MOSCOW -- On March 25, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu gave a speech to parliament in which he warned that a "pro-Western opposition division," supposedly trained and funded by outside forces, was sneaking onto military bases and hospitals across the country and publishing classified information relating to the Russian Army.
It was the latest in a string of battle cries against "disinformation" issued by Russian officials, but this time Shoigu called for new legislation that would circumscribe the movements of people who have press accreditation but use it, as he alleged without evidence, for malevolent purposes.
"You can imagine how they'd be punished in countries of the West," Shoigu said, giving no further details. "This sphere requires further legal regulation."
Shoigu’s monologue was not directed at anyone in particular, but many saw in it a veiled dig at Svetlana Prokopyeva, a freelance journalist in Pskov who is awaiting trial on extremism charges for remarks she made about a November 2018 bomb attack on the offices of the Federal Security Service (FSB) in the northern Russian city of Arkhangelsk.
The defense minister's comments came the day after government-funded news channel Rossia-24 aired a report alleging that Prokopyeva, who has contributed material to RFE/RL's Russian and Ukrainian services, had illegally filmed a Russian military base near Pskov in 2018 at the behest of unspecified handlers in the United States.
Accusing her of engaging in an act of espionage "with roots very likely across the ocean or in Ukraine," presenter Anton Podkovenko called Prokopyeva the "organizer of the unapproved filming of a sensitive Russian military object on orders from foreign media."
He played a recording of a purported telephone conversation between Prokopyeva and an editor at RFE/RL's Kyiv bureau. "I'll try to capture the watchtower, because, as I recall, they react very quickly," Prokopyeva is heard saying in the recording, presumably referring to guards patrolling the base. The two women then discuss details of a $100 payment Prokopyeva would receive for her work.
In a phone interview on March 26, Prokopyeva did not deny the audio clips were real, but said they were completely taken out of context to fit a predetermined narrative. She did not film any military installations during the reporting trip in question, she said, because she knew she'd be banned from doing so.
But the state media report alleges that she was contacted not by a fellow journalist, but by a covert representative of Western intelligence services. "This report is a typical example of black PR," Prokopyeva said. "They distorted everything."
Extremism Charge 'Lacks Merit'
The extremism charge against Prokopyeva stems from a November 2018 commentary she made for the Pskov affiliate of radio station Ekho Moskvy, in which she discussed the motivations of the young man accused of carrying out the bombing in Arkhangelsk.
Russian media reported that the suspected bomber, a teenager who died in the incident, had posted statements on social media in which he accused the FSB of falsifying criminal cases.
In that on-air commentary, Prokopyeva linked the teenager's statements to the political climate in Russia under President Vladimir Putin, suggesting that political activism in the country was being severely restricted, leading people to despair and desperate acts.
In October, Prokopyeva released an open letter outlining her take on the events that led to her prosecution."I did not justify terrorism...I tried to understand why a young man could have resorted to a suicidal crime," she wrote. "I consider this case to be just simple revenge on the part of the offended security agencies."
After the text was republished by nearly a dozen independent Russian media outlets, the editors of several were subsequently summoned for questioning by the authorities in Pskov, Novaya gazeta reported.
In a Facebook post on March 16, Prokopyeva revealed that she had been officially indicted on extremism charges, for which she faces seven years in prison.
RFE/RL President Jamie Fly condemned Prokopyeva's indictment, saying that "the charges lack any merit, and have been brought instead in a cynical effort to silence an independent journalist."
The Rossia-24 report, aired the day before Shoigu's statement, cited a reporting trip Prokopyeva made in 2018, when she was asked by RFE/RL’s Ukrainian Service to film several gravestones in the area of a Russian military base near Pskov that were believed to have been erected for Russian conscripts who died fighting with pro-Russia separatists in eastern Ukraine.
Prokopyeva did not connect Shoigu's sweeping allegations to her case. But in recent days, Russian authorities have ratcheted up their campaign against what they call "fake news," doling out fines and even threatening jail time for the publication of rumors about the COVID-19 pandemic and its spread in Russia.
Ending his report on Rossia-24, Podkovenko, the presenter, said Prokopyeva might now be additionally charged with espionage for her alleged activities outside the military base. "That means from 10 to 20 years in prison," he said. "Looks very likely."
Prokopyeva responded with defiance. "They're trying to present normal journalistic work as a serious crime. It's complete nonsense," she said.
"If we had a normal justice system, I’d launch a libel suit and would win."