August 6, 2019
At a global press freedom conference last month, BBC chief Tony Hall made a point of praising journalists in his network’s Persian service for standing up to repeated harassment by Iran.
“I want to pay tribute again to their resilience, of them and their families, in the face of years of concerted intimidation,” Hall said at the London event attended by government officials and journalists from more than 100 countries.
But just days after his July 11 remarks, some of the same journalists Hall commended were accusing the British broadcaster of buckling to Iranian censorship.
What set off the journalists was a leaked email showing that the BBC had sent a reporting team to Iran on the apparent condition that BBC Persian would not broadcast its content back to Iranian audiences.
Britain’s National Union of Journalists criticized the arrangement, saying it gave Iran control over BBC Persian’s output, and sent the wrong signal “just at the time Iran has stepped up its harassment and persecution of BBC Persian staff and their families.”
The BBC defended the move, saying it maintained full editorial control of its reporting. But the controversy shines a light on a dilemma that other news organizations face when trying to cover Iran, one of the worst countries in the world when it comes to press freedom.
Western news agencies working in repressive countries often agree to restrictions on where staffers can go and who they can interview. In Iran’s case, the government also demands that outlets block the sharing of audio-visual content with Farsi language news services it deems hostile, such as those at the BBC and Voice of America.
Iran has been jamming and blocking BBC Persian and VOA Persian broadcasts and digital platforms for decades, beginning in the early years of its 1979 Islamic Revolution.
In recent years, Iranian authorities have tried to further undermine those services by working to deny them access to video obtained in Iran by three major news agencies with Tehran bureaus — French news agency AFP, The Associated Press and Reuters.
Iran expelled the BBC’s Tehran bureau chief in 2009 in retaliation for the network’s coverage of protests about a disputed presidential election. The AP, Reuters and AFP have kept their offices in Tehran open by accepting Iran’s ban on video-sharing with the BBC and VOA Persian services.
Sean Gallagher, an editor for Index on Censorship, a British free speech group, told VOA he is unaware of any country besides Iran with such a restriction on foreign media.
“By agreeing to (Iranian) restrictions on which outlets they can sell their content to, AFP, AP and Reuters regrettably are enabling Iran’s internal censorship, (while) providing a window on the country and its people at a time of global tension over the (Iran) nuclear deal,” Gallagher said.
Two of the agencies had little to say about the content-sharing restriction. Reuters declined to discuss the issue when asked by VOA, while AP provided a terse statement saying it “continues to provide deep coverage of Iran, including stories with a Tehran dateline, to its customers across the globe.”
Phil Chetwynd, AFP’s chief global editor, said his agency is obliged to comply with local laws and regulations “in order to maintain a bureau in Tehran and to continue to report on the situation in the country as best we can.” He said AFP also has been transparent with its customers about the video-sharing restriction.
An email gets out
In early July, the BBC launched only its third independent reporting trip to Iran since 2009, sending Middle East correspondent Martin Patience and two assistants to the capital, Tehran, and the holy city Qom. Their video and audio reports ran for several days on the BBC’s English news platforms beginning July 14.
Preceding the reports, the BBC told its audience that Iranian authorities controlled the team’s ability to film and accompanied it on all of its assignments. But the broadcaster did not specify that it had agreed to Iran’s demand not to use the team’s content on its Persian platforms.
That agreement did not become public until July 15, when the U.S. news site HuffPost published a story based on a BBC Persian digital editor’s email to all service staff.
The story said the leaked email, dated July 13, informed the staff that Patience and his team were in Iran and would leave the following day with material that could not be used on BBC Persian TV, radio or online platforms, including social media feeds, “now or in the future.”
“It is absolutely imperative,” the email said, as quoted in the story, “Please do not use the material and stories produced in Iran on any platform or in any format.”
In an initial statement provided to the HuffPost, BBC spokesman Paul Rasmussen confirmed that the broadcaster had “accepted some limitations” on the use of content from the Patience visit. BBC agreed to the restrictions, he said, “in order to provide our audiences with rare insights from inside the country,” while ensuring “full editorial control over what we broadcast.”
Here is our #iran report @bbcone from last night – on the poisoned relationship between Iran and the US. Rare access at key time. Some restrictions on our movements but not on what we are saying. @BBCNewshttps://t.co/Dgg1nUr7Vq
— Martin Patience (@martinpatience) July 15, 2019
Footage from three other BBC trips to Iran, as part of press delegations covering visits by European Union and British officials in 2014, 2015 and 2018 “occasionally” has been used by BBC’s Persian service, he wrote.
A lesson in transparency
Gallagher, a former journalist, described the BBC’s handling of Iran’s content-sharing restriction as more problematic than the other news organizations, calling it a “caving in” to censorship.
