At the Labour Party Conference last week I attended, on behalf of LCHR, a private briefing hosted by the BBC World Service.
From within the UK, it is easy to forget what an enormous organisation the BBC World Service is. It has a weekly global audience of over 347 million people, and provides independent and impartial news, information and analysis in over 43 languages.
The topic of the briefing was the steps that the BBC World Service is taking to try to combat ‘fake news’ around the world, particularly in countries that have important elections next year such as India and Nigeria. We should all be proud of the efforts that the BBC is making on this front – proving once again that the BBC is a national treasure, and a great projection of positive British values around the world.
During the course of the briefing the discussion turned to BBC Persian, which is the Persian language news channel broadcasting to the Persian-speaking population in Iran, Afghanistan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. The Iranian government has long disliked foreign news channels, and has a history of hacking, censoring and satellite jamming. Despite these efforts, BBC Persian audience figures have grown rapidly from 3.1 million in 2012 to 13 million today (over a fifth of the Iranian population).
BBC Persian has 152 Iranian staff, all of whom are based in London. Since the BBC started broadcasting into Iran in 2009, these brave journalists and their families have been subjected to a campaign of harassment and intimidation – from death threats to travel bans. They are all unable to return home for fear of arrest (or worse), and over 30 of them have lost parents in Iran and been unable to attend their funerals.
However, last year the Iranian authorities ramped up the pressure and initiated a mass criminal investigation against all BBC Persian staff in London, accusing them of “conspiracy against national security“. They have also been subject to an asset-freezing injunction, preventing them from selling or buying property, cars and other goods.
The BBC has called on the UK government to help, and filed an urgent appeal to the United Nations. The former Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, said that he would make representations to his Iranian counterpart, and the UN Secretary General called on Iran to cease its legal action. Yet these calls appear to have fallen on deaf ears.
Just last month, Iran’s news agency issued a terrifying statement about the journalists, describing them as a “mafia gang associated with the joint psychological operations HQ of overthrowing the system of the Islamic Republic” and claiming that they “will surely be exposed one day before the Iranian nation, and God’s hand of justice will manifest itself through the arms of the Iranian people, and they will be punished for their actions“.
This is a dramatic escalation in the sort of language used against the BBC Persian staff, and suggests the Iranian authorities will not be easing the pressure any time soon. Indeed, the recent attack on a military parade in the south of the country has further exacerbated Tehran’s suspicions of the West, and the UK was explicitly named by the government as having hosted the terrorist group which carried out the attack.
LCHR will continue to raise awareness of the treatment of BBC Persian staff and their families, and will work with Labour MPs to try to make this a priority human rights and foreign policy issue. The BBC World Service is something we should all be proud of, and we will stand alongside their staff in the face of persecution and abuse.