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Russia’s journalists under increasing pressure from the secret services in wake of Putin’s shaky referendum victory

Russia's journalists under increasing pressure from the secret services in wake of Putin's shaky referendum victory
Ivan Safronov was seized outside his home on Tuesday morning – TASS

Russia’s intelligence services have ‘stepped up’ their war on free media, carrying out a series of operations designed to intimidate journalists in the wake of Vladimir Putin’s controversial referendum victory last week. 

In an unprecedented case for post-Soviet Russia, prominent defence reporter Ivan Safronov was seized outside his home on Tuesday morning by secret service agents and arrested on suspicion of treason. 

Citing the secret nature of the case, the investigators have not published any evidence to back up their claims but the reporter faces 20 years in prison. 

Last week’s overwhelming approval of constitutional amendments allowing Vladimir Putin to stay in office at least until 2036 was hailed by the Kremlin as a “triumph.”

But results at the polling stations that were monitored by independent observers indicated something resembling a split vote.

That was an apparent cue for Russia’s FSB secret service to take action.

“Whenever the Kremlin gets existential jitters, that’s actually the moment when the FSB tends to step in and say: ‘Don’t worry guys, hold my beer, we’ve got this’,” Mark Galeotti, an honorary professor at UCL SSEES and an expert on secret services, told the Telegraph.

In the space of just a few days, a journalist in Russia’s north-west on Monday was found guilty of “justifying terrorism” in her column and fined £5,000, escaping a prison sentence.

On Wednesday, police raided homes of at least five opposition activists and one independent newsroom.

The FSB has not produced any specific evidence to back up their accusations that Mr Safronov has been spying for the Czech intelligence, but his defence attorney says that the reporter has been under surveillance for many months.

“It’s impossible to say right now whether he was a random victim but the way it was done – publicly, with support of (Kremlin spokesman Dmitry) Peskov – it was designed to send a message to all journalists,” Andrei Soldatov, an investigative journalist and co-author of “The Compatriots: The Brutal and Chaotic History of Russian Exiles, Emigres and Agents Abroad,” told the Telegraph.

Going after a random target would serve the FSB’s purpose of spreading fear better, according to Mr Galeotti:

“On the one hand, it’s about reassuring people at the top but on the other hand, it also provides a shock for the people below.”

Police officers detain a supporter of Ivan Safronov - AFP
Police officers detain a supporter of Ivan Safronov – AFP

Mr Safronov’s new employer, Roscosmos chief Dmitry Rogozin, insists that he has no doubts in his “professionalism and honesty.”

The journalist’s prosecution has unnerved even Kremlin-friendly circles.

Sergei Markov, a Kremlin political strategist and former lawmaker, wondered in his blog earlier this week: “Can it be that all that secrecy is masking an actual lack of proof in order to save somebody’s face?”

Mr Safronov’s arrest came a day after a court passed a guilty verdict for journalist Svetlana Prokopieva who was found guilty of “justifying terrorism” over a radio column in which she blamed law enforcement for alienating young people who get despondent looking at lawlessness around them.

Later this week, police carried out raids on homes of several opposition activists and a newsroom sponsored by exiled tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky. All of them have been calling for a big opposition protest next week against Mr Putin’s rule for life.

Mr Khodorkovsky, who lives in London after serving ten years in a Russian prison on two sets of mutually contradicting charges, says the new wave of repressions against journalists is the Kremlin’s knee-jerk reaction to media coverage that sheds the light on dwindling support for Mr Putin and his constitutional changes.

“The only thing where a genuine competition is possible right now is for people’s perception of how legitimate those amendments are,” he told the Dozhd TV channel. “And that depends on people who are conveying information to the public.”

About the author

Tori Holland

Tori Holland

After being a professional journalist for 5 years and understanding the ups and downs of health care sector all over the world, Tori shifted her focus to the digital world. Today, she works as a contributor for News Brig with a knack for covering general and health news in the best possible format.

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