Former Russian reporter Ivan Safronov is serving a 22-year prison sentence after being convicted of treason charges in September 2022. Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) officers detained Safronov in Moscow in July 2020 in connection with his journalism and accused him of spying for a foreign country. His trial was conducted in secret for alleged national security reasons.
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 at 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 those reports.
Both the speaker and the Kommersant owner denied those allegations, according to those reports.
The day after Safronov was fired, Russian state media regulator Roskomnadzor ordered Kommersant to delete a March 19, 2019, 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 at 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 at 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 the news outlet and U.S. Congress-funded broadcaster Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.
Following Safronov’s arrest on July 7, 2020, Kommersant issued a statement calling the charges against him “absurd” and saying that, “He left Kommersant after the well-known conflict but we continue to regard him with unconditional respect.”
The FSB 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, was quoted as saying by 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.
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.
On August 24, 2021, Roskosmos head Dmitriy Rogozin said that Safronov would remain as his adviser until the court issued its decision, Kommersant reported.
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.
Safronov’s friend, Aleksandra Dzhordzhevich, a correspondent with the independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta, told CPJ in September 2021 via phone that after Pavlov fled the country, other lawyers were afraid to disclose information on Safronov’s case.
On November 10, 2021, the Interfax news agency published a report quoting an anonymous source who alleged that Safronov had contacts with Japanese military representatives. Pavlov denied those allegations, that report said.
In late August 2022, media reported that the classified information Safronov allegedly shared was already publicly available, and that he was being prosecuted in retaliation for his 2019 reporting on Russian’s sale of fighter jets to Egypt.
On September 5, a court in Moscow convicted Safronov of treason, sentenced him to 22 years in prison, and imposed a fine of 500,000 rubles (US$8,100), according to multiple media reports. Safronov plans to appeal the verdict, media reported.
Earlier that day, the European Union delegation to Russia had called on Russian authorities to drop the charges against the journalist and release him unconditionally.
On November 28, the Russian independent human rights organization Memorial declared Safronov a political prisoner.
Safronov’s lawyer Dmitry Kachev told CPJ via messaging app in October 2022 that the journalist had not reported any health issues. Safronov is held in Moscow’s Lefortovo pretrial detention center, he said.
“At the moment, all his thoughts are occupied by his family and preparations for the court of appeal,” said Kachev, adding that no appeal date had been set yet.
In October 2022, CPJ called the Russian Ministry of Interior, but nobody answered the phone. CPJ emailed the press service of the Russian Prosecutor General’s Office, but did not receive any replies.