Throughout the year, the IFJ website is usually awash with appalling stories about journalists being hunted in many corners of the world, intimated, harassed, hurt or even done to death by the people who want to silence them. The Iranian secret services have come up with a more frightening idea. When they could not get at the journalists themselves, they started targeting their families. This is the ordeal faced by several journalists working for the BBC’s Persian service.
Not content with jamming the service, something the Iranian authorities have done repeatedly since it was founded, they have now ratcheted up the pressure in the run up to the elections on 2nd March. Anonymous callers using names such as the Cyber Army of Allah make regular accusations against the service’s staff of being drug dealers, converting to Bahaism or Christianity, a serious offense, or taking bribes.
But in what now amounts to a fully-fledged campaign of intimidation and smears against the journalists, their families found themselves in the eye of the storm. Through direct pressure on the families, Iranian intelligence service managed to get access to the journalists and contact them asking questions and making ludicrous demands.
Last month, the Iranian security forces went even a step further and raided the home of a BBC Persian employee's relative in Tehran. They took her to Evin prison after searching and confiscating some of her belongings. Once there, her interrogator had the cheek to contact the employee in London, seeking information about the BBC and requested her to collaborate with him in return for the family member's freedom.
This brazen online interrogation forced the BBC to go public and its director general to issue a public statement. His call to the Iranian government “to repudiate the actions of its officials” will most certainly be derided and ignored by the Iranian authorities as long as the BBC Persian service journalists continue to have an impact and their broadcasts be immensely popular. One of their news programme is apparently watched by up to 15 million people each week. During the last election, journalists at the service conducted hundreds of telephone interviews with protesters describing what was happening. This is what hurts the Iranian government and it is not surprising they will do everything they can to stop this happening again.
The work by these journalists is considered such a threat that a website identical to the BBC Persian was created to spread allegations against them. The fake site uses an .ir domain name, which apparently requires government permission.
Iran's prosecutor made it clear that people with alleged links to the broadcaster would be tracked down and dealt with as they are deemed to be acting against the national interest. With the drums of war getting louder the situation of Iranian journalists will continue to get worse. Over thirty are still in jail, their leaders in hiding or abroad and their union’s HQ, the Association of Iranian Journalists, locked and sealed. The first casualty of war continues to be truth.