Tuesday 15 February 2011, 10:14
After the Guardian's Moscow correspondent, Luke Harding, was briefly barred from entering Russia early in February, most commentators in Russia's liberal and opposition media rallied to his cause and attacked the security services for discrediting the country in the eyes of the world.
The one exception was Yuliya Latynina, despite being an outspoken Kremlin critic. She turned her fire on Harding, accusing him of being a propagandist for terrorists in the North Caucasus, and said the security services were perfectly entitled to bar him.
Harding was refused entry into Russia when he returned after a two-month absence on 5 February. He was given no explanation for the refusal at the time.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov later said that the Guardian journalist had violated the terms of his accreditation. He also mentioned that Harding had made unauthorised visits to a "zone with a counterterrorist operation regime". Lavrov added that Harding could facilitate his return to Russia by "formalising his status".
The Guardian journalist was then granted a visa and returned to Russia on 12 February.
Like the Guardian, liberal media in Russia linked Harding's expulsion to his articles attacking the Russian leadership, in particular Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. The subhead of an article on news website Gazeta.ru, for example, said he had not been "allowed to enter Russia because of his article about the 'mafia state'".
This was a reference to an article, published in December, in which Harding reported allegations made about Russia's leaders in US diplomatic material released by Wikileaks.
Gazeta.ru went on to say that Harding had written about many issues that are "rarely covered by Russian journalists". He was, it said, "the first foreign correspondent to raise the issue of Vladimir Putin's personal fortune", and had assisted opposition activists Boris Nemtsov and Vladimir Milov to defend a libel case brought by one of Putin's wealthy associates.
Gazeta.ru also mentioned an article Harding had written in June 2010 entitled "Dagestan: My Daughter the Terrorist". The article was largely based on an interview with the father of Maryam Sharipova, one of the suicide bombers involved in the attacks on the Moscow metro in March 2010.
Another popular Russian website, Newsru.com, noted that Harding had recently written an article in which he quoted US diplomats as saying Putin was likely to have known about plans to murder former FSB (Federal Security Service) officer Aleksandr Litvinenko.
Several commentators, including Mikhail Rostovskiy writing in popular daily Moskovskiy Komsomolets, saw the Harding case as reminiscent of "something from the Cold War".
Yuliya Latynina, though, took a different line. In article on opposition website Yezhednevnyy Zhurnal, she dismissed the idea that Harding was being punished for his role in publicising the Wikileaks material or an article he had written about the wealth of Putin's associates. No, she argued, the Guardian reporter was barred because of his article about Sharipova.
She also said that the FSB was perfectly entitled to bar Harding because he had allowed himself to be used by "terrorists" to "propagate their ideas". She added, though, that the security service should have explained why it had blocked his entry.
Latynina accuses Harding of uncritically promoting claims put forward by Sharipova's father, Rasul, that the 27-year-old Dagestani woman may have been forced to take part in the metro suicide operation by the security forces, who were out to discredit peaceful Muslims.
Latynina also alleges that in an "article of more than 3,000 words Mr Harding did not find a place for anything else other than to put forward the propagandistic versions from her family, every member of which is a militant fundamentalist".
This was one of a number of errors in the article: in fact, Harding wrote: "The source [said to be familiar with Dagestan's "militant underground"], who knows Rasul personally, believes it is most probable that Maryam did indeed decide to volunteer as a suicide bomber. To suggest otherwise, she believes, is 'wishful thinking'."
Latynina also falsely accused the Guardian journalist of ignoring allegations that Sharipova had been the bride of a leading terrorist in Dagestan.
Latynina is a complex figure. She regularly writes for opposition publications, including the investigative newspaper Novaya Gazeta and Yezhednevnyy Zhurnal. She also has a weekly radio show on the editorially independent radio station Ekho Moskvy.
In keeping with the general editorial drift of these outlets, she is a fierce critic of Putin. In a recent article about the race riots in the centre of Moscow, she accused the prime minister of presiding over a "failed state". She has also made numerous hints and allegations about the enrichment of Putin's associates.
Her attitude to the FSB, though, appears ambivalent. Sometimes she criticises the force for its failings. An article on 25 October railed against the "lack of professionalism" shown by the security services in their counterterrorist operations in Dagestan.
At other times, though, she attacks its critics. She has defended the FSB against allegations that it was behind the 1999 Moscow apartment bombings. She has also given short shrift to some people who claim to be its victims.
Several commentators have seen Harding's expulsion as a demonstration of the FSB's power.
Business daily Vedomosti said it, and the investigation into the Moscow airport bombing, showed that the force was "subject to the minimal state and public control even by the standards of special services".
Journalist Andrey Kolesnikov went further. In an article for Forbes Russia, he said the FSB is "a state within a state, and, what is more, is completely sovereign and independent of state policy and good sense".
Stephen Ennis is Russian media analyst for BBC Monitoring.
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