The Current

BBC alleges journalists' families harassed, intimidated by Iranian authorities

The BBC is appealing to the United Nations for help after 152 of its BBC Persian staff had their bank accounts frozen and their families threatened by the Iranian government.
BBC Persian service presenter Fardad Farahzad, right, gets ready to present the news at the corporation's London headquarters. The BBC says it has filed a complaint with the United Nations over Iran freezing the assets of over 150 people associated with its Persian service. (The Associated Press)

Story transcript

When Maryam Afshang received word that her father in Iran was seriously ill and in a coma, she wanted nothing more than to be by his side.

But she couldn't — as a journalist for BBC's Persian language station in London, she risked arrest if she entered the country.

Her only window into his room was through a mobile phone her family smuggled into the hospital.

"I watched my dad in a coma through that small mobile phone. I wanted to hug him and say, 'Dad I love you,' and kiss him and say goodbye, but I couldn't — simply because I am a BBC journalist," Afshang told The Current's Anna Maria Tremonti.

Her father died days later. She says she considered taking the risk to enter Iran to see him, but decided against it because in the event she was detained, she wouldn't be able to return to her son in London, who was a toddler at the time.

I watched my dad in a coma through that small mobile phone. I wanted to hug him and say, 'Dad I love you,' and kiss him and say goodbye, but I couldn't.- Maryam Afshang 

Journalists charged, assets frozen

Afshang is one of more than 150 BBC Persian journalists and staff who have been systematically harassed and intimidated by the Iranian government, ever since the station covered anti-government protests there in 2009.

"We are systematically under pressure from Iranian authority. We haven't been able to go to our homeland and simply because we are BBC journalists we cannot mourn for the love we have lost," said Afshang, who also viewed her sister's wedding through her mobile phone since she could not attend it.

BBC's Persian language station extensively covered the 2009 anti-government protests in Iran, shortly after the station was established. (-/AFP/Getty Images)

The situation escalated in July when Iranian authorities filed charges against BBC Persian staff, alleging they were working as spies for the British government.

Iran also went on to freeze the assets of 152 individuals associated with BBC Persian, and their families, preventing journalists from inheriting family assets or selling property they own or partly own in Iran.

Afshang says Iranian authorities interrogated her mother about her work at the BBC multiple times, telling her to force her daughter to quit her job.

The BBC says other journalists' families have faced similar harassment, intimidation and even imprisonment.

In one case, a journalist's sister was held in Tehran's Evin prison for 17 days and forced to plead with the journalist to either quit working for the BBC or spy on co-workers.

'Unprecedented collective punishment of journalists'

In October, the BBC filed an "urgent complaint" to the United Nations on behalf of their Persian staff.

"This is an unprecedented collective punishment of journalists who are simply doing their jobs," wrote BBC Director General Tony Hall.

"We urge the government of Iran to stop harassing the employees and the families of employees of the BBC Persian Service as well as other journalists," said David Kaye, the UN's special rapporteur on freedom of opinion and expression.

"It's creating direct harm against individuals who are only trying to do their job which is protected by international human rights law."

A worshipper holds a placard reading 'Damn upon BBC' during a rally against opposition supporters who insulted the founder of the Islamic Republic Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in Tehran in December 2009. (Raheb Homavandi/Reuters)

Jamie Angus, deputy director of the BBC World Service Group, calls Iran's investigation into the BBC Persian journalists an "entirely bogus" operation.

"It's our mission as it is around the world to provide accurate and impartial news to audiences who want to consume them. And there was no reason for them to be to be suspicious or upset about BBC setting up the Persian TV service," he said.

"And obviously we're doing everything we can publicly, and behind the scenes, to support them," he added. "Our biggest concern actually is the safety and well-being of our staff, of course. There's no reason why they should have to put up with this."

This is an unprecedented collective punishment of journalists who are simply doing their jobs.- BBC Director General Tony Hall

Angus also said female journalists in particular have been subject to "highly offensive and denigrating" allegations from fake news reports. Some of these have accused staff members of "sexual impropriety or sexual acts which are illegal in Iran, including those which attract the death penalty."

'Impossible' to visit family in Iran

Iranian-Canadian journalist Maziar Bahari is all too familiar with Iran's history of cracking down on journalists. In 2009 he spent 118 days in prison after being accused of being a foreign agent. He now runs an organization dedicated to promoting press freedom in Iran, called Journalism Is Not A Crime.

"The Iranian government has learned that intimidating people and putting psychological pressure financial pressure on people is much more effective than physical violence," he told Tremonti.

'The space for critical voices, academics, journalists, lawyers and others in civil society has been under threat,' United Nations special rapporteur David Kaye said while talking about the right to freedom of opinion and expression in Turkey in November 2016. (Burhan Ozbilici/AP)

Intimidating journalists' families and freezing assets can be just as effective without attracting as much international rebuke.

"Many of these journalists who work for BBC Persia are recent immigrants to the U.K. So they have a lot of roots back home in Iran and they have family relations. They never knew that they were going to be refugees in the U.K. ... it is almost impossible for them to go home."

Listen to the full conversation above.

The Current tried to get a response from the Iranian government through three offices: Iran's embassy in London, the office representing Iran in Washington and Iran's permanent mission at the United Nations. None returned our request for comment.

This segment was produced by The Current's Julian Uzielli, Amra Pasic and Ines Colabrese.