The suspension of operations at the London offices of Persian-language broadcaster Iran International and its relocation to the US follow credible and imminent threats to the lives and safety of its journalists from the Islamic Republic authorities – a shocking reminder of the extreme measures authorities are willing to take to stifle free expression. The threats, which come in the wake of over four decades of extraterritorial attacks on the rights of dissidents by the Islamic Republic, including through abductions and extrajudicial killings, must be a renewed wake-up call for the international community to take urgent action to protect writers, journalists and others voicing dissent against such acts of violence.
On 18 February and following a meeting with London’s Metropolitan Police regarding increasing threats to the lives and safety of its journalists, Iran International announced that it had reluctantly made a decision to close its operations in West London and relocate to the United States, where the media outlet is headquartered. The decision to relocate came after significant intensification of threats against Iran International’s journalists. This followed the popular uprising that started in Iran in mid-September 2022. In November, Iran International said that two of its journalists had been formally notified by the police that they were facing threats that posed ‘an imminent, credible and significant risk to their lives and those of their families’. Other staff members had been notified of separate threats.
ARTICLE 19 is deeply disturbed by this brazen escalation of transnational acts of repression carried out by intelligence agents and other Islamic Republic of Iran officials against the Iranian diaspora, in particular those working to shed light on gross violations of human rights committed by the authorities by providing vital news and information to the people in Iran and the international community. The organisation stands in solidarity with journalists and media workers who have faced significant risks to their lives and safety by the authorities of Islamic Republic simply for exercising their human rights and carrying out their professional work.
‘The authorities of the Islamic Republic have shown, time and again, that they have no hesitation in using every tool in their armoury of repression, from the brutal and unlawful killing of protestors, arbitrary detention of journalists and human rights defenders, and exterritorial threats and operations against dissidents abroad, to maintain their tight grip on power and conceal the atrocities they commit from the eyes of the world,’ said Saloua Ghazouani, Director of ARTICLE 19 Middle East and North Africa Programme.
‘The UK government and other states must take all necessary steps to uphold their obligation to protect the human rights, including the right to life, of those living in their territories from threats by the Islamic Republic. This must include opening criminal investigations, not only against agents arrested within their territories, but also against Iranian officials who are reasonably suspected of having ordered, solicited, planned, or instigated the commission of crimes under international law, including extraterritorially,’ Saloua Ghazouani added.
Response from the international community
On 20 February, Tom Tugenhadt, the UK’s Security Minister, announced that Foreign Secretary James Cleverly had summoned the Iranian Charges d’Affairs and that the government, ‘alongside international partners’, had placed sanctions on eight officials of the Islamic Republic while maintaining existing sanctions against others. He stated that he had spoken to his counterparts in France, Germany, and the United States about individuals who had been targeted in those countries and that they had agreed to work together to combat the threats and dangers.
The authorities of the Islamic Republic have a long-standing track record of targeting dissidents abroad through intimidation, harassment, abductions and even extrajudicial killings. Recent years have seen a significant escalation of such extraterritorial threats against real and perceived dissidents. In its February 2023 statement, the Metropolitan Police stated that the police and intelligence agencies had foiled ’15 plots since the start of 2022 to either kidnap or even kill British or UK-based individuals perceived as enemies of the regime’.
The role of Persian media outside Iran
‘Of course this is a huge burden for us,’ said Mehdi Parpanchi, Iran International’s Executive Editor for US operations. ‘It’s unbelievable that the Revolutionary Guards and Iran government’s reach can extend to the UK. This is a direct attack on journalism and the free flow of information, a rare commodity inside the country thanks to the suppression and censorship imposed on the media. Their threats have prompted the authorities to advise us to stop broadcasting from our studios in London. But it was heartwarming to hear what Tom Tugenhadt said in the Commons and to have the support of the UK government.’
Commenting on the security minister’s commitment to ensure Iran International will continue its work in the UK, Parpanchi said, ‘It’s also good to get reassurance from the country’s counter-terrorist forces and to hear about possible temporary facilities in the UK while our premises are being made more secure. In DC, we have been broadcasting nine hours a day, but our main operation is in London, so continuing our presence there is crucial. We need a safe environment to continue our work, and we hope the US and the UK support will help us continue serving our audience. There are no independent media in Iran, so millions of people turn to us and other Farsi media outside the country for news and information.’
In 2021, a federal court in New York announced that Iranian intelligence agents had plotted to kidnap prominent US-based journalist Masih Alinejad, and return her to Iran by force, where she would have faced torture and ill-treatment. Six months before these revelations, in December 2020, the authorities of the Islamic Republic arbitrarily executed a France-based dissident journalist, Ruhollah Zam, who had been abducted and taken back to Iran.
United Nations Special Rapporteurs have repeatedly raised concerns about the ongoing intimidation, harassment and threats against the staff of the BBC Persian service and their families. These assaults have included freezing their assets, interrogation and detention of their family members in Iran, unlawful surveillance, and death threats. Those who have spoken up, including through engaging with UN experts and bodies and seeking protection, have faced further reprisals.