Berlin protests Russia World Cup ban on German journalist

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Berlin (AFP)

Berlin protested Monday against Moscow's decision to ban from the World Cup the German journalist who broke the story on Russia's state-sponsored doping scandal, stoking further an already controversial tournament.

The row erupted just days before German Chancellor Angela Merkel is due to meet Russian President Vladimir Putin, who in recent years has clashed repeatedly with Western leaders on a litany of issues including the conflicts in Syria and Ukraine.

Russia was already a disputed choice when it was handed the World Cup in a closely-watched 2010 vote that has since been tainted by bribery charges.

But it was German journalist Hajo Seppelt's documentaries on doping among Russian athletes that sparked a storm and ended up with Russia being banned from this winter's Pyeongchang Olympic games.

The row came full circle as it emerged Friday that Moscow has refused to allow in Seppelt to cover the World Cup, which kicks off next month.

"We view this measure by the Russian authorities to invalidate Seppelt's visa as wrong," said German government spokesman Steffen Seibert.

"We call on the Russian leadership to allow this German correspondent to enter the country to report on the football World Cup tournament."

Asked if Merkel would raise the issue when she meets Putin on Friday, Seibert said: "Let?s wait to see what this week brings."

- All eyes on FIFA -

Seppelt had revealed Friday that his application for a visa, submitted by public regional broadcaster SWR, was rejected as he was apparently on a "persona non grata" list in Russia.

Moscow did not specify the reason but Seppelt said the "uncovering of the state doping system has had such great impact for Russia that it felt that it needed to take such measures".

"It would be interesting to see if FIFA, which must ensure access to unfettered coverage of its tournament, would take on this case," he told AFP's sports subsidiary SID on Friday.

Seibert also stressed the importance for football world governing body FIFA to press the case.

"Free reporting of what is probably the biggest international sporting event next to the Olympics must be assured," he said.

"We are convinced that it puts Russia as a host in a bad light if the freedom of the press and of opinion is curtailed before the eyes of the world."

In a statement released Friday, FIFA said it had already approved Seppelt's accreditation request.

"In general, the freedom of the press is very important to FIFA and we want to offer media representatives the best possible conditions for them to perform their jobs," FIFA said.

While the governing body did not specify whether it was already in talks with Moscow over Seppelt's case, Germany's football federation chief Reinhard Grindel expressed confidence that FIFA would take action.

"FIFA has stressed the importance of press freedom. I have complete confidence that FIFA will now use its influence to allow Hajo Seppelt to report unhindered from Russia," he told SID on Sunday.