Galina Arapova: “It’s like walking through a minefield.” On journalists’ risk of being charged with state treason

9 July 2020

Maria Litvinova interviews Galina Arapova, director of the Media Rights Defence Centre and laureate of a Moscow Helsinki Group prize

Source: Moscow Helsinki Group [original source: Kommersant,]

Before 6 September, Moscow’s Lefortovo District Court remandedIvan Safronov, a former special correspondent for Kommersant and Vedomosti, in custody. Safronov, since May 2020, had been working as an advisor to Dmitry Rogozin, general director of Roskosmos, a state corporation. The FSB suspects the journalist, who is known for his publications about the military-industrial complex, of state treason — of collaborating secretly with the Czech special service, to which he allegedly passed information about weapons shipments from Russia to African countries and about the activities of Russian armed forces in the Middle East. Ivan Safronov denies the allegations. Colleagues all over Russia have spoken out in the journalist’s defense.

Galina Arapova, director of the Media Rights Defence Centre and winner of the Moscow Helsinki Group prize, told Kommersant about a journalist’s risk of finding themselves charged with disclosing state secrets in the course of working with information of public importance.

In his position as advisor to the head of Roskosmos, as in his journalistic work, Ivan Safronov did not have access to state secrets. How could someone who did not sign a commitment to preserve state secrets be prosecuted for disclosing them?

The problem rests in the fuzzy formulations in the laws. In 2012, amendments to Article 275 of the Russian Federation Criminal Code extended its application. Before this, state treason meant “the delivery of a state secret or other rendering of assistance, to a foreign state, a foreign organization, or their representatives in their conduct of hostile activity to the detriment of national security.” With the introduction of the amendments, state treason became interpreted as “the delivery to a foreign state, international or foreign organization, or their representatives of information comprising a state secret, to an authorized person, or to someone known to him through his service, employment, study, or in other instances,” as well as “the rendering of financial, material-technical, consultation, or other assistance to a foreign state, international or foreign organization, or their representatives in activity aimed against the security of the Russian Federation.”

It is this fuzzy “in other instances” — and the entire formulation in general — that created an enormous net that can be thrown over anyone.

That is, a person might not even know they have disclosed information relating to a state secret?

Yes, an ordinary citizen, a journalist, often might not even know that specific information involves a state secret.

Previously, responsibility for its disclosure was borne by whoever had been entrusted with this state secret, whoever had signed a pledge of secrecy and been given access to that secret.

But now, anyone who discloses it is responsible, even if he doesn’t know he disclosed it. That is, anyone who might come across a poorly kept state secret is taking a risk.

Can a journalist, while collecting and disseminating information of public importance, safeguard themselves against accusations of state treason?

It is difficult to safeguard yourself, and basically no one knows how. Because all you have to do is open Article 5 of the law on state secrets and you’ll see that a state secret can be anything at all. For instance, questions of scientific-technical progress, budget expenditures on defence, the utilization of nuclear weapons. Many of these questions fall at the juncture between state secrets and information of public importance. For example, information about violations of the law by state bodies, about the state of the environment, and so on are not subject to classification.

Safronov was shedding light on a military topic, where so much relates to state secrets. But what exactly — again, an ordinary person and journalist doesn’t know because the very list of specific information that falls within the framework of special procedures for state secrets is a state secret. Even if a journalist, while working on one of these complex topics, were to come across this kind of information, including in open sources, there is nowhere for him to verify whether it happens to involve a state secret. Perhaps the only clear marker of this kind of secrecy is a “top secret” stamp on the copy of the document. But we realize that journalists do not work only with paper sources. A huge mass of data on the military-industrial branch is on the Internet, including in connection with documents on state purchases. And a person who has not signed a pledge not to disclose state secrets would have no way of knowing to what extent everything is proper in these documents and the information roaming around the Internet, whether there is information protected by the law there. A journalist writes about testing grounds, training, the environment, budget expenditures, troop movements, Russian soldiers’ participation in various armed conflicts outside the country.

Some of this information may be given him by sources, but sometimes he himself is witness to certain events. How can he know that this, it turns out, is a state secret?

He was not given access to and is not employed by the organisation that is supposed to protect this information from disclosure.

Is the case of Oksana Sevastidi the result of vagueness in legislative language? [in 2016 Sochi resident Oksana Sevastidi was sentenced to seven years in a penal colony for sending texts on the redeployment of armed forces of the Russian Federation before the beginning of the conflict on Georgian territory. She was pardoned in 2017. Editorial note by Kommersant]

Yes, after 2012 such cases began appearing. She sent two text messages to a Georgian police officer concerning Russian military equipment on the border with Georgia. She had seen the equipment from a bus window. The woman could not have known that she had seen a secret operation. But after that case Russian journalists began covering events in the Donbas more carefully. They started calling us from Russia’s southern regions, asking whether they could write about having seen, right outside the window, the movement of military equipment in the direction of the border.

And what did you answer them?

