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At What Cost? The Price for Media Access to Iran

August 12, 2019 by  

This article originated in VOA’s Persian Service. Mark Young contributed from London. At a global press freedom conference last month, BBC chief Tony Hall made a point of praising journalists in his network’s Persian service for standing up to repeated harassment by Iran.  “I want to pay tribute again to their resilience, of them and their families, in the face of years of concerted intimidation,” Hall said at the London event attended by government officials and journalists from more than 100 countries.  But just days after his July 11 remarks, some of the same journalists Hall commended were accusing the British broadcaster of buckling to Iranian censorship.

What set off the journalists was a leaked email showing that the BBC had sent a reporting team to Iran on the apparent condition that BBC Persian would not broadcast its content back to Iranian audiences.

Britain’s National Union of Journalists criticized  the arrangement, saying it gave Iran control over BBC Persian’s output,  and sent the wrong signal “just at the time Iran has stepped up its harassment and persecution of BBC Persian staff and their families.” 

The BBC defended the move, saying it maintained full editorial control of its reporting. But the controversy shines a light on a dilemma that other news organizations face when trying to cover Iran, one of the worst countries in the world when it comes to press freedom. 

Western news agencies working in repressive countries often agree to restrictions on where staffers can go and who they can interview.  In Iran’s case, the government also demands that outlets block the sharing of audio-visual content with Farsi language news services it deems hostile, such as those at the BBC and Voice of America. 

Iran has been jamming and blocking BBC Persian and VOA Persian broadcasts and digital platforms for decades, beginning in the early years of its 1979 Islamic Revolution. 

In recent years, Iranian authorities have tried to further undermine those services by working to deny them access to video obtained in Iran by three major news agencies with Tehran bureaus — French news agency AFP, The Associated Press and Reuters. 

Iran expelled the BBC’s Tehran bureau chief in 2009 in retaliation for the network’s coverage of protests about a disputed presidential election. The AP, Reuters and AFP kept their offices in Tehran open by accepting Iran’s ban on video-sharing with the BBC and VOA Persian services. But Reuters had to close its bureau in 2012 when Iran objected to a video report it produced about Iranian housewives training to become ninjas and revoked the press credentials of its staff.

Sean Gallagher, an editor for Index on Censorship, a British free speech group, told VOA he is unaware of any country besides Iran with such a restriction on foreign media. 

“By agreeing to (Iranian) restrictions on which outlets they can sell their content to, AFP, AP and Reuters regrettably are enabling Iran’s internal censorship, (while) providing a window on the country and its people at a time of global tension over the (Iran) nuclear deal,” Gallagher said.

Two of the agencies had little to say about the content-sharing restriction. Reuters declined to discuss the issue when asked by VOA, while AP provided a terse statement saying it “continues to provide deep coverage of Iran, including stories with a Tehran dateline, to its customers across the globe.” 

Phil Chetwynd, AFP’s chief global editor, said his agency is obliged to comply with local laws and regulations “in order to maintain a bureau in Tehran and to continue to report on the situation in the country as best we can.” He said AFP also has been transparent with its customers about the video-sharing restriction. 

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