Typically associated with destructive military campaigns, drones—the unarmed kind—are becoming an essential tool for civil society. From a bird’s-eye view, they are exposing the truth about everything from the size of demonstrations to the obscene wealth illegally hoarded by corrupt political elites.
As a watchdog of government activity and an investigative journalism center, our organization has used drones to offer Hungarians a new perspective—both literally and figuratively—on key narratives unfolding in their country.
Through drone footage, we’ve revealed the hidden assets of government politicians and pro-government oligarchs, including castles acquired by companies tied to the son-in-law of Hungary’s prime minister. Such concrete signs of personal enrichment—which, in many cases, can only be filmed from the air—give citizens a clear picture of the corruption and inequality that is all around them.
At the same time, drones are useful for throwing into relief the power of civil society. In 2014, we captured aerial footage of the protests against the government’s internet tax. More recently, we filmed refugees marching across Budapest—showing their tragic situation helped us counter government narratives about migrants being dangerous enemies or conquerers.
In each instance, using drones helped us calculate the number of people present, a task that has proven difficult even for the press. Other Hungarian journalists using camera drones to cover these events have faced police resistance on a number of occasions, although the laws around the usage of drones remain fuzzy.
As people increasingly turn to drones for a wide variety of purposes, it is important to set up a legal framework within which they can be operated. Authorities should consult with civil society organizations and journalists to jointly develop regulations, while taking into consideration the right to privacy, freedom of the press, and the importance of keeping the public informed.