Russian ex-reporter now space aide held for treason

Moscow (AFP) –


A high-profile Russian journalist who became an advisor to the head of the space agency was detained Tuesday on charges of treason for divulging state military secrets, authorities said.

Ivan Safronov, 30, was one of Russia's most high profile journalists reporting on defence and politics.

His arrest on charges that carry a maximum sentence of 20 years behind bars sparked an uproar among supporters.

Friends and former colleagues took to social media to denounce the charges as a response to his reporting, which had ruffled feathers among Russia's ruling elite. A number of journalists staged one-person pickets in Moscow.

Russia's Federal Security Services (FSB) published video footage of Safronov's arrest in Moscow, showing two plainclothes security personnel in masks escorting the former journalist into a van.

The FSB told state news agency TASS that Safronov had been found to be collecting confidential data about the Russian military, defence, and security and was "handing it over" to the intelligence service of a NATO member country.

The charges were unrelated to his work at Roscosmos, the space agency said in a statement, adding it was "fully cooperating with the investigative authorities".

Roskosmos chief Dmitry Rogozin said that Safronov "did not have access to secret information" as part of his work at the agency where he began working as an information advisor in May.

The Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said that Safronov was accused of "committing high treason" and "transferring secret information to foreign intelligence services".

He added that as far as the Kremlin was aware, Safronov's detention was not related to his previous work as a journalist.

"Our counterintelligence is very busy, has a lot of tasks, and does its job very well," Peskov said.

- 'Absurd' allegations -

Safronov was a respected journalist at the Kommersant and Vedomosti newspapers where he reported on the military, politics, and Russia's space programme, which has suffered a series of embarrassing setbacks and corruption scandals in recent years.

His reporting on accidents during military exercises or a fire on Russia's only aircraft carrier was embarrassing for the Kremlin.

In 2019, Kommersant removed from its website an article he co-authored about the delivery of Russian jets to Egypt after court proceedings were opened into the disclosure of state secrets.

He was forced to resign from Kommersant in May last year following the publication of an article he co-authored which reported that the speaker of Russia's upper house of parliament was planning to step down.

The entire politics desk of the newspaper resigned in protest against the dismissal of Safronov and another colleague whose name appeared on the story.

On Tuesday, his supporters gathered outside the headquarters of the FSB in central Moscow after news of his arrest broke, and several journalists on the scene were detained by police, the police monitoring group OVD-info said.

The Kommersant newspaper published a statement in defense of its former employee, describing him as one of the best journalists in the country and a patriot. The accusations against Safronov are "absurd," Kommersant said.

"Any citizen of Russia whose work is related to public activities, whether a human rights activist, scientist, journalist or employee of a state corporation, can face a heavy charge at any time," the statement said.

Journalists have come under increasing pressure from the authorities in Russia recently. On Monday, a reporter from the northwestern city of Pskov was fined nearly $7,000 for "justifying terrorism", in a case that sparked an outcry at home and abroad.

Prosecutors had requested that Svetlana Prokopyeva be sentenced to six years in prison and banned from working as a journalist for four years.