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Source: The Guardian

Oct 16, 2023

Iran accused of threatening ‘terrified’ BBC staff in London

Journalists at BBC Persian says they are scared to go out alone as UK counter-terrorism police raise security levels and staff warned: ‘we can do whatever we want in London’

By Maryam Foumani

BBC staff in London say they fear walking outside alone after being harassed by the Iranian authorities, with British counter-terrorism police warning of an increased security threat.The Guardian has been told that journalists at the BBC’s Persian language news outlet are being targeted with offensive messages and threats of sexual assault, with reports of family members based in Iran being arbitrarily detained.

In one message, an Iranian-British journalist working for the BBC says she was told: “On Westminster Bridge is a very deep river. It doesn’t matter that you don’t live in Iran – we can also do whatever we want in London.”

She says: “I left my country to seek freedom but now I’m afraid even to jog in London’s woods alone. I’m afraid for my little one’s safety because I have gotten numerous threats regarding them, warning me that they can find our home address and [my child’s] school.”

In October 2022, the Iranian foreign affairs ministry named BBC Persian in a list of organisations and people sanctioned for “deliberate actions in support of terrorism, incitement of violence, and human rights abuses”.

BBC staff have told the Guardian of living in “constant fear” similar to being in a war zone, and needing support from therapists and specialists in PTSD.

The scale of intimidation faced by BBC staff has given an insight into how the Iranian regime’s use of violence and blackmail extends to the UK.

Iran is increasingly targeting people outside its borders in a tactic known as transnational repression that aims to stifle debate or criticism.

BBC Persian journalists have faced harassment and threats from the Iranian regime for more than a decade, but there has been “a marked spike in harassment during and since the BBC News Persian coverage of protests at the death in custody of Mahsa Amini in 2022,” says Caoilfhionn Gallagher KC, the lead counsel for BBC News Persian.

“We are not in a war zone but the war is ongoing, and in our houses now,” says Rana Rahimpour, an Iranian-British journalist who worked as the BBC Persian’s lead presenter from 2008 to this year. “As a war correspondent, you go to the war zone for a couple of weeks or months and then you can return home, but many Iranian journalists are constantly living in that war zone.”

Some journalists no longer appear on camera, and others work under a pseudonym. They don’t want to put themselves or family members in more danger. Some have left the BBC, but many refuse to back down.

“We have been going to work every morning, trying to forget that we have family members,” says Behrang Tajdin, a BBC Persian journalist. “When we do our job well, as journalists working within BBC editorial guidelines – trying to be accurate, fair and balanced storytellers – then our family members in Iran may pay the price for that.”

The BBC Persian journalist Soran Qurbani says: “I’ve never censored myself or done something in the Iranian government’s favour, but when they beat my brother in jail just because of my work, I feel responsible somehow. My family didn’t do anything wrong. Journalism is not a crime. But you sometimes think: is it worth it to keep doing this? It’s not easy to deal with.”

The Iranian authorities have been subjecting parents and siblings in Iran to arbitrary arrests and intrusive searches of their homes and workplaces. Online attacks, including death and rape threats, have surged, prompting British counter-terrorism police to raise the security threat level for journalists based in London.

One journalist’s conversations with her parents in Iran were wiretapped and disseminated on websites affiliated with Iran’s Revolutionary Guards. The brother of another journalist was pressed to testify against him on national television; his refusal led to passport confiscation.

A BBC Persian journalist, unnamed to shield her family from further pressure, discloses: “My elderly mum was interrogated five times. The last time was a day before New Year. Three men with black masks forced her to sit facing the wall for more than five hours and interrogated her because of her daughter’s job in another country.”

Iran started criminal investigations into BBC Persian’s staff in 2017, alleging their work constituted a crime against Iran’s national security. Financial restrictions were also placed on 152 current and former BBC Persian employees in 2017, freezing their assets in Iran and banning them and their families from selling or renting property.

Families in Iran were ordered to tell their relatives to stop working for BBC Persian or ask them to return to Iran or neighbouring countries and meet intelligence service forces. Iranian security forces have warned some families: “We will catch them and flay them alive.”

The death of Mahsa Amini, 22, while in police custody led to mass protests in Iran and around the world. Photograph: Velar Grant/ZUMA Press Wire/Shutterstock

Last year, the BBC submitted a complaint to the United Nations focusing on online abuse and threats made against female journalists working for BBC News Persian. Last week, the UN’s first report on the targeting and silencing of women in public life highlighted the attacks by Iran on BBC staff.

A total of 79 journalists have been arrested in Iran itself since the national protests after the death in police custody of Mahsa Amini detained for allegedly wearing the Islamic headscarf incorrectly in September 2023.

Jiyar Gol, a war correspondent who reports regularly from Iraq and Syria, says the danger they face is constant. “When you are in a war zone, you know where the armed forces are, but when dealing with a state apparatus and the state agent, you never know who the state agent is.”

Some online threats and harassment have also come from Iranian opposition members, who have accused the BBC of supporting the Iranian regime and giving a platform to pro-government politicians. One journalist reported receiving many messages from opposition members saying: “You will be executed the day after the liberation of Iran.”

Rozita Lotfi, the head of BBC Persian, told the Guardian: “Iran is a very restricted country regarding access for journalists, and we rely quite a lot on social media for newsgathering. So, in a way, it limits their ability to do their journalistic work.”

Negin Shiraghaei, who left the BBC a few years ago, believes that no one, even inside the BBC, paid enough attention to the danger at the beginning. “Everyone thought, ‘If we make a big deal out of this, it will worsen.’ If the British government’s response had been much firmer at the beginning, they wouldn’t have seen what we see today.”

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