We didn’t even know ourselves whether that operation was a state secret. The only thing we knew for certain was the public position of the authorities, that officially there were no Russian soldiers in Donbas.

And when journalists wrote about it, it was up to the government whether to initiate proceedings against them for divulging state secrets.

But we saw how such publications were purged from the Internet, and how journalists and relatives of service people, who often were sources of information, came under greater pressure.

Does the initiation of legal proceedings depend only on the government?

That turns out to be the case. indeed, the same thing happened with the story about the “sightseeing trip” to Salisbury by two people who, in an interview with Margarita Simonyan, presented themselves as athletics instructors who had travelled to England to admire the spire of a cathedral. According to the law on state secrets, it is prohibited, for instance, to disclose the identification of employees of intelligence services and their relatives. And if the published investigations of the story of the notorious Petrov and Boshirov are true, then it works out that they fall under the paragraph on state secrets.

You see, in open sources on the internet, journalists could find information on who these people were, where they worked, the fact that they might work for the security services, and that they likely were on a secret operation. But the state did not initiate one single criminal case for divulging state secrets. Because that would have contradicted the version of the story that was given voice in the interview with Margarita Simonyan, that Petrov and Boshirov were simple tourists.

In that case, the state simply did a poor job of maintaining the state secret. The question of the public significance of the scandal ran counter to the interest of the state in keeping everything secret – thus the reaction, apparently, was to pretend not to notice.

How will editorial staffs conduct themselves now?

The press has long shied away from writing in earnest about topics concerning defence and the work of the security services. When editorial teams start to deal with such topics, they try to elucidate whether the information relates to state secrets. But neither they nor we can say precisely.

In many cases, the only person who can know exactly what counts as a state secret is the one making the decision to classify specific information, documents or events.

It’s like walking through a minefield. Journalists take great risks and not one mass media institution needs such a headache. Editorial staffs face fines of up to one million roubles, and individual journalists sentences of from 12 to 20 years. They’ll think it over and decide to cover the theatre instead.

Will the Ivan Safronov case strengthen self-censorship?

Yes, I think so. Journalists will not only write carefully about defence, but shy away from the topic in general. The whole military industry, all the work of the special services, will take place outside the field of scrutiny. Well, except when the press services of their own departments report positively on them. 

Journalists regularly become defendants in high-profile cases. A year ago, drugs were planted on Ivan Golunov and they tried to accuse him of selling them; on Monday Svetlana Prokopyev was given a fine of 500,000 roubles for justifying terrorism, and the next day Ivan Safronov was arrested. Some journalists think this looks like some kind of revenge against journalists on the part of security services.

It’s hard to unambiguously link the case of Prokopyev and Safronov in a single logical chain, except in terms of chronology. But I wouldn’t rule out the suggestion that this is not an accident, and a response to the journalistic community, which supported Svetlana Prokopyeva.

The fact that Ivan Safronov was arrested the very next day after a compromise on the part of the sentencing authorities really can be taken as no coincidence, especially as in our country many such decisions are made hands-on.

Regarding Svetlana’s case, even the state-owned channels were silent – apparently there was no command to attack. But in Safronov’s case, we see activity at a federal level. Dmitry Peskov has said that his detention was not connected with his journalistic activities, and Rogozin [Dmitry Rogozin, head of the Roskosmos space program – Ъ] has said that it was not connected with his work at Roskosmos. But what work can it be connected with, then? All the preceding time, Ivan Safronov was working exclusively as a journalist.

Can it be that he is a journalist by day, and by night he goes around uncovering state secrets and handing them over to persons unknown? 

I have no doubt that this accusation is related to his journalistic work. I find it hard to imagine that a journalist at this level, working for reputable publications, one of the most experienced journalists writing about the military-industrial complex and the defence industry, was gathering intelligence for secret services. His father was a war journalist who died in strange circumstances in 2007, and in fact Ivan replaced him at Kommersant, writing on the same topic. Ivan Safronov could find out information in his role as a correspondent and publish it in the media. But the work of a journalist consists of gathering information, analysing it and preparing it for publication.

How often are journalists in Russia accused of treason?

The case of Ivan Safronov is the second in history. The first was the case of a military journalist from Vladivostok, Grigory Pasko, who in 2001 was convicted of high treason in the form of espionage, and sentenced to four years in prison. But Grigory Pasko was not just a journalist, but also a career officer.

Journalists across the country have mounted solitary pickets in support of Ivan Safronov, and been arrested. Acts of solidarity from journalists have accompanied the cases of Ivan Golunov and Svetlana Prokopyev. is this one of the few remaining ways to protect oneself? 

The media community is trying to demonstrate its outrage to the authorities with this wave of public protest. It’s an effort to convey their position, to reach out, as well as being a demonstration of lack of trust in law enforcement and the judicial system. If it was independent and predictable and made autonomous decisions on such matters, there would have been no need to go out with placards. 

Translated by Marian Schwartz, Mark Nuckols and Anna Bowles

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