Scientists and journalists are being charged with treason in Putin’s Russia

Ivan Makridin


Next week, a Russian court will sentence former journalist Ivan Safronov, on trial for treason.

According to the prosecution, Safronov revealed state secrets to foreign intelligence agencies about Russian arms deals. According to Safronov, and independent human rights organizations, he was simply doing his job as a reporter, using open sources and public information.

Ivan Safronov has been in pre-trial detention since July, 2020, already spending over two years effectively imprisoned without access to his family and friends. As a national security issue, Safronov’s alleged treasonous acts fall under particularly draconian statutes. Even so, the Russian state’s actions have been vindictive.

Unprecedented pressure has been put on Safronov’s lawyers. One was temporarily held in a detention center, while another is currently in exile in Georgia after he was accused of being a “foreign agent.” On August 30, state prosecutors demanded that Safronov receive an unheard of 24-year sentence for his supposed crime.

If the judge pays heed, this would be effectively a life sentence for a prominent former defense correspondent for national dailies such as “Kommersant” and “Vedomosti” against whom the evidence is thin at best. The court failed to admit into evidence a lengthy investigation by the independent Russian news site Proekt, which showed that the “state secrets” Safronov is accused of peddling are easily found online.  

The charges Safronov faces and the potential length of the sentence he will have to serve is further confirmation that independent media in Russia has been destroyed. The war in Ukraine is not ushering in a new era of potential Russian isolation and media repression, it is just more of the same. Independent media in Russia has taken the brunt of Putin’s repressive tendencies from the start, particularly when the West appeared willing to work with Putin, only occasionally “expressing grave concern” about the clampdown on independent media and free expression. 

Of course, as independent journalists in Russia are forced into prison, exile or unemployment, pro-Kremlin journalists and platforms enjoy rising salaries and budgets. According to another Proekt investigation, journalists working for state media are earning salary hikes of up to 65%, with some especially favored correspondents now making $10,000 to $15,000 per month or more.

Safronov is one of an increasing number of people charged with treason by the state. Russian scientists find themselves particularly vulnerable to accusations of treason, espionage and the transfer of classified data. For instance, earlier this month the authorities arrested Alexander Shiplyuk, a prominent Russian scientist working on hypersonic technology. Shiplyuk spoke out in support of other arrested scientists, including his colleague Anatoly Maslov who was arrested last month for treason.

Scientists point out that until recently the Russian state had encouraged cooperation with fellow researchers in other countries. But contacts forged with their counterparts in American, European and Chinese companies have now made these same Russian scientists objects of suspicion and potential traitors. 

Worse still, when charged with such crimes the state is no longer publicly accountable, classifying case files and court proceedings so that it is impossible for (already intimidated) ordinary Russians to know what is being done to their compatriots in the name of national security.

The secrecy enables the Russian government to do monstrous things. In July, for instance, a scientist suspected of passing information to China was arrested from a clinic where he was receiving treatment for his late-stage cancer. He died after three days in pre-trial detention.


Minutes before the end of Michelle Bachelet’s tenure as the United Nations human rights commissioner, she released a long anticipated report on the potential crimes against humanity being committed by China against its minority Muslim population in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR). Bachelet had been heavily criticized by human rights groups for her apparent reluctance to condemn China outright for its violent repression of Uyghur communities.

For all the “disappointment” and criticism directed at Bachelet, in the end she kept her promise to release the report before she completed her term and the report did not shy away from describing China’s actions as “deeply problematic from the perspective of international human rights norms and standards.” There appeared to be little doubt among the researchers that “serious human rights violations have been committed” by China in XUAR. 

China dismissed the report as “a hodgepodge of misinformation” and as a “political tool which serves as part of the West’s strategy of using Xinjiang to control China.” But now that the report exists, the world might not be so keen to accept Chinese bluster and outrage as a distraction tactic from the truth of what it is doing to the Uyghur people.

“Google is aggressively pursuing military contracts,” wrote former employee Ariel Koren in a Medium post on August 30, “and stripping away the voices of its employees through a pattern of silencing and retaliation.” She accused Alphabet, Google’s parent company, of creating “an environment of fear” in order to stifle the protests of employees ethically opposed to Google’s collaboration with the Israeli government to build a cloud computing system that critics claim could aid in perpetuating human rights abuses against Palestinians. An article in The Intercept in July claimed that some of the capacity and training being shared by Google as part of its billion-dollar-plus deal “could easily augment Israel’s ability to surveil people and process vast stores of data – already prominent features of the Israeli occupation.”

Koren wrote that an internal group intended to support all Jewish employees at Google is “in practice… systematically functioning as an outlet to drive forward right-wing ideologies under the guise of promoting diversity.” A remarkably similar argument could be made about the collective concerns of many Indian employees at Google.

In June, Tanuja Gupta a manager at Google resigned after a talk she had arranged to be delivered by a Dalit rights activist in April (celebrated around the world as Dalit Rights Month) provoked some employees to write to the head of HR and to a diversity, equity and inclusion executive, and complain that the talk “was creating a hostile workplace” and that they felt unsafe. Gupta resigned but told the New Yorker in an interview on August 11 that Google decided to investigate her because she had “violated Google’s standards of conduct.” Gupta also spoke about retaliatory action taken against her.

For both Koren and Gupta, the experience with Google was soured by the company’s impulse towards secrecy and lack of transparency, which inevitably most adversely affects marginalized groups, and its unwillingness to listen despite its public stance on open communication.

It’s not just Google that is taking flak from its own employees for its willingness to aid thesurveillance efforts of governments. One of the more extraordinary revelations made by Twitter whistleblower Peiter Zatko was that Twitter had allegedly hired intelligence operatives at the behest of the Indian government, who potentially had access to user data because of the company’s slapdash security policies. It is a story that has not been followed up in any detail by the mainstream Indian press, with a few exceptions, despite the extraordinary prospect of a democratic government placing spies on the payroll of social media companies. An Indian parliamentary panel supposedly gave Twitter India executives a “dressing down,” according to a press agency report. But the report added that the executives denied Zatko’s allegations entirely and that no data breach had taken place. So all is well, in this the best of all possible worlds.

This newsletter is curated by Coda’s senior editor Shougat Dasgupta. 

Disinfo Matters looks beyond fake news to examine how the manipulation of narratives and rewriting of history is reshaping our world.

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