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Journalists' families targeted in campaign against the media

(Human Rights Watch/IFEX) - New York, February 3, 2012 – The Iranian government has been intimidating and detaining relatives and friends of foreign-based Persian-language journalists to obtain information or silence them, Human Rights Watch said today. A family member of a BBC reporter whom Iranian authorities arbitrarily detained and held as a hostage for close to two weeks is one of the latest victims in a new wave of arrests against journalists and bloggers prior to parliamentary elections due on March 2, 2012.

In mid-January, security forces raided the home of a BBC Persian employee's relative in Tehran, searched and confiscated their belongings, and transferred the person to Evin prison. Hours later, a man claiming to be the relative's interrogator at Evin contacted the BBC employee in London, seeking information about the BBC in return for the family member's freedom. Human Rights Watch has learned that authorities released the detainee on bail several days ago.

“Detaining a BBC reporter's relative seems to be part of a wider campaign to harass Iranian journalists by putting pressure on them and their families,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “It suggests that authorities detained the relative to silence the reporter and the BBC. It also sends a message that the government's long arm of repression can extend well beyond borders.”

A man who claimed he was an interrogator at Tehran's Evin prison contacted the BBC employee through the internet. The man asked about the employee's job, and said if the employee cooperated and provided him with contacts and sources at the BBC, the authorities would free the detained family member. Around two weeks later, the authorities released the family member on bail. It is not known whether authorities have charged the family member with a criminal offense, Human Rights Watch said.

A BBC staff member who spoke to Human Rights Watch expressed concern for the targeting of journalists' family members. “My colleagues and I at the BBC have been exposed to almost daily insults and personal attacks on various pro-government websites and blogs inside Iran, but this is really a red line for us, and we can't stay silent,” the journalist said. “Our families should not be victimized because of our personal decisions to work for the BBC. Nor should they become a pawn in a larger political game between Iran and other countries.”

The BBC decided to publicize the campaign against its employees and their family members and friends in Iran during a news broadcast on February 2. During the broadcast, Sadeq Saba, the head of BBC Persian, said that, during the past few weeks, Iranian authorities had intimidated, interrogated, and arrested several family members and friends of BBC Persian employees in an apparent campaign to silence BBC Persian. He also said there is evidence suggesting that some of those interrogated or detained may have been forced to participate in televised confessions that they worked or cooperated with BBC Persian inside Iran; he flatly denied that BBC Persian has any presence inside Iran. Saba told Human Rights Watch that during the past few weeks the pressure against family members and friends of BBC employees has intensified. He said the Iranian government's actions were “unprecedented” and “inhumane.”

Iranian authorities have been particularly sensitive to the role of BBC Persian television, which launched operations in January 2009, because of its extensive coverage of the disputed 2009 presidential election. During the post-election crisis, BBC Persian television conducted hundreds of telephone interviews with protesters and witnesses who provided accounts of deaths, injuries, and arbitrary arrests carried out by security forces. Since June 2009, the authorities and pro-government websites have repeatedly attacked the BBC and anyone inside or outside the country whom they believe works for or cooperates with the British news outlet. On September 17, 2011, Iranian security forces arrested six independent filmmakers for allegedly cooperating with BBC Persian on a documentary. They transferred them to Evin prison's notorious Ward 240, which the Iranian Intelligence Ministry controls, but later released them.

Human Rights Watch has also documented jamming and interference of satellite feeds by Iranian authorities of BBC Persian, Voice of America, Deutsche Welle, and other foreign-based Persian-language broadcasts. In May 2010, Ezatollah Zarghami, the head of the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (Iran's state-run broadcast company), publicly acknowledged that his government engages in jamming of foreign broadcast satellites. Human Rights Watch has monitored numerous pro-government websites run from inside Iran, including the Young Journalists' Club, which regularly post articles, blogs, and messages containing personal attacks against individuals who work for BBC Persian.

The arrest and intimidation of family members of BBC Persian employees takes place amid escalating political tensions between Iran and the United Kingdom. On November 29, protesters breached the walls of the UK embassy compound in Tehran apparently in response to an announcement that the UK would sanction Iran's central bank and push for a European Union boycott of Iranian oil. Following the attack, the UK recalled its ambassador and shut down its embassy in Tehran.

During the past few weeks, Human Rights Watch has received information that authorities may be holding at least two other journalists and bloggers, detained during the recent wave of arrests, in Ward 2-A, which Iran's Revolutionary Guards Corps control. On January 15 and 17, security forces arrested Parastou Dokouhaki and Marzieh Rasouli respectively. They have detained several other journalists and bloggers during the past three weeks. The arrests come amid repeated warnings by senior officials that Iran's enemies would seek to destabilize the country during the March parliamentary elections. Human Rights Watch has received information suggesting that authorities may have arrested Dokouhaki and Rasouli in an attempt to link them to BBC Persian.

On January 24, Intelligence Minister Heidar Moslehi announced that security and intelligence forces had uncovered and disrupted various plots to undermine the legitimacy of the upcoming parliamentary elections. He claimed that the “link between the seditionist elements and the state's enemies has already been established and there is lots of evidence [to support this].” It is not yet clear whether the arrests of family members of BBC staff, along with others who have been detained since the beginning of the year, are connected to Moslehi's January 24 announcement.

As of December, 42 journalists and bloggers were in prison in Iran, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. According to rights groups, more than 60 journalists were forced into exile in 2011 alone, and authorities have shut down at least 40 publications since 2009. Human Rights Watch has repeatedly called on the authorities to unconditionally release all journalists and bloggers detained or facing charges related to their exercise of fundamental rights, including freedom of expression.

“The recent wave of arrests, especially against relatives of journalists working abroad, is a reprehensible escalation in the current campaign to stifle freedom of information in Iran,” said Whitson. “It is a sober reminder of the lengths Iranian authorities will go to control the airwaves, newspapers, and the internet – even if it means ruining the lives of Iranians at home and abroad.”
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