The BBC reports that Iran has frozen the assets of 152 former and current BBC Persian staff and contributors. This new order from the Iranian judiciary also prevents the BBC’s people from selling or buying property, cars and other goods. The management of BBC Persian described the court order as another attempt by the judiciary to silence impartial journalists.
“It might seem that some of the individuals listed are merely banned from conducting bureaucratic affairs,” a BBC Persian journalist, who asked to remain anonymous, told IranWire's sister website Journalism Is Not a Crime. “But in practice their assets are frozen and for some of my colleagues the effects on their lives has been immediate.”
According to this journalist, the BBC has known of the order for several days. But the broadcaster “wanted to verify the report and make sure that it is reliable because [Iranian] officials have not informed the BBC of the list and the BBC has received the judiciary order from” its own sources. The journalist says that the list even includes colleagues who have passed away or have worked for the BBC for a long time.
BBC World Service Director Francesca Unsworth said that the BBC deplored the apparent "targeted attack" on its current and former staff and some contributors. “It is appalling that anyone should suffer legal or financial consequences because of their association with the BBC”, she said. “We call upon the Iranian authorities to reverse this order urgently and allow BBC staff and former staff to enjoy the same financial rights as their fellow citizens.”
The BBC’s Persian Service is banned in Iran and BBC Persian staff and their families routinely face harassment and questioning from the authorities. The harassment of the families intensified especially after the disputed 2009 presidential election.
The intimidation of the family members of BBC employees escalated after 2011, when BBC Persian aired a documentary about Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and the video of a forced confession by the Iranian journalist Maziar Bahari. (Bahari is founder and Editor-in-Chief of IranWire.)
A few months later the BBC condemned the arrest of a relative of one of its journalists and asked international organizations and governments to pressure Iran to stop such actions. The UK Foreign Office condemned the action as well. In response to protests by the BBC, Ramin Mehman-Parast, the Iranian Foreign Ministry’s spokesman at that time, said the broadcaster had behaved badly towards Iran and could not expect cooperation.
Pressure to “Cooperate” with Iranian Intelligence
According to a 2012 report by the BBC's director general, a number of relatives of BBC Persian staff had been detained for short periods of time by the Iranian authorities and were pressured to convince their relatives in London to either stop working for the BBC, or to "cooperate" with Iranian intelligence officials. In other instances, passports of family members were confiscated, preventing them from leaving Iran.
In a 2013 statement, Liliane Landor, head of languages services at the BBC World Service, reported that "15 family members have been questioned by the Iranian intelligence ministry in Tehran and other cities across the country".
"The harassment has included threats that relatives will lose jobs and pensions and be prevented from travelling abroad," she said. She added that "for the first time the lives of BBC Persian TV staff living in the UK have also been threatened."
“In the past few years the harassment of family members has subsided,” say the BBC journalist who spoke with Journalism Is Not a Crime, “but is some cases it continued, especially after visits [to Iran by BBC journalists]. [The authorities] pressured families to force their relatives working for the BBC to resign, interrogated them about visits to Iran and information exchanged between them and threatened that the relatives would not be hired by the government or would be fired from their government jobs. Sometimes they gave false information to family members to make them worried.”
The journalist also says that BBC journalists have never yielded to the pressures. and Amir Azimi, acting head of BBC Persian, said that journalists working for the Persian service would continue to bring independent, impartial and trusted news to Persian speakers around the world.
Social media users, including BBC Persian journalists, have reacted with outrage to the news. Faranak Amidi, a women’s affairs journalist for BBC Persian, called the asset freeze “a new ruse by the Islamic Republic to harass journalists.”
The list of affected individuals includes not only journalists who are currently working with the BBC Persian but also several who have passed away or are no longer working with the BBC.
One is Bahman Daroshafaei, who left the BBC in 2013 and returned to Iran. In 2016 he was arrested, tried and was banned from traveling abroad. His name nevertheless appears on the list. “I have already been tried and sentenced once and have been punished for working with BBC Persian,” he wrote on his Telegram channel. “If this verdict is because I worked for the BBC then based on Iranian law it is unlawful. It means prosecuting me twice for the same charge.”
Even though BBC broadcasts are jammed and filtered by the Iranian government, the latest figures show that the BBC World Service has an audience of 13 million in Iran, making it the seventh biggest market worldwide for BBC News.
Wanting to know more about what the Iranian authorities’ new tactic against BBC Persian journalists meant from a legal perspective, one freelancer contacted Iranian lawyer Musa Barzin Khalifehloo to find out more — and whether the steps were legal under Iranian law.
“Iranian laws specify crimes and their punishments,” Barzin explained. Freezing of assets — or, as it is more specifically phrased, banning people from “conducting transactions,” which actually encompasses a wider range of activities beyond simply freezing assets — is not a punishment set out in law. “The deputy prosecutor has no legal authority to issue such verdicts. In Iranian law, banning from conducting transactions only applies to minors, the insane and similar cases.”
Barzin went on to say that, according to the law, judicial authorities must be in charge of prosecutions, and before they do this, the accused must be tried in a court. Only after a final verdict has been reached can a prosecution legally begin. “The punishments are specified in law and the judicial authority cannot hand out punishments beyond what the law specifies," he said. "So, in the case of banning 152 current and former BBC Persian employees, judicial authorities have acted against the law in several aspects. These individuals have not been tried and have not been sentenced by a court of law.”
There is no precedent for banning individuals from carrying out transactions, and legal expert Barzin confirmed what the reporter had suspected: That Iran’s judicial authorities had “clearly and distinctly acted against the law.” In fact, he said, “This verdict is not only illegal but it is also a crime, because it has denied people their rights. Article 570 of the Islamic Penal Code of the Islamic Republic of Iran states that ‘Any official and agent associated with State agencies and institutions, who unlawfully strips members of the public of their personal freedom or deprives them of their rights provided in the Islamic Republic of Iran Constitution shall be sentenced to two months to three years’ imprisonment, in addition to dismissal from the service and prohibition of employment in state offices for one to five years.’”
Based on this, “individuals who have been banned from conducting transactions can themselves or through a lawyer file a criminal complaint against the official who has issued this verdict. To file this complaint it is not required that the person be present in Iran and it can be done through a lawyer.”
Individuals who feature on the BBC list or who have had a ban placed on them from conducting transactions are invited to send IranWire questions via [email protected]. IranWire’s group of lawyers group will provide these individuals with a confidential consultation.