Geo News, Pakistan’s most popular news channel, is in the process of experimenting with 2 DJI Phantoms, plans for which call for assisting in gathering footage for the network. They are described as “commercially available Unmanned Aerial Vehicles,” or, in other words, unarmed drones.
While his counterparts in America are compromised by FAA regulation, Geo Online editor and de-facto drone pilot Shaheryar Popalzai had first-hand experience with the technology in March.
“It’s only a matter of time before news (organizations) understand the benefits of using UAVS, and how they can help with the news,” he says.
For GEO News, which suffered an attack on its prominent anchor, Hamid Mir, last weekend, drones offer safety and the ability to cover topics in greater detail. When the network dispatched a team to the Tharparkar district of Sindh to cover a drought, producers sent Shaheryar Popalzai as a drone pilot. When the segment aired in early April, it was the first of its kind.
“UAVs could be really good for us,” concludes Popalzai
National disasters such as the drought in Sindh are often reported with a lack of visuals, according to Popalzai. When it comes to conveying the living conditions of those affected, he says Pakistani news segments rely too heavily on statistics, sound bytes from officials, and stock visuals to tell a story.
“Our main aim when we took the UAV out there was to show how far and isolated these people are,” says Popalzai. Actual footage of the affected areas has been in short supply. Networks have been airing the Pakistani government’s officially sanctioned footage, which focuses on aid packages being dropped out of a helicopter, but that leaves out those affected by the famine, and most of the landscape in which they live.
The team in Sindh found that that aid had not reached everyone, and some residents did not even know that aid had been distributed at all. For the viewers unfamiliar with it, the aerial footage helped show the arid salt lands in real-time cartography of the area. Shaheryar maintains that without the UAV, the report may have left out a large chunk of the population
“These communities have been ignored for so long, the only evidence of the government I noticed was political posters,” Popalzai said. “But they [locals of interior Sindh] don’t even have electricity, let alone TV. Some villages have mobile towers near them, but they don’t have cell phones.”
While a significant portion of Pakistan’s population lives in such a manner (the world bank estimated 63 percent in 2012), they remain disconnected from the remainder who live in the country’s urban centers—which are among the largest in the world. For the handful of journalists and filmmakers who use drones in Pakistan, using them to cover urban issues still poses a risk.
“Whoever is flying it has to be within range and this can mean they have to be in the open. Once you’re done shooting you need to land the UAV as well, making yourself vulnerable when you’re done landing and picking it up,” Shaheryar says.
In 2012, the Pakistani news channel Capital TV sent 20-something Shehzad Hameed to cover Imran Khan’s election rally at Liaqat Bagh, a garden in the city of Rawalpindi. He was given a satellite backpack that created a 3G wifi network to download footage in real time, from an aerial drone.
“Compared to our usual satellite van, there were less hassles involved with setting up a live feed in a congested place. All the technology was in my backpack,” Hameed says. There was, however, a technical oversight.
“Pakistan is not the coldest country in the world. After one hour of getting great footage, the backpack over-heated,” he says. “We had to leave it under a tree to cool down.” In the end, they had to rely on their older, trusted satellite van to provide live footage. The experiment was not the success his channel was looking for.
“It’s a bit sad, because the idea of being able to run around with a backpack, and not be locked in front of a camera has a lot of broadcasting potential,” he adds.
The existing law and order situation that plagues many of Pakistan’s major cities, prevent journalists from being too visible, even when they are covering subject matter that has nothing to do with violence.
For a country that has been ranked as the world’s most dangerous place to be a journalist, using trace-able technology is risky. Meanwhile, official regulations are non-existent.
Pakistan’s Civil Aviation Authority said GEO News had reached out to them about acquiring drones, but they are unaware of any being used for journalistic purposes. CAA Public Relations manager Abid Kaimkhani says regulations and licensing procedures are still being worked out. “Anything that flies over 500 feet could pose a problem for our commercial airspace, so we are working quickly to address how to regulate their usage,” says Abid Kaimkhani. Kaimkhani said the CAA is looking into devising a flight exam to provide drone pilots licenses to fly.
Usman Qureshi runs a store out of Islamabad called “Grand Techtronics”, and has been making trips to Karachi to showcase DJI Phantoms with Go Pro cameras to major TV channels such as Geo News. He thinks UAV’s could be redemptive for Pakistan’s news culture, which has been criticized for spreading more political conspiracy theories than actual news. “The media environment in Pakistan has been pretty problematic for sometime now,” he says. “It has become a massive opinion-molding machine, but the UAV is a tech option that [instead of opinions] can give you an eye in the sky.”
He believes the UAV could help, but ultimately a drone is only as good as the person flying it. “I can go on with the benefits of using UAVs, but it all comes down to responsible journalism. In the hand of someone irresponsible, it is a lawsuit waiting to happen,” Qureshi warns.
Moin Khan is a drone hobbyist and an independent documentary maker from Lahore. He founded an NGO called A Different Agenda, which specializes in using drones to catch rare glimpses of Pakistani life.
A life-long motorcycle enthusiast, Khan also takes a small quad-copter with him to document his journeys on his NGO’s Facebook page. He reports travelling extensively with a UAV, and authorities have yet to ask him any questions. Good thing for him.
“I want to show the positive side of Pakistan that you could not see otherwise. A lot of people respond to my videos with ‘I did not know Pakistan was so green.’ And there’s a lot of things you would never catch unless you had a UAV,” Khan says.
You can see Khan explain his time in the Himalayas on a 1962 Vespa Scooter fitted with a Go-Pro camera on a Pakistani morning show.
Despite drone strikes that number 2,581 according to think tank the New American Foundation, most Pakistanis do not recognize UAVs when they see them. This was true of both Popalzai and Khan.
“They all call it helicopo