Expelling journalists: a long-established FSB policy
Russia's expulsion of the Guardian's Luke Harding is part of a policy of attempting to control reportage, say Andrei Soldatov and Irina Borogan
09 Feb 11

Russia’s expulsion of the Guardian’s Luke Harding is part of a policy of attempting to control reportage, say Andrei Soldatov and Irina Borogan

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On 7 February, 2011 the Guardian’s Moscow correspondent Luke Harding was expelled from Russia. According to the Guardian, the journalist flew back to Moscow from London, but was refused entry when his passport was checked on his arrival. After spending 45 minutes in an airport cell, he was sent back to the UK on the first available plane with his visa annulled. Harding was given no reason for the decision, although an airport official working for the Border Service of the FSB, told him: “For you Russia is closed.” The Guardian believes that Harding’s forced departure comes after the newspaper’s reporting of the WikiLeaks cables, where he reported on allegations that Russia under the rule of Vladimir Putin had become a “virtual mafia state”.

Harding’s expulsion is the latest example of the tactics adopted in the 2000s by the FSB in dealing with foreign journalists.

The 1990s under Yeltsin was a period of remarkable openness in Russia when journalists were free to explore areas that had long been off-limits. Under Putin, the FSB returned to KGB methods to deal with foreign journalists, using the threat of withholding visas and access to the country as leverage in an effort to influence their coverage.

In May 2002 Nikolai Volobuev, then the chief of the FSB’s counterintelligence department, said 31 foreign journalists had had their press passes revoked because they were “conducting illegal journalist activity”.  Eighteen of those were refused entry into Russia and had their visas blocked for five years. Since then this method has become common practice. According to the Center for Journalism in Extreme Situations, based in Moscow, more than 40 journalists were refused entry to Russia between 2000 and 2007.

In July 2006 Russian authorities refused an entry visa to the British journalist Thomas de Waal. The Russian Federal Migration Service explained that de Waal’s application had been denied under a 1996 security law. The explanation might be that de Waal wrote extensively on the war in Chechnya: In 1993-1997 he had worked in Russia covering the North Caucasus, and he co-authored the book Chechnya: A Small Victorious War. In 2003, he testified as an expert witness for the defense at the extradition trial in Britain of Chechen rebel leader Akhmed Zakayev.

In June 2008, British journalist Simon Pirani was refused entry to Russia, although he had a valid visa in his passport. Pirani, who writes about trade union issues, was told by Russian authorities he was deemed a security threat.

Natalia Morar, a Moldovan citizen who works for the independent Russian weekly New Times, and who had lived in Moscow for six years, was refused re-entry to Russia in December 2007 after a business trip to Israel. Morar had reported on corruption and written articles critical of high-level FSB officials.

She was forced to fly to Moldova, where she was told by Russian embassy officials that she posed a threat to Russian national security. In February 2008 she arrived at Domodedovo airport in Moscow with her Russian husband, Ilya Barabanov (who also works with New Times), whom she had married since she had last been refused entry. But she was stopped at passport control and told that her status had not changed, despite her marriage. Although she has continued to work for New Times covering corruption issues, her job has become increasingly difficult without access to Russian sources of information.

Meanwhile, the security services closed the doors of their press offices. By the mid-2000s the Federal Protection Service responded only to requests for filming or photographing inside the Kremlin. Military intelligence has no press office at all, the foreign intelligence service refuses to comment on anything that happened after 1961, and the FSB’s Center for Public Communications has tended not to answer media requests even under the threat of legal prosecution.

On April 24, 2008, then FSB director Nikolai Patrushev approved the plan to counter “the ideology of terrorism”. The plan outlined a set of guidelines for the secret services for 2008-2012. Among the measures included in the plan was a special training course, known as “Bastion”, for journalists covering terrorism. The course, established by the security services, seems to be a sort of brainwashing for journalists, aimed at limiting journalistic coverage of scenes of terrorist attacks and counterterrorism operations. Interior Ministry officials said that if a journalist had not attended the courses, he or she may be not allowed access to the area, as the number of press accreditations is limited and priority will be given to graduates of Bastion. The plan signed by Patrushev confirmed this. According to the document, the security services are required “to develop the order of accreditation of journalists who passed the courses and to establish a special diploma that would become the grounds for a journalist’s accreditation with the operations staff during the counterterrorist operation.” This requirement is at odds with the Russian media law, in which there is no mention of the course as a prerequisite for journalistic accreditation.

In 2009 the Directorate of Assistance Programmes (which includes the Centre for Public Communications) was given new powers. On 15 July Alexander Bortnikov, director of the FSB, expanded the list of FSB generals allowed to “initiate petitions to conduct counterintelligence measures that restrict the constitutional rights of citizens”. Under Bortnikov’s direction, these generals now have the authority to order wiretapping, surveillance, and the searching of premises.

The list, first established in 2007, was originally limited to heads of counterintelligence sections, the department of economic security, and the border guards, as well as FSB leadership. The order signed by Bortnikov in 2009 significantly expanded it to include the FSB Directorate for Assistance Programs. According to the law, the FSB may carry out counterintelligence measures under the following conditions: There is information regarding signs of intelligence and other activity by foreign states’ se cret services or by individuals aimed at damaging Russia’s security.

Russia’s journalists are obviously not “clients” of the list. They might divulge secrets or names of agents, but only if they are told this information by FSB officers or other officials with access to such material. But to protect well-guarded secrets, the FSB has special units, from its main Counterintelligence Service to the Military Counterintelligence unit, which typically initiate prosecutions after journalists divulge sensitive information in print.

The lawyers and FSB officers we questioned told us that the Directorate of Assistance Programs might have asked for a surveillance permit not to initiate criminal proceedings but to keep a closer eye on journalists. (Previously the chief of the directorate had to request permission from the head of the counterintelligence department to intercept journalists’ correspondence. Now the head of the FSB’s directorate in charge of dealing with journalists is able to carry out an order on his own.) Bortnikov’s order raises another question. FSB units are divided into operational and support units. The first (for instance, counterintelligence or counterterrorism) consist of operatives who recruit agents. Support units include, for example, the FSB’s capital con- struction directorate, department of medicine, human resources, and (it was long believed) its directorate in charge of dealing with journalists.

The ability to order eavesdropping is a method employed by operational units. Responding to our question as to whether the Directorate of Assistance Programmes is an operational unit, the officer on duty at the FSB Center for Public Communications replied,“It is defined by our internal regulatory documents, and nobody will [tell] you.”

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Agentura.Ru, February 8, 2011