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February 10, 2022updated 30 Sep 2022 11:01am

BBC files third complaint to UN in five years over Iran’s ‘escalating’ harassment of journalists

By Bron Maher

The BBC has lodged an “urgent complaint” with the UN against the Iranian government over “escalating actions and threats” towards its journalists.

The broadcaster said the country had targeted UK-based BBC News Persian journalists and their families in Iran for more than a decade, but that there has been a “concerning increase in harassment and security risk” over the past year.

This happened both before and after President Ebrahim Raisi took office in August 2021, the BBC said.

Liliane Landor, the senior controller of BBC International News and director of the World Service, said: “There have been escalating actions and threats, including an asset freeze which penalises the journalists and their families, online harassment, gendered attacks on women journalists and death threats. It must stop.”

Landor, who was due to address the third Global Conference for Media Freedom in Tallinn alongside BBC News Persian head Rozita Lotfi on Thursday, called on the UN “to continue to condemn Iran for their unacceptable treatment of our BBC News Persian colleagues”.

The corporation said it has requested “urgent action from UN experts, that the matter be communicated to Iran and that the protection of BBC News Persian journalists be raised at the UN Human Rights Council”. 

Although banned in Iran, the BBC says the Persian branch of the World Service reaches around 13 million people in the country each week and almost 19 million globally.

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BBC News Persian journalists said that in the past year they had faced increased security concerns for themselves while their families in Iran have been harassed more often.

The journalists said they have experienced growing financial pressure because of the ongoing asset freeze, which the BBC said “operates as a blunt financial sanction against BBC News Persian journalists and their extended families”.

There have also been more “intelligence and counter-intelligence activity aimed at undermining [their] professional reputation”, and more online attacks, particularly aimed at female journalists.

The World Service’s counsel, Caoilfhionn Gallagher QC and Jennifer Robinson of Doughty Street Chambers, said: “We know from Iran’s past actions that it is willing to take cross-border and deadly action to silence its critics, and that it perceives independent journalism about Iran as a risk to their power.

“Our clients from BBC News Persian receive threats of death and violence simply for doing their jobs – simply for being journalists.

“We call on the United Nations experts and the Human Rights Council to take swift, robust action to hold Iran to account and ensure that BBC News Persian journalists can report without fear.”

The National Union of Journalists’ national broadcasting organiser Paul Siegert said: “It is a sad state of affairs that in 2022 these kind of attacks and abuse against individuals are still an ongoing problem… Our members will not be silenced and will not stop doing their jobs. We once again call on the Iranian government to put a halt to this unacceptable behaviour.”

The latest security concerns follow news last year that US prosecutors had charged four Iranians for allegedly planning to kidnap a New York-based journalist critical of the Iranian government.

The BBC made its first UN complaint, also relating to Iran’s alleged mistreatment of its journalists, in October 2017. The complaint followed Iran’s opening of a criminal investigation, coupled with asset freezes, into 152 current and former BBC Persian journalists over what it called “conspiracy against national security”.

In August 2018, Iran’s Mizan judicial news agency allegedly incited violence against the BBC in a report carrying the names and images of BBC Persian journalists. The report said the employees were members of a “mafia gang associated with the joint psychological operations HQ of overthrowing the system of the Islamic Republic”.

In March 2019, a BBC Persian internal survey of 96 staff said 48 of them had lost loved ones and been unable to see them before they died as a result of injunctions imposed by Iran. Some 45 said their parents had been questioned or interrogated by Iranian authorities, 40 said the same of siblings and 47 of friends.

HuffPost revealed later the same year that the BBC had made a deal with the Iranian authorities that allowed Middle East correspondent Martin Patience access to the country so long as the reporting was not shared on BBC Persian. The news drew a rebuke of the BBC from the NUJ.

In September that year the UN issued a report echoing many of the BBC’s allegations, and a group of UN experts again sounded the alarm in March 2020.

The BBC issued its second complaint over Iran to the UN in December 2019. The newest call is the first since the incumbency of the UN’s new special rapporteurs on freedom of expression and extra-judicial killings, Irene Khan and Morris Tidball-Binz.

Press Gazette has approached the Iranian delegation to the UN for comment.

Picture: Jeff Overs/BBC News and Current Affairs via Getty Images

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