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UN Calls Out Iran On Harassment Of BBC Journalists And Their Families

The United Nations Special Rapporteur on the right to freedom of opinion and expression, David Kaye. File photo

UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Opinion and Expression David Kaye slammed Iran for its treatment of journalists in a speech before the UN Third Committee October 23.

Kaye’s speech prompted a dismissive response the following day from Iran’s delegate to the committee, Zahra Ershadi, who accused the BBC and other Western Persian language media of “pumping hatred, fabricating news, provoking, and slandering.”

Ms. Ershadi said Iran is the target of a “media war that is planned, organized and funded by hostile governments.

Following an official complaint to the UN from the BBC, Kaye accused Iranian authorities of suppressing free speech and harassing BBC staff working outside Iran via their relatives still in the country.

In an attempt to intimidate journalists living abroad who publish stories critical of the Islamic Republic, intelligence services regularly detain their relatives and impose arbitrary restrictions on them, according to rights groups.

U.S. State Department Spokesperson Heather Nauert has expressed concern over “the disturbing examples of harassment, arbitrary detention, travel bans, and surveillance by intelligence service operatives of some individuals and their families working for the Persian Service of the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC).”

BBC representatives say authorities have initiated criminal investigations into 150 of their staff, former staff, and contributors for "conspiracy against national security.” One court order froze the assets of the 150 staff, BBC reported, adding, "That means they cannot inherit family assets and prevents them and their families from selling property or cars."

BBC director general Tony Hall said Iran's action was "an unprecedented collective punishment of journalists" and against fundamental human rights.

In a statement issued October 24, the BBC said its Persian staff and people associated with them had been subjected to a "sustained campaign of harassment and persecution" since the disputed 2009 presidential election, when the Iranian government accused foreign powers of interference. Examples it cited included the detention of a journalist’s sister at Evin Prison for seventeen days, during which time she was forced to plead with the journalist via Skype to stop working for the BBC or spy on colleagues. Many elderly parents of BBC staff have been interrogated, including being questioned late into the night. BBC staff have not been allowed to visit their dying parents for fear of imprisonment or being prevented from leaving Iran.

Family members of Radio Farda journalists in Iran are also frequently subjected to interrogation and threats. Iran has set up phony websites to discredit Farda reporting and smear employees online.

Reporters Without Borders (RSF) has called Iran, along with China, Syria, Turkey, and Vietnam one of the the five “largest prisons for journalists in the world.”

Zahra Ershadi, Iranian diplomat at UN
Zahra Ershadi, Iranian diplomat at UN

Speaking to Radio Farda, RSF Iran Desk Head Reza Moeinei said Iran ranked 165 out of 180 countries listed according to how dangerous they are for journalists, with 180 being the most dangerous. Iran has been among the 15 most dangerous countries for journalists since RSF initiated the rankings more than twenty years ago, evaluating countries on the basis of their degree of safety for media staff.

Meanwhile, according to Moeinei and RSF records, the Islamic Republic has recently expanded its censorship regime beyond its borders by threatening and pressuring foreign media outlets.

BBC Persian, Radio Farda, VOA, and other foreign based Persian broadcasters are banned from having a bureau in Iran, and their employees abroad are “always under pressure from the Islamic Republic’s different security entities,” said Moeinei.

“The problem with the Islamic Republic’s authorities is their security approach toward journalism and media,” said Moeinei. “They do not recognize independent journalism and want to eliminate it. They want all reporters at the government’s command.”