Brian Williamson | VOA News
“How is your daughter doing? Is she well?” The email to Nazenin Ansari, from someone she suspects is an Iranian agent, sent shivers up the journalist’s spine.
It didn’t matter that Ansari was in the United Kingdom, where as managing editor of the Iranian news websites Kayhan London and Kayhan Life she had freedom to cover Tehran in a way she couldn’t inside her home country.
Even 4,300 kilometers away, people close to the Iranian government still try to intimidate her.
Messages threatening harm to loved ones are just one of the tactics that Iran and other authoritarian regimes use to try to harass journalists who report from afar.
Journalists who've reported on repressive regimes sometimes have no choice but to flee for their safety. But exile is no shield for loved ones back home. The threat of family reprisals puts journalists in a fraught corner. Here, they tell their stories:
Press Freedom Editor
Iran’s jailing earlier this year of VOA Persian TV host Masih Alinejad’s brother brought the risks to reporters’ families close to home.
In the wake of Alinejad’s case, VOA spoke with over a dozen journalists who live in exile about the consequences their reporting can have on friends and family back home. Journalists from Venezuela, Egypt, Turkey, China and elsewhere told VOA how they escaped persecution only for authorities to turn their sights on friends, family and colleagues.
Sometimes security agents call relatives in for questioning or ask them to contact the journalist and tell them to quit reporting. Or they threaten financial repercussions: firings, loss of contracts, asset freezes. In the most egregious cases, parents and siblings have been jailed for lengthy periods without being given a reason.
Journalists are forced to make highly personal decisions on whether to continue their work. The consequences are weighty for both the reporters and audiences they serve.
Kenneth Roth, executive director of the New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW), says threatening family members has been an effective tool for repressive governments to silence journalists.
“Some families have discussed this in advance and have decided to simply take that risk to bear that burden, in which case the journalist or the critic abroad will proceed knowing that his or her family is willing to accept the price that may be visited upon them,” he said.
But in other cases, Roth said, the safety of family members will silence journalists.
“Even though the journalists may have made certain personal choices to engage in criticism of a repressive government, that doesn’t mean that the whole family wants to assume that risk,” Roth told VOA.
Robert Mahoney, deputy executive director of the press freedom nonprofit Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), said fear prevents some journalists from coming forward about the harassment.
“It can be difficult to get details from places like Eritrea or China where families, particularly those of imprisoned journalists, may be concerned even to speak out for fear of making life for their relatives even worse,” he told VOA.
While neither Amnesty International nor CPJ keep statistics on journalists going into exile, they say the family threats appear to be a growing trend in many authoritarian countries.
A staff survey by the U.K.-based BBC Persian shows the extent of harassment for journalists at just one network.
Of the 102 staff journalists who responded to the March survey, 69 said one or more relatives in Iran had been questioned, harassed or threatened by Iranian authorities. And nearly half said they had lost a parent but been too scared to travel to Iran for the funeral.
BBC Persian special correspondent Kasra Naji, who shared the results of the survey with the VOA Persian service, said 152 current and former journalists at the outlet are still under a criminal investigation and a government-ordered asset freeze imposed in 2017.
Iran’s representative to the United Nations did not respond to VOA’s request for comment. The country has rejected complaints about its crackdown, telling a U.N. General Assembly committee in October 2018 that Tehran sees itself as a victim of “media warfare” funded by “adversarial governments.”
Iran, China and Egypt are all countries in which authorities – unable to persecute a journalist directly – instead jail relatives, sometimes for long periods and without justifying the charges.
Philippe Nassif, the Middle East and North Africa advocacy director at Amnesty International, says it is a violation of international law to arrest anyone without a reason.
“Family members are no longer the exception, and in fact, are often targeted when dissidents are overseas and out of grasp from security services,” he told VOA.
When the brother of VOA Persian TV host Alinejad was sentenced to eight years in prison on national security charges, Alinejad accused Iran of taking her brother hostage to silence her criticism of Tehran. Alinejad hosts the New York City-based show Tablet for VOA Persian.
Roth, of Human Rights Watch, said that some governments also “make it very clear that if family members speak out of concern for the state of their loved one in detention, they might very quickly join them there.”
When authorities in Egypt were unable to directly target Al-Sharq journalist Moataz Matar, who fled when President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi came to power in 2013 and who in 2015 was sentenced in absentia to a 10-year jail sentence for incitement, they repeatedly took his father and siblings into custody.
Matar started a social media campaign to draw attention to his family’s plight, but Egypt responded by raiding his mother’s house and arresting two other brothers.
Egypt’s Foreign Ministry did not respond to VOA’s request for comment.
China’s persecution of ethnic Uighurs in the Xinjiang province, along with those who worked to expose the Uighurs’ plight, exemplifies the extremes regimes are willing to go to. China doubled down after an international backlash against mass detention, forced labor, and “re-education” programs were exposed by international media and rights groups.
Foreign journalists reported that free travel to Xinjiang was restricted and that witnesses who escaped and exposed atrocities say their loved ones were detained or harassed by the authorities to stop them from speaking out.
One journalist, Abduweli Ayup, moved abroad after authorities detained him for his work. When he continued reporting on Uighur issues for international outlets, China was quick to respond, arresting his siblings.
“Until this day, I have no news of my brother and sister,” Ayup said. Friends told him his sister was forced to denounce Ayup in front of colleagues at the school where she taught.
China’s Foreign Ministry did not respond to VOA’s request for comment.
In the digital age, it is harder for governments to enforce full censorship. From the safety of countries including the U.S., Norway and Germany, reporters in exile are able to continue investigating corruption and rights abuses back home.
“Even in countries where the government is determined to silence any critic and particularly critics in the media, one thing that they can’t do simply is to silence journalists who are in exile,” said HRW’s Roth. “Even if the government has shut down any independent media within the country and people can simply share reporting from abroad, the word gets out.”
Can Dundar, the former editor of the opposition Turkish daily Cumhuriyet, is proof.
Turkey launched a high-profile legal case against Dundar in June 2015, on accusations of sharing state secrets. A gunman shot at him outside an Istanbul court during the trial in 2016. And authorities banned his wife from travel in a move that kept the couple separated for three years. Most recently, an Istanbul court declared Dundar, who has been living in exile in Germany since 2016, a fugitive and ordered his assets to be seized.
Even his paper came under pressure. In 2016 police raided the outlet and arrested several journalists, including members of the editorial board. Following a 2018 appeals court ruling into alleged irregularities around the paper’s editorial board, a new one was formed, prompting several journalists to resign. Critics say the new board has a more pro-government stance.
Turkey’s Foreign Ministry did not respond to VOA’s request for comment.
Access to independent news is difficult in Turkey as the government and allies of ruler Recep Tayyip Erdogan have taken control of or closed news outlets and used jailings, asset freezes and other threats to stifle critical reporting.
But Dundar has refused to be silenced.
He and colleagues set up an online radio station, Özgürüz (We’re Free), in December 2016 so audiences in Turkey can get access to independent, accurate news on current affairs and politics that is often missing in the state-controlled media.
“We realized that people in Turkey are unable to reach the truth via Turkish media,” Dundar said. “We are publishing news that isn’t possible to be published inside Turkey.”