How authoritarian regimes exert control outside their borders

May 8, 2024

Freedom House has recorded more than 850 direct, physical incidents of transnational repression committed in 91 countries around the world in the past decade

Rana Rahimpour, an Iranian-born former anchor for BBC Persian, resigned from her position last year after facing years of threats and harassment from the Iranian government in response to her reporting.

After she reported on the 2022 anti-government protests in Iran, her car was broken into and her phone wiretapped. The government didn’t just go after her, it targeted her family as well. Her parents, still living in Iran, had their passports confiscated and faced regular interrogations.

“I thought, ‘You know what, enough is enough. I’ve paid enough to do this job, because I felt I had to do it,'” Rahimpour told The New York Times. “But now, I don’t have to do it anymore,”

Rahimpour is one of a growing number of journalists facing transnational repression, actions from governments attempting to silence dissidents who live outside their borders.

Sophisticated networks

Freedom House, a nonprofit focused on political freedom, has recorded 854 direct, physical incidents of transnational repression committed by 38 governments in 91 countries around the world since 2014. These include assassinations, unlawful deportations, and detainments. One of the most well-known examples of transnational repression is the 2018 murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi Arabian agents in Turkey.

“The Islamic Republic [of Iran] has been attacking its critics outside its borders since its very inception 45 years ago. Soon after they came to power, they pulled of an assassination in Bethesda, [Maryland],” Jason Rezaian, a Washington Post columnist who was illegally detained in Iran from 2015 to 2016, said at a recent Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg Center event hosted by the Committee to Protect Journalists. “They have gotten very sophisticated at hiring networks of criminals from third countries to pull off attacks.”

While journalists are vulnerable to transnational repression, authoritarian regimes have also targeted activists, civil society leaders, and human rights advocates.

Enes Freedom, a former NBA player who has a bounty on his head in Turkey after criticizing the country’s corrupt government, spoke about his experiences with transnational repression during a November event at the Hopkins Bloomberg Center.

The more Freedom spoke out against the Turkish government, the more restrictions he and his family faced. His father was fired and taken to jail. The government took away their electronics, and his sister was unable to find work. Freedom now has a “panic button” from the FBI. If he hits it, agents are dispatched in minutes.

Protecting dissidents

For countries looking to shield dissidents from transnational protection, “half of it is about protection,” Dame Karen Pierce, the British ambassador said, describing intelligence gathering efforts her government undertakes.

When the Russian government attempted to poison Sergei Skripal, a former Russian military officer, and his daughter Yulia in 2018, the British government attempted to resolve it privately, Pierce said. When the Russians rejected their attempt, the British brought the case to the UN and the chemical weapons organization at The Hague.

Exposing transnational repression can help prevent it, she added, speaking of the Skripal poisoning.

“We know that other Russian agencies thought the GRU [the Russian military intelligence agency] had shown remarkably poor tradecraft,” she said. “And that was not unhelpful to us.”