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Monday, December 2, 2013

In Thailand, a Drone’s Eye View of Protests

TheCyberJom, a YouTube account, posted video of street protests in Thailand that were recorded by a drone.

Thailand’s news media outlets have been increasingly using small, unmanned flying gadgets that give them a bird’s-eye view of the protests in the streets of their capital. As my colleague Thomas Fuller writes, the miniature drones have circulated videos of the battles, including one between riot police outside the prime minister’s office and protesters attacking the barricades.

This is the first time that drones have been used so widely during protests in Thailand, which is now in the throes of its deepest civil unrest in three years.

Video of protests at Government House on Dec. 1.
Footage of a street in the protest area and apparent evacuation of an injured protester.

Used sporadically in Thailand to take images of floods, festivals and of previous unrest, the tiny drones fitted with cameras are particularly handy now that some of Bangkok’s streets are choked with tear gas and punctuated by gunfire.

They take off vertically and are powered aloft by helicopter-type rotor blades â€" not unlike the drones Jeff Bezos, Amazon’s founder, floated as possible delivery vehicles. In Thailand, many local news organizations use the drones to grab new angles or to get some perspective on the rioting crowds, which either stretch down broad avenues or cluster in small groups.

While always hard to pin down, protest crowd numbers are an important estimate that can range broadly and imprecisely. In general, they can be greatly exaggerated for propaganda purposes in any conflict, even to the extent that still photography images are altered to make demonstrations look better attended than they really were.

It is not yet clear what, if any, effect the drone coverage is having on the course of the protests.

On the street, some journalists have been mingling with the protesters unimpeded, while others have been confronted and beaten, as a Human Rights Watch report published last week said.

It noted that journalists were being attacked by opposition groups, citing one example of when they surrounded television stations or attacked a photographer:

The protests have targeted journalists considered supportive of the government. On November 25, opposition protesters assaulted Nick Nostitz, a German freelance journalist, after remarks by a speaker at a mass rally. According to witnesses and news footage, a former Democrat Party member of parliament, Chumpol Junsai, announced to thousands of protesters in front of the Bangkok Metropolitan Police headquarters that Nostitz was affiliated with the pro-government United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD), known at the “Red Shirts,” and urged them to chase him out.

Several protesters immediately attacked Nostitz, punching him several times in the face, until police officers intervened and rescued him. Shortly thereafter, a pro-Democrat Party cable TV station, the Blue Sky Channel, posted Nostiz’s profile on its Facebook page, and his photograph has been spread widely on antigovernment social media sites, raising concerns for his safety.

Richard Barrow, a writer based in Bangkok, wrote on his website last month about the use of drones to augment his travel writing in Thailand using the Phantom, a device which can be fitted with a GoPro or built-in camera.

Mr. Barrow wrote in a recent post that the devices have also been used in reporting on floods and festivals, in addition to the latest unrest for which he recirculated an aerial image of protest crowds at Bangkok’s Democracy Monument last month.

As the protests intensified over the weekend, at least three people were killed, and as of late Monday, the government reported that the total number of people injured since Friday had risen to 201, Mr. Fuller reported.

On Monday, Mr. Barrow and others shared on Twitter a sense of the difficulties of working in Thailand.

Jonathan Samuels, one of the correspondents to which Mr. Barrow was referring, wrote:

A photographer also confirmed that he had been confronted by protesters.

Follow Christine Hauser on Twitter @christineNYT.