Iranian regime creating a warzone for journalists in the UK

Yoghurt thrown over women in Iran

Iran is easily the most suppressive country of negative press in the world. In Reporters Without Borders (RSF) 2023 World Press Freedom Index, Iran ranked 177th out of 180, ahead only of Vietnam, China and North Korea. While the domestic situation may be more dire within those countries, neither match the Iranian state’s track record of stifling dissent from journalists based abroad – including those working in the UK.

In a Westminster committee hearing on April 19, Fiona O’Brien, UK Bureau Director for RSF said: “Lots of independent journalists in the UK are being targeted when they’re trying to write about Iran.”

Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s regime has come down hard on the popular demonstrations of the past eight months. According to the Iranian Human Rights Activists News Agency (HRANA) more than 19,600 people were arrested and at least 527 were confirmed to have been killed by the beginning of the year, as suppression efforts by the authorities turned violent.

A harsh crackdown on the media ensued to hide the extent of these crimes. RSF claims more than 71 journalists have been arrested, detained or called in for questioning since the protests began – with 25 detained to this day.

Ms O’Brien said: “The same happens to Iranian journalists in countries all over the world, in France, in Germany, in Turkey…” She added this “transnational aspect” was of “great concern”, and should be recognised as such by UK politicians.

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In February, after the Metropolitan Police warned of an imminent threat to the lives of its staff, Persian-language news channel Iran International was forced to abandon its London offices.

Roger Macmillan, Director of Safety, Security & Resilience for the broadcaster said: “We have faced an inordinate amount of pressure over the last six to seven months since the murder of Mahsa Amini.”

On September 16, 2022, the 22-year-old Kurdish-Iranian died in police custody after her arrest by the country’s so-called “morality police” on a charge of improperly wearing her hijab. Iran International reported on the protests doggedly, resulting in sanctions being placed on it alongside BBC News Persian back in October.

The two continued to operate from abroad and have constituted the primary sources of information reaching the West about what was actually happening to the Iranian people. The repercussions for their London journalists are as baffling as they are severe.

Mr Macmillan added: “That manifested itself in a number of our senior staff being placed under special measures by the Metropolitan Police back in November. Ultimately this had ramped up to include fortifying Chiswick Business Park and turning it into what the military might call an operating base. It was under armed guard 24/7 for nearly two months.”

The driving force behind this intimidation campaign is the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) – a branch of the Iranian military whose vocation is to protect the Islamic ideology ushered in by the 1979 revolution. The group has claimed responsibility for forcing the closure of Iran International.

Aliasghar Ramezanpour helped found BBC Persian in 2009 and set up Iran International in 2017, where he is currently Director of News. He last worked on the ground in Iran in 2006, and claimed the media environment there has worsened significantly since then, and that what’s happening now is worse than ever.

He told a “new level of threat” had emerged in the past few months. The regime has long persecuted “some famous or important journalists” for speaking out of line, but they have now they have extended this to everyone in the profession, he said.

Iran International was forced to pack up and move out at four hours’ notice, its reporters told, and successfully switched their around-the-clock coverage to be broadcast from their smaller base in Washington D.C. without a break in transmission.

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Mr Macmillan said the threats are “very, very real,” relating to an incident in February when a Chechen national used as a proxy flew to the UK, went straight to the offices of Iran International, took photos and was arrested and charged under the Terrorism Act within 36 hours.

On the toll this crusade has exacted on him and his colleagues, Mr Ramezanpour said: “Personally it has stopped all my social life. Not only has it stopped people from seeing each other in the office, but it has also cut the other kinds of gatherings we used to have.

“So we’re in a kind of isolation which has affected the mental situation of our team because they feel alone, threatened and concerned about the future of their job.”

“They feel like they are working in a high-risk situation like a warzone,” he added. The staff were also worried about their families in Iran at the moment.

He said: “They don’t have much connection to them because of two things: one is the crackdown internally in Iran, and the second is the security risk – they don’t want to expose their loved ones to danger by contacting them.”

This is the exact intention of the Iranian regime, according to Mr Ramezanpour: “They want to cut the network of information flowing out from sources inside Iran. Citizens inside Iran are, in this way, affected by the threats we receive here in London.” As such, the Iranian government’s tactics constitute a “multilayer policy” of repression.

Mr Macmillan said: “The question has to be: How has it been allowed to happen that we as journalists feel this in London, which is ostensibly the home of media freedom and free speech?”

The committee hearing on media freedom agreed that putting an end to the IRGC’s reign of terror started with proscribing the group under the Terrorism Act 2000. The same day, a letter urging the Government to take such a step was signed by a cross-party alliance of 125 MPs and peers.

Mattie Heaven, a Conservative councillor for Coventry, was in attendance, as her husband, British-Iranian journalist and human rights activist Vahid Beheshti, camped outside the Foreign Office on the 56th day of a hunger strike calling for exactly this.

Last Saturday, thousands marched from the London Eye to the gates of Downing Street in support of the cause.

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