Russia: Allegations of espionage against journalist Ivan Safronov

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When Ivan Safronov came to the door of his Moscow apartment building on Tuesday morning and wanted to get in the car, FSB officials ran up to him and handcuffed him. The allegation of domestic intelligence: The 30-year-old journalist has committed treason. Safronov is said to have “on behalf of a NATO secret service” gathered information on “military cooperation, defense and national security of Russia”, which was classified as a state secret. It says 12 to 20 years in prison.

On Tuesday evening, the respected journalist and employee of the space agency Roskosmos was taken into custody – by a judge who excluded the public from the hall. All she could hear from the accused was that he denied any guilt. The rest of the process will also take place behind closed doors – after all, it is about state secrets.

Solidarity with Safronow is all the greater. Shortly after his arrest became known, the first journalists gathered in front of the FSB headquarters at Lubyanka, media called for support, the daily newspaper “Kommersant” called the allegations “absurd”.

It is the biggest wave of solidarity among journalists in a year when investigative reporter Ivan Golunov was arrested for allegedly possessing drugs. Golunow had researched corruption in the undertaker business and thus disrupted FSB circles, after days of protests the allegations against him were dropped.

Dismissed after report on politician

Now it happens to Safronow, who reported for almost a decade on the sensitive issues of armaments and space travel for the newspaper “Kommersant” – as did his father, who fell out of the window in 2007 under mysterious circumstances and died.

Safronow wrote about the fire in the special submarine “Loscharik”, problems of the aircraft carrier “Admiral Kusnezow” and the mismanagement in the armaments company Rostec. The “Kommersant” dismissed him in 2019 after reporting on the alleged impending withdrawal of the chairman of the Federation Council Valentina Matwijenko, causing the powerful politician’s anger. Even then there was solidarity with Safronow: the entire political editors left the paper with him.

Safronov switched to the newspaper “Vedomosti” and later, after a Kremlin-loyal editor-in-chief took over the management there, to the Russian space agency. Since May of this year, he has advised their boss Dmitrij Rogosin on media issues. Rogozin ruled out that he could have revealed Roscosmos secrets – Safronow had no access to sensitive documents at all.

Allegedly recruited by the Czech secret service

Colleagues suspect the arrest had to do with a “Kommersant” Safronov article from 2018 about the sale of Russian Su-35 fighter jets to Egypt. The announcement had caused violent reactions from Washington. At that time there had already been legal proceedings against the newspaper, which however were discontinued. To be on the safe side, the “Kommersant” had deleted the text from the archive.

This assumption is spoken by the fact that the FSB does not mention any article by Safronow in its brief statement. And Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said in an unusually quick statement that the procedure had nothing to do with Safronov’s journalistic activities.

Details only came to light in the evening: The FSB claims that Safronow was recruited by the Czech secret service in 2012 and provided it with secret information in 2017 that affected arms deliveries to Africa and the Middle East. Safronows lawyers from the agency Interfax reported on these allegations.

It is unclear why Safronov was allowed to start working for the management of an important state company in May, when – as alleged by the secret service – he committed treason.

Safronow’s former partner, also a journalist, was picked up by the FSB for questioning. Afterwards, she did not provide any information about the survey; she had had to sign a confidentiality clause.

“A very correct colleague and a patriot”

“I never believe that Ivan betrayed the country,” said Safronov’s former “Kommersant” colleague Yelena Chernko. “I worked with Ivan for almost ten years. He is a very correct colleague and a patriot.” Chernenko had held a vigil outside FSB headquarters on Lubyanka on Tuesday and had been arrested as the first of around 20 protesters.

Chernenko now faces a fine for “disregarding behavioral rules during an exceptional situation”. The exceptional situation means the corona pandemic – but the mayor has long since lifted the exit restrictions. Until late in the evening, other demonstrators gathered near the headquarters of the secret service. They asked for information about what Safronov was specifically accused of.

Topics blocked for journalists?

The intelligence expert Andrei Soldatov sees a cut in the FSB’s actions: “The criminal case against Safronov is a completely new level of repression against journalists,” he writes. “I can only think of one explanation for why this happens: We are shown which socially important issues have recently been blocked for those who do not ‘belong’.”

There are occasional convictions for betraying secrets in Russia – but so far they have hardly met journalists, but above all scientists, as Ivan Pavlov, lawyer and head of the human rights organization “Team 29” says. In July in St. Petersburg, military expert Vladimir Nejolow was sentenced to seven years in prison after a secret trial. He had dealt with private military companies. Proceedings for treachery almost always end in conviction in Russia.

For Ivan Safronov, the judge initially held two months in custody. The official charge will be read out on Monday.

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