Russian Federal Security Service officers detained former reporter Ivan Safronov on July 7, 2020, in Moscow, in connection with his journalism. He was charged with high treason for allegedly spying for a foreign country. Authorities announced that his trial will be conducted in secret for national security reasons; however, he had yet to be tried as of late 2021.
Safronov worked as a military correspondent for Russian business dailies Kommersant and Vedomosti, and reported on Russia’s military and its aerospace industry for more than 10 years, according to news reports. On May 20, 2020, he took a job as an adviser at the Russian government space agency Roskosmos, according to reports.
Ivan Pavlov, the journalist’s defense attorney, told CPJ in a phone interview in late November 2020 that the charges were related to Safronov’s journalism, and that agents interrogated Safronov about his March 2019 reporting on Russia’s alleged sale of jet fighters to Egypt.
On May 20, 2019, Kommersant fired Safronov and another journalist, with whom he had recently worked on an article about the alleged planned resignation of the Russian speaker of parliament, according to news reports. Reports from the time alleged that the speaker had called the owner of Kommersant following that article’s publication in April and demanded the reporters be fired. Following the firings, 11 other Kommersant journalists resigned in protest, according to reports.
Both the speaker and the Kommersant owner denied those allegations, according to those reports.
The day after he was fired, Russian state media regulator Roskomnadzor ordered Kommersant to delete a March 19 report by Safronov about that alleged arms sale, claiming that it contained state secrets, according to news reports. Following that article’s publication, the U.S. government threatened Egypt with sanctions for buying Russian warplanes, according to news reports from the time.
The regulator sued the newspaper for allegedly disclosing state secrets, but the suit was rejected by a court that said it lacked enough information on the case, according to reports from the time.
After leaving Kommersant, Safronov worked from July 2019 through March 2020 at Vedomosti where he covered other sensitive topics, such as the deaths of three Russian soldiers in Syria and allegations of an American spy in the Kremlin. In March 2020, he resigned from Vedomosti along with several other journalists, over a dispute with the publication’s newly appointed chief editor, according to news reports.
Following Safronov’s arrest on July 7, 2020, Kommersant issued a statement calling the charges against him “absurd” and wrote that, “he left Kommersant after the well-known conflict but we continue to regard him with unconditional respect.”
The Federal Security Service alleges that Safronov was recruited as a spy by the Czech Republic in 2012, and provided classified military information to Czech sources in 2017, which were then turned over to the United States, according to news reports. Martin Larish, a Czech journalist alleged to be Safronov’s recruiter into the intelligence services, told the BBC Russian service that he knew Safronov as a colleague, and denied any connection to Czech intelligence.
Speaking to journalists at a press conference in Moscow soon after Safronov’s arrest, presidential spokesperson Dmitry Peskov called Safronov a “talented journalist,” according to independent news website Meduza. In October 2020, when asked about Safronov’s case, Peskov said “we are also worried about Ivan’s fate” and advised journalists to wait for the results of the official investigation. He did not give any details on the case, saying that they were classified, according to news reports.
Safronov has denied the allegations of high treason, according to Pavlov. If convicted of high treason, Safronov could face up to 20 years in prison, according to the Russian penal code.
On September 2, 2020, the Lefortovo district court ruled in a closed hearing that Safronov must be detained pending investigation, Pavlov told CPJ. He said that lawyers working on the case, himself included, had to sign nondisclosure agreements, and that the trial would be held in secret.
On May 25, 2021, a Moscow court dismissed Safronov’s appeal for release, reports said.
Safronov’s girlfriend Aleksandra Dzhordzhevich, a correspondent with the independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta, told CPJ in September 2021 via phone that she often received letters from the journalist. She said that his case had not progressed since his initial detention, and that he could be held until at least December 7, 2021.
On September 7, 2021, Pavlov left Russia after authorities opened a criminal case against him for allegedly disclosing information from the preliminary investigation in Safronov’s case, reports said. After Pavlov fled the country, other lawyers have been afraid to disclose information on Safronov’s case, Dzhordzhevich said.
On August 24, 2021, Roskosmos head Dmitriy Rogozin said that Safronov would remain as his adviser until the court issued its decision, reports said. On October 14, the Federal Security Service banned Safronov from sending or receiving correspondence in detention, according to news reports. In the middle of October, a lawyer representing Safronov, Evgeniy Smirnov, told Meduza that Safronov has not received correspondence for one month.
Dzhordzhevich told CPJ that Safronov was being held in the Lefortovo pretrial detention center in Moscow and was in good health. “But he worries a lot about his mother who is old and lives alone,” she said.
On November 10, the Interfax news agency published a report quoting an anonymous source who alleged that Safrovov had contacts with Japanese military representatives. Pavlov denied those allegations, that report said.
An official at the Lefortovo district court told CPJ via phone that he could not comment on Safronov’s case, as it was classified. CPJ also called the Russian prosecutor general’s office, but the person who answered also said the case was classified.