In a tweet on Thursday Hesameddin Ashena who is President Hassan Rouhani's media advisor warned "the Iranian agents of Persian-language media [abroad] not to participate in the psychological warfare regarding the Ukrainian airliner [crash] and stop cooperating with those who are at war with Iran".
The threat came after years of harassment and intimidation of Iranian journalists working abroad for the BBC, Radio Farda and others, but nevertheless has shocked those impacted, as well some rights groups.
The global press freedom watchdog, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) has condemned the Iranian Presidential advisor Hesameddin Ashena's threat against Persian language journalists for reporting on the Ukrainian airliner crash in Tehran on Wednesday.
The Persian language Twitter account of the Paris-based Reporters without Borders in a tweet on Thursday said it condemns Ashena's threat and referred to him as the "intelligence ministry's special deputy" during the serial murders of dissidents including journalists in the 1990s. In November 2019 the global press freedom watchdog said Iran ranked 170th out of 180 countries in RSF's World Press Freedom Index.
The news of the plane crash in Tehran which killed all 176 passengers and crew including many Canadian nationals allegedly caused by an Iranian surface-to-air missile are highly censored in Iranian media in the country. The crash occurred hours after Iran launched 15 missiles at two bases in Iraq that host American troops. Iranian officials insist the plane crashed due to an engine malfunction.
Iranian intelligence has long been on an intimidation campaign against Iranian journalists working for Persian-language media outside the country to stop them from reporting on news that are highly censored inside the country.
Last week it was revealed that Iranian intelligence had threatened to kidnap journalists working for the London-based Iran International TV and take them back to Iran and pressured their families back in Iran to persuade their relatives to leave the channel.
In a statement released on November 29, Iran's Intelligence Ministry said working for the London-based Iran International Television is "proof of collaboration in terrorist actions with the enemies of Iran".
Journalists working for BBC Persian, Radio Farda, Voice of America, as well as London-based Manoto TV and Kayhan Newspaper have also repeatedly been threatened by Iranian security forces.
Reporters without Borders in a statement on November 26 condemned the Iranian ambassador in London, Hamid Baeidinejad, for his role in relaying the threats Iranian intelligence organs against Iranian journalists based abroad, especially in Britain, and against their families in Iran.
In several tweets in Persian in November, the Iranian ambassador in London, made controversial remakes about Iranian journalists working for London-based Persian-language television channels such as BBC Persian and Iran International, alleging they were "mercenaries of foreign intelligence services".
After many angry comments were posted against him, Hesameddin Ashena tweeted again and said the word he used in Persian meant "caution" rather than "threat". "It's caution to wake your conscience to always stay Iranian and to defend your countrymen and the truth in this media war" but his explanation did very little to calm the anxiety and anger of journalists and others. Few were convinced by his apologetic tweet.
Referring to the Persian-language media in his tweet @majidnash replied to Ashena: "You wouldn't have to issue threats if you didn't take such a rigid approach to everything and news of this kind and informed people, and specially the mourning families, before the international media do" while @acc7d told him to investigate the reasons for "lack of trust in the Iranian media and official accounts of news" instead of threats.