Joe Bergantino is safely back home in Boston but he is still steaming over being detained in Russia and fired off a letter to Russian President Valdimir Putin. “Was it really necessary to replay a scene from a tired, old cold war movie?” the letter said.
Bergantino, the head of the New England Center for Investigative Reporting was invited by the U.S. State Department to Moscow and St. Petersburg to teach investigative reporting techniques to Russian journalists.
As Bergantino told Poynter.org last week, he had just started teaching the class when Russian immigration officers walked into his classroom and demanded to see his passport and visa. A few minutes later, they came back to the classroom and ordered Bergantino and colleague Randy Covington, director of Newsplex to come with them. After hours of questioning and being hauled before a judge, the two Americans were told they had the wrong visas and would have to shut their journalism workshop down.
Bergantino dashed off a note to Putin Sunday saying, “Among our “subversive” topics: how to be fair and balanced, ethical and thorough, and how to use data to be more precise and accurate.” He continued, “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.”Bergantino said even while he and Covington were being investigated, Russian authorities publicized the detention:
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.
Bergantino said he believes Putin is trying to send a message to NGOs not to come to Russia to teach journalism. Journalism training groups like Poynter, Investigative Reporters and Editors (IRE) and the New England Center for Investigative Reporting often work abroad training journalists how to strengthen their interviewing skills, how to be tough but fair and how to use government records in their reporting. Bergantino said he has taught in China, Vietnam and Serbia with no problems.
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.
Bergantino told me last week that the judge told him that he could return to Russia if he could get the proper visa next time. Most likely, this letter to Putin lowered the chances of that happening. Read more