BBC restricts content of its Persian TV channel at Iran's request - report

In the past the broadcaster has been more tough on Tehran, complaining to the UN about treatment of its Persian employees.

July 17, 2019 01:40
3 minute read.
A pedestrian walks past a BBC logo at Broadcasting House in central London

A pedestrian walks past a BBC logo at Broadcasting House in central London. (photo credit: OLIVIA HARRIS/ REUTERS)

The BBC has sent a correspondent to Iran, but viewers of BBC Persian Television won’t be able to see what the British broadcaster brought back because the media giant has agreed to terms dictated by the Iranian regime to restrict content from being shown on its Persian station.

An exclusive email obtained by HuffPost contributor Yashar Ali shows the bizarre agreement, which mandates that official BBC Persian not include any of the content on social media as well, including retweeting or forwarding the coverage.

“This is particularly egregious because BBC Persian staffers have been the number one target of the Iranian government,” Ali tweeted on Monday evening. “They’re subjected to death threats, they’re not allowed to visit elderly parents, their relatives are interrogated and their assets have been frozen.”

But for Western media like the BBC, apparently the compromise is worth it, to get access to Iran for English-language and other viewers.

Ali says that staff at BBC Persian are frustrated.

“No part of the BBC should allow itself to become an accomplice to the Iranian government’s efforts to isolate and punish us,” one wrote.

The BBC says that all international media are subject to reporting restrictions in Iran. “We accepted some limitations on this occasion in order to provide our audiences with rare insights from inside the country, and this is signposted in our coverage,” a BBC response on HuffPost says.

The BBC claims that the reports it got – “our first from inside Iran in five years” – were important, but that it doesn’t change it’s “commitment to our BBC Persian staff and their families, who have suffered completely unacceptable harassment from the Iranian authorities since 2009.”

The details of the deal come as BBC correspondent Martin Patience was due to leave Iran on Sunday. Apparently the email was sent out Saturday just before he left because of upcoming programming that would relate to Iran. The report by Ali does not say who at the BBC agreed to the terms of this Iran deal.

The BBC has previously been more tough on Iran, complaining to the UN about treatment of its BBC Persian employees. The UN had expressed “concern” about the treatment in relation to freedom of expression. Ali writes that the agreement would be as if The New York Times agreed to a demand by Chinese authorities not to have any reports by its employees published in Mandarin.

Iran has turned its expertise at controlling foreign media, while also getting positive coverage, into a kind of art form. It knows it has a sympathetic ear in the West, that media are hungry for any coverage from “inside” Iran, and that they especially want to say they have a “Western” correspondent on the ground.

Yet Iran has also been cracking down amid tensions with the US and the West. In June, the Times wrote that “authorities in Iran have barred the Tehran-based correspondent for The New York Times from working for the past four months.” That was kept from the readers for four months and only explained in June. Reports said that Iran had revoked his credentials.

Until recently, the Times even had special luxury tours of Iran that ran from 2014 to 2018, including a 12-day “Times Journey,” which had cost $7,895. According to the New York Post, this year’s trip was canceled.

All media companies face ethical challenges while trying to both report freely and responsibly from totalitarian countries, while obtaining the access needed to produce the reports. In a world where increasingly powerful state or state-linked media, such as Al Jazeera, TRT, RT and others help craft the view of home countries by reporting critically about foreign countries while reporting positively – or in some cases not at all – about the home country, the need for critical journalism in places like Iran is even more important.

Iran already has several English-language media that report pro-government propaganda. Tehran’s goal of controlling Western media – such as the BBC from having reports in BBC Persian based on information obtained in Iran – is clear from the latest revelations.

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