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Security Threat to UK-based Journalists

Volume 827: debated on Tuesday 21 February 2023


The following Statement was made in the House of Commons on Monday 20 February.

“I want to update the House on steps that the Home Secretary and I have been taking to address the concerning activities of the Iranian regime and its operatives in the United Kingdom.

The United Kingdom is committed to defending our freedoms—values that define us and make us who we are—and none is more fundamental than freedom of the press. The Iranian regime’s violent oppression of its own citizens and repeated violations of human rights have shown us who the Supreme Leader and his enforcers really are. It has murdered its own people and made hostages of others, and the protests that began in September 2022 show that it does not have the support of the Iranian people.

In recent months, the Iranian regime has publicly called for the capture or killing of those holding it to account. That includes very real and specific threats towards UK-based journalists working for Iran International, a prominent Persian-language news channel, and their families. The Home Secretary and I absolutely condemn this outrageous violation of our sovereignty and the attempted violation of the human rights of those journalists. In response, we have put in place an extremely robust range of security measures, including armed policing. However, because of the severity of the threat and the particularities of the site, Counter Terrorism Policing has advised Iran International to move to a more secure location in the United Kingdom. Until its studio is ready, it has chosen to continue its broadcasting from existing studios in the United States—I assure the House that this measure will be temporary. Until then, I have asked officials to help find a temporary location for Iran International’s UK operations, and we will make sure that its permanent new studio in the United Kingdom is secure. I spoke to Counter Terrorism Policing this morning to confirm that.

Let me be clear: freedom of the press is at the heart of our freedoms. Tehran’s efforts to silence Iran International are a direct attack on our freedoms, and an attempt to undermine our sovereignty. They will fail. Democracy is as much about journalists and civic activists as it is about politicians. The media must be free to work without fear, which is why this Government have already set up the Defending Democracy Taskforce, and why we will be taking further action in response to these threats. I am not alone in saying this: earlier this afternoon, I spoke to my counterparts in France, Germany and the United States. They all agreed, and spoke of incidents that have targeted individuals in their own countries. When I spoke to Iran International over the weekend, it praised our police; it is right to do so, because only last week, the vigilance of our officers resulted in an individual being charged with a terrorism offence after being arrested near the broadcaster’s office.

None the less, this is clearly an appalling situation. The Government, police, agencies and our allies are working together to ensure that Iran International’s operations will resume, and these threats will not silence us, nor them. I know that this House will wish to express its support for that principle too.

As of last week, we had responded to 15 credible threats to kill or kidnap British or UK-based individuals by the Iranian regime since the start of 2022. Between 2020 and 2022, Iran tried to collect intelligence on UK-based Israeli and Jewish individuals. We believe this information was a preparation for future lethal operations. In 2021, UK police asked partners to share information on Iran-based Mohammed Mehdi Mozayyani, a member of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps who worked to conduct a lethal operation against Iranian dissidents here in the United Kingdom. We know that the Iranian intelligence services work with organised criminal gangs, and I can assure the House and the public that we will go after anyone working with them.

Our partners in Europe and the United States face similar threats, and we are working together to keep our people safe. My call this afternoon with other allies was about co-ordinating action that we will take to protect ourselves and ensure a unified response to these threats. We are strongest when we work with our allies around the world, and the Iranian regime should be in no doubt that we are absolutely united.

Let me be clear that this is a persistent threat. It is not carried out by rogue elements, but is a conscious strategy of the Iranian regime. Our Government will act. My right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary has already summoned the Iranian chargé d’affaires, and we will be looking at further sanctions on those linked to the Iranian regime. We already have around 300 sanctions in place against Iran, including of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps in its entirety.

Today, alongside international partners, eight further individuals were sanctioned, but our response will not end there. Today I have instructed the Home Office to lead work on countering Iranian state threats, making use of the full breadth and expertise of the Government and our extraordinary and courageous police, security and intelligence agencies. We will target the full spectrum of threats we see coming from Tehran. I will be asking our security agencies to explore what more we can do with our allies to tackle threats of violence, but we will also address the wider threat to economic security from illicit finance and the threat from malign interference in our democratic society.

