MOSCOW — An American journalist has been banned from returning to Russia, where he was working for the U.S.-financed Radio Liberty, a move that sent a hostile message about freedom of speech despite the government’s recent attempts to burnish the country’s image before the Winter Olympics.
David Satter, an author and a journalist who first worked here in 1976 as a correspondent for the Financial Times, arrived in September to conduct research for a book and work as a consultant on investigative reporting for Radio Liberty, an editorially independent news organization supported by the U.S. Congress.
When he traveled to Ukraine in December to pick up a new one-year visa promised by Russian Foreign Ministry officials, he said, he was told that the “competent organs,” shorthand for the security forces, had decided that he was an undesirable presence in Russia.
“I’m critical of the regime, as many journalists are,” Satter said by telephone from London on Tuesday. Still, he said, he was unprepared for the visa refusal and could not explain it. Obviously, he said, the threat of expulsion was a powerful weapon that could encourage self-censorship among journalists.
“I don’t expect it to be an isolated case,” said Robert Herman, vice president for regional programs at Freedom House, a Washington organization that promotes democracy. “Maybe they are doing this to see if they can get away with it.”
While Satter was awaiting his visa, President Vladimir Putin was making gestures in Moscow widely interpreted as enhancing Russia’s reputation before the Feb. 7 opening of the Sochi Olympics. He freed oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, a political opponent who had been imprisoned for 10 years, as well as two Pussy Riot performance artists. Charges were dropped against a 30-member Greenpeace crew.
Those causes well known in the West overshadowed persistent harassment of scores of other people, such as Sochi environmentalists protesting Olympic construction and the “Bolotnaya” demonstrators who have been in jail for months after they rallied against Putin’s May 2012 inauguration.
Last week, Aksana Panova, a journalist in the city of Yekaterinburg convicted of extortion, was prohibited from working as a journalist for two years. In November, a journalist in Rostov-on-Don was sentenced to 18 months in jail for a blog post that a judge found insulting. Last month, Putin decreed the closing of the state-
supported Ria Novosti news service, saying it would be reconstituted and supervised by Dmitry Kiselev, a Kremlin loyalist who has said that gays should not be allowed to donate blood and that their hearts should be burned when they die.
But until now, Western journalists have generally worked without any sense of threat. Herman, a longtime Russia watcher, said he was surprised at the timing of the Satter visa refusal. “I know Putin has been on a charm offensive,” Herman said. Perhaps the prospect of thousands of journalists converging on Russia for the Olympics made someone nervous enough to send a cautionary message, he said.
In a statement Tuesday, the Russian Foreign Ministry said Satter was guilty of “multiple gross violations” of Russian migration law.
“All of that stuff is a lot of nonsense,” Satter said. “I followed the procedures they set out for me.”
When he entered the country on a business visa in November, he said, he was supposed to replace it with a new one. When he went to pick up the visa, he said, he was told it wasn’t ready. Then, he said, he was accused of not registering his visa in time and paid a fine equivalent to about $170. The result, he said, was that he was told he could pick up a one-year journalist visa in Ukraine — he had already received accreditation from the Foreign Ministry.
He was told at Christmas that he had been denied the visa, but the decision was not reported until Monday night, when Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty posted the news on its Web site. Satter said that until Monday he had been hoping that the refusal would be rescinded. U.S. Embassy officials tried to intercede, he said, to no avail.
Kevin Klose, president and chief executive of RFE/RL, praised Satter’s journalism. “He is a consultant, an adviser, to us,” Klose said, “and I’d be very pleased and relieved if he can return to Russia in a timely fashion.”
Satter, 67, has written three books, one of which might have drawn unusual attention here. In “Darkness at Dawn,” published in 2003, he suggested that Russia’s federal security forces, or the FSB, might have been responsible for a wave of apartment bombings in 1999 that helped Putin justify a new war with Chechnya. He wrote:
“The most important indication that Russia remains in danger of becoming a dictatorship, however, is the evidence that the apartment-house bombings in September 1999 were the act not of Chechen terrorists but of the FSB.”