BBC files UN complaint about online violence towards women journalists

The BBC World Service has, on 23 March 2022, filed a new urgent appeal to the United Nations (UN) against Iran over the online violence faced by women journalists working for BBC News Persian.

Women journalists at BBC News Persian face daily, relentless online attacks and harassment, including threats of rape and death.

Today’s complaint addresses the current risks to women journalists working for BBC News Persian.

Examples of the online violence and harassment they face include:

  • Threats of rape and death directed at women journalists and their families in the UK and in Iran
  • Gendered attacks on their credibility as journalists in both state media and online in Iran, including false and defamatory stories about their personal lives, their relationships with contributors and what they wear, aimed at discrediting the women of BBC News Persian staff among their friends and family – and the broader public – by accusing them of sexual indecencies
  • Hacking and phishing of personal information, emails and photos, which later appear online with false stories about their personal lives, which are used in interrogation of their family members in Iran

A report by UNESCO in the last year shows online violence towards women is having a chilling effect on women’s reporting and adverse effects on their mental health. UN Experts highlight the extent of online violence towards women journalists, which is pushing women offline and undermining their ability to do their work as journalists, describing it as “gendered censorship”.

Interviews with BBC News Persian staff show that many women journalists:

  • Opt out of using social media as a journalistic tool in fear of harassment
  • Self-censor online, including removing themselves from social media, public spaces and other profile opportunities
  • Suffer significant and serious mental and physical health issues, including anxiety, anxiety attacks, psychological trauma and depression, requiring therapy and medical intervention;

The appeal from the BBC World Service calls on Iran to take action in respect of those responsible for the online violence towards women journalists, by investigating and prosecuting them.

Liliane Landor, Senior Controller of BBC International News and Director of World Service says: “We absolutely deplore the violent, misogynistic and gendered harassment our women journalists have to face every day.”

“Trusted and impartial journalism is fundamental to any democracy and it is only by working together that we can ensure the safety of journalists everywhere and ensure women’s voices are included. We have to be able to work unhindered, free from threats and free from abuse.”

International counsel for the BBC World Service, Caoilfhionn Gallagher QC and Jennifer Robinson say: “Women journalists at BBC News Persian face abhorrent online violence every day simply because they are doing their job. This is a paradigm case of what UN experts call “gendered censorship”. Misogynist, sexist online abuse and all threats of physical or sexual violence towards journalists are intended to force women offline and to silence women journalists. It is unacceptable and it must stop.

“Iran has international obligations of due diligence to take action against those responsible. We call on the UN to condemn the attacks and to ensure Iran meets its international obligations.”

Paul Siegert, the NUJ’s national broadcasting organiser, says: “We fully support this campaign in calling for more to be done to stop the appalling online abuse that many women working for BBC News Persian have experienced.

Iran must do more to stop and prosecute the people responsible. It’s truly chilling when you hear about some of the threats that women journalists are exposed to on a regularly basis and the NUJ joins with the BBC and calls on the UN to condemn this unacceptable behaviour.”

Examples of the gendered attacks on BBC women journalists, include:

  1. Fake stories stating that a BBC News Persian presenter had been raped by a colleague known to Iranian audiences and a fake photo blog showing her with her “illegitimate child”. Later, her father was interrogated by authorities, where officers told him she had hidden it from her family because she was embarrassed about having been raped by a colleague.
  2. A blog was created under the name of a presenter, writing about her purportedly polygamous and lavish sexual life in London and using selected hacked photos from her Facebook page to make the blog look authentic. This story was picked up by a national newspaper in Iran.
  3. A presenter was photoshopped into a pornographic image which was sent to her 14-year old son in London. This was particularly threatening in that it demonstrated they knew where he went to school.

This complaint is made in the context of the broader harassment of BBC News Persian staff, in relation to which the BBC has made multiple UN complaints since 2017. BBC News Persian journalists have suffered targeting, harassment and intimidation by the Iranian authorities for more than a decade. Since BBC News Persian TV started in 2009, BBC News Persian staff and their families have faced a campaign of harassment and intimidation, which has included:

  1. BBC News Persian staff cannot return home to Iran because of the risk of arrest and prosecution. Journalists have been prosecuted and convicted in Iran for national security crimes, including offences which attract the death penalty. As a result of the pressure and threats, BBC News Persian have no staff working in Iran
  2. Family members of BBC News Persian staff have faced arbitrary arrest and detention and repeated interrogation, lost jobs and been blacklisted from employment (or had this threatened), had passports confiscated and effective travel bans imposed, and are pressured to pressure their family members to leave the BBC and return to Iran
  3. In 2017, this persecution escalated, with Iran announcing a national security criminal investigation targeting 152 current and former BBC News Persian staff members, and placing an asset freeze on any assets they hold in Iran. Five years later, this asset freeze remains in place and domestic legal challenges to the asset freeze have been filed with no response
  4. BBC News Persian staff in London have faced credible death threats requiring police intervention and protection in the UK;
  5. BBC News Persian staff have faced a systematic campaign to undermine their journalism and threaten their sources, including attacks in Iranian state media and online
  6. BBC News Persian staff face an onslaught of online violence and attacks, including death threats and, for women, threats of sexual violence towards them and their families.

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