At home, the Charity Commission will soon report on its statutory inquiry into the Islamic Centre of England, which is accused of having links to the Iranian regime. We must ensure that our police and intelligence agencies have the power to crack down on state threats such as those from Iran, which is why I urge the House to back the National Security Bill, which is going through Parliament at the moment.

The relationship we have with Iran is not the one we want; it is not the one we chose. We have a deep respect for Iran’s rich history and for the Iranian people. From the Shahnameh to the works of Saadi, the wealth of the nation has been in the words of her people. They taught ethics and governance and the importance of law, but today the tyrants in Tehran have betrayed those great pillars of Persian civilisation and are trying to silence those words and their own people, but they will not be silenced. To the brave Iranian journalists and community here in the United Kingdom, I say that this country, this Government and this whole House stands in solidarity with you against the oppression that you face.

Mr Deputy Speaker, let me directly address the Iranian regime, which is responsible for these heinous crimes. We will hold you to account for your blatant violation of our laws and values. We will expose your crimes against the British people and against the Iranian people. We will expose your actions around the world. We will work with our allies to hold you to account, personally. We will act to keep our country safe. I commend this Statement to the House.”

My Lords, this Statement deals with the fact that, on the advice of counterterrorism police, a dissident Iranian TV channel has been forced to stop broadcasting in Britain. Why? Because we cannot guarantee the safety of its staff and personnel from Iranian-backed assassination or kidnap on British soil. How has it come to this? In a statement, the Iranian TV channel’s managing director said this, and I totally agree:

“I cannot believe that it has come to this. A foreign state has caused such a significant threat to the British public on British soil that we have to move. Let’s be clear that this is not just a threat to our TV station but to the British public at large. This is an assault on the values of sovereignty and free speech that the UK has always held dear.”

We are all appalled. Press freedom is fundamental to any liberal democracy, and it is right that we are all committed to its defence across this Chamber.

Iran International has been operating here successfully since 2017. During that time, it has shone a light on the violent repression of those protesting and demanding civil liberties in Iran. For that, it has been targeted by the regime—not by rogue agents, but by the state. Can the Minister tell us what meetings, if any, there have been with Iranian officials and what has been said by the Iranians by way of any possible explanation?

In November, the director-general of MI5 talked of 10 occasions on which Iran has sought to murder or kidnap individuals since the beginning of 2022. Since then, there have been a further five. While I congratulate all concerned in counterterrorism, as I know we all will, will the Minister tell us whether any of these threats were home-grown or whether they were people who had come from Iran? Can the Minister say more about the following sentence in the Minister’s Statement yesterday in the other place:

“We know that the Iranian intelligence services work with organised criminal gangs, and I can assure the House and the public that we will go after anyone working with them”?

Are these British organised criminal gangs? Is there a franchise operating? What does “going after” mean? If we know who they are, why have they not already been arrested? Can the Minister explain why, given the threat, the Government are not going further in deploying sanctions and using proscription powers against those acting on behalf of Iran?

The Minister in the other place spoke of his desire to see the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps proscribed. Why is it not, either through the use of existing powers or through new state threats equivalent powers? The IRGC was not mentioned in yesterday’s Statement at all. Why not? Why is it still free to organise and establish support here in the United Kingdom today, as we discuss what has happened? The United States proscribed the IRGC in 2019. The Intelligence and Security Committee has warned of state-sponsored assassination and is undertaking a report into Iran. Can the Minister confirm that the committee is urgently receiving all the information and support it needs from the Government?

It is clear that threats are increasing, not only abroad but here in the UK, to UK citizens, other nationals and organisations such as Iranian TV. How is the work to counter this being co-ordinated across government between the different agencies, departments and counterterrorism police? Are there sufficient resources? Given the changing threat, is any assessment about co-ordination being made? Does the Minister agree that the eyes of the world are on us? They are watching to see if we can protect our own sovereignty and our own democracy. What matters is not only the threat from Iran, but what it might tell other states posing potential or real threats—namely Russia, North Korea or China—of our ability to defend our democracy.

