BBC calls out Iran for escalating threats against staff

Iran has stepped up its threats and harassment of journalists working for the BBC’s Persian-language service and their families, the British broadcaster said.

In a complaint filed with the United Nations this month, the BBC called on the UN and the international community to “condemn Iran for the unacceptable treatment” of its personnel.

The complaint cited “extraterritorial threats” against journalists in Britain and third countries; harassment of family members in Iran; financial pressures on journalists and their families; and “increased intelligence and counterintelligence activity aimed at undermining the professional reputation of BBC News Persian and its journalists”.

The problem has been going on for years, said Kasra Naji, the BBC’s special correspondent in Persian in London. But he added that the threats have recently escalated.

“There was an escalation,” Naji told VOA News. Within six weeks, Iran’s intelligence agency called several family members of Persian BBC staff for questioning.

“They told our parents and our siblings that we in London could be targets of kidnapping, even murder, if we didn’t stop working for the BBC,” Naji said. “They also suggested that we might be kidnapped and transferred to Iran.”

Officers cited Ruhollah Zam’s case as an example of what would happen if they did not comply, Naji said.

Zam, who founded an anti-government news site and a Telegram channel while in exile in Paris, was lured to Iraq in 2019, where he was promised an exclusive interview with a prominent cleric.

Instead, he was forcibly returned to Iran where the Revolutionary Court found him guilty of “corruption on Earth” and executed him in December 2020.

In a joint statement, human rights lawyer Caoilfhionn Gallagher and BBC World Service lawyer Jennifer Robinson said: “We know from Iran’s past actions that it is prepared to take cross-border and deadly steps to silence his critics, and that he sees independent journalism on Iran as a risk to their power.

Naji says the threats do not appear to be tied to any particular story and have had no impact on BBC Persian reporting.

Special correspondent for BBC Persian TV, Kasra Naji attends a press conference on March 12, 2018 in Geneva.

“We have to tell the stories. We have to report the news. We have to say what is happening,” Naji said. “And maybe that’s why the Iranian government keeps attacking us, because they obviously feel they’ve failed to make an impact.”

Iran’s mission to the United Nations did not respond to VOA’s request for comment.

The February complaint is the third filed against Iran by the BBC in the past five years, Naji said.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights did not return VOA’s requests for comment.

In response to an earlier complaint, UN experts in 2020 demanded that Iran end the harassment and called on member states to ensure the safety of journalists.

Legacy of threats

Amir Soltani, activist and author of Zahra’s Paradise, a graphic novel about protests against Iran’s disputed 2009 elections, says Iran’s intelligence agency has been targeting individuals since the 1979 revolution.

“From the beginning, many Iranian writers and dissidents were kidnapped by the Ministry of Intelligence and killed,” Soltani told VOA. “Many people disappeared, then their bodies were found in various states of mutilation. It was a campaign of fear and terror against intellectuals, against writers, against dissidents, and quite naturally against journalists.

The tactics have continued over the past 40 years and are aimed at silencing anyone critical of the Iranian regime, he said. But while previous attacks were carried out covertly, they became much more brazen, Soltani said.

Tehran’s repressive media environment means that many journalists work in exile. But living outside Iran is no guarantee of security.

Transnational repression, in which governments cross borders to coerce, intimidate and sometimes injure or even kill citizens, is becoming a tactic widely used by authoritarian regimes, groups like Freedom House have said.

Last year, VOA Persian host and government spokesperson Masih Alinejad was the target of an attempted kidnapping from his New York home.

Four Iranians, suspected of being intelligence agents, have been charged with conspiring to kidnap Alinejad with the aim of forcibly bringing her to Iran, apparently for speaking out about human rights abuses.

In 2020, media watchdog Reporters Without Borders said at least 200 Iranian journalists living outside the country had been harassed, 50 of whom had received death threats.

BBC Persian staff and their families have endured years of harassment.

In 2012, officers arrested several relatives and tried to coerce them into persuading journalists to stop working for the BBC or acting as intelligence officers, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. Other family members had their passports withdrawn, preventing them from leaving the country.

And in 2017, Iran accused 152 Persian BBC staff, including Naji, of “conspiracy against national security”.

The court order, which is still in effect, froze all their assets and affected around 600 to 700 family members, Naji said. The freeze prevents them from selling or dividing properties.

“Some of us think our parents and siblings are indeed hostages in Iran,” Naji told VOA.

Travel bans and sanctions on bank accounts are all too familiar, said Soltani, a US-based human rights activist who left Iran in 1980. These issues have affected many members of society, not just journalists and their family members, he said.

“If you can attack an institution like the BBC, at this level, with impunity and without worrying about possible repercussions, can you imagine what journalists and isolated dissidents face in Iran? asked Soltani.

As the BBC calls on the UN to condemn Iran for the latest threats, its reporters say they will not be silenced.

“We all agree, all of us here at the BBC,” Naji said, “that we need to shout from the rooftops to let everyone know, especially the Iranian government, that if they touch us, s ‘they take action against us, there will be a cost attached.

Biography of the journalist: Carmela Caruso is a freelance journalist based in Asheville, North Carolina, specializing in press freedom and human rights. She is a student at the Savannah College of Art and Design. His work has appeared in VOA and The Mountain Xpress. Follow @CarmelaMCaruso

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