People walk near a burnt bank, after protests against increased fuel prices, in Tehran, Iran November 20, 2019. Picture taken…
People walk near a burnt bank, after protests against increased fuel prices, in Tehran, Iran November 20, 2019. Picture taken November 20, 2019.

WASHINGTON - Western news agencies producing content in Persian have rebuked Iran for harassing their journalists based in Europe and the United States and for intimidating the Iran-based relatives of those journalists.

In a statement emailed to VOA Persian on Tuesday, a BBC spokesman said the London-based network has seen an increase in Iranian harassment of its Persian service staff and their families since the network began covering anti-government protests that erupted in Iran on November 15 and spread to dozens of cities.

Within several days, the Iranian government violently suppressed the protests, which were sparked by the sudden increase in gas prices amid a weakening economy. The London-based rights group Amnesty International said Iranian security forces killed at least 143 protesters in the unrest, in which some people set fire to buildings and looted stores. Iranian authorities have not released a death toll.

“It is deeply disappointing that Iran’s targeting of journalists and foreign-based Persian language media has been stepped up [during coverage of the protests],” the BBC spokesman said. “We have for many years sought to bring the world’s attention to this completely unacceptable breach of human rights, through our advocacy at the U.N., EU and other international bodies. We call on the Iranian authorities to bring this harassment to an end immediately.”

In a report published earlier Tuesday, the Paris-based media rights group Reporters Without Borders, also known as RSF, said it has documented recent threats by Iran toward journalists of Iranian origin working for BBC, Washington-based Voice of America, Prague-based VOA sister network Radio Farda and London-based media companies Iran International, Kayhan Life and Manoto TV.

RSF said Tehran’s harassment of the overseas-based Iranian journalists often has taken the form of “online attacks, insults and intimidation, mainly on social networks.”

The media rights group said a key perpetrator of the online intimidation has been Hamid Baeidinejad, Iran’s ambassador to Britain.

In a series of Farsi tweets since the start of Iran’s latest unrest, Baeidinejad alleged Radio Farda was acting to "topple" the Iranian government and accused a BBC journalist covering a rally of Iranian dissidents outside Iran's London embassy of speaking to "terrorists."

On November 19, Baeidinejad also tweeted: “The Iranian people will never forget these days in which enemy TV channels such as BBC, VOA, Manoto and Iran International – subsidized by the money of foreign governments and the Pahlavi group – have put Iran in danger by trying to portray the rioters, who are murderers and arsonists, as political dissidents.”

Pahlavi is the family name of Iran's exiled crown prince, whose father led the nation until being  deposed in a 1979 Islamic Revolution by clerics who have been in power ever since.

RSF said another aspect of Iran's harassment campaign has involved its intelligence agents “summoning and threatening” the parents of several of overseas-based journalists in recent days, telling the parents to tell their children to stop working for “enemy” news outlets. It said those agents conveyed a message to the parents that stopping such work would be “better for them and for you.”

In a November 23 tweet, BBC Persian broadcaster Farnaz Ghazizadeh said her 73-year-old father in Iran had been warned about the work that she and her sister Sanaz, also a BBC journalist, have been doing. “Our family members are hostages,” she wrote, adding the hashtag #journalismisnotacrime.

“I strongly condemn the harassment of journalists’ families inside Iran by Iranian authorities,” said VOA director Amanda Bennet in a video message recorded on Tuesday. It was a more strongly-worded response than that of BBC, which has sent several of its English service reporters to Iran in recent years on condition that their movements are restricted by Iranian authorities and their content is not shared with the BBC Persian service.

Amanda Bennett Statement video player.
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Amanda Bennett Statement

“We stand with (RSF) in condemning this harassment and asking that it immediately stop to ensure the safety of the families of our journalists who are working hard to bring objective, truthful news and information around the world,” Bennett added.

Iran tries to block its people from seeing VOA Persian TV programs and digital content and has not allowed a VOA correspondent to report from inside the country in 13 years.

Responding to a VOA Persian question about the reports of Iranian harassment at a Tuesday press briefing at the State Department, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said he has seen Iran “engage in activity that is fundamentally at odds with central understandings we have here in America about how the press ought to be treated.”

Pompeo said the Trump administration has been advocating for Iran to behave like a normal nation that respects press freedom. “When I see those reports [of harassment], it reminds me that our work is certainly not yet complete,” he added.  

In a VOA Persian interview after Pompeo’s remarks, the U.S. special representative for Iran, Brian Hook, said the harassment campaign is a part of a long-running policy of Iran’s Islamist rulers. “It's no surprise that they are resorting to tactics of defaming journalists and threatening the families of reporters,” Hook said. “Countries need to stand up to this and say it’s unacceptable.”

Iran International also issued a statement strongly criticizing the Iranian government's harassment campaign.

The TV network said Iranian intelligence agents had harassed the families of some of its employees in recent days. In a further punitive action announced Tuesday, the Iranian judiciary’s Mizan news site said “key elements” of the network will face “judicial and legal limitations regarding their assets” in retaliation for news coverage deemed to have incited "subversive and disruptive acts" inside Iran.

“Iran International condemns these immoral, inhumane and illegal actions,” the network said. “The family members of the employees of Iran International are innocent. They have no control over their relatives working for media outlets outside the country and they shouldn’t be taken hostage."

In an article published Tuesday, Kayhan Life’s Persian news site Kayhan London said its journalists had been targeted in recent months by Iranian government cyberattacks and other threats. It criticized what it called a “system of Iranian repression that violates the right to freedom of expression and media independence.”

Radio Farda and Manoto TV’s parent Marjan Television Network did not immediately respond to VOA Persian requests for comment about the reports of Iranian harassment of their journalists.

This article originated in VOA’s Persian Service.