A thwarted Iranian plot to assassinate two journalists working for a Persian TV network in London has renewed focus on the ways hostile governments try to target critics outside their jurisdiction.
Details of the plot, uncovered by the British news outlet ITV News late last year, included a plan to kill the journalists Sima Sabet and Fardad Farahzad.
The details “are a shocking reminder of the sinister lengths that the Iranian regime is willing to go to silence critical reporting from abroad,” said Jessica White, who researches transnational repression at Freedom House.
“Reporters covering human rights violations by the Iranian authorities should not have to live and work in fear for themselves and their family members,” White told VOA from London. “Nor should the Iranian regime evade accountability for its actions.”
White is the author of a December report that found at least 26 governments had targeted reporters abroad in the past decade in a process known as transnational repression.
The Iranian government is among the worst perpetrators of transnational repression, the report found.
Among the cases Freedom House featured is that of Behrang Tajdin, a BBC Persian journalist who for years dealt with threats and harassment. Tajdin told the research group that the attacks “have become so unbearable in the past few years and especially in the past year that we have no choice but to talk about it, to call it out.”
He added that he worries for relatives still in Iran, who can come under pressure over his reporting.
In the more recent London case, Sabet, a former presenter at the Persian language news channel Iran International, and her colleague Farahzad, were first made aware of the plot against them by ITV News.
The British broadcaster determined that Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps, which is the main branch of the Iranian Armed Forces, was behind the plot.
During the fall of 2022, Iranian spies planned to strike Iran International’s London studio with a car bomb. They initially wanted to kill five or six employees but later decided to target only Sabet and Farahzad in a knife attack.
The spies codenamed Sabet “the bride,” and Farahzad was referred to as “the groom.” The assassination was codenamed “the wedding.”
Iran’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs did not immediately reply to VOA’s email requesting comment. But a spokesperson for the Iranian Embassy in London, Seyed Mehdi Hosseini Matin, rejected the report as "unfounded" in a post on the X platform, formerly Twitter.
“If I hadn’t been influential, I wouldn’t have been targeted. I already knew that we are standing against a regime that does not recognize neutrality,” Sabet told VOA Persian.
The plan was ultimately thwarted by the people-smuggler-turned-double-agent whom the spies offered $200,000 to carry out the killings.
When British intelligence learned about the plot, they alerted Iran International, which prompted the outlet to begin broadcasting from the United States.
Sabet said she’s concerned that Iranian operatives were able to work on British soil in the first place.
“As a tax-paying British citizen who lives and works here, I am surprised that an outfit like the IRGC can operate freely and threaten the life of a British citizen for committing what seems to be the sin of journalism,” she said.
Freedom House has recommended that governments better support at-risk journalists and media outlets operating in exile by imposing coordinated sanctions on countries that use transnational repression, and to adopt safeguards against invasive surveillance technologies.
The research group says making it easier for exiled journalists to have permanent legal status in host countries could also improve safety.
This isn’t the first time Tehran has been accused of trying to kill its critics abroad.
VOA Persian host Masih Alinejad was the target of a 2021 kidnapping attempt in New York, which the FBI says was part of a Tehran plot to bring her to Iran. The Justice Department last year indicted three people in a separate case who allegedly plotted to kill Alinejad.
“Transnational repression is not just a threat for us, for dissidents. It's a threat to democracy,” Alinejad told VOA in December.
The threat facing Iranian critics around the world underscores the ever-present crackdown on independent media inside Iran.
This month, the Committee to Protect Journalists ranked Iran as the sixth-worst jailer of reporters in the world, with 17 journalists behind bars.
But for Sabet, the threat has not dampened her resolve.
“We have to stand against them [Tehran] and talk about what is happening,” she said.
“I am a professional journalist, and my duty is to spread information,” Sabet said. “I am committed to my people, committed to the truth — even at the cost of my life. This is what I want to do, and I stand by my commitment.”
VOA's Persian Service contributed to this report.