The BBC has appealed to the United Nations to help protect journalists working for its Persian service, highlighting the systematic harassment and intimidation carried out by the Iranian government.
On March 14, BBC Persian Service senior correspondent Kasra Naji delivered the first ever appeal to the UN Human Rights Council during its 37th session in Geneva, a move that BBC Director General Tony Hall said was necessary “because our own attempts to persuade the Iranian authorities to end their harassment have been completely ignored.”
The Iranian government’s targeted campaign against Iranian journalists working for the BBC has been going on for years, at least since 2008. But it stepped up pressure in 2017, and in August 2017, the government froze the assets of 152 former and current BBC Persian staff and contributors, after identifying them as individuals it said had conspired against Iran’s national security.
The BBC said 85 journalists had responded to a survey it conducted about harassment. They said one or more of their family members had been called in for questioning; 44 journalists said family members had been threatened — with the loss of their job or business, and even their lives. Calling on the Iranian authorities to enter into talks with the BBC, Jamie Angus, the Director of the BBC World Service Group, said any grievances against its journalists should be presented to the corporation “at any time and any place. In public or in private. We are happy to investigate any complaints respectfully.”
The Nightmare of Harassment
Coinciding with the 37th session of the UN's human rights council, the BBC and the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) organized a panel discussion on March 15, looking at the situation for journalists in Iran — and, crucially, hearing first-hand accounts of the impact it has had on their lives.
BBC Persian service journalist and presenter Rana Rahimpour said when she left Iran in 2008, she had no idea that the Iranian authorities would refuse to leave her alone. The persecution began in 2009, but she knew it was about to get worse in May 2013, when her father told her he had been interrogated. “They threatened that if I didn’t give up my job, there would be consequences,” Rahimpour told the audience in Geneva. “Five months later, as he was about to board a flight to London to come and visit my newborn child, his passport was confiscated. My mother’s passport was also confiscated two weeks later, upon her return to Iran. For months, I didn’t know whether I would ever get to see them again. I couldn’t go home and they couldn’t leave. For months, we didn’t know how long our nightmare was going to last.”
After a one-year travel ban, her parents were able to leave the country to see her. “Sadly, it hasn’t been true for many of my colleagues,” she said. “In one case, a mother was diagnosed with cancer, and her condition deteriorated so quickly that she was unable to travel to a third country to visit her son. She died in front of Skype. She raised my colleague as a single mum. He wasn’t even able to carry her coffin.”
Other BBC journalists also gave testimonies, which were presented in a video clip at the event. They spoke of the climate of fear they had to endure, despite the fact that they lived and worked outside Iran. One described how Iranian authorities warned her that they knew where her son went to school; others described their families being questioned, harassed and threatened.
“No one has ever been Helped by Silence”
IranWire founder and editor-in-chief Maziar Bahari talked about his experience in 2009, when he spent four months in Evin Prison. “During my interrogation, I realized my only crime was being a journalist. My interrogator asked me: “What does a spy do? He gathers information and he sells information. What does a journalist do? He gathers information and he sells information. So for him, a spy is a journalist and a journalist is a spy. And that is the prevalent attitude of many people within the Iranian government toward journalism and the free flow of information.”
He also highlighted how important it was for journalists and families to speak publicly. “When I was arrested, my employers, Newsweek magazine, which was owned by the Washington Post, immediately started to talk about my case. What I realized when I came out of prison is that no one has ever been helped by silence,” he said. Iranian authorities have learned that applying sustained pressure on a journalist in a very short period of time has been effective, enabling them to force journalists to confess and to bully families. So, said Bahari, it’s extremely important for organizations such as the BBC and other media outlets, the journalists themselves, as well as family members, to raise attention to their cases as much as possible.
“We have to react immediately because if the Iranian government can act with impunity, it will,” he said, adding that there needed to be “a more pragmatic and legal pursuit of these cases.” After his release, he, his colleagues, and his lawyers decided to take action regarding what had happened to him while he was in prison — including being forced to confess, which was broadcast on state television, and on Press TV, Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting’s English outlet.
They appealed to Ofcom, the UK media regulator, which fined Press TV £100,000 and asked it to apologize. When it failed to do either, it lost its broadcasting license in the UK.
The Duty to Act
Doughty Street Chambers’ Caoilfhionn Gallagher QC, who represents some of the BBC journalists, also talked about what the international community must do to help protect BBC journalists — and, on a more fundamental level, the right to free expression in general.
“If the international community doesn’t act to stop this happening, we are giving a green light, not only to Iran, but also to other states, to harass journalists and their families for their reporting,” Gallagher said. “What’s happening to BBC Persian is a warning of what will come for others unless action is taken.” She said UN member states had to raise the issue in all bilateral relations with Iran, discuss “their general concern about the need to protect journalists, including foreign-based journalists and their families in-country,” as well as raising “specific concern about the persecution and harassment of BBC Persian staff and their families.”
David Kaye, the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Opinion and Expression, sent a video message to the UN event in Geneva. He and Asma Jahangir, who was the UN’s Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in Iran before her sudden death in February, had worked to raise awareness of the treatment of BBC journalists and issued a statement to the UN October 2017. “It’s very clear that Iranian authorities regard any affiliation with the BBC as a crime,” he said. "In the context of the current environment in Iran it’s clear that the very act of engaging in journalism is an act of bravery and an act of very serious importance for the public interest.”
Amid calls for action, Jeremy Dear, Deputy General Secretary for the IFJ, hailed “an unprecedented alliance” of people stepping up to protect journalists — people from the journalistic community, but also lawyers, trade unions and media freedom advocates.
As Rana Rahimpour put it: “We are here to ask for help. The abuse has to come to an end. Journalism is not a crime.”