking and combatting misinformation. For example, in 2017, analysts from the African Defense Review and Bellingcat were able to show the true extent of the damage dealt by terrorist group al-Shabab when they attacked an army base in Somalia using satellite images and drone footage. The footage showed that, contrary to the army’s claims that they had repelled the attack with relatively little damage, the attackers had managed to overrun the base. 

Drones have proven to be powerful investigative journalism tools. They have allowed journalists to shine a light on underreported issues that would have been difficult to investigate using traditional newsgathering tools. An investigative project in Tanzania, for instance, installed hydrophones—underwater microphones—to track illegal dynamite fishing that was destroying marine habitats. When the microphones pick up the sound of an explosion, a reporting crew is notified and drones are automatically dispatched. The hydrophones also record the explosions, and that data can be used by journalists to determine patterns illegal blast fishermen follow.

Although drones are a relatively cost-effective method of obtaining aerial footage, they can still be prohibitively expensive for smaller newsrooms, particularly the high cost of training journalists on how to use them safely. For these types of projects to be feasible, cooperation among journalists and newsrooms is key. The project in Tanzania, for example, was made possible through collaboration with africanDRONE, a network of drone operators in Africa that works with researchers and newsrooms, among others, to produce drone storytelling and photography projects that highlight important issues throughout the continent. As their website notes, “Using drones for good isn’t easy. There are legal obstacles. Equipment is prohibitively expensive. Skills are scarce. Market factors favor large internationals over local operators. And safety is a constant concern.” To that end, the network lends the expertise of its professional drone pilots, as well as assistance with post-production such as video editing, to local, regional, and even international newsrooms like The New York Times and The Guardian.  

The Regulatory Balancing Act 
Despite the usefulness of drones, there are legitimate concerns over safety and privacy associated with their use as journalistic tools. A regulatory approach that addresses those concerns without unduly limiting journalists’ ability to report on pressing issues is necessary. 

The use of drones in Africa is generally regulated by civil aviation laws, with different countries taking varying approaches in the regulation of the acquisition and use of drones. In addition to highlighting privacy needs of citizens, governments have also cited the need to protect national security. However, these laws can be restrictive and have already resulted in journalists' arrests in several African countries. 

In July 2023, a freelance journalist in Zimbabwe, Columbus Mavhunga, was arrested for operating an unlicensed drone, which crashed into an Islamic center in Waterfalls, Harare. To operate a drone in Zimbabwe, one must obtain a license from the Civil Aviation Authority of Zimbabwe, in compliance with the requirements of the Civil Aviation Act. The center filed a complaint for trespassing and invasion of premises. Mavhunga said that he was, in fact, licensed to operate a drone and that his license was valid until April 2025. He was using the drone to report on abandoned government road projects when he lost control of it due to windy weather, leading to the crash. Mavhunga, whose coverage highlighted the country’s economic issues, as well as the state’s crackdown on the opposition in the run-up to the national elections, said his arrest was an attempt to silence his reporting. “We are being stopped from reporting what we know ahead of August (elections),” he said.   

Regulation can also be used to shut down access to this technology entirely. In Kenya, for instance, civilian drone use was banned between March 2019 and November 2020,  due to privacy concerns. Now that the ban has been lifted, drone use remains impeded by a lengthy and expensive registration process, which can cost thousands of dollars (hundreds of thousands of Kenyan shillings) even before factoring in the cost of training. Similarly, in Nigeria, drone licensing costs can be prohibitively expensive for smaller newsrooms.

Despite the risk of these regulations being weaponized against journalists, there are key questions around the need to protect privacy when promoting the use of drones. Privacy is a fundamental human right and its protection is crucial to the preservation of other rights, like freedom of expression and the right to personal security. 

Drones were initially developed as military tools for surveillance and targeted air strikes. That history makes many people around the world uncomfortable with their use in civilian settings, especially when they are being used to film on private property where, although there might be legitimate newsgathering interests, citizens do have a reasonable expectation of privacy. There are concerns that, in the absence of adequate legal protections, drones could be used to surveil citizens. 

However, journalism ethics also require that a balance be struck between the right to privacy and journalists’ duty to inform the public. While the African continent is still grappling with the appropriate approaches to drone journalism, there are guidelines that can provide a roadmap. The Council of Europe’s Guidelines on Safeguarding Privacy in the Media state that the publication of strictly private matters cannot be said to infringe on the right to privacy if those concerned have given their consent or such publication is considered in the public interest. While these guidelines do not specifically address drone use, adding this type of provision to laws regulating drone use would help strike the necessary balance between safeguarding  citizens’ privacy and allowing journalists to pursue their investigations freely.

So far, legislation regulating drone use across the African region does not include provisions specific to journalists. In South Africa, a distinction is made between flying drones for personal or private purposes where there is no commercial interest or gain, and flying them for other purposes which include commercial, corporate, or non-profit. However, no specific reference is made to journalists or media freedom. As a result, there are no privacy exceptions carved out for newsgathering activities, which can severely limit where and how journalists are allowed to use drones and potentially prevent them from reporting on public interest stories that take place on private property.

Drone journalism enhances journalist safety and is cost effective. This makes it a valuable tool for media workers throughout the region. At the same time, the lack of legal provisions for drone use in journalism can cause issues for journalists who run afoul of privacy laws when trying to report on matters of public interest. African lawmakers should work to create a conducive policy framework and operating environment for the use of drones that respects the right to privacy without imposing extreme limitations on their use by journalists. This framework should acknowledge the unique role of the press compared to other commercial endeavors and lay out clearly where privacy and national security provisions may be overridden by press freedom and public interest. By the same token, drone regulation should specify caps on registration costs and streamline registration processes to improve access to the technology beyond the most well-resourced newsrooms.

The following recommendations for international assistance actors and local lawmakers should be considered:

  • Train journalists to use drones safely and to apply ethical standards, similar to those outlined in the Professional Society of Drone Journalists’ code of ethics, to their use of the technology 
  • Review existing legislation on the use of drones in countries throughout the region to ensure that regulations do not unduly interfere with media freedom 
  • Establish consultative processes bringing together local lawmakers, journalists, and other relevant stakeholders to develop policies that are specific to the use of drones for journalism