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'Insider' Out: Journalist Who Helped Expose Novichok Suspects Barred From Putin Press Conference

Dobrokhotov’s official press badge for the event, which, in the end, didn't help him get in.
Dobrokhotov’s official press badge for the event, which, in the end, didn't help him get in.

The Russian investigative journalist Roman Dobrokhotov was not expecting problems when he showed up for President Vladimir Putin's annual news conference in Moscow. After all, he was on the Kremlin's list of journalists accredited to the December 20 event -- and even had an official badge.

But things went awry as Dobrokhotov, who has published high-profile exposés of two Russians suspected in the poisoning of a Russian ex-spy in England in March, was going through security.

"They said: 'Your background check isn't completed yet,'" Dobrokhotov told RFE/RL in a telephone interview.

After around 30 minutes, he was told without explanation that he would not be allowed to cover the event.

"It seems that after the list of accredited journalists was completed, someone looked at it, saw my name, got upset, and decided not to let me inside," Dobrokhotov said.

Putin's annual press conference this year came just months after Dobrokhotov's news site, The Insider, and the investigative group Bellingcat jointly published detailed investigations into the two Russians accused of poisoning Sergei Skripal and his daughter in the English city of Salisbury in March.

The investigations into the two men -- identified by Britain as Ruslan Boshirov and Aleksandr Petrov -- alleged that their true names are Anatoly Chepiga and Aleksandr Mishkin, respectively, and presented compelling evidence linking them to Russian military intelligence.

The Kremlin's official list of journalists accredited for Putin's annual press conference on December 20 shows that Roman Dobrokhotov (No. 421) had been approved to attend the event.
The Kremlin's official list of journalists accredited for Putin's annual press conference on December 20 shows that Roman Dobrokhotov (No. 421) had been approved to attend the event.

Prior to the reports, Putin had said publicly that the two men were simple civilians. Shortly thereafter, the suspects appeared on Russia’s state-funded RT network and claimed they had traveled to Salisbury as tourists.

Britain blames the Russian government for the poisoning of the Skripals, who ultimately survived, with the Soviet-developed nerve agent Novichok, a charge Moscow denies. Dawn Sturgess, a British citizen who was exposed to the nerve agent, later died.

A Cellist's Wealth

Dobrokhotov told RFE/RL that he hadn't planned to ask Putin about the poisoning suspects if he had been given the microphone at the press conference, to which 1,700 journalists were accredited, because he figured other journalists in the crowd would.

Instead, he planned to ask about Russian cellist Sergei Roldugin, a friend of Putin's who was alleged in the Panama Papers exposé to have controlled offshore firms through which some $2 billion flowed, including to entities and individuals close to Putin.

The Kremlin has brushed off the Panama Papers revelations, while Putin has claimed that Roldugin "spent nearly all the money he earned" to purchase musical instruments abroad and bring them back to Russia.

"It is absolutely clear that these offshore companies have nothing to do with musical instruments, but they have a direct relationship with Vladimir Putin. I would be very interested in how Putin would comment on this," Dobrokhotov said.

'It Happens, Unfortunately'

Citing an interview with Russian state television, the Russian newspaper RBK quoted Peskov as saying about the press conference: "We had to turn away a small number of journalists -- a handful -- due to security concerns. It happens, unfortunately."

Dobrokhotov, 35, is a former opposition activist who was ejected from a Kremlin event in 2008 for heckling then-President Dmitry Medvedev over amendments -- ultimately enacted -- to the Russian Constitution extending the presidential term from four to six years:

He told RFE/RL that he hadn't planned to disrupt the December 20 press conference, and that the 2008 incident hadn't affected his journalistic access to senior officials.

Dobrokhotov attended a Kremlin-backed youth forum that Putin addressed in 2012, though text messages purportedly leaked by hackers from the phone of Kremlin official Timur Prokopenko later revealed a discussion about how to prevent him from asking a question.

"We won't notice him. There are lots of hands there, unless the boss personally points at him," one message in the exchange reads.

"At the very least, no one turned me away from or kicked me out of the [2012] event," Dobrokhotov told RFE/RL on December 20.

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    Carl Schreck

    Carl Schreck is an award-winning investigative journalist who serves as RFE/RL's enterprise editor. He has covered Russia and the former Soviet Union for more than 20 years, including a decade in Moscow. He has led investigations into corruption, cronyism, and disinformation campaigns in Russia and Central Asia, as well as on poisoning attacks against Kremlin opponents and assassinations of Iranian exiles in the West. Schreck joined RFE/RL in 2014.

RFE/RL has been declared an "undesirable organization" by the Russian government.

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