University of South Carolina journalism professor Randy Covington said he does not think his detainment in St. Petersburg, Russia earlier this month was an innocent mistake by the Russian government.
Covington was in the country at the time to moderate an October 16 investigative journalism workshop on behalf of the New England Center for Investigative Reporting. The professor said Russian officials interrupted the beginning of the workshop that he former Boston reporter Joe Bergantino were teaching that day, saying the two men had the wrong visas to teach Russian journalists.
Covington and Bergantino needed business visas instead of the tourist visas which they used to enter the country, according to a statement by the Russian government released that day. The two journalists were given a visa hearing and a Russian court allowed them to leave the country the following day.
Covington said he was detained for about five hours. He insisted that the U.S. State Department had advised them to use a tourist visa.
The USC professor, who leads the school’s Newsplex program, said he has travelled to other countries on previous occasions for workshops and that nothing like this has happened in the past. Those countries include Pakistan, India, Singapore, and Colombia.
“It was absolutely surreal,” he said in an interview. “I (could) not believe this was happening.”
Although he was in custody for five hours, Covington acknowledged the situation could have been worse. He said he could have spent the night in jail and possibly been deported, neither of which had happened. He later said his brief detainment was insignificant compared to others, mentioning there are journalists in Russia who are imprisoned and others who have been killed.
But he was certain his detainment was beyond an honest misunderstanding. “This wasn’t about our workshop. This was about sending a message to the United States and also sending a message to journalists in Russia.”
According to the Newsplex website, Covington was to conduct six seminars across Russia, four on best practices for the use of social media and two on investigative reporting. The project was funded by the U.S. government, according to the site, and Newsplex created an entire online course in Russian to help journalists there.
Covington said the Russian government fails to recognize that the advantages of a free press are greater than the disadvantages.
“The free flow of information to the public is what serves the public best,” he said. “The idea that the public can only be trusted with what the government wants the public to know is short-sighted, and I would argue not in the best interest of Russia in the long run.” He said he recognized his argument would not be very convincing to the Russian government.
Although not expelled from the country, he has no plans to travel back anytime soon and expressed his happiness to be back in the United States.
“If I ever go back to Russia, I’ll make certain I have the visa they want me to have, and not necessarily the visa that probably will work or somebody else thinks is good.”
Covington returned to teaching his regular journalism classes at the university last week only three days after his release. He even joked to his students that he would impose his own embargo as he handed out Swiss chocolates around the classroom.
Jeremy Urso filed this report