The more recent reports on this situation follow the BBC’s filing of a formal complaint with the United Nations, following clarification of the official nature of the Iranian judiciary’s investigation into the BBC Persian staff and contributors. The International Business Times indicates that this investigation relates to the charge of “conspiracy against national security,” one of a number of vaguely defined charges that Tehran tends to levy against political opponents.
The BBC’s Persian service as a whole has been targeted for years by Iranian authorities, but the resulting restrictions have proven largely ineffective. Several of Wednesday’s reports repeated the statistic that the Persian-language broadcasts reach an average weekly audience of 18 million people, with viewers inside Iran accessing them through illegal satellite television hookups or virtual proxy networks that allow them to circumvent the regime’s technical restrictions on access to the internet.
The targeting of individual journalists presumably serves to expand upon the broader restrictions in an attempt to degrade the quality of reporting while also discrediting BBC Persian in the eyes of those who are influence by Iran’s state-run propaganda networks. Agence-France Presse reported that many of the subjects of the Iranian investigation have also been made the targets of fake news, including claims that they had been involved in illegal sex acts, some of which are punishable by death.
The BBC’s formal complaint about these matters was addressed to both David Kaye, the UN’s special rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, and Asma Jahangir, the special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Iran. AFP report that Kaye had responded to the complaint on Wednesday, telling a news conference at UN headquarters, “We urge the government of Iran to stop harassing the employees and the families of employees of the BBC Persian service as well as other journalists.”
The latter remark highlights the fact that the BBC Persian investigation is only part of a much broader crackdown. In fact, the incident simultaneously illustrates two different aspects of this crackdown, one being the targeting of journalists and the other being the targeting of dual nationals and persons with supposedly significant links to the West. Naturally, the security situation for political and social activists has also been seen to be degrading at the same time. And the same has been said of traditionally persecuted minority groups.
Last week, IranWire issued a report claiming that the situation was continuing to worsen for Iranian journalists, particularly those who work for reformist outlets. As an example, it pointed to the case of Soroush Farhadian, who had recently been sentenced to a year in prison for “propaganda against the regime”. The immediate justification for the sentence apparently had to do with his political campaign work and public comments against the house arrests of Green Movement leaders and against the Guardian Council, which vets all candidates and legislation in Iran for compliance with the will of the supreme leader. But IranWire notes that an identical case had already been built against him last year, leading to a seven-month prison sentence that was later vacated in favor of a cash fine.
Hardline Iranian institutions including the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps have developed a reputation for subjecting political prisoners to this sort of double jeopardy on the belief that those individuals had escaped adequate punishment. The IRGC and the Ministry of Intelligence have also been credited with the escalation of the overarching domestic crackdown. Farhadian’s successful prosecution can thus be seen either as the repetition of a previous case at the behest of hardline authorities that exert growing influence over the judiciary, or as a de facto attack on Farhadian’s work for reformist outlets that generally convey the views that he has campaigned in favor of.
Of course, as the BBC Persian case makes clear, the regime authorities often make no effort to maintain plausible deniability about their targeting of dissenting media outlets. In fact, some such outlets have explicitly been used as a means to expand crackdowns on persons who can be in any way connected to them. The aforementioned IranWire article also called attention to a new example of this phenomenon, pointing out that two journalists, Sasan Aghaei and Yaghma Fakhshami, have been held for three months in temporary detention without formal charges, on the accusation that they had worked with Amad News, a dissident news channel on the Telegram messaging app, which claims to be affiliated with the Green Movement and which has approximately 600,000 subscribers.
On the other hand, Iranian authorities are much less forthright about their reasons for targeting persons with connections to the West. Although this phenomenon is widely regarded as part of an effort to discourage expectations of rapprochement between Iran and its traditional enemies, the regime generally builds cases against these people on the basis of unsubstantiated and almost certainly falsified accusations of spying or “collaboration with hostile governments”.
This has evidently been the case with a number of persons who have been famously taken into custody in the wake of the 2015 nuclear agreement between Iran and six world powers. These include the Iranian-American businessman Siamak Namazi, his elderly father Baquer Namazi, and the Iranian-British charity worker Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, whose two-year-old daughter was also placed in the care of her Iranian grandparents and barred from returning to her father in the United Kingdom. The Namazis and other Americans have been sentenced to 10 years in prison and Zaghari-Ratcliffe to five, although she is now subject to additional charges that could expand her sentence to more than 20 years.
Another, somewhat more recent example is that of Dr. Ahmadreza Djalili, who was arrested in April of last year and who has now been sentenced to death following accusations that he had been spying for Israeli intelligence. The Independent reported that it is not known when this verdict was issued, but it became a matter of public record on Tuesday. Djalili lived and worked in Sweden until the time of the trip that resulted in his arrest. His colleagues have said that his arrest was likely based on his contacts in the academic world, some of which were Israeli but none of which established a credible connection between him and Mossad.
But the Center for Human Rights in Iran published an open letter that Djalili himself had written from behind bars in which he offered a more precise explanation of his arrest. In it, he denies having any Israeli friends or any contact with intelligence agencies, with the exception of the Iranian Ministry of Intelligence. Djalili explains that in 2014 the Ministry had approached him and asked him to gather information from European countries regarding “critical infrastructures, counter-terrorism,” and more. He goes on to suggest that it was in reaction to his rejection of this offer that the Ministry and associated authorities began building a case against him regarding spying for foreign entities.
These claims are distinctly reminiscent of the case against Omid Kokabee, a physics graduate student who had been studying in the United States when he was arrested on a trip to his native Iran. Kokabee was initially charged with “gathering and colluding against national security,” but after being acquitted he was instead sentenced to 10 years in prison for “communicating with a hostile government”, namely the United States. The prisoner alleged that he had previously been asked to work on a weapons project for Tehran, and that he was arrested as punishment for his refusal. Kokabee was released last year on parole, after losing a kidney to cancer that went undiagnosed because of the denial of access to medical care, but his sentence remains in effect.
Along with the above-mentioned harassment of family members and instances of double jeopardy, the denial of medical care is another familiar pressure tactic utilized by Iranian authorities to elicit false confessions or to impose extrajudicial punishment upon political prisoners of various types. Naturally, reports of these sorts of activities appear to be growing more frequent in the midst of the broad-based crackdown on dissent in the Islamic Republic. As such, there is significant cause for concern among the staff of BBC Persian and other targeted outlets and groups, with regard to the mistreatment that their members or staff may face at the hands of Iranian authorities if the cases against them proceed.