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March 5, 2019updated 06 Mar 2019 10:54am

BBC Persian journalists unable to visit sick relatives as Iran continues ‘collective punishment’ of news service

By Freddy Mayhew

Iranian authorities are continuing to target the families of BBC Persian journalists in an attempt to silence the London-based news service, which is banned in Iran but still reaches 13m people there.

Journalists are forced to mourn family deaths together because they cannot return to Iran to visit sick relatives or attend funerals for fear of arrest – the result of Iran criminalising their work.

Meanwhile their family members – aged from ten to 90 – have passports confiscated, assets frozen and are randomly detained and interrogated.

Lawyers acting for the BBC have described it as “an unprecedented collective targeting and punishment of journalists”. Some 152 current and former BBC Persian staff are affected.

BBC Persian, which broadcasts and publishes news and entertainment in Farsi, was founded as a radio station in 1940. It launched a TV station in 2009 – that same year the Iranian government accused foreign powers of interference in its presidential elections.

It was also in 2009 that Iran’s persecution of BBC journalists worsened.

BBC Persian, part of the BBC World Service, reaches 22.5m people in total and one in every five Iranians.

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‘We are living in a daily nightmare’

An internal survey completed by 96 BBC Persian staff found that 48 of them had lost loved ones and had 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 brothers or sisters and 47 said the same of friends. Eighty-six staff had faced harassment.

Rana Rahimpour, a well-known face on BBC Persian, said: “We are living in a daily nightmare. Every time a parent dies we get together with the BBC to help each other go through it – they cannot go out there to mourn.

“We think one of these days it’s going to be us standing there and mourning, not being able to go and see our relatives.”

Rahimpour left Iran to join BBC Persian – her “dream job” – in 2008, believing that she would be able to report freely on her native country from abroad.

She said: “I thought I won’t be pressured or coerced because they can’t get to us anymore and we can report whatever needs to be reported, but little did we know they wouldn’t leave us alone – and not just us, but also our families.”

Her father was interrogated for several hours in 2013 by Iranian authorities who were looking for information about her and her husband and where they lived in the UK.

Later, both of her parents were subjected to a year-long travel ban which meant they couldn’t visit her newborn child in the UK.

Rahimpour has shared her story as the BBC attempts to raise awareness of the plight of its journalists among the wider public.

‘Freedom’ is essential for good journalism

The corporation appealed to the United Nations for the first time in its history in March last year over the harassment of BBC Persian staff.

World affairs editor John Simpson described what is happening to the BBC Persian service as “one of the worst things that a nation has done to free speech in recent times”.

He added: “Freedom is the atmosphere in which proper, decent, good journalism thrives. Without freedom there’s always some sort of limitation on true and good and honest journalism.

“What the government of Iran has done has been really pretty depressing – I have been aware of it for years.”

Simpson said he himself has not been allowed back to Iran since 2009, adding: “There has been a closed mind in [Iranian capital] Tehran.”

Last year, a fake news story accused BBC Persian of being a terrorist-funded organisation working against Iran.

‘Iran is using the long arm of state to try to silence people’

Barrister Caoilfhionn Gallagher QC, of Doughty Street Chambers, said: “We all know that harassing journalists and accusing them of espionage or terrorism simply for doing their job is not a new tactic.”

But, she said there were three reasons why the BBC Persian case is different.

  1. The unprecedented “collective punishment” of journalists, which she described as a “jurisprudential dragnet capturing everyone in its net”.
  2. “It’s collective punishment not just of the journalists but those connected to them – their family members are targeted and we have also seen their sources being targeted.”
  3. The fact this takes place across national borders.

On this last point, she said: “No longer is Iran simply targeting those who report on its own soil, it is using the long arm of state to reach out and try to silence people based in Europe, the US and London.

“It’s an attempt to leverage the fact that they have got loved ones or sources in Iran to try to put pressure on those outside Iran… Targeting family members of BBC journalists simply because they are doing their job here in London.”

She said Iran is “sending a clear message to journalists that they should stop their work, they should be gagged, they should leave their jobs,” adding: “Every day when they report to camera or the website, they know they have this hanging over their heads and that threat is there.”

‘Very grave risk’ to journalists

Iran has been accused by the Dutch government of hiring criminal gangs to murder two Iranian dissidents in the Netherlands, according to reports.

Pointing to these claims, Gallagher said there was a “very grave risk here to individual journalists” and particularly those who spoke out.

She added, in answer to a question from Press Gazette: “We don’t believe there is an immediate risk, but we know there have been examples of extra-judicial killings… and using that kind of language against [journalists] is a precursor to this kind of behaviour.”

She said: “Staff should not have to face these threats and they shouldn’t be thinking when they are speaking to camera: ‘I’m taking my life in my hands’. It’s a very dangerous time for journalists overall.”

Rahimpour added: “There are people who are struggling [within BBC Persian]. Not everyone is handling it as well as the rest of us.”

A statement by UN Special Rapporteurs on Iran and freedom of expression, made in November 2017, said: “We urge the local authorities to cease all action against BBC Persian staff and their families and to cease the use of repressive journalism, whether affiliated to BBC or not.

“In a country with severe limitations on media independence these measures also constitute an attack on the public’s right to freedom of expression.”

In a statement in May last year, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres acknowledged that “individuals working for the Persian service of the BBC and their families in Iran had been harassed and intimidated by authorities and threatened if they continued to work for the service”.

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