Guardian correspondent expelled from Russia

New York, February 8, 2011–The Committee to Protect Journalists called on Russian authorities today to allow Luke Harding, Moscow correspondent for the U.K. Guardian, to return to Russia and resume his work. Harding, at left, was refused entry to Russia on Saturday.

The journalist had temporarily returned to London in the fall to report on U.S. diplomatic cables released to the Guardian by WikiLeaks. He tried to re-enter the country on a valid visa, but was turned down at Moscow’s Domodedovo International Airport, Harding told CPJ. A guard seized his passport and led him to a detention unit. He told the journalist: “Access to Russia is closed to you,” without further explanation, Harding said.

Harding had been stationed in Moscow since January 2007, covering subjects ranging from official corruption and anti-terrorist operations in the North Caucasus, to the poisoning death of former Russian spy Aleksandr Litvinenko and Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB). While in London, Harding covered the Russia-related leaked U.S. diplomatic cables, which described Kremlin officials in unflattering terms. Days before Harding was refused access to Russia, a book on WikiLeaks he co-authored with another Guardian journalist was released in the United Kingdom.

“This action sends a disturbing message for all international journalists covering Russia,” said CPJ Europe and Central Asia Program Coordinator Nina Ognianova. “We call for the authorities to allow Luke Harding to return to Moscow immediately.”

After less than an hour in detention, Harding was placed on a London-bound plane. His Russian visa, valid until May, was stamped “annulled.” Since Harding’s deportation, the Guardian has been unsuccessfully trying to obtain an explanation from Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which is responsible for granting permits to foreign correspondents.

“The incident with my deportation is part of a more general and ongoing squeeze on international reporters working in Russia,” Harding told CPJ. “It is part of a move to get the truth-tellers out of the country.”

Today, the ministry issued a statement saying that Harding had “violated the rules regulating the work of international correspondents,” and claiming he had “knowingly” left the country without awaiting receipt of his renewed press accreditation. But the ministry had approved the journalist’s visa two months prior, Harding said.

CPJ has documented other incidents of international journalists’ expulsion or denial of entry to Russia. In June 2008, British freelance journalist Simon Pirani, who has worked in Russia as a reporter and academic researcher regularly since 1990, was sent back to the U.K. The Russian Embassy in London later explained to him in an e-mail that his ban was “necessary for the purpose of protecting the defense capability and security of the state or the social order, or for the protection of the public health.” The same explanation was used for the December 2007 expulsion of Moldovan journalist Natalya Morar, then an investigative reporter with the Moscow-based independent newsweekly The New Times. Yet another British journalist–Thomas de Waal of the London-based Institute for War and Peace Reporting–had his application for a Russia visa denied in July 2006; the Federal Migration Service in Moscow cited the same security law as the reason.