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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 September 2018

Iran in free speech row after BBC staff banned from buying houses

Corporation says prosecutors drew up 152-strong blacklist in secret

A prison in Tehran. Reuters
A prison in Tehran. Reuters

More than 150 current and former BBC staff have been barred from making major financial transactions in Iran in what the broadcaster claimed was an attack on free speech.

The order, secured in secret, was the latest attempt by Tehran to muzzle what it deems hostile voices having accused the corporation of inciting unrest following the disputed re-election of President Ahmadinejad in 2009.

The following year, Iran banned citizens from contact with dozens of foreign organisations, including the British broadcaster, which it said was seeking to topple the Islamic theocracy.

The order prevents the 152 people on the list from buying and selling property, cars and other significant financial activities, which the broadcaster said amounted to an asset freeze. BBC Persian operates from London, with most of those on the list working in the UK.

Journalists say Iranian authorities have long tried to intimidate those working for BBC Persian by arresting them on visits to the country and harassing family members. The order only came to light when a family member of a BBC staffer went to register a transaction at a government office and was handed the list.

All of the 152 either work or previously worked for BBC Persian, part of the BBC World Service, which operates television, radio and online services. The television arm has the biggest audience with some 12 million viewers watching the service illicitly as it is banned in the country, according to a BBC spokeswoman.

“I think it is an attack on free speech, basically,” said World Service director Francesca Unsworth. “They don’t want BBC Persian to continue to exist. They don’t want an independent, impartial news operation which is extremely popular with Iranian audiences.”

The order was issued in July by a prosecutor’s office based in Evin Prison, Tehran. The order gave no reason for the asset freeze, according to Reuters. Ms Unsworth said there was no legal route to challenging the order and each case would have to fought separately.

The UK Foreign Office said that it would continue to pressure Iran to make improvements on human rights and freedom of speech. Rights activists say President Hassan Rouhani has put reducing Iran’s isolation and improving its economy over rights issues at home.

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