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BBC Calls Out Iran for Escalation in Threats to Staff 

Ruhollah Zam, a dissident journalist who was captured in what Tehran calls an intelligence operation, speaks during his trial in Tehran, Iran, June 2, 2020.
Ruhollah Zam, a dissident journalist who was captured in what Tehran calls an intelligence operation, speaks during his trial in Tehran, Iran, June 2, 2020.

Iran has ramped up its threats and harassment of journalists working for the BBC’s Persian language service and their families, the British broadcaster says.

In a complaint filed with the United Nations this month, the BBC called on the U.N. and the international community to “condemn Iran for their unacceptable treatment” of its staff.

The complaint cited “extra-territorial threats” against the journalists in Britain and third countries; harassment of family members in Iran; financial pressures on the journalists and their families; and “increased intelligence and counter-intelligence activity aimed at undermining the professional reputation of BBC News Persian and its journalists.”

The problem has been going on for years, said Kasra Naji, BBC Persian special correspondent in London. But he said the threats have recently gotten worse.

“There has been an escalation,” Naji told VOA News. Over the span of six weeks, Iran’s intelligence agency called in several family members of BBC Persian personnel for questioning.

“They told our parents and brothers and sisters that we in London could be the target of kidnapping, or even killing, if we didn’t stop working for the BBC,” Naji said. “They also suggested that we could be kidnapped and renditioned to Iran.”

The agents cited the case of Ruhollah Zam as an example of what would happen if they didn’t comply, Naji said.

Zam, who founded an anti-government news website and Telegram channel while in exile in Paris, was lured to Iraq in 2019, where he had been promised an exclusive interview with a prominent cleric.

Instead, he was forcibly returned to Iran where the Revolutionary Court convicted him of “corruption on Earth” and executed him in December 2020.

In a joint statement, human rights lawyer Caoilfhionn Gallagher and Jennifer Robinson, counsel for the BBC World Service, said, “We know from Iran’s past actions that it is willing to take cross-border and deadly action to silence its critics, and that it perceives independent journalism about Iran as a risk to their power.”

Naji says the threats don’t appear to be linked to any particular story and haven’t impacted BBC Persian reporting.

Special Correspondent for BBC Persian TV, Kasra Naji attends a press conference on March 12, 2018 in Geneva.
Special Correspondent for BBC Persian TV, Kasra Naji attends a press conference on March 12, 2018 in Geneva.

“We have to report the stories. We have to report the news. We have to say what is happening,” Naji said. “And perhaps that’s the reason why the Iranian government keeps attacking us, because obviously they feel they haven’t managed to have an impact.”

Iran’s mission to the United Nations did not respond to VOA’s request for comment.

February’s complaint is the third filed against Iran by the BBC in the past five years, Naji said.

The U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights did not return VOA’s requests for comment.

In response to an earlier complaint, U.N. experts in 2020 demanded that Iran end the harassment and called on member states to ensure the safety of journalists.

Legacy of threats

Amir Soltani, activist and author of Zahra’s Paradise, a graphic novel about protests over the 2009 contested elections in Iran, says the Iranian intelligence agency has been targeting individuals since the 1979 revolution.

“From the beginning, many Iranian writers and dissidents were abducted by the Intelligence Ministry and killed,” Soltani told VOA. “Many people disappeared and then their bodies were found in various states of mutilation. This was a campaign of fear and terror against intellectuals, against writers, against dissidents, and quite naturally against journalists.”

The tactics have continued over the past 40 years and are aimed at silencing anyone who speaks critically of the Iranian regime, he said. But while previous attacks were conducted secretly, they have become much more brazen, Soltani said.

Tehran’s repressive media environment means that many journalists work in exile. But living outside of Iran is no guarantee of security.

Transnational repression, in which governments reach across borders to coerce, intimidate, and sometimes harm or even kill citizens, is becoming a widely used tactic by authoritarian regimes, groups including Freedom House have said.

Last year, VOA Persian host and outspoken government critic Masih Alinejad was the target of a kidnapping attempt from her home in New York.

Four Iranians, believed to be intelligence operatives, were charged with conspiracy to abduct Alinejad with the intent of forcibly bringing her to Iran, ostensibly for speaking out about human rights violations.

In 2020, media watchdog Reporters Without Borders said at least 200 Iranian journalists living outside of the country had been harassed, including 50 who had received death threats.

BBC Persian staff and their families have endured years of harassment.

In 2012, agents detained several relatives and tried to coerce them into persuading the journalists to either stop working for the BBC or to act as intelligence agents, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. Other family members had their passports revoked, preventing them from leaving the country.

And in 2017, Iran charged 152 BBC Persian staff members, including Naji, with “conspiracy against national security.”

The court order, which is still in effect, froze all of their assets and has affected an estimated 600-700 family members, Naji said. The freeze prevents them from selling or dividing properties.

“Some of us think that our parents and our brothers and sisters are effectively hostages in Iran,” Naji told VOA.

Travel bans and sanctions on bank accounts are all too familiar, said Soltani, a U.S.-based human rights activist who left Iran in 1980. These issues have affected many members of society, not just journalists and their family members, he said.

“If you can attack an institution like the BBC, at that level, with impunity and not give a damn about what the repercussions can be, can you imagine what lone journalists and dissidents in Iran are facing?” Soltani asked.

As the BBC calls on the U.N. to condemn Iran for the latest threats, its journalists say they will not be silenced.

“We have all agreed, all of us here at the BBC,” Naji said, “that we have to shout from the rooftops so that everyone knows about this, particularly the Iranian government, that if they touch us, if they take action against us, there will be a cost attached.”

Reporter bio: Carmela Caruso is a freelance reporter based in Asheville, North Carolina, who specializes in press freedom and human rights. She is a student at Savannah College of Art and Design. Her work has appeared in VOA and The Mountain Xpress. Follow @CarmelaMCaruso