The Persian-language BBC service, beamed into Iran by satellite, has been a thorn in the side of the regime there since its launch in January 2009. During the crisis following the election that June, widely thought to be a fraudulent poll that reinstalled president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the channel garnered attention from viewers inside Iran, according to its annual report. From the start, the Iranian government accused the channel of working on behalf of British intelligence.
This week, Iran escalated the war of words into action, with authorities allegedly harassing BBC Persian employees’ family members in Iran and arresting Iranians it accuses of working directly for the channel. A BBC spokesman released a statement last week accusing Iran of arresting the sister of a BBC Persian employee, amid other intimidation. Then news broke from a state-run agency that Iran detained alleged employees of the network inside Iran. The BBC said in a statement that this couldn’t be true because the “Persian language service does not have a presence in Iran. There are no BBC Persian staff members or stringers working inside Iran.” (In its 2010 annual report, the BBC indicated that much of its content from inside Iran comes from “citizen journalism.”)
Rights groups and journalism advocacy outfits chimed in to join the BBC in condemning the Iranian actions. Citing the recent reports as well as the arrests of other journalists and filmmakers, Middle East director of New York-based Human Rights Watch Sarah Leah Whitson said:
The recent wave of arrests, especially against relatives of journalists working abroad, is a reprehensible escalation in the current campaign to stifle freedom of information in Iran. It is a sober reminder of the lengths Iranian authorities will go to control the airwaves, newspapers, and the internet – even if it means ruining the lives of Iranians at home and abroad.
The Committee to Protect Journalists’ Abdel Dayem added:
Iran’s government must immediately stop its harassment of the friends and family members of journalists. These attacks on journalists beyond Iran’s own borders show the lengths to which Tehran will go to intimidate the media into silence and deprive its constituents of information.
The latest accusations traded between the Iranian government and the BBC follow a recently-heightened pattern of the Iranian regime cracking down on journalists and bloggers. The continuing blocking of websites and satellite jamming of outside news channels — including the U.S.-government sponsored VOA Persian Service — led to a protest last month in Geneva outside of a meeting of the U.N. telecommunications agency calling on the group to work to end censorship and jamming in Iran.