An Iranian official has accused the BBC of stoking hatred, peddling propaganda and slander following a United Nations report on the persecution and harassment of Persian journalists and their families.
Speaking at a UN Third Committee meeting in New York City, Zahra Ershadi, a member of Iran’s delegation, said the Islamic Republic of Iran had been the “direct target of media propaganda by hostile governments.” In particular, she accused BBC Persian of “pumping hatred, fabricating fake news, provoking and slandering.” The UN Third Committee focuses on cultural, social, and humanitarian affairs.
It is the first time that an Islamic Republic diplomat has addressed the UK as a hostile regime during a UN General Assembly committee meeting, and is surprising considering that the two countries currently enjoy peaceful and healthy diplomatic relations. The UK has an active embassy in Tehran and the British government has continued its commitment to the nuclear deal, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), despite the United States’ decision to withdraw from the agreement.
Ershadi challenged the United Nations General Assembly Committee report, which looked at Iran’s targeted persecution of journalists based outside Iran — in particular those working for BBC Persian. It also looked at the harassment of journalists’ families who are based in the country.
Is the UK Hostile Toward Iran?
Diplomatic conduct customarily means avoiding conflicts and being measured when addressing or posing questions, particularly on such a public stage as the UN General Assembly. So Ershadi’s comments represent a turn away from this norm and an embrace of a more combative approach to international relations —and a direct accusation that the UK is a hostile regime acting against the Islamic Republic.
In international rhetoric, hostility has a clear definition: a military invasion against a nation by one or more countries involving weapons. So does Ershadi believe the UK is at war with Iran? If so, the government should report such aggression to the UN Security Council citing “violation of international peace and security” and demanding that the Secretary-General immediately get involved. In this way, war between the two countries would be the subject of discussion and action for the UN. But if Iran does not believe the UK is threatening war, it is not justifiable for Iranian officials to label the UK as “hostile.”
If the UK officially objects to the Iranian delegate’s statements, it is unlikely that Iran’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs or any other member of the Iranian government will get behind its diplomat. The Supreme Leader, who is officially in charge of announcing war against a country, is also unlikely to formally back Ershadi.
In fact, the accusation directly contradicts a recent foreign ministry statement that said Iran did not currently regard any nation to be “hostile” toward it.
Ershadi is now likely to face counter accusations that she made false and deceptive statements at an international forum, knowing them to be untrue. Regardless of what happens next, her comments will have a detrimental impact on Iran’s image, and undermine official government statements in general. In addition, her comments have done nothing to address accusations that Iranian journalists and their families have been harassed.
Hate Speech and the Foreign Media
As well as her statements about the UK being a hostile country, Zahra Ershadi also accused BBC Persian of “blind pumping hatred and fabricating fake news.”
Since BBC Persian was launched and began broadcasting almost 10 years ago, Iran’s judiciary and intelligence agencies have run a sustained campaign of harassment against its employees and their families. First, they banned journalists from traveling to Iran. They interrogated the family members of BBC Persian staff, as well as blocking the journalists’ assets, making it impossible for them to sell their properties in Iran — effectively confiscating them, since the travel ban meant journalists were barred from accessing their houses. One media outlet with close ties to Iran’s judiciary even threatened some of the journalists with murder.
All these actions are in clear violation of Iran’s international commitments and its responsibilities as signatories to various conventions and agreements. Prior to this, when asked why the Islamic Republic had targeted BBC journalists, foreign affairs minister Mohammad Javad Zarif had responded that the BBC had failed to follow its own rules and guidelines.
In the past, Zarif has accused Iranian citizens employed by the BBC of being criminals under Iranian law because of what they have done and do on UK soil. Therefore, he has said, Iran’s intelligence agency and the judicial system has the authority to prosecute —and persecute — them. But although he regards BBC Persian staff as criminals, he has not directly accused the BBC of hate speech or of fabricating news.
If Zarif or other officials believe the BBC to be acting illegally, they have access to legal channels and mechanisms to address the matter. Looking specifically at hate speech, there are laws in place to prosecute for such crimes in international courts, as well as in individual jurisdictions.
The BBC broadcasts in dozens of languages. BBC Persian caters to Iranian audiences, Persian speakers in Afghanistan and Tajikistan, as well as those living in the diaspora and based across the Middle East, Europe and North America. It reports news, including reporting on political developments and government policies in Iran, Afghanistan and Tajikistan, as well as international news that impacts these countries and their diaspora communities. Apart from employing Iranians, the service also has a number of Afghan reporters in its ranks, many of whom also produce content in Pashtu as well as in Persian.
Iranian Citizens’ and the Right to Free Speech
If Iranian officials can prove its claims of the BBC behaving illegally there is a chance for criminal prosecution in Iran. They could even try to prosecute within the British courts if there is any merit to their claims. At the same time, the BBC has a right to sue the Iranian government for defamation if no evidence can be produced.
But instead of turning to the courts, Iranian officials resort to violating the rights of Iran's citizens. In fact, officials have stated that the BBC has no right to produce programs in other nations’ languages, claiming that it constitutes a breach of Iran’s sovereignty. But this fails to address how the Islamic Republic can in turn justify its own extensive multi-language broadcasting initiatives, including in Hebrew, English, German, Spanish, Arabic and Russian.
To do this, Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting hires many employees from foreign countries. For instance, many of its Press TV employees are British, and the majority of Al-Am Network — the Arabic version of Press TV — employees are citizens of Arab Middle Eastern countries.
Iran, which ranks 164th out of 180 countries in Reporters sans Frontieres’ World Press Freedom Index, is unique in its sustained campaign against journalists working and residing outside the country — although it is well-known that across the world, many governments, individual groups and militias, mafias and individuals take action against journalists. Iran’s delegate to the UN Third Committee justifies her claims by asserting that the Islamic Republic is acting in self-defense against the damage caused by Persian-language news and content produced outside Iran.
In addition to the hardship Iran’s people currently face, the country could face even more intense international sanctions because of its treatment of journalists. And the UK or other countries could also turn to the international courts. As Iran continues its persecution of journalists, depriving them of fair legal representation and other rights, this option becomes all the more viable, and a potential avenue to address the injustice carried out by the Islamic Republic.
More on the persecution of BBC Persian journalists: