Photo/IllutrationAn image taken by a drone shows earth and sand being unloaded onto the K8 embankment off the Henoko district of Nago, Okinawa Prefecture, on June 11. (Provided by Okinawa Drone Project)

Tighter but somewhat vague regulations on operating drones took effect June 13, igniting concerns that limits on where the devices can fly could infringe on the public's right to know.

Under the revised drone regulation law, the unmanned aircraft cannot operate over U.S. military or Japanese Self-Defense Forces facilities unless prior permission is granted. The ban includes surrounding areas extending to 300 meters.

The government says the restrictions are necessary to thwart terrorist attacks.

While standards on consent remain unclear, it appears likely that wide areas will be declared off-limits to drones.

This has sparked fears that the public's right to know could be infringed, for example, in the event of an aircraft crash at a military base or trying to gauge the impact of environmental pollution in a construction project.

On June 11, a civic group, Okinawa Drone Project, flew a drone over a coastal area off Camp Schwab, a U.S. Marine Corps facility in the Henoko district of Nago in Okinawa Prefecture, where construction of an airstrip is under way to relocate the functions of the U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma from Ginowan, also in the prefecture.

The group’s purpose was to film the unloading of earth and sand being used in the land reclamation work to assess whether the construction work was causing environmental pollution.

On June 3, group representative Yukihisa Fujimoto asked an official of the Japanese Defense Ministry in Tokyo if the construction site off Henoko will be included in no-flight zones.

The official indicated that it could be, saying, “It is not excluded (from no-fly zones) under the law.”

Initially, drones were banned from flying over such sites as the prime minister’s office, the Diet building and nuclear power plants.

The revised law added “defense-related facilities” of U.S. forces and the SDF as well as surrounding areas extending to 300 meters. The latter provision was added at the request of U.S. forces.

The revised law does not state concrete standards on no-fly zones. Thus, the defense minister, who designates no-fly zones, has some discretion.

While operating drones over military facilities is prohibited, in principle, operators are hoping that the regulations will be relaxed and permission granted to fly drones in emergency situations, such as an accident.

However, standards on what situation might warrant consent remain unclear.

“There is no guarantee that drones can be flown in emergency situations, such as those in which accidents occurred in surrounding areas,” said lawyer Masato Nakamatsu, a member of the Okinawa Bar Association.

As for no-fly zones, there are fears that drones will be excluded from operating over sea areas off Henoko, where no facilities exist at present, or areas adjacent to U.S. military bases.

If the skies over the Air Station Futenma, located in the middle of a residential area, are designated as a no-fly zone, there is high likelihood that the skies over residents’ homes will also be declared off-limits.

In Okinawa, the compounds for U.S. military facilities cover about 20,000 hectares in total, which suggests that wide areas will be no-fly zones.

Opposition parties slammed the revised law in the Diet.

“It will make it impossible for citizens and the media to confirm (what happened in certain situations)," said one lawmaker. Another said the law effectively amounted to oppression of media coverage in Okinawa.

In May, Tetsuya Iguchi, representative director of the editorial committee of the Japan Newspaper Publishers and Editors Association, issued a statement in response to passage of the revised law through the Diet.

“The strengthening of regulations on drones will drastically limit news coverage activities and deeply infringe on the people’s right to know," said the statement. It called the situation "extremely regrettable.”

The government has repeatedly stated that the strengthened regulations are anti-terror measures to keep people safe during the Rugby World Cup to be held later this year and the Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games in 2020.

“We fully understand the importance of news coverage activities and the people’s right to know. We will manage the revised law in an appropriate manner,” a government official said.

In a meeting of the Lower House Committee on the Cabinet, held April 12, Junzo Yamamoto, chairman of the National Public Safety Commission, said, “We have no intention of limiting the media’s news coverage activities.”

Kenta Yamada, a professor of speech law at Senshu University, said: “My fear is that it will become impossible for the people to obtain information directly related to their lives and health, such as in the event of accidents involving U.S. military aircraft or environmental destruction due to construction projects. As military facilities are also located in the Tokyo metropolitan area, it is a problem for the entire country.”