Unions highlight plight of Iranian journalists at UN event

  • 24 Jun 2021

Journalists based in London continue to be harassed because of the BBC work they do

Today the National Union of Journalists (NUJ) in the UK and Ireland and the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) join with the BBC and legal experts from Doughty Street Chambers to highlight the plight of Iranian journalists at an online event to coincide with the United Nations Human Rights Council’s 47th session.

The NUJ continues to campaign on behalf of its members working for the BBC News Persian and Iran International who are being systematically targeted and harassed by the Iranian authorities because of their work as journalists.

Michelle Stanistreet, NUJ general secretary, said:

"We have seen the level of abuse and instances of harassment of NUJ members increase during the global health pandemic. Journalists based here in the UK are being harassed simply because of the work they do. Their families in Iran are being weaponised, causing enormous stress and strain for our members at the BBC News Persian and Iran International. This outrageous and unacceptable abuse has to stop, and we are calling on the new government in Iran to stop these attacks on journalists and journalism."

Anthony Bellanger, IFJ general secretary, said:

"We stand in solidarity with journalists at BBC News Persian, Iran International, Deutsche Welle and Radio Farda who are being persecuted by the Iranian regime in an attempt to silence them and deny citizens the right to a range of voices. The new government must act urgently to stop the threats and attacks"

Today’s event, coordinated by the BBC, was chaired by the IFJ's Jeremy Dear alongside the following speakers:

  • John Simpson: BBC foreign correspondent
  • Kasra Naji: presenter for BBC Persian television
  • Caoilfhionn Gallagher QC: Lead counsel for the BBC World Service from Doughty Street Chambers
  • Ambassador Rita French: UK UN Human Rights Ambassador
  • Ambassador Minna-Liina Lind: Estonian Human Rights Ambassador

At the event today, Jeremy Dear, the IFJ's deputy general secretary said the ongoing targeting and harassment of Iranian journalists is aimed at "silencing journalists" but that it also seeks to target their families and citizens.

Veteran BBC foreign correspondent, John Simpson, said the targeting and harassment of BBC Persian staff is "a matter of huge importance not just to the BBC, not even just to journalism but to the international community as a whole". He also said the regime in Iran has reverted to tactics that were used by the USSR during the cold war, including attempts to intimidate journalists and exerting pressure on their relatives and friends, even though some of the individuals affected have no control over or even links to BBC journalists. John highlighted that many Iranian leaders historically have seen the BBC as an opponent to be treated coldly and this started in the 1970s and has not gone away. He maintained that the BBC Persian Service is balanced and follows all of the BBC's broadcasting standards and traditions, and the service needs to be "protected and guarded".

BBC Persian television presenter, Kasra Naji, said that for most journalists the worst thing is to become the story but now the persecution of BBC journalists has "become a matter of life and death". He added: "those of us in front of the camera occasionally find ourselves looking over our shoulder". Iranian journalists working in London have received death threats, their children, spouses and parents have also been threatened; 69 BBC staff members have had their family called in for questioning in Iran by the authorities and people have been threatened with arrest, rendition and kidnapping.

Caoilfhionn Gallagher QC, from Doughty Street Chambers and lead counsel for the BBC World Service, focused her contribution on further action that can be taken by governments and the UN aimed at stopping the targeting and harassment of BBC journalists and their families. She described the last six months as "grave" and said the abuse had been "systematic", escalating firstly in 2017 when there was a spike in threats to journalists and their families, the launch of criminal investigations by the Iranian authorities against BBC journalists in London and an injunction issued to freeze the assets of current and former BBC staff. She described the actions of the Iranian authorities as a form of "collective punishment" against journalists, weaponising family members against their loved ones and the tactics also involve the Iranian authorities using the "long arm of the state to reach out across borders". Caoilfhionn called on the UN Special rapporteurs on freedom of expression and judicial killings for support, asking them to condemn the ongoing targeting and abuse. She also called on states and other organisations to raise the issue at the UN and in bilateral relations with Iran, asking people to "take what action you can to shine a light on this appalling practice".

Speaking from Geneva where the United Nations human rights council are meeting this week, the UK’s deputy permanent representative to the United Nations in Geneva and international ambassador for human rights,  Rita French, paid tribute to BBC staff, former employees and their families for showing "extraordinary resilience" in response to the harassment and abuse. Rita pledged that the British government will continue to raise the case at the UN and condemn the ongoing judicial persecution of BBC journalists, adding that the "UK is committed to ensuring journalists are able to do their jobs without fear of retribution".

"It remains our desire to see Iran change tack, cease this abhorrent persecution against journalists and their families, and adhere to its international human rights obligations. Until they do, the UK will continue to hold them to account, and seek to ensure media freedom is defended everywhere."

The last speaker on the panel, the Estonian human rights ambassador, Minna-Liina Lind, highlighted that Estonia would be hosting the next global media freedom conference which will take place later this year. She said: "We really want to have some concrete deliverables from the conference hosted in Tallinn in December 2021" and Minna-Liina commended the work of the BBC Persian Service and said the campaign's "images and stories are really heartbreaking".

In the Q+A session at the end of the panel of speakers, Paul Siegert, NUJ national broadcasting organiser, added: "In the UK, we have hundreds of members affected by this appalling harassment and abuse – largely working as staff and freelances for the BBC World Service and also at Iran International. As the NUJ’s broadcasting official I know first-hand the devastating impact it’s having on journalists, on their health and wellbeing, but also that of their wider families, who are being weaponised in a terrible way that is leaving relatives unable to meet and have contact. All because of the work that they do, and clearly motivated by a desire to intimidate them and silence their reporting. This considerable human impact on NUJ members and their families is something that drives the campaigning work we’re doing."

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