Russia Direct asked a group of experienced U.S. and Russian journalists for their take on David Satter’s expulsion from Russia.

David Satter. Photo: Radio Free Europe / Laura Mir

Russia’s decision to expel David Satter, the former Moscow correspondent of the Financial Times who had been working as a journalist for Radio Free Europe since September, has touched off a new round of debate in the Western media about the perils of being a journalist in Russia. But is all this criticism merited?

Here’s what we know about the Satter case

Satter, a veteran U.S. journalist based in Moscow who has written several books on Russia and the Soviet Union, told CNN that he traveled to Ukraine to renew his Russian visa on Christmas Day but found out that his application had been denied. An embassy official told him that his presence in Russia was undesirable, according to Satter.

"My position is that this ban should be reversed immediately," he told the Guardian. "This is a formula used for spies.”

Russia’s Foreign Ministry called Western coverage of the Satter case “biased” and accounted for the journalist’s expulsion with a reference to “grave violations of Russia’s migration legislation.” However, Satter doesn’t find Moscow’s stance reasonable, claiming that Russia sees him as “a security threat.”               

According to Russia’s Foreign Ministry, Satter stayed in Russia from Nov. 21-26 illegally: He entered Russia on Nov. 21 and was required to arrive at Moscow’s migration service to get a multiple visa which he was informed about in advance. But he formally failed to do it and came on Nov. 26.  After a Moscow court found him guilty of administrative violations, and then Satter acknowledged these violations, he was banned from entering Russia for five years.

According to Russia’s administrative law, a failure to follow migration registration requirements is considered an administrative violation. This in turn can result in a fine and expulsion from Russia, if ruled by a Russian court. In that case, those foreign citizens will be denied from entering Russia for five years.

Russia's Foreign Ministry quotes exactly this law when accounting for the expulsion of Satter. “It’s by no means a single case,” the Foreign Ministry adds in a statement. “Currently, about 500 thousand foreign citizens are banned from entering Russia for a period of 3 to 10 years for violating the country’s legislation.”

Previously, foreign journalists such as The Guardian’s Luke Harding and French author Anne Nivat faced visa problems in Russia. While Harding was expelled from Russia in February 2011 (a stance he related to his criticism of the government), Nivat had her Russian visa annulled and left the country as she worked on a book about the political situation in the country before the 2012 presidential elections (She was later issued a multi-entry business visa and received apologies from the Russian ambassador to France).

Was Satter’s expulsion politically motivated?

Andrew Roth, a Moscow-based reporter for the New York Times, sees Satter's punishment as “harsh.”

“Mr. Satter's punishment for the alleged visa violation seems harsh for the Foreign Ministry, which is also tasked with assisting foreign journalists and ensuring that they can do their jobs,” he told Russia Direct.

Meanwhile, Gregory Feifer, former Moscow correspondent for National Public Radio and Radio Free Europe views Satter as “an astute Russia observer who had serious run-ins with the KGB when he was the Financial Times correspondent in Moscow during the Cold War.”

“His incisive criticism of the Putin administration, especially in his book Darkness at Dawn, together with his job at the U.S.-funded Radio Liberty, surely infuriated the Kremlin,” he argues.

“Either he crossed a line in the authorities' imagination or they were waiting for an excuse to expel him – or they want to send a signal ahead of the Sochi Olympics. We'll probably never know.”

Alexander Gasyuk, former Washington correspondent for Russia’s daily Rossiyskaya Gazeta, on the other hand, questions allegations that Satter’s criticism toward Russia’s authorities was the real reason behind the court’s ruling.

“There are other American correspondents accredited in Moscow who are much harsher [toward Kremlin] than Satter and they are not banned from the country,” he claims.

He also points out that Western coverage of Satter’s expulsion appears to be biased against Russia. “The West always seeks to use any news pegs to criticize Russia and hamper its image abroad.”

Bureaucratic nightmares for journalists abroad, not just in Russia

Meanwhile, Gasyuk points out to the fact that journalists working outside of their home countries often face bureaucratic problems, no matter where they are based. He, for example, pointed to the lengthy process of getting a social security number in the U.S. “It hampered me from doing my job, because it is impossible to open a bank account without it, rent an apartment and deal with other [bureaucratic] issues with the news bureau.”

Violation of local laws - including staying in the country with an expired visa - will result in sanctions upon return entry to the country, Gasyuk clarifies. “Yet, according to the current legislation, foreign correspondents can stay on the territory of the U.S. even with a expired visa, if they fulfill their professional commitments and prepare journalistic materials.”

When asked about his experience in Russia, Roth, who has been working in Russia for almost three years, said he hadn’t faced any “severe problems” of getting a journalist's visa in Russia, but also pointed to bureaucratic problems.

“Issues with documents are a constant problem,” he said. “Retrieving a stolen or lost press accreditation can take as long as two months, and involves three or more trips to local police stations before a replacement order is placed with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.”

Feifer in turn remembers how he himself was close to being expelled from Moscow while working for National Public Radio (NPR) several years ago.

When he was returning to Moscow from Washington as an NPR correspondent with his family, a passport control official studying his passport at Sheremetyevo international airport reached across her desk and pushed a button. Feifer was told that he was being expelled on the next flight back to Washington.

“Although the Foreign Ministry assured me they were required to give a reason, the airport officials refused,” Feifer said. “After four hours of frantic telephone calls, I was finally allowed to stay in Russia just before the plane took off thanks to the efforts of then-U.S. Ambassador Bill Burns (who served as ambassador from 2005 through 2008), who warned the Kremlin that refusing an accredited American reporter entry would bring serious consequences. The authorities were particularly nervous about criticism then, just ahead of parliamentary elections in 2007, but I never learned the real reason for my near-expulsion.”