Russian journalists fear growing media persecution after treason arrest

MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russian journalists have launched a petition demanding treason allegations against a former reporter be made public, fearing the case is bogus and that media are being increasingly persecuted.

FILE PHOTO: Ivan Safronov, a former journalist who works as an aide to the head of Russia's space agency Roscosmos, detained on suspicion of treason, stands inside a defendants' cage before a court hearing in Moscow, Russia July 7, 2020. REUTERS/Evgenia Novozhenina/File Photo

Ivan Safronov, a former newspaper journalist working at Russia’s space agency since May, was detained by security agents outside his flat on Tuesday and accused of passing military secrets to the Czech Republic. He denies the charges.

At a closed hearing, the court ordered Safronov to be held in custody for two months. One of his lawyers, Ivan Pavlov, said the hearing was unusual as the state investigator had not presented any evidence.

“Now they’ve taken Ivan Safronov,” read the petition circulated online by journalists at investigative newspaper Novaya Gazeta and signed by nearly 7,500 people.

The petition said the case should be declassified and the allegations made public, adding: “Otherwise it’s fake. The evidence is hidden when it is fake.”

The Kremlin noted what it described as some emotional media reactions, but said those outlets had not seen the evidence, which would be reviewed in court. It said it had seen no signs of a campaign of pressure against reporters.

Several journalists were photographed staging one-person pickets in various Russian cities on Wednesday, demanding Safronov be freed. Dozens of people, including journalists, were detained by Moscow police on Tuesday.

On Monday, a court in the city of Pskov found another journalist guilty of justifying terrorism. She denied the charge.

Mediazona, a private media outlet, wrote that it looked like law enforcement agencies were trying to “force us to stay silent”.

Police opened a criminal case this week against Mediazona’s publisher, Pyotr Verzilov, for failing to declare dual Canadian citizenship. He is an anti-Kremlin activist.

The U.S. embassy’s spokeswoman wrote on Twitter it was “starting to look like a concerted campaign against #MediaFreedom.”

“Mind your own business,” Russia’s Foreign Ministry responded.

Additional reporting by Gabrielle Tétrault-Farber and Alexander Marrow, Editing by Timothy Heritage