We must make this a safe place for journalists and others speaking truth to power. We can never allow tyranny or authoritarianism to be exported to the United Kingdom. The Government must fully grip this, and in so doing, once again, as we all would wish, stand up for our freedoms and those of others across the world, as we have always done.

My Lords, from these Benches, I thank the Minister for the Statement. We are all horrified that Iran International felt the need to close its offices in the UK, and I look forward to hearing his answers to the questions of the noble Lord, Lord Coaker.

For many years, I worked as a journalist. Many of my closest friends are journalists. The closest is no longer with us: Marie Colvin—brave, wonderful Marie, targeted by the Assad regime and murdered in Homs, Syria, in 2012. Tomorrow is the anniversary of her death. Now we see this targeting of those who seek to hold power to account happening on our own British soil. It is unacceptable, so I welcome the Government’s acknowledgment that freedom of the press is sacrosanct.

As with the Government’s robust response to the Iranian Government’s behaviour towards Iran International, will they be equally robust over Iran’s behaviour toward BBC Persian and the persecution of BBC Persian staff and family members living in Iran? What they are being subjected to is appalling.

Finally, these cumulative events underline just how important our free press is, as the noble Lord, Lord Coaker, said. It is vital that, in countries like Iran, citizens have access to our wonderful BBC World Service. Consequently, does the Minister not agree that it must be properly funded and not forced into making the kinds of cuts that it has had to make recently?

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord and the noble Baroness for their remarks, and I start mine by stating, as my right honourable friend in the other place said, that

“The United Kingdom is committed to defending our freedoms—values that define us and make us who we are—and none is more fundamental than freedom of the press.”

So I entirely echo their opinions on that subject.

As to the specific circumstances of the people in London who have been targeted by another state, the police and the security services work night and day to keep people safe, and that is what they have been doing here. The noble Lord, Lord Coaker, referred to the statement this weekend from Matt Jukes, the head of counterterrorism policing at the Metropolitan Police. He set out the scale of their operations and the protective security in relation to this case to date, and said that

“The advice to relocate has not been given lightly”

but is the result of continued investigations and dedicated work to keep people safe. We thank them for that. As my right honourable friend the Security Minister said yesterday, Iran International has praised the police for their efforts, and this commendation speaks volumes.

Of course we take these attacks on a free press seriously. That is why we are doing this. As to the allusion to why we have allowed this to happen and what representations have been made to the Iranian authorities, the Foreign Secretary called the Iranian chargé d’affaires in for a meeting yesterday and we will be looking at further sanctions for those connected to the Iranian regime. There are around 300 sanctions in place against Iran, including the entirety of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. Alongside international partners, we sanctioned another eight individuals yesterday. My right honourable friend in the other place referred to speaking to international partners in Germany, France and the US yesterday, so this effort goes across Governments. We are not the only ones to suffer from this.

The noble Lord, Lord Coaker, asked what the Government are doing to disrupt Iran’s use of serious organised crime groups. He will appreciate that I cannot go into operational details—I am sure that he does not expect me to—and I appreciate that he still has to ask the question. It is concerning; it demonstrates the poor state and quality of Iranian intelligence services that they are able to conduct their activities only by resorting to criminals—small comfort. This concern does not relate only to the UK. As I just referenced, we are working closely with international partners, which face very similar threats, and a lot of other international organisations to identify, degrade and disrupt these networks to the best of our ability. We make full use of the range of powers available. I also commend to all noble Lords present the National Security Bill, which is passing through the House at the moment.

I referenced sanctions earlier. The Government are putting an enormous amount of pressure on the Iranian regime. I have a long list of sanctions, which I could go through, but I will leave it at the headline number of 300. There are a lot more that we could do but, as I said and we have discussed in many other debates on these sorts of subjects, we work with international partners and there is no point in doing this in isolation.

