Putin's Security Tops Press

On the morning of Nov. 7, a large motorcade roared past the window of my office here in Rostov-on-Don with lights flashing and sirens blaring. Two buses full of journalists were being accompanied by a police escort to cover an event featuring visiting President Vladimir Putin. Watching my colleagues fly by, I was struck by how much things have changed in the last year or so.

Last year, then-Prime Minister Putin visited Rostov. I couldnt help but notice the striking difference between the way media relations were handled during that visit and the way journalists were treated this year.

Last year, we did not see anything like the strict and often incomprehensible official process for choosing which journalists would be allowed to cover this weeks visit.

It all started a couple of weeks ago when the governors press service notified the local media that any journalists seeking accreditation to cover the upcoming presidential visit must submit applications (complete with photographs) immediately. But this notice warned straightaway that not everyone who applied would be accredited. Its not our fault, the press office said. "All final decisions will be made by the press office of the president."

And, indeed, by no means did all journalists receive accreditation. However, I certainly have my doubts about the innocence of the governors press office. Although the head of Putins press service, Irina Khlestova, bravely took responsibility when asked about this matter, she seemed hesitant and contradicted herself when trying to explain why some journalists were refused.

At that moment, the governors press secretary, Leonid Kovalyov, stepped in to help her out. Kovalyov explained, for instance, that Sergei Bondarenko, correspondent for Radio Rostov, had been denied because it was felt that he might submit a story to the BBC. "We didnt give accreditation to any foreign journalists, so why should we make an exception for the BBC?" Khlestova asked.

Bondarenko then asked Khlestova, "Do you realize that you are violating Russian law by not accrediting journalists?" "Yes," she said. "But the presidents security program demands this."

She then turned to one of my colleagues from the Mozaika Information Agency and said, "You, for instance, wanted to attend the presidents public appearance at the Don Public Library. But, you know, the room there is quite small and the presidents security people wont allow many people." Anyone who knows Rostov, however, knows that the Don Public Library is a new and enormous building.

"But what about the meeting at the Mayors Office?" my colleague asked. "They have a huge conference hall, and journalists there arent going to bother anyone."

"Well, you know, we have developed a certain rule," Khlestova explained. "We only accredit as many local journalists as national journalists."

"So why were two journalists from an unregistered newspaper granted accreditation?" asked another reporter. He was referring to a mysterious newspaper called The Southern Federal District, which has been published lately with a print run of just 999 copies.

Khlestova just stood there in stunned silence as if she didnt have any idea what the reporter was talking about. Then Kovalyov quickly stepped in: "You know, you have to help people out. They are just getting their start, after all."

This conversation continued for quite a while in the same way, but I think that the point is pretty obvious. It is perfectly clear that the journalists from the mysterious newspaper The Southern Federal District, which no one has seen, as well as a crew from a television channel called The Southern Federal District, which is also completely unknown to local journalists, were accredited because their work somehow meshes with the presidents information security doctrine.

On the eve of the visit, Khlestova met with accredited journalists for last-minute instructions in the office of the governors press service. Unfortunately I cant convey everything that she had to say at the meeting, but all of it was related to the presidents security. "Dont pay any attention to the presidents personal photographer or cameraman," she said. "Follow all written and oral instructions to the letter. Otherwise you may end up face down on the ground or even be shot."

I guess that is how our president intends to achieve "information security."

Grigory Bochkaryov is a journalist for the Mozaika Information Agency in Rostov-on-Don, for which he wrote this comment.