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Iran Must End Shameful Treatment of Journalists' Families

VOA Director David Ensor
VOA Director David Ensor
Being an exiled Iranian journalist can be tough and dangerous work. Imagine your parents or siblings being threatened by government intelligence agents because of your profession. Imagine not being able to go home because of the threat of imprisonment or worse.

That is the reality being played out for Iranian-born journalists who work at VOA, Radio Free Europe, the BBC and other news agencies right now — and it needs to stop.

One of the most insidious forms of harassment is the interrogation of parents who are instructed to tell their children to stop working for Western news outlets.

These tactics frequently begin with Iranian Intelligence Ministry agents calling or visiting the homes of elderly parents. Intimidating messages are left, or agents tell the parents that the work their children do is “not acceptable,” and “it would be better if your son changed his job and left VOA.”

In some cases, relatives are forced to sign statements accusing their siblings or children of being Western spies. In other cases, parents or siblings are detained or questioned at length and passports are confiscated. There is a constant threat of imprisonment. Another troubling tactic is the production of crude videotapes that attempt to discredit reporters.

Former BBC Director-General Mark Thompson has repeatedly written about the “disturbing tactics” used by Iran to target and intimidate the family members of BBC Persian journalists. The sister of one BBC journalist was detained and held in solitary confinement on unspecified charges at Evin Prison in Tehran in a failed attempt to bring pressure on her brother.

Of course, Iran’s actual imprisonment of journalists can never be far from the minds of those who report on what is happening in this important part of the world. Human Rights Watch and other organizations that monitor press freedom have long noted that Iran is one of the worst offenders when it comes to the sheer number of journalists behind bars.

It’s time for Iranian authorities to end this behavior and renounce the tactics of harassment and intimidation against innocent family members. Such behavior only brings shame on the Iranian government.

We also urge Iranian officials to stop the jamming of radio and television broadcasts, the filtering of websites and hacker attacks on websites of the Voice of America and other news organizations.

It is time for Iran to close the chapter on this unacceptable behavior and live up to its ideals as a nation that trusts its people to make up their own minds about where they want to get their information.

David Ensor