Jailing of journalist shows how far the rot in Russia goes
Ivan Safronov’s imprisonment for 22 years is another nail in the coffin for press freedom
In the two years that journalist Ivan Safronov has been in pre-trial detention, Russia has changed almost beyond recognition.
Russia’s journalism community, among others, has been subjected to incredible persecution. Most independent media have received the status of “undesirable organisations” or “foreign agents”, crippling their journalism and financial operations. Since the Kremlin ordered the invasion of Ukraine in February this year, more than 500 journalists have been forced to leave Russia.
The sentencing of Safronov to 22 years in prison today on unproven charges of selling state secrets is another nail in the coffin of press freedom and the right to a fair trial in Russia.
In the two years that Safronov, 32, has spent in Lefortovo, the Russian security services have subjected the journalist to tremendous pressure. He is not allowed to see and call his relatives. His lawyers have been imprisoned, forced to leave the country and even prosecuted in other criminal cases related to the investigation of the Safronov case.
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If there is one silver lining, it’s that the coverage of the investigation is a testament to the professionalism of Safronov’s colleagues. Thanks to them, the evidence against him looks so thin, it is laughable.
A specialist in dangerous topics
First, some background. For most of the 2010s, Safronov worked at Kommersant, Russia’s leading business and politics newspaper, covering Russia’s space and military-industrial complex. A respected and prolific writer, Safronov followed the key state-owned companies in the sector, covering the main players and important deals – and eventually received the position of special correspondent as a result.
But in 2019, despite his merits as a journalist, Safronov was fired from Kommersant – allegedly at the personal request of oligarch Alisher Usmanov, who owns the newspaper. (At the time, a spokesperson for Usmanov denied any involvement in the matter.)
The reason? Safronov had published a story about possible personnel changes in Russia’s Federation Council, the upper chamber of the country’s parliament. The article angered Russian public officials and the chair of the council, Valentina Matviyenko, personally – it was Matviyenko’s mooted demotion from the council that Safronov reported. After Safronov was sacked, Kommersant’s entire politics desk resigned in protest.
Safronov soon joined Vedomosti, once considered Russia’s leading independent business newspaper, but was forced to leave six months later after Vedomosti ended up in the hands of new owners with ties to the state.
Safronov’s next job was at Russia’s space agency, Roscosmos, as a communications adviser to Dmitry Rogozin, the agency’s head at the time. Two months later, in July 2020, Safronov was detained in Moscow on charges of treason and imprisoned in the Federal Security Service’s (FSB) Lefortovo prison.
"State secrets" from open access
In the prosecutors’ final indictment of Safronov, it is claimed that between 2015 and 2018 Safronov used his status as a journalist to sell state secrets – which he received from his sources in Russian state companies – abroad.
The FSB investigator who handled the Safronov case, Ivan Chaban, has a dozen cases of espionage and treason under his belt. The evidence in many of them also raises questions. As Russian journalists discovered, Chaban in effect built a system of simplified investigation into treason cases, inducing suspects to cooperate with state-appointed lawyers in exchange for relatively mild sentences.
This is what happened with Safronov, too. At the initial interrogations, his lawyer Ivan Pavlov, who specialises in treason and espionage cases, was permitted to attend. But Pavlov was then all but forced to leave the country (after he came under investigation for allegedly revealing facts gathered by the investigation) and manage the case from abroad. Prosecutors, speaking at the last hearing, proposed that Safronov admit his guilt, offering a 12-year sentence instead of 24.
Two people to whom Safronov allegedly passed state secrets are described in detail by Project, a Russian investigative media outlet which gained access to the prosecution’s final indictment.
The FSB, for instance, considers Czech journalist Martin Laris, a longtime acquaintance of Safronov’s, to be an accomplice in the sale of state secrets – yet the case refers only to “a report from Russian Foreign Intelligence” as the basis for this claim, with no further details. Moreover, according to the FSB, Safronov acted in the interests of the United States, and secret information allegedly found its way to the US authorities. As proof of this argument, only the conclusions of an anonymous FSB officer are used.
The second alleged buyer of Russian state secrets, according to the security forces, is German political scientist Dmitry Voronin, for whom Safronov wrote briefings based on open data about Russia’s actions in Syria. The FSB claims that Voronin is working for German intelligence, but the case contains no evidence of this, citing only a report by Russian foreign intelligence with no specifics. At the same time, Voronin, who initially testified against Safronov as part of a deal with the investigation, later admitted to incriminating Safronov and retracted his testimony, according to Safronov’s legal team. At the same time, Voronin himself was also arrested and charged with treason, and is still awaiting trial.
As for the “state secrets” Safronov sold, journalists for Project found that much of this information could be found easily online – on Wikipedia, international and Russian information agencies, as well as the website of the Russian Ministry of Defence. During the investigation, Safronov asked investigators to give him a laptop for “three hours” to show where he had found the alleged “state secrets”. They refused.
This information concerned Russia’s involvement in the Syrian war, as well as its sales of military equipment to other regional states, Serbia, Algeria and Libya.
Throughout the process, Russian investigators tried to prove that Safronov had received the information directly from his sources in state agencies. But they never found any of these officials. And Safronov never had access to state secrets – not while working for Roscosmos, and not as a journalist.
Journalism is not a crime
“[Safronov] is not on trial for his journalistic work,” said Vladimir Putin at his annual press conference December 2020. “He isn’t some kind of dissident journalist who’s fighting the authorities.”
But as the BBC’s Russian service reported, Safronov came under surveillance in 2019 – that is, while he was still working as a journalist.
This happened after he published a story about deliveries of new Russian SU-35 fighter jets to Egypt – a revelation that caused a scandal in the defence ministries of both countries, the BBC reported.
Egypt sent indignant letters of protest to Moscow in response, asking that the information be denied – as Cairo could fall under sanctions for the weapons purchases. These letters later landed in the case files of the criminal investigation into Safronov. The article in question was subsequently removed from the Kommersant website on the request of Russia’s communications watchdog, Roskomnadzor.
To write that story, Safronov used two sources – top managers of companies in the Russian defence industry – whom he has not named, just as he has not named the sources for his story on the possible demotion of Valentina Matvienko.
The cost of high-quality journalism, including observing journalistic standards, in Russia today is becoming unimaginably high. In the judgement of Moscow City court, it’s 22 years in prison.
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