We're here to stay, say Iran International journalists on high-security return to London

TV station was forced to shut down in the UK for seven months due to threats from Tehran

Iran International TV resumes operations from London

Iran International TV resumes operations from London
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About 200 British-Iranian journalists are adjusting to a new normal in London after Iran International reopened its bureau following a seven-month hiatus due to security threats.

The network has returned to delivering rolling news coverage of events in Iran after it was forced to close its former office in Chiswick, west London and relocate some staff overseas.

Managers were in February told by British police they would have to stop broadcasting due to high-level threats from Tehran. It followed months of journalists working under armed police protection as part of a major anti-terrorism security operation.

The National has closely followed the Farsi-language TV station's journey from operating under threat to relocating its staff to Washington and returned to speak to employees at its new office.

The persistent threats from the Iranian authorities are evident upon arrival and everyone entering has to pass through several layers of high security.

Inside, reporters and editors work as in any other newsroom in the West: Donald Trump is on the television, colleagues share snacks at their desk and the kitchen is abuzz with chatter and laughter.

But all outsiders are banned from entering, except those whose presence is deemed essential, an element which has put a stop to the celebrations that were frequent in days gone by.

“We love a party but we love our security more,” spokesman Adam Baillie explained. “That’s been quite a restriction for us. It’s sounds flippant but it’s not. This is tight group of people, we’ve all worked together for a long time in special circumstances. No one can go home [to Iran]. It’s like a family here.”

'Being cautious doesn't mean being scared'

Niki Mahjoub, 44, is among the journalists who have had to readjust their lives after death threats from authorities in her homeland of Iran.

Having moved to the UK in 2009 she has been unable to return, which means she has had to miss out on family gatherings including her father’s funeral in 2012.

Her husband recently spotted a man sitting in a car outside their London home and because it appeared “something was not right” it was enough for them to alert police.

The man drove off and nothing happened but she continues to be extra vigilant.

“You need to be cautious but it does not mean you need to be scared,” she said. “These are two different things.”

The Iranian government has formally designated Iran International a terrorist organisation.

This means that employees are barred from owning property in Iran and inheriting assets.

Ms Mahjoub said this also means her life would be in danger if she ever set foot in her homeland again.

“If they decided to, they could hang me,” she said.

'Four hours to close the office down'

Mr Baillie opened up about how the Met Police's closure order sent shock waves through the newsroom.

“'Four hours to quit', they said," he recalled from his conversation with London's police. “We had to make phone calls to all the staff saying 'don’t come to work' and arrange work visas for those going to Washington.”

The force said, according to their intelligence, that Iranian authorities had directly threatened several members of Iran International’s staff.

The Met’s closure order sent staff rushing to secure work visas for journalists being sent to the bureau in Washington DC, while others were told to work from home.

For seven months the London team was splintered and delivered news to viewers inside and outside Iran on a hybrid model.

Iran International had been a thorn in the side of the Iranian government for years but gained more popularity after Mahsa Amini’s death in September 2022. The young Iranian died in custody after being arrested by the morality police for "not wearing her hijab correctly". Her death sparked the widest protest movement in the secluded nation for decades and Iran was condemned internationally for its heavy-handed response to the largely peaceful protests.

Aliasghar Ramezanpour, executive editor of the TV channel, appeared relaxed and upbeat as he laid out the challenges his team had to overcome in the past few months.

He cited courage, responsibility and an unwavering spirit of service to the Iranian people and diaspora as core values of staff who have refused to be cowed by threats from Tehran.

“The first thing was courage and a feeling of responsibility for our newsroom,” he explained. “Everyone was trying to do their best because the general conception here was that we should continue to work even if we are isolated in our homes, in different places.

“They could feel the demand and the requests from the people in Iran that they want them to continue what they are doing.

“So that was the main force behind having a hardworking newsroom.”

Mr Ramezanpour worked as a journalist in his native Iran and had a brief stint in government as deputy culture minister in the reformist administration of President Mohammad Khatami, who left office in 2005. After moving abroad and working for BBC Persian, the veteran journalist helped set up Iran International in 2017.

Employees are noticeably glad to be reunited and appear upbeat as they work at their desks.

But Mr Ramezanpour stressed their lives are far from normal.

“Our security [advice] says that it’s better to have less people here,” he said.

Despite the seriousness and continuity of the threats faced by staff, he insisted “everyone here is happy and we are excited to be back here”.

“Today is the first time that the IRGC [Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps] or Iran’s authorities want to stop the media but they can’t,” he said. “We are back to continue. I think it’s a big achievement for Iranian journalists, for media in the world, for independent free speech of media around the world.”

Updated: October 04, 2023, 11:07 AM