Stanford University in the United States is going to screen my film on the Supreme Leader of Iran, Ayatollah’s Seal, followed by a discussion on the safety of journalists (more details.) But why now and how are these two issues related?
A new wave of harassment against the families of BBC Persian staff living in Iran has raised concerns over the safety of journalists and their relatives. The Families of half a dozen BBC employees in several cities throughout Iran were summoned to Ministry of Intelligence offices in each city in last month and were interrogated for hours.
This pattern of arrests and official intimidation is not something new especially against my colleagues in BBC Persian. We faced almost the same pressure after covering the post-election uprising in 2009 and again after the release of my film.
However this time the Intelligence Ministry has chosen a more threatening tone. Some families inside Iran were contacted by security officials and threatened that their family members should stop working for BBC Persian or they will face consequences. Security officials have even attempted to arrange meetings with journalists via family members.
Since 2009, BBC Persian TV, an important news source for millions of Iranians, has emerged as an alternative source of information and analysis besides the state-run Iranian media. Iranian officials repeatedly cite BBC Persian’s reporting as evidence of a foreign plot to undermine the regime.
‘Half a dozen of the families of our staff in London have been intimidated by security officials in Iran and threatened that their family members should stop working for BBC Persian,’ Peter Horrocks, Director of the BBC World Service, reported last week to the Parliament. ‘That’s been a problem in the past and it has recently come back.’
Sadeq Saba, the head of BBC Persian, said the new wave of harassment stepped up following a screening of documentary filmmaker Maziar Bahari’s Forced Confessions, which aired on BBC in early December 2012.
In another reaction to the harassment of families, the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran asked Iran to put an end to ‘extrajudicial mistreatment, intimidation, and official misconduct.’
The National Union of Journalists has also expressed concern about the new wave of harassment and intimidation.
‘No one should face intimidation because of the work they do as journalists providing vital reportage in the public interest,’ Michelle Stanistreet, NUJ general secretary said. ‘These are distressing threats and it is very sinister to harass journalists via their relatives and family members.’
BBC Persian staff are not the only Iranians who suffer this sinister form of official intimidation. Iranian authorities see the harassment of dissidents’ families as a successful technique aimed at breaking them down. There are many examples of pressure put on the spouses and children of prisoners of conscience.
Political prisoner Abolfazl Ghadyani wrote a letter published December 11, 2012 describing an interrogator’s harassment of another prisoner’s family, Alireza Rajaee.”Recently the interrogator has taken brazenness and meanness to a new level by telling Rajaee’s wife, ‘I will exile him to Borazjan or Rajaee Shahr Prison,’ and has outrageously asked her to divorce her husband. The interrogator reportedly calls Rajaee’s wife several times per day.”
Nasrin Sotoudeh, the imprisoned Iranian human rights lawyer who just ended her 49-day hunger strike to protest the travel ban on her 12-year-old daughter, has also raised this issue 10 days ago in an open letter, titled ‘Are Family Punishments a Coincidence?’
‘Of the 36 women who are serving sentences in the political prisoners’ ward, the first-degree relatives of 13 of them are either in prison or are being prosecuted,’ Sotudeh says. ‘This number comprises more than one third of female political prisoners.’