On 12 March 2018 the BBC website reported on the harassment of its Persian staff. It stated that it was making an unprecedented appeal to the UN to stop Iran from harassing its Persian service staff in London and their families in Iran. It said that Iran had intensified its campaign of intimidation, including threats, arrests of relatives and travel bans. According to the broadcaster, Iran began targeting the BBC’s Persian service after the disputed 2009 presidential election, when Tehran accused foreign powers of interference. The Iranian government disputed the allegations and accused BBC Persian of spreading false information to encourage the overthrow of the regime.
The BBC appeal was considered at a subsequent meeting in 2018 of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva.
On 14 March 2019 the NUJ website reported on the outcome under the heading: “UN Special Rapporteur on Iran ‘deplores’ persecution of BBC Persian staff & families”. The report continued, “The UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Iran, Professor Javaid Rehman, has presented his first report to the United Nations Human Rights Council. In his address, Professor Rehman raised concerns about the ongoing persecution and harassment of BBC News Persian staff and their families by Iran.
Speaking at the Human Rights Council, Professor Rehman said he “deplores” the harassment of BBC Persian staff. His remarks raised concern about the ongoing, collective criminal investigation of BBC Persian staff and the asset-freeze which affects them and their families in Iran. He reiterated the seriousness of the persecution, which was also raised by his predecessor Asma Jahangir, including arbitrary detention and interrogation of family members in Iran. Professor Rehman also raised concern about the attacks on BBC Persian journalists in Iranian state media, in particular with fake and defamatory news being published to undermine their reputations.
Responding to the report Michelle Stanistreet, General Secretary of the National Union of Journalists, said: “The Iranian authorities have been systematically targeting BBC Persian journalists in the UK, and their families in Iran, since the service launched satellite television in 2009. Our campaign to stop the harassment will persist until the authorities stop targeting NUJ members for simply for doing their jobs. Both the asset freeze and criminal investigations into the activities of journalists and other staff working for BBC Persian should be dropped…”
On the same day the NUJ also reported that for the first time, the European Parliament had addressed the ongoing persecution and harassment of BBC Persian staff and their families by overwhelmingly voting in favour of a resolution criticising Iran’s treatment of human rights defenders, human rights lawyers and journalists.
The NUJ reported that the resolution states that: “freedom of the press, both on and offline, freedom of association, and freedom of thought are repressed in Iran” and that “Iranian authorities have systematically targeted journalists, including those working for the BBC Persian service, and their families, through the use of criminal investigations, asset freezes, arbitrary arrest, detention, surveillance, harassment, and by spreading false, malicious, and defamatory publicity.” The resolution “demands that the authorities in Iran stop the surveillance, arrest, harassment, and prosecution of journalists, online activists, and their families, end online censorship, and calls for the creation of conditions which tolerate freedom of expression and freedom of the media both on and offline.”
Supporting the decision of the Parliament, Jeremy Dear, the Internal Federation of Journalists (IFJ) deputy general secretary, said: “The persecution must stop. Condemned by the UN, the European Parliament and press freedom campaigners across the globe the Iranian government must halt the harassment…and stop trying to silence independent media voices.”
Whilst these are important landmarks in the campaign to expose the harassment and attacks on the right to report, these important initiatives have received little attention in the UK mainstream media a point well made by Roy Greenslade in his article in The Guardian of 18 March ‘Iran’s harassment of BBC Persian Staff must be confronted’. Roy’s article highlighted what he called the “shocking intimidation” of journalists and their families. He went on to report the findings of an internal survey completed by 96 BBC London based Persian staff, 43 reported that their parents had been questioned by the authorities and 40 said that the same had happened to their brothers or sisters. He continued: “Government-affiliated media in Iran have published photographs of London staff, calling them ‘a mafia gang’ and portraying BBC Persian as an arm of the British state. In addition, journalistic sources within Iran have also been targeted.”
The article concluded: “More, much more should be done to ensure that Iran’s assault on press freedom gains greater public attention. To ignore it is to condone it. And allowing it to fester may well encourage other tyrannies to follow suit.”
The actions of the UN and European Parliament are welcome but the UK government needs to speak out loudly on this issue. Closing a Westminster Hall debate in January on the International Protection of Journalists Mark Field, Minister of State at the Foreign Office, outlined government action to defend media freedom and announced that: “…We must also recognise that we cannot do all this work alone. That is why, later this year, we will host in London an international conference on media freedom. Our aim is to bring the issue to global attention, promote the value and benefits of a free media—indeed, a free internet—to a wider audience, and mobilise an international consensus behind the protection of journalists, as the obvious guardians of those freedoms…”
Fine words, but our colleagues in the BBC Persian Service need action now, because they are under daily threats now. The Foreign Office must respond immediately to this collective punishment of journalists, which puts them at serious risk. In the meantime we can support them by raising awareness and taking up the issue with MPs. and keeping up to date with developments by monitoring the NUJ and IFJ web sites at: https://www.nuj.org.uk/home/ and https://www.ifj.org/