Australian-British couple detained over drones: Innocent movie makers or idiots in Iran?

Mark Firkin and Jolie King of travel blog The Way Overland. Image credit:    The Way Overland   /Fair Use

Mark Firkin and Jolie King of travel blog The Way Overland. Image credit: The Way Overland/Fair Use

Last weekend I was on a work trip in Bergen, where I was able to use my new travel gadget for the first time – the DJI Mavic Pro. For those of you who don’t know, it’s a drone, and one that I decided to purchase because the last drone I had – the DJI Phantom 3 – was neither portable nor subtle, which meant that for travel, it was a no-go.

My new one, however, folds down and can easily fit in a backpack, and so I was able to get some great footage of Norway’s second city – well, it wasn’t really of the city, more of the amazing Arctic Dome Fjords, as the centre was geofenced due to its proximity of the airport.

Travel bloggers Jolie King and Mark Firkin from The Way Overland were arrested after flying a drone near Iran. Were they innocent movie makers or idiots in Iran?

Travel bloggers Jolie King and Mark Firkin from The Way Overland were arrested after flying a drone near Iran. Were they innocent movie makers or idiots in Iran?

Before I headed to Norway, one of the first things I did while researching was look at their drone laws. There was the usual – keep the drone within sight, a maximum height, weight restrictions and safe distance regulations – but it was an important check that I needed to do.

I’ll be going on a work trip to Vienna next month and the drone laws in Austria are far more stringent, so I’m not even going to bother taking my Mavic Pro with me – it’s not really worth the risk or the hassle.

And then this interesting story hit the news…

Just three days after returning from Bergen, I saw a report that two travel bloggers had been detained in Iran for flying a drone there without a permit. The pair – Jolie King, who is Australian-British and Mark Firkin, who is from Australia, are travel creators who go by the name The Way Overland.

Their main platforms are their Instagram, YouTube channel and blog, on which they are documenting their overland expedition from their home in Cottesloe, Western Australia, just outside of Perth, to London, United Kingdom, traversing Asia and Europe as they go.

Somewhat ironically, their aim is to not only document their epic adventure, but also to show that countries with a bad reputation aren’t dangerous.

Then their amazing journey took a turn for the worst.

At the end of June the travelling duo disappeared from social media without a trace, and their whereabouts only came to light when Iranian journalist of Persian language channel Manoto News, Pouria Zeraati, tweeted about their situation on 11 September.

They’d been imprisoned at Evin Prison – the same prison where British-Iranian project manager Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe is currently being held – in July for “flying a drone near the capital city, Tehran.”

Zeraati also reported that both Firkin and King were unaware of the Iranian law forbidding drone flights without a licence, while some outlets, such as the Daily Mail, suggested that the flight took place near a military base and they were arrested for spying.

But are they innocent movie makers, or idiots in Iran?

Their most recent videos show the couple driving through Pakistan. Image credit:    The Way Overland   /Fair use

Their most recent videos show the couple driving through Pakistan. Image credit: The Way Overland/Fair use

If what’s being reported is to be believed, then it’s difficult to have too much sympathy. Not only is it idiotic to not familiarise yourself with local drone laws, which is an action that should be covered by common sense, it also displays ignorance to the local laws and customs of the places they are visiting. While I’m sure that the TWO pair were aware of the strict nature of countries like Iran, failing to prepare appropriately for drone flights with a simple Google search is inexcusable.

But, on the other hand, being detained for 10 weeks without trial with minimal contact with the outside world seems extreme, assuming they were innocently getting video shots for their travel videos. A fairer punishment would probably have been a substantial fine (say in the £500-£1,000 range) and a stern telling off. It’s a mindless act, sure, but in the grand scheme of things, it isn’t Earth-shattering.

So, what will happen next?

Well, it’s tough to say. A fellow inmate at Evin Prison, Dr Kylie Moore-Gilbert, has been there for almost a year after being sentenced to 10 years at Evin. The Cambridge-educated Melbourne University academic had been working as a lecturer and researcher for the university’s Asia Institute specialising in Middle Eastern politics, and was jailed in 2018 for spying. If we take this case as a precedent, the next decade is shaping up to be a bleak one for both King and Firkin.

There is also speculation that their release could be tied to a deal involving the release of an Iranian prisoner who’s currently being held in the US, but Australian authorities are currently trying to negotiate their release. Hopefully, Iran sees sense and lets them go because they’ve surely already learnt their lesson.

What are your thoughts on the situation? Let me know in the comments below! 👇