Veteran Boston TV investigative reporter Joe Bergantino spent several hours in Russian police custody Thursday after authorities barged in on a journalism training session he and the Newsplex’s Randy Covington were leading in St. Petersburg, Russia. The two were teaching investigative reporting skills to 14 Russian TV, print and online reporters at the time.
Bergantino said in a phone interview that he and Covington had been contracted by the U.S. State Department to teach how to interview, report and think critically.
“We had finished teaching a workshop in Moscow and were just starting a second session in St. Petersburg, Russia when agents from the immigration service walked in,” Bergantino said from Paris. “We were taken to an adjacent room and surrounded by people asking us questions for about an hour.”
He said the officials demanded the two Americans write and sign a statement saying what they were doing in Russia. After writing the statement, the two returned to teaching for five minutes, only to be interrupted a second time. This time the agents shut the workshop down and hauled Bergantino and Covington away.
“This time they took us to an immigration service office and showed us a document that they wanted us to sign saying we were guilty of immigration law violations. We refused to sign it,” Bergantino said. “Then we were taken to a district court. The judge had already determined we were guilty. They initially provided an interpreter who was translating about one-tenth of what was going on.”
Bergantino and Covington were using “targeted tourism visas,” as they said the U.S. State Department told them to do. But the Russians said they needed business visas. “Randy has been to Russia before to train journalists and used the same visa we were using this time,” Bergantino told me.
“The judge told us we were guilty of violating immigration law and issued us a warning.”
As far as they know, Bergantino said, they weren’t fined and they weren’t officially deported.
“She told us we could take our scheduled flight home, but not knowing what might happen next, we took an earlier flight to Paris,” Bergantino said.
Bergantino is still unsure what was behind the disruption and intimidation.
“What we did hear last night is this is not from the immigration service, it is a higher level. Putin is trying to send a message if you make the Russian life difficult, we will make it difficult for you. They don’t want people from the journalists outside to come in and teach investigative reporting and stir up Russians journalists.”
Bergantino has partnered with Poynter and me on several occasions training investigative reporters as part of his work with the New England Center for Investigative Reporting, which he heads. Before that he had a long career with WBZ-TV, WPLG-TV and has appeared on many national broadcasts including Nightline, World News Tonight and Good Morning America.
The judge did tell the Americans they could return to Russia if they get the “proper” paperwork.
“I would go back, I love the people there,” Bergantino said. “But something tells me I am not going to get the visa they say I need.”