The noble Lord, Lord Coaker, asked about proscription of the IRGC. We keep the list of proscribed organisations under review, but we do not comment on whether an organisation is or is not under consideration for proscription. To go into more detail, we regularly assess the impact of the IRGC and its continued destabilising activity, particularly in the Middle East. As I have said, the UK maintains a range of sanctions that work to constrain its activities and we support the enforcement of UN prohibitions on the proliferation of weapons to non-state actors in the region, including to the Lebanese Hezbollah and the Houthis in Yemen—both of which are proscribed organisations.

On the ISC question, we are supplying it with as much as we can. As we talked about in December, my right honourable friend in the other place has set up a defending democracy task force. He has promised to come forward with some updates on that soon, as well as it being part of the strategic review, so we can look forward to that.

I have spoken long enough and hope I have answered the questions raised. I will conclude with some of the remarks made by my right honourable friend the Security Minister in the other place, who put it very well. I have not quite concluded, because I have forgotten to answer the noble Baroness’s question, but I will do so in finishing. My right honourable friend put this very well and, more importantly, I know that all noble Lords share these sentiments. He said:

“To the brave Iranian journalists and community here in the United Kingdom, I say that this country, this Government and this whole House stands in solidarity with you against the oppression that you face.”

He went on to say:

“let me directly address the Iranian regime, which is responsible for these heinous crimes. We will hold you to account for your blatant violation of our laws and values.”—[Official Report, Commons, 20/2/23; cols. 49-51.]

As a postscript, the BBC is operationally and editorially independent from the Government. Decisions over how its services are delivered are a matter for the BBC. The World Service is transforming to a digital-first service. Internet usage has tripled globally over the last 10 years, and a reported 84% of Iranians were using the internet in 2020. Only 1% of the BBC’s total weekly Iranian audience of 13.8 million get BBC news solely via radio; 99% use BBC Persian on TV and online. I hope that answers the noble Baroness’s question.

My Lords, I declare an interest as a series producer of a made-for-television series about the war in Ukraine. Like other noble Lords, I am appalled to hear about the many kidnap and death threats against journalists in this country for holding the Iranian regime to account. I gather that there were many more than 15. They include journalists in the BBC Persian service, as the noble Baroness, Lady Bonham-Carter, said, who have also been sanctioned and their families in Iran threatened. What plans do the British Government have to continue to raise the issue at the United Nations Human Rights Council in order to bring together an international coalition to put pressure on the Iranian regime to stop these attacks?

My Lords, the noble Lord’s question is really more for the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, but I will make sure that it is reflected back to my colleagues in that department. I would imagine that extensive conversations and negotiations are ongoing on this subject.

My Lords, I welcome the Government’s robust declaration of protection for UK-based journalists from threats from overseas, but I am puzzled by their equally robust refusal to protect UK journalists from threats via abuse of our own legal system through the use of SLAPPs by parties overseas, despite cross-party support to do something about it. Can the Minister explain this apparent and ugly contradiction to the House?

My Lords, these debates have been rehearsed at considerable length over the past few weeks on the National Security Bill. I have nothing more to add. Obviously, SLAPPs are outside the scope of that Bill, but I am sure that we will come back to this subject frequently.

My Lords, I too have great concerns about the use of our courts to silence journalists who are speaking truth to power, so I reinforce what was said by the noble Lord, Lord Cromwell. But I also congratulate the Government for taking a strong stance on Iran. What happens to journalists also happens to lawyers, and it is a source of great concern to the International Bar Association and its Institute of Human Rights, which I direct.

We run a media freedom project that was initiated by the UK Government, and a growing source of alarm and concern is transnational oppression—the long arm of some of the worst states, the totalitarian states and those that are only too ready to kill, as well as to put journalists and human rights advocates in fear. We are seeing a greater expansion of that reach and I would like to ask whether that is being addressed inside government and the security services. We saw it in the murder of Khashoggi and in going after journalists internally and abroad. It is the same for lawyers; those who are confronting the Chinese are themselves having problems. Are we taking active steps to deal with that transnational oppression?

