Australian filmmaker James Ricketson has been charged with espionage by Cambodian police, after he was caught flying a DJI Phantom drone over a CNRP opposition party campaign rally.
On Friday, the Phnom Penh Court charged Mr Ricketson with collecting information prejudicial to national defense – a sentence punishable by up to 10 years in prison.
The exact details surrounding the arrest are unclear, as it is unknown if Ricketson, 68, was flying the drone illegally, breaking immigration laws or violating national security stature. Given the context surrounding the dangerous political landscape in Cambodia however, it is likely his support for the opposition has raised questions about his involvement.
The offense was supported by the court under the article which states “Receiving or collecting information, processes, objects, documents, computerized data or files, with a view to supplying them to a foreign state or its agents which are liable to prejudice the national defense.” Being a filmmaker, this blanket charge could likely be applied in an ambiguous manner for anyone filming with a drone in political rallies – especially foreigners.
The government has been critical of media it considers sympathetic to the opposition, and Ricketson was well known for filming the activities of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP). Election campaigns in Cambodia often result in violence, with both sides suffering from casualties as a result of extreme-patriotism and unrest.
In the United States, the FAA enforcement division work with police to handle drone-related complaints and issues. Australia has seen similar action undertaken by CASA, however not so much in a political setting to Mr. Ricketson’s involvement. The Cambodia Aviation Authority (CAA) handles drone cases, however it is likely the political element led police to lead the charge.
In February 2015, Cambodia banned drones over the capital, in a bid to enforce safety laws in what it called “regulation rather than prohibition.”
Based on the charges laid, it is likely the offense is relevant to any form of video recording – drone or not. DroneSec reached out for comment, but has not heard back from Cambodian authorities on the matter. The Australian embassy has confirmed they are actively pursuing the matter.