Iran’s escalating harassment of BBC News Persian journalists is discussed at BBC and UN Human Rights Council virtual event

BBC World Service today co-hosted a virtual “side-event” to coincide with the 47th session of the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC), to raise concern about the escalating cross-border harassment and threats from Iran towards BBC News Persian journalists and other Persian-language media. Alongside the BBC, the event was co-hosted by the International Federation of Journalists, National Union of Journalists and Doughty Street Chambers.

The virtual event was chaired by Deputy General Secretary at International Federation of Journalists, Jeremy Dear. 

Speaking at the event, Ambassador Rita French, UK’s Deputy Permanent Representative to the United Nations in Geneva and International Ambassador for Human Rights, said: “It remains our desire to see Iran change tack, cease this abhorrent persecution against journalists and their families, and adhere to its international human-rights obligations. Until they do, the UK will continue to hold them to account, and seek to ensure media freedom is defended everywhere.”

Estonia will chair this year’s conference of the Media Freedom Coalition. Ambassador Minna-Liina Lind, Estonian Ambassador at Large for Human Rights and Migration, said: “We really want to have some concrete deliverables from the conference hosted in Tallinn in December 2021.”  

Also on the panel was BBC News Persian journalist Kasra Naji who spoke about the campaign of vilification, threats and persecution endured by himself, his colleagues and their families, and BBC’s World Affairs Editor, John Simpson, who warned of the danger, that these policies that already have been in place for four years, will continue and intensify under Iran’s newly elected president Ebrahim Raisi, and called to protect and guard the BBC’s Persian service. 

For many years, Iran has conducted a campaign of harassment and intimidation towards BBC News Persian journalists and their families in Iran. This has included death threats towards BBC journalists and their families in London, family members in Iran being brought in for interrogation and threats being made of cross-border operations to put BBC journalists in prison, online harassment and gendered attacks on women journalists, and a judiciary-imposed asset freeze on all assets of BBC News Persian staff in Iran. In some cases, family members were deprived of their liberty and held in degrading conditions, and ordered to tell their relatives to stop working for the BBC.

In response to this, the BBC initiated its first ever UN complaint in 2017 in relation to the protection of BBC journalists and has continued to engage with UN Special Mechanisms since. Concern has been raised about Iran’s treatment of BBC News Persian by the UN Secretary-General and successive UN Special Rapporteurs.

In March 2020, a group of UN experts made a joint statement condemning Iran’s harassment of BBC, raising concern of indications that:

… the Iranian authorities are prepared to use force extra-territorially, in violation of international law. Harassment, surveillance, death threats against journalists, within and outside domestic boundaries violate international human right law, including the right to physical integrity, the right to life and the right to freedom of expression.

The UN experts said that Iran’s acts towards BBC News Persian “violate international law regulating the use of force in times of peace” and “ultimately constitute serious threats to global security and thus demand strong reactions on the part of the Governments”.

In the past year, matters have escalated. Journalists and others perceived to be critics of the Iranian authorities have been abducted from other countries and returned to Iran, to be imprisoned and (in at least one case) to face the death penalty. Iran’s asset freeze has extended beyond BBC News Persian staff to some other international Persian-language outlets. Death threats have been made towards BBC News Persian staff in London, leading to police involvement and protection.

Tim Davie, BBC Director-General, said: “The treatment of the BBC News Persian journalists and their families by the Iranian authorities runs counter to the basic principles of human rights.  Our total support for our journalists doing their job is as strong as our determination to never succumb to these pressures and we demand that they stop.”

Caoilfhionn Gallagher QC and Jennifer Robinson, counsel for BBC World Service, said: “This week, the newly elected President of Iran has claimed he is a ‘defender of human rights’.  But the Iranian authorities’ cruel harassment and intimidation of BBC News Persian staff and their families violates the human rights of journalists and their families. Iran’s cross-border targeting of journalists is aimed at silencing voices Iranians are entitled to hear and also breaches the rights of the wider public. This is a sustained, pernicious attack on human rights by Iran. We urge UN experts to take action on this issue. The international community must condemn this in the strongest terms, and immediately take action to protect the integrity of journalists, their families and their profession.”

BBC News Persian is a multimedia news and current-affairs service, with a weekly audience of around 18.3m (2020), delivering accurate and impartial news, information and analysis from a global perspective to Persian-speakers around the world.  Available online via the website, on TV and radio, BBC News Persian also connects with audiences on social media: Facebook, Instagram, Telegram and Twitter.  BBC News Persian is part of BBC World Service.  

A video with further information about the experience of BBC Persian staff and families is available here. A press release about today’s event has also been issued by the National Union of Journalists and the International Federation of Journalists, available here.