MOSCOW—When the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) arrested journalist Ivan Safronov on charges of "state treason" this week, many of his friends were quick to remember what happened to his father. Both men covered news about national defense and Russia’s space program and were recognized as authorities in their field. The elder Safronov, who also was named Ivan, wrote for the newspaper Kommersant until one day in 2007 he plunged out of a window to his death.
The younger Safronov never believed the official conclusion that his father committed suicide. Neither did colleagues at Kommersant. “Defenestration,” pushing people out of windows and blaming accidents or suicide, is viewed as a common, if conspicuous, technique allegedly used by Russian security services for extrajudicial executions.
The younger Safronov took up the banner of investigative reporting at Kommersant and became one of the country’s leading defense correspondents in his own right, but just recently took a job as a senior adviser to Dmitry Rogozin, the head of Roscosmos, Russia’s major space agency. Rogozin told the TASS news agency on Tuesday that Safronov “did not have any access to classified information,” and that he knew Safronov as an honest and professional man. Nonetheless, Safronov is alleged to have turned over national defense secrets to someone from what was initially reported as an unnamed "NATO country."
Safronov’s lawyer, Ivan Pavlov, who specializes in treason cases, told The Daily Beast the allegations presented to the court “said that Czech intelligence had recruited Safronov in 2012 and that in 2017 he’d received a task from them to collect and pass information on Russian weapons sold to Africa. I believe they mean Egypt. The investigators surely do not admit that they accuse Safronov of his journalistic work.”
Pavlov said his client looked strong, brave and very much interested in all details of his case. “He asked me what to expect," Pavlov said. "Two of my five clients accused of treason are under house arrest, two are in prison. They all face up to 20 years of prison.”
Early Tuesday morning investigators searched the home of Safronov’s friend, Taisya Bekbulatova, formerly with Kommersant and the independent publication Meduza and now editor-in-chief of Holod (Cold). Bekbulatova was denied access to her attorney during her interrogations, according to the Mediazona news website.
By the afternoon, authorities at the Lefortovo court let a few reporters in to take photographs of Safronov, who was locked in the courtroom’s cage.
In the meantime, journalists were protesting one by one as “single pickets” (observing government regulations and social distancing) outside the historic headquarters of Soviet and Russian secret police, including the FSB, on Lubyanka Square. They held banners that said, “Journalism is not a crime.” More than two dozen from five different publications were detained.
All of this comes just as Vladimir Putin has engineered constitutional changes allowing him to remain, in effect, president for life. And nearly every day Russia hears of threats, arrests, investigations against independent journalists who might challenge his authority or the actions of his government.
On Monday a Russian court found journalist Svetlana Prokopyeva guilty of “justifying terrorism” in one of her articles. The reporter for Radio Free Europe has to pay a large fine. But the state treason charges leveled against Safronov are a much more serious charge and signal greatly increased pressure on the press.
Vladimir Solovyev, editor of Russia’s only independent TV channel, Rain, told The Daily Beast, “We called our television show today ‘They Have Come to Get Us.’ We are outraged to see our friend and colleague Safronov being accused of ridiculous things.” Solovyev said he would only believe the charges “if I see very precise detailed evidence.” But in treason and espionage cases that kind of solid information is rarely made available to the public.
Just a few years ago state treason charges were rare in Russia. From 1997 to 2008 there were only two or three cases a year. But eight people were charged with such crimes last year alone, and just a few weeks ago a Russian scientist was accused of passing secrets to China.
“We hear that FSB is in the process of releasing a law that would ban us from publishing anything about the FSB without an official approval signed by the FSB,” says journalist Kirill Kharatyan, formerly with the business paper Vedomosti, where he was Safronov’s editor.
Footage broadcast of armed men taking Safronov away shocked independent journalists here n Russia. Andrei Soldatov, author of several important books about Russian intelligence operatives and occasional contributor to The Daily Beast, noted that before 2012 Russian journalists could not be charged with treason, since by definition independent reporters had no access to state secrets.
“The FSB is making it clear to us that things are different now,” Soldatov told us after Safronov’s arrest. “I can think of only one reason: to point out to us which important topics are now closed to the public.”
Just like his father before him, 30-year-old Ivan Safronov covered the life of the Russian military and space industry workers objectively, starting nearly every piece with the words, “As Kommersant has learned.” His scoops were well-sourced and drew a lot of attention. He carefully checked every piece of information on every story, whether he reported on a “superjet” catching fire, or a manager at Roscosmos stealing state money, or on the growing Russian military contingent in the Central African Republic.
But in April last year Safronov published an explosive story about possible changes in Vladimir Putin’s court: the director of Russia’s foreign intelligence service (SVR), Sergei Naryshkin, coming to replace Valentina Matvuyenko as speaker of the Federation Council, the upper chamber of Russian parliament. The Kremlin denied the story and Safronov had to quit Kommersant, allegedly under pressure from the paper’s owner, billionaire Alisher Usmanov. But Kommersant did not kill the story. It can still be found on its website.
Safronov continued to report his sharp in-depth stories for Vedomosti until March of this year before finally taking the job at Roscosmos.
“I have a feeling that Ivan was under constant pressure from threats,” Safronov’s former editor Kharatyan told The Daily Beast. “So he thought he would be safer if he got a job at a state agency, that that would protect him. But obviously that did not help.”