In March 2012, Michael McFaul, then the U.S. ambassador to Russia, famously accused journalists from the state-controlled network NTV of hacking his phone or e-mails to access his schedule after they approached him as he arrived at a private meeting with an opposition activist.
Four years later, those same journalists have been purportedly tripped up in a sting operation by an embattled Russian election-monitoring group seeking to prove that security services are wiretapping its phones and leaking details of its meetings with foreign diplomats to the Kremlin-loyal network.
Golos, an independent election monitor that has documented widespread violations at Russian ballot boxes in recent years, says it has concluded that NTV journalists are surreptitiously obtaining information about its employees’ movements from Russian law enforcement or intelligence agencies.
Using this information, Golos alleges, the journalists are able to track the group’s itinerary and wait for them -- cameras and microphones in hand -- outside embassies and other Moscow venues where they meet foreign diplomats to discuss the country’s elections.
Footage of similar encounters with opposition activists has been deployed on several occasions in NTV documentaries portraying Kremlin critics as part of a nefarious "fifth column" bankrolled by the West to destabilize Russia.
Golos, which has faced pressure from President Vladimir Putin’s government for years, says it has long suspected that NTV was being tipped off about its meetings at embassies after its employees showed their passports to Russian police guards stationed outside the compounds.
So when a group of Canadian diplomats recently asked to visit the group’s Moscow office, Golos deliberately arranged the meeting by telephone to test whether NTV journalists would crash it. Holding the meeting at its office would also exclude the possibility of a tip-off from a police guard at an embassy.
The Canadians arrived at the office for the meeting on May 23.
“I tortured them with stories for about an hour,” Roman Udot, deputy head of Golos, told RFE/RL. “NTV showed up about midway through.”
Udot met the NTV crew outside the building and recorded the encounter with NTV producer Pyotr Drogovoz and correspondent Liliya Parfyonova. Both worked on the network’s Anatomy Of A Protest series that claimed Washington was funding anti-Putin protests and portrayed Kremlin critics as Western puppets:
Parfyonova, who asked whether Golos discussed possible Canadian financing of its election-monitoring activities at the meeting, denied eavesdropping on the group’s calls. Authorities designated Golos a “foreign agent” last year because it previously received foreign financing. The organization rejects the label and says it complies fully with Russian laws.
Examining his recent meetings with foreign diplomats, Udot says that out of eight such get-togethers over the past two years, NTV ambushed him twice after he showed his passport to an embassy police guard and twice when he made arrangements by telephone.
NTV did not show up at the other four meetings, which were scheduled by e-mail, he said.
“Where there’s a policeman plus a passport -- or a phone call -- there is NTV,” Udot told RFE/RL.
Gazprom Media, the state-controlled conglomerate that owns NTV, did not respond to an e-mail seeking comment.
The network’s heightened interest in Golos comes ahead of September parliamentary elections likely to be dominated by pro-Putin forces backed by the Kremlin’s media machine. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov claimed last month that an effort was under way to taint Putin and disrupt the elections.
Notably, both Parfyonova and Drogovoz were involved in the 2012 ambush of McFaul as he arrived for a meeting with Soviet-era dissident and veteran opposition activist Lev Ponomaryov.
“How did you find out about this meeting? Where did you get the information that I will be here?” McFaul asked in Russian. “This is against the Geneva Convention, if you are going to obtain my information from my telephone or from my BlackBerry.”
Parfyonova insisted that they learned of the meeting from “open sources.”
“We are law-abiding citizens,” she says: