In a crackdown viewed by media watchdog groups as a warning ahead of presidential elections due in the summer, at least 14 Iranian journalists have been arrested since Sunday, accused of collaborating with groups opposed to the “Islamic revolution.” One was later released.
Now Iranian authorities are linking those arrests to the BBC, Britain’s public service broadcaster and the world’s largest news-gathering broadcasting operation.
Iran’s intelligence ministry issued a statement Wednesday saying that it had “succeeded in uncovering one of the biggest networks (of informants and agents) linked with the media camp of the arrogant powers.” (“Arrogant powers” is Tehran’s term for the United States, Britain, Israel and other Western countries it regards as hostile.)
“The network was run by the British government’s psychological operations organization (known as the BBC) in cooperation with several western governments and used a multilayer, extensive and well-equipped structure and very special methods of communications for sending its reports,” it said.
The statement, which was released to regime-linked media outlets including the Fars, Mehr and IRNA news agencies, said the BBC and “Western co-conspirators” had used the experience gained during the protests that followed the disputed 2009 presidential election.
The ministry said it had monitored the “network” for months and had collected the required proof before moving ahead with the arrests.
The case against the accused was not reliant on their confessions, as data collected from those held provided strong evidence of links to the BBC that would be indisputable in court.
The ministry said further arrests were likely in the coming days “till the last individual in the network is arrested.”
Referring to recent criticism of the arrests by Western media and human rights groups, it said the “ballyhoo” would have no impact on the intelligence ministry’s determination and its course of action.
“We refute these allegations completely,” a BBC spokesman in London told CNSNews.com early Thursday. “We do not have, and never have had, any working relationship whatsoever with these journalists. The allegations are completely without foundation.”
The journalists arrested in recent days write for four daily newspapers – Etemad (“Trust”), Arman (“Goals”), Shargh (“East”) and Bahar (“Spring”) – and the weekly Aseman (“Sky”).
The media freedom watchdog Reporters Without Borders linked the arrests to the upcoming election, when Iranians will choose a successor to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
“Iran has not yet emerged from the era of terror launched after the disputed June 2009 presidential election and now, five months before the next election in June 2013, a clear warning is being given – journalists and news media will be gagged,” said the organization’s secretary-general, Christophe Deloire.
The state-run IRNA news agency on Wednesday offered another reason for Iran’s unhappiness with the BBC. It said the broadcaster had run reports “at the behest of Washington” trying to lay the blame on Ahmadinejad for a severe shortage of medicines in Iran.
The aim, it said, was to persuade Iranians that the president was inefficient and should be fired, when the real reason for the shortage was sanctions against Iran’s central bank.
“The old fox, the British government, is not aware that Iranian people are intelligent enough to understand the meaning of sanctions on Central Bank of Iran and they see that patients have been exposed to risk of death due to shortage of medicine,” IRNA said.
Ahmadinejad last December fired his health minister – the only woman in the cabinet – after her ministry put out a statement criticizing the authorities for not providing the funds needed to import medicine.
Last week the BBC accused the Iranian government of intimidating London-based staff members of the BBC’s Persian-language service, by harassing their family members in Iran.
It said false Facebook accounts and websites had been created to smear the BBC Persian staffers, accusing them of sexual misconduct, of working for Britain’s MI6 intelligence agency, and other allegations.