I thank the noble Baroness for her question and, yes, we are. The security services are very alive to these threats. She could have mentioned a number of others from recent memory, such as Litvinenko, Skripal and so on. We are very aware of the scope and scale of the emerging threats that she so eloquently described. I will not comment on the operational side of this, but I am very reassured that the security services are on top of it.

I join in the general approval of the Statement across all sections of this House. The noble Lord, Lord Coaker, referred to the Security Minister in the Commons talking about the Defending Democracy Taskforce. The Security Minister made specific reference to his instruction to the Home Office, in his words

“to lead work on countering Iranian state threats, making use of the full breadth and expertise of the Government and our extraordinary and courageous police, security and intelligence agencies.”—[Official Report, Commons, 20/2/23; col. 50.]

Would the Minister care to say a little more about that and give a little more detail about what that might entail? I am thinking particularly of a whole-of-government approach—not merely the Home Office, vital though that is—and how that can be built upon. While, as he says, he does not talk about the specifics around this particular proscription, would he care to give, in the widest policy sense, some of the general issues policy-wise and legally that might constitute barriers to entry in terms of proscribing the IRGC?

As to that latter point, I really cannot go any further, I am afraid. It is subject to ongoing scrutiny and I know there is a significant amount of advice currently being considered in that regard. I can say no more.

The first part of my noble friend’s question is, of course, completely right. Any activity in government has to be across agencies and across departments. Part of the reason why these threats are evolving, as the noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy, just pointed out, is because the nature of the threat is evolving and the nature of the reporting of the threats is evolving. The world is changing very rapidly. So it would be foolish for just the Home Office to be looking at this when there are obviously online aspects and Treasury aspects. These are things that we deal with in this House all the time; they come together periodically in economic crime Bills and in national security Bills. I hope noble Lords will continue to support the passage of those Bills because they will target this sort of activity.

My Lords, this situation is something of a national embarrassment, as the noble Lord, Lord Coaker, said. What message does this send out to the rest of the world? I would like to ask the Minister one or two specific questions about the new studio for Iran International because he said next to nothing about it. Could he give us some indication of the timing of the development of the new studio, when it is likely to be completed, the cost and who will pick that up? Will we, as a nation, be contributing anything to the cost of the new studio? Then there is the whole question of the siting of the new studio. Will it be on a separate site, or will it be part of an existing, well-defended site—perhaps an existing military site or similar? Really, nothing has been said about this and I would be grateful if some indication could be given about the site, timing and cost.

My Lords, I am afraid I reject the premise of the question, that this is in some way a national embarrassment. I think this is actually a robust response by the counterterrorist police to an evolving situation, as I tried to explain earlier. I cannot go into details on the new site—I think it would be unwise to do so, for lots of security reasons—and I am afraid I have no details about the costs and who will be paying for it. The thing I can say about the existing site is that the police decided, having responded to a large number of threats, that it was in a difficult place to secure. Therefore, something needed to be done sooner rather than later. I think they should be praised for that.

My Lords, can I take the question of Iran one step further? Does the Statement not make the timing of the closure of the BBC Persian service entirely inappropriate—all for a paltry £800,000 a year? Our foreign policy and strategy should deem this an entirely illogical move. Support for the people of Iran is paramount at this critical time, and closure will send conflicting messages about the support we have in this country for the uprising. Will the Minister take this message back to his colleagues at the Treasury to give clear approval of keeping this critical service open?

I agree with the noble Viscount that the service is indeed critical. I actually delivered some of the figures earlier on access by an Iranian audience to the BBC. Some 99%, as I said earlier, use BBC Persian on TV and online. Only 1% of the BBC’s total weekly Iranian audience of 13.8 million people get BBC news solely via radio. I agree that the BBC World Service does play a vital role in delivering high-quality, accurate and impartial broadcasting across the globe. The FCDO is providing the BBC World Service with over £94 million annually for the next three years; it supports services in 12 languages and improvements to key services in Arabic, Russian and English. That is in addition to nearly £470 million that we have already provided though the World2020 Programme since 2016. To say it has been closed is very much an overstatement.

