The Iranian government has opened a criminal investigation into 152 current and former BBC Persian journalists on charges of “conspiracy against national security”.
In response the corporation has filed an “urgent complaint” to the United Nations (UN) on behalf of the London-based service, it said in a statement today.
The National Union of Journalists has labelled the charges “ludicrous” and said its members were being “persecuted” by the Iranian authorities.
Contributors to BBC Persian are also included in the charges.
A court order freezing the assets of BBC Persian staff, preventing them and their families from passing on or selling assets – from property or cars – has also been passed by Iranian authorities.
“This is a deprivation of human rights which is against the Iranian constitution,” the BBC said in a statement.
“This is the latest in a sustained campaign of harassment and persecution which is designed to pressure journalists against continuing their work for the BBC.”
The dispute appears to centre on 2009 Iranian presidential elections when the government accused foreign powers of interference. It was also the year BBC Persian began broadcasting.
The BBC said the campaign against its staff has included arbitrarily detaining their relatives, banning them from leaving the country out to visit them, “surveillance and harassment” as well as the spread of “fake and defamatory news stories” designed to smear them.
BBC director general Tony Hall accused the Iranian government of “conducting what appears to be a politically motivated investigation”.
“This is an unprecedented collective punishment of journalists who are simply doing their jobs,” he said.
“This is not just a campaign against BBC Persian staff but against fundamental human rights, and the BBC calls on the government of Iran to end this legal action immediately.
“BBC Persian provides independent, fair, and impartial news to a huge number of people in Iran and beyond, thanks to the dedication and professionalism of its staff.
“I would like to pay tribute to them and their families for their resilience in the face of years of concerted intimidation from the Iranian authorities.
“The BBC, on behalf of its staff, will use all available legal avenues to challenge this order and we call on the international community to use their own influence in Iran to persuade the authorities that this completely unacceptable treatment must end.”
The NUJ has launched a campaign calling on the government to drop the charges “immediately”.
Michelle Stanistreet, NUJ general secretary, said: “These ludicrous charges amount to the collective punishment of journalists and a crass attempt to intimidate.
“In practice the journalists affected cannot defend themselves unless they travel to Iran and of course, if they do, the likelihood is they will end up in jail.
“Dozens of family members and friends of BBC Persian Service journalists have been interrogated by intelligence agencies, threatened and urged to pressure their relatives to leave their jobs in London or agree to spy on their colleagues.”
The union gave the example of a six-year-old girl who was called in for questioning regarding her sister working in the BBC while a TV presenter’s sister was jailed to blackmail her to leave her BBC job.
Added Stanistreet: “Iran should drop the criminal charges and lift the asset ban immediately.”
Iran is ranked 165 out of 180 countries on the Reporters Sans Frontiers World Press Freedom Index.
Picture: Reuters/Paul Hackett