Statements issued through a judiciary-linked news agency in Iran calling BBC Persian Service journalists “anti-Iranian” and “terrorist-nurturers” have been condemned as “thinly-veiled threats” on their lives.
On Wednesday, Iran’s National Journalists’ Day, the Mizan news agency appeared to incite violence against the BBC Persian Service, part of the BBC World Service, and targeted eight journalists by naming and sharing images of them.
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A joint statement released by the BBC and the National Union of Journalists shared what they called the “most worrying” passage of the Mizan statement.
It said: “Without doubt, the mafia gang associated with the joint psychological operations HQ of overthrowing the system of the Islamic Republic, which has directly targeted the Iranian people and their security, are not free to carry out any counter-security measures against the Iranian people.
“The members and employees of this gang, a number of whom have gathered in the BBC Persian propaganda-security apparatus, and even their internal colleagues who are following the same line, must be held answerable for their actions against the Iranian people.
“They will surely be exposed one day before the Iranian nation, and God’s hand of justice will manifest itself through the arms of the Iranian people, and they will be punished for their actions.”
The comments were later amplified by a further statement from a spokesperson for the Revolutionary Guards Corps, the BBC and NUJ said, representing a “significant escalation” of threats that have been made against BBC Persian staff for around ten years.
According to the BBC, more than 20 Persian service journalists or family members have received death threats, some warranting police protection in the UK, while some staff based in London have been unable to travel back to Iran for fear of arrest.
A statement released by Fran Unsworth, director of BBC News, and Jamie Angus, director of BBC World Service, said: “In deliberately inflammatory language, this statement effectively incites violence against our journalists.
“We call once again for all Iranian harassment against BBC Persian staff and their families in Iran to end immediately.
“This is an issue of press freedom, and of the rights of all journalists around the world to operate without fear violence or persecution.”
This year the BBC appealed to the United Nations for the first time in its history in an attempt to protect the human rights of its journalists covering Iran and their families.
BBC Persian reporter Negin Shiraghaei (pictured) addressed the UN Human Rights Council in June, when the BBC sent a delegation to ask for action to end the harassment.
She told the council she is regularly subjected to “Iran’s online manipulation and misinformation tactics”, including photos being photoshopped of her and distributed online to discredit her, and the making a false documentary which was aired by state TV.
Highlighting abuse aimed at women journalists, Shiraghaei added: “We have been targeted with fake news, alleged sexual misconducts and indecency that could amount to a crime in Iran including in the state-owned media. Our faces have been edited onto pornographic images which have been shared online and in one instance shared with the 14-year-old son of one female TV presenter.
“This online harassment of women journalists at the BBC is aimed at undermining our ability to exercise our freedom of speech and must stop. We ask members of this council to call upon Iran to cease their persecution and harassment of journalists. Journalism is not a crime.”
Caoilfhionn Gallagher QC and Jennifer Robinson of Doughty Street International, who are acting for BBC World Service in the UN complaint, said the latest comments were a “thinly veiled threat to our clients’ lives and physical safety”.
They added: “These are effectively state-sanctioned threats to journalists’ safety, using inflammatory and irresponsible language. The international community must condemn this in the strongest terms.”
Michelle Stanistreet, general secretary of the NUJ which is working on a joint campaign with the BBC to protect its members at the World Service, said calling BBC Persian journalists “anti-Iranian” and “terrorist-nurturers” was “totally unacceptable and simply not true”.
“These threats represent an intensification of the ongoing, collective punishment of journalists in London and their families in Iran. No one should have to face such threats because of their work,” she said.
“The National Union of Journalists will continue to support those affected and we call on those with power in Iran to stop violating basic human rights, and stop interfering in legitimate journalism and media freedom.”
The International Federation of Journalists said it stands in solidarity with BBC Persian Service journalists and “for the right of all journalists to report free from persecution and threat”.
IFJ general secretary Anthony Bellanger said: “This latest attack on BBC Persian Service journalists is a grave escalation of a ten-year campaign of threat and intimidation which is designed to silence the media and prevent Iranian citizens from having access to a diverse range of voices.
“By naming individuals and in light of the violent language used to denounce named journalists this represents not just a threat to media freedom but a serious threat to the lives of those journalists and their families.
“It is time for the Iranian campaign of harassment to end.”
According to the BBC, Iran’s permanent mission to the UN told the Human Rights Council in March that allegations of harassment and threats were “incorrect”.
The mission said: “BBC Persian is not an independent media network. Its financial and political affiliation with the ministry of foreign affairs and the British security agencies has been very serious.”
Iran is ranked 164 out of 180 countries on the World Press Freedom Index created by Reporters Without Borders.