Iran’s targeting of foreign journalists has intensified. In recent weeks and months, the regime has conducted cyber attacks against Iranian journalists abroad, launched a criminal investigation of BBC Persian, and falsely charged a British-Iranian for conspiring against the regime by teaching journalism. Tehran’s conduct reflects its longstanding fear that journalists constitute Western agents who seek to infiltrate the country with foreign ideologies contrary to Shiite Islam.
On November 9, an investigation by the Center for Human Rights in Iran concluded that hackers from the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) emailed malware on November 6 to three journalists based in Europe and the United States and to a human rights lawyer in the United States.
The malware attacks retain particular significance in light of their ability to hack Mac computers rather than only Windows and Android. A February 2017 report by the cyber security group Iran Threats noted that Iran had begun developing such malware in response to the increasing perception that Mac computers offer greater protection against internet threats. As such, the latest attacks represent an enhancement of Iran’s cyber capabilities.
On November 4, the Iranian judiciary announced fresh charges against British-Iranian charity worker Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, who received a five-year prison sentence last year on spurious espionage claims. The new allegations, which accuse her of “spreading propaganda against the regime,” came in the wake of an incorrect statement by British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson that Ratcliffe had visited Iran to teach journalism. In fact, she came to the country to see family while on vacation.
Still, Tehran cited Johnson’s assertion to justify the new charges, which could extend her sentence by an additional five years. Johnson subsequently retracted his statement and called for Ratcliffe’s release.
On October 25, the United Nations criticized Iran for freezing the assets of some 150 BBC Persian journalists in August and then launching a criminal investigation against them on charges of engaging in a “conspiracy against national security.” “The Iranian authorities appear to regard any affiliation with the BBC as a crime,” said David Kaye, the UN special rapporteur on freedom of expression, and Asma Jahangir, the UN special rapporteur on human rights in Iran, in a joint statement.
A website functioning as an IRGC mouthpiece attempted to justify Tehran’s persecution of the BBC by noting that Iran remains locked in an “ongoing soft war” with Britain. “Isn’t the BBC,” wrote Javan chief editor Abdollah Ganji, “at the service of the opponents of the Islamic Republic, who pose as academic experts from places no one has heard of? Why wouldn’t Iran see them as enemies? Are enemy properties not part of the spoils of war?”
This declaration suggests that Tehran regards journalists as foot soldiers in a larger ideological struggle against Iran. Journalists, in Tehran’s view, aim to undermine the regime’s legitimacy by proliferating content that discredits the Shiite theology guiding it. Iran also keenly recalls that the internet, particularly social media, played a key role in facilitating the mass protests of 2009.
In this sense, Tehran’s latest crackdown on journalists amounts to the continuation of an established trend.
In her most recent semi-annual report on Tehran’s human rights abuses, Jahangir further noted that Iran’s penal code mandates 74 lashes to anyone who criticizes the government or publishes false news. “Since 2009,” she wrote, “no fewer than 40 journalists and citizen journalists have reportedly been sentenced to [a combined total of] 2,000 lashes.” Meanwhile, Reporters Without Borders calls Iran one of “the world’s biggest prisons for journalists” and ranks the country 165th out of 180 in its 2017 World Press Freedom Index.
In Tehran’s eyes, journalists threaten not only the regime’s survival but also the country’s soul. This harsh reality offers little reason for optimism that Iran plans to alter its behavior voluntarily in the future.
Tzvi Kahn is a senior Iran analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Follow him on Twitter @TzviKahn.
Follow the Foundation for Defense of Democracies on Twitter @FDD.