Ivan Safronov: Journalist’s treason charges are brutal reality jolt for media in Russia

It is the moment when a life changes.

When plain clothes officers from Russia’s top spy agency, the FSB, come for you.

Handcuffs and cameras at the ready, the high-quality video handouts from the FSB press service after the arrest are intended as a warning and to scare the widest possible audience.

This is what happened last week to 30-year-old Ivan Safronov – a former journalist and long-time member of the Kremlin reporter pool who had recently started work at Russia’s space agency Roscosmos.

On Monday, he will face charges of alleged treason.

According to his lawyer, investigators allege that in 2017 Safronov passed information regarding Russian arms ties with an unnamed African or Middle Eastern state to Czech intelligence, after five years of contacts.

Over that period, Safronov was covering defence and security issues first at Kommersant and then Vedemosti – two major Russian broadsheets.

In an initial court hearing, Safronov denied the charges.

Working as a journalist in Russia has never been easy, but there is a sense now among colleagues that the outlook is darkening.

“I think many people who cover that beat, who write for defence or security or foreign policy, will now think twice before trying to get certain information, or publishing that information,” says Kommersant’s Elena Chernenko who had worked with Safronov for years.

Ivan Safronov’s father – also called Ivan – was also a long time defence correspondent at Kommersant.

In 2007, he fell from a window in an apparent suicide while investigating a story about prohibited Russian arms sales to Iran via Belarus. His report was never published.

Ms Chernenko says no one at the newspaper believed Safronov’s father took his own life and they do not believe his son betrayed his country.

“We are all guessing what is behind this, we don’t know. But Ivan is a patriot,” she said.

Treason trials are – by dint of their content – closed affairs.

This means the public will have to take the court’s word for it on whether Safronov willingly passed on sensitive information or whether he was simply doing his job.

Under revised laws on treason pushed through by the FSB in 2012, even information gathered from open sources can be deemed treasonous if the recipient organisation plans to use it against Russia.

Safronov’s fate may depend on how the FSB distinguishes between a scoop and information he may never have known was secret.

“Putin has always been suspicious of journalists,” says Andrei Soldatov, who has written a number of books about Russia’s security services.

“For the first 20 years he delegated restricting journalists to certain political actors like oligarchs. But now we have the FSB dealing with journalists. I think it’s a big development.”

Last summer, large protests over the detention of another journalist, Ivan Golunov, on bogus drugs charges prompted a U-turn by the Kremlin. The case had been brought by the police and charges were eventually dropped.

But the FSB is far more powerful than the police. This summer, too, special legislation in place because of the pandemic has meant that even single picketers who went to protest Safronov’s arrest were detained one by one.

“It would take another signal from the Kremlin,” says Ivan Pavlov, Safronov’s lawyer. “The journalist community must show its solidarity.”

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov, who has praised Safronov’s work in the past, says the media reaction does not reflect public sentiment. But he promised that the president would be informed.

“Obviously, the industry’s sentiment should and will be conveyed to the president,” he said.

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