MOSCOW -- The Committee to Protect Journalists has called for Russian authorities to immediately release Ivan Safronov, a former investigative reporter who has been charged with high treason in a case activitsts fear marks an escalation against dissent.
Safronov, who has worked since May as an adviser to Roskosmos space agency head Dmitry Rogozin, is a prominent journalist who covered the military-industrial complex for the newspapers Kommersant and Vedomosti. His lawyers say he was charged on July 8 for allegedly passing secret information to the Czech Republic in 2017 about Russian arms sales in the Middle East.
Although Safronov was working as a journalist at that time, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov was quick to say the accusations are not connected with his journalism. Roskosmos also issued a statement saying the charges are not connected with his work at the space agency.
The case sparked immediate protests by journalists and activists, who note that Safronov’s arrest is at least the third of a current or former journalist in the past 13 months that has garnered national attention and raised fears of a further curtailment of media freedom.
"Russian authorities have showed once again that they will stop at nothing to threaten and imprison independent journalists," said Gulnoza Said, CPJ’s Europe and Central Asia program coordinator.
"Ivan Safronov should be immediately released, and the bogus spying charges against him should be thrown out. Other journalists who show their support for Safronov by protesting should be allowed to do so without fear of reprisal," Said added.
The daily Kommersant reported on July 9 that the charges may have been based on data compiled by Russia's Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR).
Kommersant said that it had information in its possession showing that the Federal Security Service (FSB) might have received information against Safronov from the SVR which, according to the newspaper, had monitored Safronov's correspondence from his personal computer at home.
The data, according to Kommersant, says that the SVR revealed that in 2017 Safronov had sent material that "was received in the Czech Republic by a person who might be linked with that country's intelligence."
Two more items presented by FSB investigators "analyze the results of wiretaps of his telephone conversations and written correspondence," the media outlet said.
"There is no information about the recipient, as well as the volume of financial compensation allegedly received for the information, although official papers in the case say that the high treason was committed on mercenary motives." the report says.
A day earlier, Safronov's lawyer, Ivan Pavlov said that the charges against his client were based on an expert evaluation by the FSB and two expert evaluations by the Defense Ministry.
Pavlov complained that it remained unknown what exact classified and top-secret data his client had allegedly revealed.
Prosecutors accuse Safronov of passing information to the Czech Republic in 2017 about the sale of Russian arms to the Middle East and Africa. Safronov was working as a Kommersant reporter at the time covering issues related to the activities of Russia's military-industrial sector.
Russia claims the United States was the final beneficiary of the information, according to Pavlov.
Safronov faces up to 20 years in prison if convicted. He pleaded not guilty and his lawyers appealed his pretrial arrest, asking the Moscow City Court to replace the pretrial detention with a milder restriction, not linked to incarceration.
Safronov's arrest -- the latest in a series of law enforcement actions against Russian journalists and researchers -- has sparked outrage among former colleagues and prompted dozens to protest outside the FSB headquarters in Moscow on July 7-8.
On July 8, several leading periodicals in Russia issued editorials, demanding transparency and openness in Safronov's case.
Also, on July 8, dozens of journalists in Ufa, the capital of Russia's Republic of Bashkortostan held single-person pickets that do not require prior permission by the authorities, condemning Safronov's arrest and demanding his immediate release.
The journalists held posters, saying "Journalism is NOT Treason," "Hold Corrupted Ones, Not Journalists," "Journalism Is NOT a Crime," "Who is Next?", etc.
Police did not interfere.