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'Pandora's Box Is Open': After Journalist's Arrest, Russian Civil Society Fears Crackdown By Emboldened Security Services

Former Russian journalist Ivan Safronov before a court hearing on treason charges in Moscow on July 7.
Former Russian journalist Ivan Safronov before a court hearing on treason charges in Moscow on July 7.

The last time a journalist in Russia was arrested on suspicion of treason -- before the detention of Ivan Safronov on July 7 -- was November 20, 1997. On that day, environmental journalist Grigory Pasko was returning from a reporting trip in Japan when agents of the Federal Security Service (FSB) met him in Vladivostok and accused him of spying.

Pasko, who was eventually convicted of treason on December 25, 2001, and sentenced to four years in prison, told Current Time that Safronov's arrest was played out according to a similar script.

"A very public arrest, detention, vague statements, interrogations -- it is somehow familiar," Pasko said. "Nothing specific. No real allegations. Apparently, nothing will be made public because it has already been leaked that the trial will be closed and everything will be sealed secret."

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 is accused of 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 issued a statement saying the charges are not connected with his work at the space agency.

Former Russian Journalist Reportedly Charged With Aiding Czech, U.S. Spy Agencies
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A Moscow court on July 7 ordered Safronov, 30, held in custody until September 6. He has been accused of treason under Article 275 of the Criminal Code and could be sentenced to 20 years in prison if convicted.

Some in Russia are concerned that the case against Safronov is a troubling harbinger of things to come in the wake of controversial constitutional amendments that could enable authoritarian President Vladimir Putin to remain in office until 2036.

'A New Level Of Repression'

"The case against Ivan Safronov is an absolutely new level of repression against journalists in this country," wrote Andrei Soldatov, a prominent investigative journalist who writes about technology issues and the security services, in a post on Facebook.

He noted that before 2012, "the FSB really had to work hard to charge journalists" under the treason law because of the way it was written. In 2007, for example, journalist Natalia Morari was prevented from entering Russia for allegedly exposing state secrets -- but she was never arrested or tried.

"When the article [in the Criminal Code] was rewritten, at the FSB's instigation," Soldatov wrote, "it became clear that the rules had changed. But people at the time thought the new victims would be experts rather than journalists."

"Today it has become clear that this is not true," he concluded. "The FSB has made it this clear -- in as public a way as possible…. They are telling us what socially important topics are now closed to everyone except those who 'need to know.'"

'Dozing Like A Snake'

Pasko agrees, saying that the revised text of Article 275 has been "dozing like a snake since the autumn of 2012."

"It is very broad and very vague," he told Current Time, the Russian-language network led by RFE/RL in cooperation with VOA. "Very unspecific, and it is easy to imprison journalists under it, which was impossible before. Before, if someone gave a secret to you, it wasn't the journalist who was charged but the person who revealed the information. But now they can go for the journalist."

The law does not specify what information is classified, instead leaving that up to various government agencies. Ironically, the lists of secret information are often secret themselves.

Ivan Pavlov, a St. Petersburg lawyer who specializes in state-secrets cases and is part of Safronov's defense team, says the law could be used to target anyone with any international contacts, including scholars, journalists, researchers, and rights activists. He calls these the article's "at-risk group."

"I was surprised that no journalists were charged under Article 275 for so long," Pavlov told RFE/RL. "But now we have the example of Ivan Safronov, and that means that Pandora's box is now open. The authorities do not consider journalists a somehow untouchable caste and will prosecute those who, in one way or another, are in the at-risk group."

'A Dangerous Precedent'

"I think this is a dangerous precedent for us all," said journalist Ilya Barabanov, who works for the Russian Service of the BBC and earlier worked with Safronov at Kommersant.

Columnist Yulia Latynina, writing in Novaya Gazeta, noted that many commentators are comparing the Safronov case with other recent criminal cases against journalists, particularly those against Ivan Golunov and Svetlana Prokopyeva.

Golunov, an investigative journalist for Meduza, was arrested in Moscow in June 2019 on drugs charges that were later dropped after it became clear that evidence the police produced had been fabricated.

Russian journalist Ivan Golunov gestures to reporters after being released from police custody in June 2019.
Russian journalist Ivan Golunov gestures to reporters after being released from police custody in June 2019.

Prokopyeva, a freelance contributor to RFE/RL's Russian Service, was convicted in Pskov of "justifying terrorism" on July 6 and given a 500,000-ruble (about $7,000) fine.

Latynina wrote that in both cases the security forces failed to get the prison terms they apparently wanted because the flimsy evidence presented was publicly available. But the Safronov case is different, she argued.

"What are they counting on?" she wrote. "The terrifying word 'secret.' Safronov was a spy – how? That's a secret. He transmitted secret information in a secret way to a secret person in a secret place and we can't tell you about it because it is a secret."

"And if the public asks: 'Tell us what specifically he did,'" she added, "they will answer: 'We can't. It is a state secret. But trust us.'"

'Cannibalism' Has Arrived

Earlier this month, a court in St. Petersburg convicted a prominent expert on Russian mercenary groups to seven years in prison for treason. Analyst Vladimir Neyelov, 30, was arrested in 2018 and accused of providing classified information to a German consulting firm.

According to a 2018 report by Komanda 29, a legal assistance group headed by lawyer Pavlov, there were at least 101 cases involving treason or espionage in Russia. Forty-eight of the defendants were members of the security or defense forces, while 53 were civilians. Since 1997, only one -- ecologist Aleksandr Niktin -- was fully acquitted, although more than four years passed between his February 1996 arrest and the final dismissal of his case in September 2000.

Komanda 29 says there are currently -- including Safronov -- 23 open treason or espionage investigations ongoing in Russia.

Journalist Yevgenia Albats, editor of The New Times website, wrote that "it would appear the vegetarian days are over and cannibalism will appear more and more often."

"We live in a country where the KGB rules," she concluded, referring to the Soviet predecessor of the FSB.

Current Time correspondent Timur Olevsky and RFE/RL's Russian Service contributed to this report

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

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