Iran International studio in London

Dozens Of UK-Based Iranian Journalists Harassed, Leaked Intel Reveals

Wednesday, 02/21/2024

Top secret intelligence documentation obtained by a hacktivist group reveals Tehran targeted dozens of Iran International TV staff with financial bans and threats to their families amid protests in 2019.

The network was aware of the intimidation tactics at the time, but the documents, obtained by Edalat-e Ali (Ali's Justice) hackers, offer indisputable proof that Iran’s Intelligence Ministry and judicial officials were coordinating the harassment efforts.

In November 2019, a sudden hike in gasoline prices led to nationwide street protests that were met with overwhelming brute force by the Islamic Republic’s security and paramilitary forces. In a matter of days, around 1,500 people were killed by these forces, Reuters reported at the time.

Amid official denials, misrepresenting protesters as organized mobs attacking public property, Iran International deployed its full resources to report about the real situation.

The government shut down the internet and Iran International and other foreign-based Persian broadcasters were the only window for the people to know what was unfolding in the country.

In the leaked Intelligence Ministry letter dated November 30, 2019, a top counter-intelligence officer wrote to Ali Alghasi, Tehran Prosecutor General, revealing the tactics employed by the Islamic Republic as dissenting voices became ever harder to quash.

Tehran Prosecutor General Ali Alghasi Mehr

The document, written as protests were quashed, revealed that 15 family members of Iran International employees across the country were summoned by the Intelligence Ministry.

“Some 71 behind the scenes key players were barred from being able to carry out financial transactions,” according to the letter marked as top secret.

While Iran’s pressure on Iran International and other Persian broadcasters has been publicized before, the document offered an insight into the motivations behind such actions.

“These measures had a psychological impact on the employees resulting in mental disorder and confusion and their sense of security,” the counter-intelligence officer added.

Revealing the psychological warfare employed by the regime, the unnamed author of the letter expressed that the intention of the Intelligence Ministry’s actions was to deliberately "disrupt the mental peace" of those daring to voice opposition to the regime.

However, in spite of the attempts to silence the channel, he noted the regime's failure. “It must be mentioned here that following these measures, the network is almost back to its original format and part of their schedule is dedicated to the legal and intelligence agencies actions involving the network’s employees and their families.”

Riot police against protesters in Tehran during 2019 protests

During the 2019 uprising, the government imposed a week-long internet ban in an attempt to further suppress dissent. Describing the work of Iran International to the prosecutor, the letter said: “This network broadcasts interviews with various people opposed to the establishment, e.g. Monarchists, Mojahedin and …… to call on people to rebellion and destruction of public property, destruction and burning of the state property.”

He accused the station of disseminating “false news to encourage the villains and vandals, inviting people to gather in streets and public places, mobilizing the Iranians living abroad to support the rioters” and "subverting the position of the supreme leader of the country by highlighting his support for the [petrol price increase] plan”.

Iran International has been subjected to a state-backed campaign for years, resulting in a significant escalation in threats against its staff in terms of frequency and severity.

In February 2023, the channel had to temporarily relocate its offices in London to Washington after the UK’s security forces determined it could no longer keep the staff safe following assassination attempts by Iran’s IRGC. However, the network reopened in September from a new location amid tightened security measures.

It was also revealed last year that key commanders from Unit 840 of the IRGC’s Qods Force had offered a human trafficker $200,000 in October 2022 to assassinate Fardad Farahzad, a presenter at Iran International, and former presenter Sima Sabet. In February 2023, a Chechen-born Austrian national, Magomed Dovtaev, was arrested close to the network’s headquarters in London on suspicion of conducting hostile reconnaissance. He was subsequently convicted last December for providing information to be used in a terror plot.

A frame of the footage released by UK police showing Magomed-Husejn Dovtaev gathering intel on Iran International's former headquarters

The letter reveals that even ordinary citizens who tried to contact Iran International and share their experiences and visual materials faced pressure from the government.

"In respect of the need to counter the actions of the foreigners and the broadcasting satellite networks, those making contacts with them within Iran were identified and phone numbers of the broadcasting companies were blocked,” the counter-intelligence officer wrote.

The leak also revealed the harassment not only of journalists, but also of their parents and family members, threatening them that should their children continue working with “opposition” media, “deemed to disturb the peace and security of the country … they will be dealt with according to the law”.

A UK representative of Reporters Without Borders condemned the harassment of Iran International Journalists. “Iran’s targeting of journalists’ families shows the shocking lengths to which it will go to silence a free press. It is intended not only to disrupt family life, but also to heap yet more psychological pressure on journalists in exile who are also contending with direct threats. RSF stands in solidarity with all Iranian journalists who continue to report in the face of such harassment and calls on the Iranian authorities to immediately stop their relentless efforts to intimidate them.”

The 2023 annual report from Freedom House, noted that “Iranian authorities have intimidated journalists working for Persian-language media outside the country, in part by summoning and threatening their families in Iran”, as its policy of threats continues in the face of mass discontent.

It stated that amid the nationwide protests that began in September 2022, in the wake of Mahsa Amini’s death in morality-police custody, authorities arrested dozens of journalists, and at least 62 were jailed, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.

“Authorities also attempted to suppress coverage of the protest movement by imposing severe restrictions on internet services, including curbs on access to the social media platforms Instagram and WhatsApp,” it stated, as internet shutdowns continue today.

Last month, the US and UK announced a sanctions package against a network involved in assassination plots targeting dissidents, including Iran International journalists, on British soil. At least 15 plots have been foiled in the UK since 2022.

UK Home Secretary James Cleverly said: “The Iranian regime has tried to undermine our democracy through repression … We cannot allow foreign regimes to collaborate with criminals to threaten us. Sanctioning these criminal networks working for the Iranian regime will remind them that we will fight back. My priority is to protect our people and to defend our way of life, and the UK will not tolerate threats from the Iranian regime.”

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