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House of Lords Hansard
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12 June 2018
Volume 791

Question

Asked by

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To ask Her Majesty’s Government what action they are taking to prevent the harassment of BBC Persian staff by the Iranian authorities.

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My Lords, we are concerned by the charges and the wider activity against BBC Persian staff in Iran. We expressed our concern about this at the UN Human Rights Council on 12 March, and both the Foreign Secretary and the Minister for the Middle East have raised the issue with their Iranian counterparts on several occasions. I assure noble Lords that we will continue to raise the treatment of BBC Persian staff and their families with the Iranian Government.

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I thank my noble friend for that Answer. BBC World Service staff working on the Persian service, which is a vital source of impartial news in that area, continue to be harassed and targeted by the Iranian authorities. While I know that the Foreign Secretary has raised this at the highest levels with the Iranian Government in recent times, what assurance can we have from the Government that they will continue to worry about this? This is a serious state of affairs for the BBC World Service.

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I assure my noble friend that we will continue to raise this. The latest example of this was when my right honourable friend Alistair Burt, the Minister of State for the region, visited on 29 April and raised this directly. My noble friend is also quite right that in July 2017 a criminal investigation was opened into the activities of all BBC Persian staff, which includes alleging that their work constituted a crime against Iran’s national security. The result has been great hardship, the freezing of assets, and 152 named individuals linked to the BBC Persian service have been captured by this. We continue to implore the Iranian authorities to treat the situation in such a way as to ensure the freedom of the press in Iran, and we will continue to press for such.

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My Lords, obviously the House wishes the Minister well in his attempts to get this situation put right for BBC staff. But given the track record of Rouhani and his Government on dealing with the human rights of his own people, I would not hold your breath about them changing their minds very quickly. What will Her Majesty’s Government do to make sure that we get better treatment for the BBC staff than we got for the unfortunate lady from Hampstead, who is still incarcerated after repeated attempts by this Government to get her released?

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The noble Lord is right. The human rights situation—I speak as the Human Rights Minister—is dire not just for the people of other nationalities or joint nationality, as the case that he has pointed to illustrates, but for Iranians themselves. We have seen the persecution of minority communities, including Christians and Baha’is, continuing in Iran. Our attitude, which I think is the right one, is that we will persevere with our bilateral exchanges directly with the Iranians and we will continue to raise this matter through international fora, including the Human Rights Council, as I have done most recently.

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My Lords, many in the BBC Persian service are dual nationals. The noble Lord made very brief reference to Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, who has dual nationality. She has now been in prison for 800 days, and yesterday marked her daughter’s fourth birthday. Can the noble Lord be a bit more expansive about what the Government are doing to seek her release, especially after the flurry of activity in various directions last year by the Foreign Secretary?

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I am sure that I speak for all noble Lords——I speak as a parent, too—when I say that our hearts go out to a young child whose parent was absent for a notable birthday, and our compassion goes out to the family. Many sensitivities are associated with the case that the noble Baroness raises and other consular cases, but I reassure her that we regularly raise the case of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, as well as other cases, and we will continue to do so. The issue of dual nationals is pertinent because Iran does not recognise dual nationality.

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My Lords, I declare an interest as a series producer working at CNN. Last year, the Government gave an extra £85 million to the BBC World Service, which helped set up 12 new BBC language services in areas where free speech is oppressed. That funding has a commitment for two years. What are the Government’s plans for funding these services beyond 2020?

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The Government have indicated their commitment through the funding that the noble Viscount has alluded to. In terms of longer-term funding, we believe strongly in the BBC World Service, most notably in its provision of impartial news and support to various populations across the world. I will write to the noble Viscount about funding beyond 2020.

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My Lords, why does the Foreign Secretary not summon the Iranian ambassador to the Foreign Office every day until Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe is released?

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I am sure that my right honourable friend will take note of my noble friend’s suggestion. However, I say to my noble friend that we do not miss any opportunity to raise consular cases. This is not just about the ambassador; let us be clear that, when it comes to the Iranian Administration, these calls are made in Tehran. We make these issues known not just to Foreign Minister Zarif but to President Rouhani, and there is also great influence in these cases from Ayatollah Khamenei, the spiritual leader in Iran. I do not believe that summoning the ambassador every single day would result in the release of Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe or the outcome that we desire.

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My Lords, the fact is that this issue has global implications. The BBC World Service has a well-deserved reputation, certainly in going to parts of the world where freedom of speech is denied. The noble Lord has spelled out what we are doing to raise the issue with the Iranian authorities, but can he spell out in more detail how we are building alliances with other countries, particularly with our allies in the EU, to tackle this problem?

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The noble Lord raises an important point. This morning I attended a meeting of UN counterparts within the EU family. The important message that I conveyed was that we will continue to work co-operatively and collaboratively with our EU partners when we leave the European Union. As we saw on a different matter relating to Iran—the JCPOA—concerted action demonstrated unity. The fact that Chancellor Merkel, President Macron and Prime Minister May acted together ensured that that deal stayed on the table. That important collaboration should be a key focus of our continued co-operation with our European partners.