The BBC has agreed to conditions set by the Islamic Republic of Iran to not share reporting materials it gathers in Iran with its Persian-language channel, BBC Persian, an internal email obtained by HuffPost reveals. The agreement represents a capitulation to a government that has been hostile to press freedom. The Iranian government routinely shuts down media organizations critical of the regime and imprisons, tortures and executes journalists.
The agreement was made with the Iranian government in exchange for Iran allowing a BBC correspondent into the country, and, according to emails that HuffPost obtained, it’s not the first time the British broadcaster has agreed to such terms.
The email, sent Saturday to all BBC Persian staff by a BBC Persian digital editor, said that BBC foreign correspondent Martin Patience and his team were in Iran “and due to leave on Sunday.”
The email goes on to say, “It is absolutely imperative that none of their material is run on BBC Persian TV, Radio or Online now or in the future. That includes any official BBC Persian social feed retweeting or forwarding the coverage. Please do not use the material and stories produced in Iran on any platform or in any format.”
It’s unclear who at the BBC agreed to the exclusivity terms.
In a statement sent to HuffPost, a BBC spokesperson acknowledged that it agreed to demands made by the Iranian government.
All international media are subject to reporting restrictions in Iran. We accepted some limitations on this occasion in order to provide our audiences with rare insights from inside the country and this is signposted in our coverage. As ever, the BBC maintains full editorial control over what we broadcast. These reports – our first from inside Iran in 5 years – do not change our unwavering commitment to our BBC Persian staff and their families, who have suffered completely unacceptable harassment from the Iranian authorities since 2009.
An article published by the BBC on Monday with its reporting in Iran has a disclaimer that reads, “While in country, recording access was controlled ― as with all foreign media the team was accompanied by a government representative at all times,” but the report does not disclose that the broadcaster agreed to limit the distribution of its reporting.
In the past, foreign broadcasters have agreed to be accompanied by a government minder and be restricted in their movements and the people with whom they speak in order to gain access to Iran, but the restrictions that the BBC agreed to, to not allow its Persian-language broadcasting service to share its reporting to over 100 million Persian-speaking people in the world, is unusual. It would be as if the New York Times agreed to a demand by the Chinese government to not to publish its reports in Mandarin.
BBC Persian is a television, radio and digital service. It is seen as particularly dangerous by the Iranian government because it’s a Persian-language news organization that does not live under the same content restrictions as the government-controlled Persian-language news organizations.
Patience, the BBC’s Middle East correspondent who was allowed into Iran last week, tweeted on Sunday, the day he left: “Today @BBCNews begins coverage from inside Iran. Rare access at key time. Some restrictions on our movements but not on what we are saying.”
Patience, however, did not reveal that there was a restriction on with whom he could share what was being said, in this case with his own colleagues.
Another email reviewed by HuffPost was sent among BBC colleagues in February. In it, they said that a BBC Arabic correspondent was allowed to enter Iran to cover the anniversary of the Iranian revolution “on the condition that his pictures will be ‘no access Persian [BBC].’”
BBC Persian and its staffers have been subjected to attacks from both the current regime and during the reign of the shah. But the hostility toward BBC Persian escalated in 2009 when it launched a television channel and the Iranian government accused the BBC of fueling protests of the 2009 presidential elections, which had been rigged by the government in favor of then-President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The protests, which were largely peaceful, led to widespread arrests, imprisonment, torture and the execution of Iranian citizens.
In 2017, the Iranian government froze the assets of 152 current and former BBC Persian staff. Iran also opened up a criminal investigation into the 152 individuals and accused them of a “conspiracy against national security.” BBC Persian staffers have been subjected to death threats by the Iranian government, haven’t been able to return to Iran for fear that they will be arrested, and their family members living within Iran have been subjected to harassment and threats from the Iranian government.
In 2017, the BBC filed a complaint with the United Nations, stating, “This is not just a campaign against BBC Persian staff but against fundamental human rights, and the BBC calls on the government of Iran to end this legal action immediately,” Tony Hall, the director-general of the BBC said, at the time.
This is not just a campaign against BBC Persian staff but against fundamental human rights, and the BBC calls on the government of Iran to end this legal action immediately
Tony Hall, director-general of the BBC, to the U.N. in 2017
The complaint filed by the BBC said that, among other things, the sister of a BBC Persian journalist was detained at Iran’s notorious Evin prison for just over two weeks and that she was made to beg her sibling to resign her position at BBC Persian or agree to share information about her colleagues with the Iranian government. The complaint also said that elderly parents of BBC Persian staff members were held and interrogated by Iranian intelligence agencies. The BBC, and two BBC Persian staffers who spoke to HuffPost, also said that BBC Persian staff members were subjected to false attacks on social media platforms. Some of the false attacks described sexual acts that are illegal in Iran and could lead to the staffers being charged with crimes and subjected to the death penalty.
Both emails that HuffPost obtained and reviewed have angered BBC Persian staffers. Three sources who spoke to HuffPost on the condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to speak to members of the press about internal decisions at the BBC said they feel that the BBC is aiding in their persecution by the Iranian government.
In an email sent by a BBC Persian staffer to the entire BBC Persian office in February, provided to HuffPost by one of the recipients, the staffer said, in part, “No part of the BBC should allow itself to become an accomplice to the Iranian government’s effort to isolate and punish us. Our colleagues in the [BBC] Arabic Service risk becoming complicit in the Iranian persecution of our staff. They must avoid this at all costs so long as the Iranian government continues its campaign against us, which as you know has of late involved threats against our lives.”
Iran ranks 170 out of 180 on the World Press Freedom Index compiled by Reporters Without Borders, a nongovernmental organization based in Paris that advocates for press freedom around the globe. Reporters Without Borders says at least 860 journalists and citizen-journalists have been imprisoned or executed since the Iranian Revolution in 1979.
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