My Lords, over the weekend I read two stories in the media. The first was that fundamentalist clerics in Iran—a regime inspired by a warped perversion of Islam—had been plotting to murder Israelis and also British Jews here in the UK, as confirmed by the Minister in the other place yesterday. The second story was about the Abrahamic Family House in Abu Dhabi, the vision of Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed, where on the same site a church, a mosque and a synagogue of equal size and equal beauty—designed by a British architect, Sir David Adjaye—have been formally opened. It is remarkable, I would suggest, that religion—in this case, the same religion—can be used to inspire murder or to promote dialogue and tolerance. Will my noble friend the Minister confirm that His Majesty’s Government will do all they can to maintain vigilance and protection against the former, while equally doing all they can to support and promote the latter?

I thank my noble friend for that. He is absolutely right: between 2020 and 2022, Iran did try to collect intelligence on UK-based Israeli and Jewish individuals. We believe this information was preparation for future lethal operations. My right honourable friend in the other place highlighted that Iran has not just targeted Jews and Israelis; it has targeted LGBTQ communities, Muslims and Christians. That is not just a flagrant betrayal of the principles of international law but, as my right honourable friend also said, a betrayal of ancient principles of Persian culture. So I entirely agree with my noble friend that we should be vigilant and on guard as to the former. I absolutely salute the efforts that he described in Abu Dhabi. Anything that promotes dialogue and tolerance between religions, or indeed peoples, has to be applauded and encouraged. I will certainly encourage the Government to do that very volubly.

My Lords, this Statement is a trenchant response and I congratulate the Government on it. However, perhaps I could follow up on the remarks of the noble Baroness, Lady Bonham-Carter, and the Minister’s reply. I want to stress the extraordinary soft power represented by what the BBC is doing. The Minister was right to mention the number. In fact, the Persian service reaches 22 million globally, 13 million in Iran. I think there are fears, despite the reassurances, that it will be hard to keep up the level of broadcasting that I am sure, in many ways, the Minister and the Government would like to see. It is an extraordinary soft power. The Minister mentioned just now the cultural importance of Persia—I could not agree more. It is that communication of culture—our culture to them and their culture to us—that is so important. I still like to believe, in these awful days, even with Russia, that it is through culture and through sport that we can sometimes find a means of speaking to each other.

I think the noble Lord has just, very aptly, described common humanity, and of course I completely agree. I would be straying well beyond my remit if I was to go into soft power and all its uses. Of course, speaking personally, I completely agree. As I pointed out, the FCDO is providing the World Service with significant amounts of funding. Reading between the lines, or perhaps not, I would imagine that indicates that it also believes in the soft power aspect of the World Service. For the reasons that the noble Lord describes, how can we not?

My Lords, this is clearly a very serious situation and I would not want to detract from that at all, but one thing my noble friend has not mentioned today is the Government’s national action plan for the safety of journalists. In light of this situation, are the Government looking to see whether that needs to be reviewed in any way? Also, what, if any, engagement might Ministers have with the National Committee for the Safety of Journalists, which I believe was established just a few years ago? It seems quite relevant if the threats to journalists we are seeing now are growing in such a serious fashion. Alongside that, as the noble Lord, Lord Cromwell, said, there are other kinds of threats being made and actions being taken against journalists, at a rate we perhaps have not seen in the past.

I thank my noble friend for that question. I am afraid that I am not personally able to answer it, so I will make sure that she is written to. I think DCMS takes the lead on this area but I will make further investigations and make sure she is fully informed.

My Lords, I apologise for coming back. I will look closely at the response— I recognise that not all these issues are necessarily the Minister’s bag, as it were—but, on the question of Iran, he needs to be aware, as I am sure the Government and the Minister sitting next to him are, that the ability of people in Iran to receive the World Service is restricted because of the lack of internet and other such issues. The ability of people in the interior of Iran to get the message from the BBC Persian service needs to be looked at.