A letter to Putin from NECIR journalist detained by Russian authorities

New England Center for Investigative Reporting Executive Director Joe Bergantino was detained for several hours in mid-October for allegedly illegally conducting a journalism workshop in St. Petersburg. 

Dear Mr. Putin,

Was it really necessary to replay a scene from a tired, old cold war movie?

I’m referring to Thursday morning when your government dispatched at least six of its immigration agents to disrupt an investigative reporting workshop that a colleague and I were conducting at a hotel in your hometown of St. Petersburg. Among our “subversive” topics: how to be fair and balanced, ethical and thorough, and how to use data to be more precise and accurate.

That’s what I – as executive director of the New England Center for Investigative Reporting – have taught to journalists in China, Serbia, Vietnam and other countries without interruption by government agents. In fact, the 14 journalists in the room in St. Petersburg were eager to learn. Instead they were recipients of a not-so-subtle message of power and intimidation, and a reminder of the obstacles they face while you’re in charge.

The other message was obviously to the U.S. government. The State Department had funded the workshop with a grant to the University of South Carolina. My colleague there, Randy Covington, was the workshop moderator. I was the main presenter.

Your agents began their inquiry with a simple request: “Your passports please.” That was followed by an hour of questioning in a hotel meeting room. I was surrounded by your immigration law enforcers in leather jackets and blue jeans – one on each side of me and a few more standing guard at the door. They occasionally cracked a smile. One even apologized for inconveniencing us.

But across the table were the two who appeared to be in charge: a young man with a stylish dress coat and tie and a woman – decked out in a designer outfit and expensive leather boots – with a cold gaze, almost a caricature of a seasoned spy. They never said a word. A dressed–up version of your KGB?

The other agents peppered us with questions. Why are you in Russia? What are you doing here? Were you conducting a workshop?  And then the order: “Write your statement, sign it, and we’ll let you go.” We did, but five minutes later, back in the workshop conference room, Scene Two of your cold war movie unfolded.

The agents interrupted us again. “You need to come with us,” they commanded in Russian. A translator provided the English subtitles in what was now reality imitating fiction. Cue the music, the van ride downtown, the stark, institutional waiting room. We were detained for three hours there at the immigration service before being transported to district court.

In the interest of fairness, I should note that your immigration service posted our names and the charges against us on its website while we were being detained. You can be transparent when you choose to send a message, which in this case was “We’re showing Americans who’s boss.”

And when a Russian TV crew unexpectedly arrived to interview us, your agents offered us tea and cookies. But those same agents tried to convince us to sign a statement admitting that we had violated immigration laws by being in Russia on what’s called a “targeted tourism” visa while conducting a workshop. We refused to sign.

The ride to the courthouse was a short but unsettling one. We were, for the first time since our ordeal began, separated from a very helpful Russian-speaking staff person from the U.S. Consulate in St. Petersburg. In the van, it was just Randy and I and several of your agents. We were hoping this time your agents were telling the truth – about our destination.

The moment we entered the courtroom, after an hour or two of waiting, we realized yours is not a system of innocent until proven guilty. The judge, a middle-aged woman with a strident tone, made it clear that she had already decided our fate before we even said a word.

But we were given the opportunity to testify that we never had intended to violate the law and that the U.S. Embassy in Moscow had advised us that a “targeted tourism” visa was all we needed to conduct a workshop in your country. And Randy explained to the judge that he had been in Russia just three months ago on a similar visa conducting a social media workshop without interruption. None of that made a difference.

The judge declared us both guilty of violating Russian immigration laws. We were relieved to learn that this was an administrative and not a criminal violation. The end result – a warning. Don’t do this again, and leave the country on your scheduled flight.

Let me repeat the question, Mr. Putin: Was all that really necessary? It’s clear that you enjoy playing the tough guy on the world stage and that the Russian people overwhelmingly support your message to the rest of us: Russia is strong and will exercise her will as she sees fit.

But let me get personal for a moment.

I am part of a generation of Americans who grew up worrying that one of your country’s bombastic and unpredictable leaders would press the red button and blow us to smithereens. We thought – prematurely – that was all past us when the Soviet Union crumbled and a new Russia emerged. But now many in our country define your Russia with a cliche: once a bully, always a bully. And you appear to like it that way.

What your government did to us is eliciting strong reaction in the global journalism community and beyond. My colleague Dave Kaplan, who heads up the Global Investigative Journalism Network, calls your direct shut-down our workshop “outrageous.”

“It seems that Russian authorities are intent on sending a message. They don’t want foreign NGOS coming in to talk about how to report on corruption and abuse of power,” he told one of our center’s reporters.

Drew Sullivan, co-founder of the Sarajevo-based Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project that does investigative journalism trainings around the world, wasn’t surprised by what happened. He says our experience is part of a “growing trend” and that Russia and former Soviet countries are some of the worst locales for carrying out serious journalism or trainings.

Former U.S. Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul is even more worried:

“This [detainment] is really profoundly different and incredibly tragic. [It shows] how Putin’s government today is trying to cut off Russian society to the outside world. This is just another example of that.”

You’re clearly playing by the bully-strongman playbook.  Strip away freedom of the press and do whatever you please because no one’s holding you accountable. It’s easy being “leader” when those who dare to question you face intimidation and punishment.

One of my closest friends here in Boston has invested millions in your country and praises your economic prowess. But a true leader accepts – often reluctantly – the challenge of scrutiny. In fact, believe it or not, some insist it makes them a stronger and more formidable leader. Not you, Mr. Putin.

Did shutting down a workshop intended to help journalists in your country do more professional journalism accomplish anything?  Let me answer that question. It certainly did. It was one more in a series of actions that are revealing to the world exactly who you are.

 Joe Bergantino is the executive director of the New England Center for Investigative Reporting.