Two foreign filmmakers were arrested Tuesday morning after their drone was seen filming in the skies near Prime Minister Hun Sen’s house in Phnom Penh—a flight that provided a litmus test for February’s ban on unauthorized drone operation in the city.
Gelles Sainsaily, 35, a French freelance drone operator, was detained along with American filmmaker Todd Brown, 39, when their camera-equipped drone caught the attention of authorities as it passed in front of Mr. Hun Sen’s house in Daun Penh district, according to Soem Vuthy, deputy municipal police chief in charge of internal security.
“Flying a drone without prior permission in Phnom Penh was banned by a letter issued by City Hall, so we brought them in for questioning,” Mr. Vuthy said, adding that the pair was transferred to the municipal police headquarters when it became apparent that they did not have a permit.
At about 4:30 p.m., police released the men without charge after deciding that they posed no threat to security. “They told us that they were taking photos for the director-general of the Sihanoukville port to advertise the development of Phnom Penh,” Mr. Vuthy said.
City Hall spokesman Long Dimanche said the transgression of Mr. Sainsaily and Mr. Brown had been the first since the restriction on drones was imposed, ostensibly to protect national security. He added that many permits for drone flights had been granted to those who had applied in recent months.
“[The ban] was not just to cover the area around Samdech Prime Minister’s house but for all public areas, so when they took photos with the drone without permission, they were in the wrong,” Mr. Dimanche said, adding that in another country, the pair might have faced prison.
“But in Cambodia, they were just made to sign a contract to promise to not do it again,” he said.
Following his release, Mr. Brown said that he and Mr. Sainsaily had only intended to fly the drone in the area for 30 minutes.
“Obviously, it was too close to Hun Sen’s house, and within 30 seconds, the police approached us and brought us to the police station,” he said.
“We understand why they stopped us and they did a good job obviously,” he added. “But yes, we were very happy to sign the contract—and will never do it again.”
On Monday night, local production company Ithink Asia filmed in the exact same location using a drone, according to Justin Stewart, the firm’s founder.
“We were filming there last night, but we have a government permit,” he said Tuesday. “We would never film without following the regulations and I think that maintaining security is fair enough—I mean, it really is pretty close to Prime Minister Hun Sen’s House.”
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