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Expert sees "new level of repression" in Russian journalist Ivan Safronov's arrest

Ivan Safronov, a former journalist and aide to the head of Russia's space agency Roscosmos, is escorted inside a court building after being detained on charges of treason for divulging state military secrets, Moscow, July 7, 2020. VASILY MAXIMOV/AFP/Getty

Moscow — Russia's Federal Security Service has accused a respected former defense reporter of treason. Many see the arrest of Ivan Safronov as the latest manifestation of a crackdown by Russian authorities on independent journalists in the country. 

Safronov, well-known among colleagues for his work at the Kommersant daily newspaper, was arrested by FSB agents Tuesday morning. While all material related to the case is classified, his lawyer tells CBS News that investigators suggested Safronov had been recruited by the Czech Republic in 2012, and then five years later provided sensitive information to that country — destined for the United States — on Russia's military cooperation with African and Middle Eastern nations. 

Under the arrest warrant Safronov can be held for two months, but investigators are expected to file official charges against him next week. 

As of Thursday, no further details of the case against Safronov had been disclosed to him or his defense team. His lawyer, Ivan Pavlov, who specializes in treason and espionage cases, told CBS News that investigators would normally present at least some evidence in court when requesting a suspect be arrested and detained prior to charges being filed. 

"We were given nothing at all," he said in a telephone interview. Pavlov said his client denies the accusations made by the FSB. The lawyer suggested the arrest was aimed at intimidating journalists in the country, and said the outcome of the case could depend largely on the reaction of Safronov's media colleagues.

Russian investigative journalist Golunov attends a court hearing in Moscow
Russian journalist Ivan Golunov, who was detained by police and accused of drug offenses, reacts inside a defendants' cage as he attends a court hearing in Moscow, June 8, 2019. TATYANA MAKEYEVA/REUTERS

Last summer hundreds of people, including many media professionals, took to the streets of Moscow protesting the arrest of respected investigative reporter Ivan Golunov. He was arrested on drug charges that he and his lawyers always insisted were fabricated, and the case against him was dropped amid public outrage. 

Safronov's arrest has also prompted an outcry among Russian journalists. Several have already been detained for picketing outside FSB headquarters. Leading media outlets, including Kommersant, have issued statements denouncing the charges. 

Police officers detain a supporter of Ivan Safronov, a former journalist and aide to the head of Russia's space agency Roscosmos, outside the headquarters of Russia's Federal Security Services (FSB) in central Moscow, July 7, 2020. DIMITAR DILKOFF/AFP/Getty

Business media outlet RBC said in an editorial piece that the arrest appeared to be aimed at sending a message to Russian news outlets, and the wider society, not to discuss "secrets," or those who have knowledge of them. 

Andrei Soldatov, an expert on Russia's powerful security services, called the case against Safronov "an absolutely new level of repression against journalists in the country."

In an op-ed published by the independent newspaper The Moscow Times, Soldatov said the Kremlin had "added journalists to their lists of threats, capping a trend that began with [President] Vladimir Putin's rise to power." 

Rebecca Ross, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, said in a tweet that the arrests of Russian journalists were starting "to look like a concerted campaign against #MediaFreedom." 

The Russian Foreign Ministry replied quickly: "Mind your own business."

At Kommersant, Safronov had continued the work of his father, Ivan Safronov Senior, who died in 2007 in a mysterious fall from a window. At the time of his death he had been working on a story about Russian shipments of an air defense system and planes to Iran and Syria. His colleagues never believed the official investigation's conclusion that it was a suicide.

About two months ago, Safronov Junior started a new job as an adviser to the head of the Russian Space Agency, Roscosmos. For about a decade before that he was known for his well-sourced coverage of the defense sector, the security services and the space program. He was an accredited member of the press pool covering President Putin.

Ivan Safronov, a former journalist and aide to the head of Russia's space agency Roscosmos, detained on charges of treason for divulging state military secrets, stands inside a defendants' cage during a court hearing in Moscow, July 7, 2020. VASILY MAXIMOV/AFP/Getty

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters he did not know how Safronov could have obtained classified information, and that the allegations were not connected to his work as a journalist. 

Peskov also said the Kremlin didn't see any trend of repression against journalists in the country. 

If convicted of treason Safronov could face up to 20 years in prison. Trials involving information labeled by the FSB as "secret" remain closed to the public, making it impossible for anyone outside the courtroom to assess evidence presented during the proceedings. 

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