UN Special Rapporteurs condemn harassment of BBC Persian staff in joint statement

Four UN Special Rapporteurs have issued an unprecedented joint statement condemning the harassment of BBC Persian staff and their families.  

Caoilfhionn Gallagher QC and Jennifer Robinson act for the BBC World Service in respect of the threats and harassment against BBC Persian staff by Iran, having filed the first UN complaint in BBC history for the protection of BBC journalists in 2017. Since then, they have filed a number of complaints in relation to the ongoing persecution of BBC Persian journalists and their families, including a reprisals complaint and a complaint in respect of the online threats and harassment of women journalists at the BBC. The most recent escalation of harassment followed BBC Persian reporting on the unrest in Iran and government crackdowns on protests, and involved death threats against BBC Persian journalists, as well as harassment of their family members in Iran.

The statement issued today in Geneva stated:

“Journalists working for the BBC Persian Service and other Farsi-language news outlets outside Iran have faced threats, criminal investigations, unlawful surveillance, freezing of assets, defamation and harassment by Iranian authorities. Several journalists have also been targeted for going public about the harassment and seeking protection from the UN…Their families residing in Iran have faced harassment and intimidation by Iranian authorities. 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….Reports also indicate a pattern of gender-based harassment, targeting women journalists since 2009, and including the dissemination of false stories, spreading of rumours and slander, usually with highly misogynistic contents and threats of sexual violence…”

The UN experts highlighted recent death threats towards BBC Persian staff in January and February 2020, including towards lead presenter Rana Rahimpour:

“These allegations are extremely concerning and if confirmed, would indicate 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. When these acts are conducted extra-territorially, as with BBC Persian Services, these acts violate international law regulating the use of force in times of peace. These ultimately constitute serious threats to global security and thus demand strong reactions on the part of the Governments of the countries where BBC Persian Service journalists reside…We reiterate our earlier calls to the Iranian Government to cease the intimidation, harassment and threats, including death threats, against BBC and other journalists working outside Iran for Farsi-language news outlets, as well as reprisals against their family members in Iran, which may constitute multiple violations of Iran’s international human rights obligations under international law.”

The experts urged “States to immediately take action in implementing safeguards to protect the integrity of journalists, their families and their profession,” and that all States where these journalists are residing, such as the United Kingdom, to protect their personal integrity, and that of their families and their profession. “Governments must uphold their responsibility to protect and duty to warn,” they said. “Governments must respect and ensure the right to life and to reasonably foreseeable threats and situations that can result in loss of life.”

The four Special Rapporteurs are the Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, Professor Agnès Callamard, the Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, Professor David Kaye, the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, Mr Michel Forst, and the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Islamic Republic of Iran, Professor Javaid Rehman.

BBC Director General Tony Hall issued an appeal to Mr Ali Bagheri Kani, the recently appointed deputy of International Affairs of the Judicial System of Iran and Secretary of the High Council for Human Rights.   In a video message, he said:  

“We made an urgent appeal to the UN in 2017 about the collective punishment of BBC Persian journalists and their families by the Iranian authorities. Since then, we have gained wide support from the EU, the UN and many countries that defend free expression. We appreciate their backing.  We hope that the appointment of Ali Bagheri Kani as the new head of High Council for Human Rights in Iran can open a new chapter in relations between the Iranian authorities and the BBC. Two years ago we offered to talk directly with the Iranian government in a constructive way to find a new way forward. Mr Bagheri Kani could go some way to address the concerns of the international community if he is willing to accept this offer in a positive spirit, without conditions. I very much hope he does.” 

BBC Persian journalist and NUJ member Rana Rahimpour addressed the UNHRC in Geneva on 9th March.  She told delegates she had received a message threatening that she, her children and her husband would be assassinated within a month. Threats were also addressed to her elderly parents based in the Islamic Republic of Iran, with a warning that they were “within reach”.  The message also said that Ms. Rahimpour will be the first employee of the BBC to be killed, and, after her assassination, it will be the turn of other BBC employees.  The UN Special Rapporteur on Iran responded by condemning the treatment of BBC Persian journalists by Iran and called for an investigation into the threats being made against them.

Ms Gallagher  and Ms Robinson said:  

“Iran’s systematic targeting and harassment of BBC Persian staff and their families has long undermined freedom of expression, attacking journalists for their reporting on Iran and aiming to prevent Iranians receiving independent and impartial news on events in Iran and from around the world. These new threats against BBC Persian are deeply disturbing and must be condemned in the strongest terms. They strike at the most basic rights of the journalists and their families, including their rights to life and security. Too many journalists are killed each year because of their work. For this reason, states must take measures to prevent and protect against threats like those made against BBC Persian to ensure that journalists can do their jobs without fear.”

Ms Gallagher and Ms Robinson have been working together with the BBC and with the National Union of Journalists (NUJ) and the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) on the protection of BBC Persian. Seamus Dooley, NUJ assistant general secretary, said:

“The personal testimony of BBC Persian journalists is shocking to hear. Our members working at the BBC and other Persian media outlets have been facing very serious threats to their personal safety, their colleagues and their families, simply for doing their job. It is particularly shameful for the Iranian authorities to target journalists’ children and elderly relatives. The NUJ continues to build a global coalition in support of those affected and we will keep campaigning until the harassment stops.”

BBC Persian employees and their families in Iran have been harassed and intimidated as a direct result of their association with their work at the BBC since 2009.   In 2017, Iran introduced a legal injunction preventing BBC Persian staff, former staff, and some contributors, from selling or buying property -  in effect freezing all their assets.  In July 2017, the Iranian government started criminal investigations into the activities of journalists and other staff working for BBC Persian, alleging their work constituted a crime against Iran's national security.   The injunction continues to deprive them of their human rights under principles enshrined in the Iranian Constitution and punishes their extended families. 

Caoilfhionn Gallagher QC and Jennifer Robinson represent the BBC World Service in UN engagement in relation to the persecution of BBC Persian staff by Iran