“The BBC has chosen to broadcast in Farsi for a reason, and you would presume that (the goal) is presenting an alternative narrative to Iran’s government-controlled media,” Gallagher said. “But the BBC now is allowing the Iranian government to program (the broadcaster’s) own Persian service and effectively telling the service’s viewers that its content is no better than the government’s narrative.”
Gallagher also cited the angry reactions of BBC Persian journalists who have been harassed. Tehran opened a criminal investigation of BBC Persian staff in 2017, accusing them of harming national security. It also froze the assets of 152 people, mostly current and former staffers.
“The BBC’s decision smacks of a distinct lack of solidarity for its own employees and an abandonment of its principles,” said Gallagher.
In his email to VOA, Rasmussen said the BBC has led a campaign in which the United Nations and the EU have condemned Iranian harassment of its Persian staff. He also cited Hall’s supportive remarks at last month’s media freedom conference.
“The campaign will continue until the harassment ends,” Rasmussen said.
Al Tompkins, a senior faculty member at The Poynter Institute, a nonprofit U.S. journalism school, faulted the BBC for not doing more to disclose the Iranian restrictions.
“Bravo to the BBC and others for being in Iran and reporting, … but when a news organization capitulates to restraints, it emboldens tyrannical governments to make such demands routine,” Tompkins wrote in an email to VOA. “By at least disclosing the fact that the Iranian government would not allow its own people to read or hear our report,’ (the news organization) sends a signal about the conditions that journalists in that region work under.”
Other observers were more sympathetic to the BBC’s plight.
Moisés Naím, a researcher at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, has studied “stealthy strategies” governments use to manipulate the media.
“I lament that the Iranian people do not get to have that content,” Naím said. “But I do not think the cause of democracy and human rights is better served if these (news) services do not operate in Iran, as that will leave people like you and I without knowing” what is happening there.
Sarah Repucci, senior director for research and analysis at U.S. advocacy group Freedom House, said in an email that Iran deserves the criticism, rather than the BBC or the other news services.
“Ultimately, the focus needs to be on the violations (of press freedom) perpetrated by the Iranian government, not on the news outlets who are attempting to increase information flows in face of the regime’s tight grip on power,” she wrote.
Impact on VOA Persian
In response to Iranian demands, the AP began withholding its Iran-originated video from VOA’s Persian service in 2009. Reuters followed in 2010 and AFP in 2017.
“While VOA acknowledges that some of our content providers have made decisions based on their particular business needs, VOA remains committed to providing the people of Iran with unbiased, objective and fair reporting from inside and outside the country,” VOA spokeswoman Bridget Ann Serchak said in a statement.
VOA has not had a bureau in Iran since the 1979 revolution and has not been able to report from inside the country in 13 years.
Retired VOA correspondent Gary Thomas, who left the agency in 2012, was the last to visit Iran on a VOA assignment in July 2006. It was his sixth VOA trip to the country after four visits in the early 1990s, and the fifth to cover Iran’s presidential election of June 2005.
Thomas said he recalled some Iranian officials telling him that they did not want their quotes to be used by VOA’s Persian service, and that he passed along their requests to his managers. Retired VOA executive Sheila Gandji, Persian service director in the mid-2000s, said she did not recall limiting the department’s use of Thomas’ reporting from Iran in any way.
David S. Jackson, who served as VOA director from 2002 to 2006, said he also did not recall any restrictions being placed on VOA reporters by Iran at the time.
“If I had known of any attempts to impose any, I would not have agreed to them,” he wrote in an email.
A review of VOA’s news archive revealed that the Persian service did full Farsi translations of Thomas’s English reports from his June 2005 assignment, broadcasting them on its then-radio network and publishing them on its website.
Sonja Pace, another retired VOA correspondent, spent a week and a half reporting for VOA from Iran in October to November 2001. She said Iranian authorities did not impose any restrictions during what she called an “extremely positive” assignment in the country.
But Pace was disappointed when Tehran rejected her visa application to make a second reporting trip to Iran around 2006 or 2007.
“I was told it was not about me, it was about VOA’s Persian service,” she said. “So, that animosity was definitely there.”
Dan Austin, who served as VOA director from 2006 to 2011, said he did not want to second-guess the BBC’s acceptance of conditions for access to Iran, given its mission as a global news broadcaster.
The BBC’s commercially funded international 24-hour English news and information channel, BBC World News, reaches audiences in more than 200 countries and territories, including established democracies.
U.S. taxpayer-financed VOA directs U.S. and world news coverage at foreign audiences where media freedom is restricted.
“We see the VOA mission a bit differently,” Austin wrote in an email. “We’re obligated by law to practice good journalism, not to advance the foreign policy directive de jour or win audience share in established democracies.”