UN raises ‘grave concern’ with Iran over harassment of BBC News Persian staff

  • 09 Aug 2022

The United Nations raised the concerns in a formal communication requesting Iran’s response and explanation.

The UN communication comes after the BBC filed an urgent appeal to the UN in February 2022 against Iran’s ongoing harassment of BBC News Persian journalists. This includes online violence and gendered attacks faced by women journalists as well as increased financial pressure from an ongoing asset freeze, which operates as a blunt financial sanction against BBC News Persian journalists and their extended families.

The UN communication was sent to Iran on 28 May 2022 and has now been published along with Iran’s response.

The UN experts expressed their “grave concern over the continuation of reported harassment and intimidation of the BBC News Persian staff and their family members, which appears to be aimed at preventing them from continuing their journalistic activities with BBC News Persian”.

The communication was sent by four UN specialist experts, who work on arbitrary detention, freedom of speech, violence against women and Iran. It set out the pattern of harassment that BBC journalists have suffered over the past decade, including “the systematic attacks, including harassment, asset freezing, serious threats, and defamation campaigns implemented by the authorities against BBC News Persian journalists”.

The UN experts also raised concern with the surveillance of journalists and the harassment of their journalistic sources in Iran, the interrogation of family members of BBC journalists, and the pressure placed on BBC journalists ‘to leave their jobs’ - all of which may have a ‘chilling effect’ on journalism.

According to the UN experts, these measures “show a pattern and practice of employing these measures by the authorities of the Islamic Republic of Iran to hinder journalists from carrying out their work”.

The BBC filed a new UN complaint earlier this year which focused on online harms and threats directed at women journalists working at BBC News Persian. The UN experts said they were “particularly concerned at the gendered physical and psychological threats and attacks against women journalists of BBC News Persian including death and rape threats online”.

They further stated: “Given the importance of an online presence for the exercise of contemporary journalism, online violence undermines women journalists’ ability to fully participate in the profession.”

In Iran’s response to the UN experts, it seeks to justify its treatment of BBC journalists by falsely claiming their journalism is aimed at ‘the overthrow of the Islamic Republic’, complains of ‘hostile’ coverage which ‘tarnishes’ the regime, and falsely asserts that BBC reporting has ‘incited riots’.

The UN experts made a number of specific requests requested information about the status of the asset freeze and an explanation of the justification and legal basis for it, as well as a request that Iran provide “information about the legal and factual basis for interrogating the families of journalists working abroad” and how it is compatible with Iran’s international human rights obligations. They also requested for specific measures that Iran is taking ‘to protect women journalists, including in the digital space and against online threats.” Iran’s response failed to answer these requests.

Liliane Landor, director of BBC World Service said:

“We are grateful to the United Nations for raising our grave concerns about the treatment of our BBC News Persian journalists. We reject Iran’s attempt to justify its behaviour - the sanctions and harassment against our colleagues and their families must stop.”

Michelle Stanistreet, National Union of Journalists general secretary, said:

“The NUJ thanks the UN for taking up the cases of our journalists and their families at BBC News Persian who have been subjected to a horrific policy of abuse from the Iranian authorities, with women being made the target of dirty tricks and false stories often of a sexual nature. Iran’s response has been deeply shocking. BBC News Persian journalists uphold the best of journalistic standards in their reporting of the situation in Iran. The UN must follow up on the refusal of the Iranian government to drop its freezing of assets and again seek assurances to guarantee it will stop the targeted attacks on journalists and their families.” 

Caoilfhionn Gallagher QC and Jennifer Robinson of Doughty Street Chambers, counsel for the BBC World Service, said:

“Iran’s aggressive, defensive response to the UN experts provides a revealing insight into how it considers independent journalism: a threat to its power, which must be silenced. Iran’s words confirm the accuracy and urgency of the grave concerns raised by the UN. The international community must now hold Iran to account and take steps to ensure that our brave clients from BBC News Persian are no longer targeted and harassed simply for doing their jobs – simply for being journalists.”

The UN experts also warned Iran that they intend to raise public concern about the treatment of BBC News Persian staff, stating “the wider public should be alerted” to Iran’s conduct towards journalists.

Since 2017, the BBC World Service has filed a number of UN complaints over the treatment of BBC News Persian staff and their families, represented by Caoilfhionn Gallagher QC and Jennifer Robinson at Doughty Street Chambers and supported by the National Union of Journalists (NUJ) and the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ).

Notes for Editors:

  1. The UN communication was sent by four experts:
  • Mumba Malila, Vice-Chair of the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention; 
  • Irene Khan, Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression; 
  • Javaid Rehman, Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Islamic Republic of Iran; and
  • Reem Alsalem, Special Rapporteur on violence against women, its causes and consequences
  1. The UN communication to Iran
  2. The Islamic Republic of Iran government response.
  3. UN procedures on communications to governments. After UN communications are made, the relevant government has 60 days to respond and only after this is the complaint made public.

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