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Reporter Says RusAl Behind Visa Loss

An Australian-American journalist and self-declared doyen of the country’s foreign press corps has been barred entry into Russia in what he says is revenge from Oleg Deripaska’s RusAl for his "aggressive reporting" on the aluminum giant.

John Helmer, who had lived in Moscow since 1989 and briefly worked as a Moscow Times reporter in the early 1990s, said RusAl has hounded him for two years because he rejected an offer for cash payments in exchange for favorable articles.

RusAl denied Helmer’s allegations.

“RusAl has nothing to do with this,” company spokeswoman Yekaterina Godlevskaya said in an e-mail.

Helmer said he was forced to leave the country in September 2010 when the Foreign Ministry rejected an application to renew his one-year correspondent’s visa.

But his expulsion only became public when national media reported about it last week.

He said the only explanation he has managed to get from a ministry official was that he had violated the rules for foreign correspondents.

"No rule and no evidence were cited — not to me, and not to my newspaper," said Helmer, who was accredited with Business Day, a South African daily, and also writes for industry publications specializing in mining and metals.

He said a subsequent attempt to obtain a private visa failed when the Federal Migration Service refused to issue an invitation at the request of his Russian wife, and a migration official told her that her husband "writes bad about our country."

Both the Foreign Ministry and the migration service did not respond to repeated requests for comment over the course of about a week.

In Skype and e-mail conversations with The Moscow Times, Helmer suggested that his case had been fabricated by United Company RusAl as punishment for his reporting in the run-up to the world's largest aluminum producer’s IPO in Hong Kong in January 2010.

“This is the first time a journalist is being expelled at the demand of a Russian company,” he said.

Helmer said he was in Britain but refused to give a more exact location for fear of his own safety.

He said he believed that his expulsion was the culmination of a more than 12-month standoff with RusAl representatives that included indirect threats to kill him. “My life was threatened more than once,” he said.

Helmer said his problems began in the fall of 2009 when he was approached by German Tkachenko, a former public relations executive of Siberian Aluminum, a predecessor of RusAl. Helmer said Tkachenko — a former Federation Council senator who runs ProSports Management, a company that consults and manages football players — told him during two meetings in Moscow that “Deripaska wants bygones to be bygones” and offered him money for writing favorably.

"There was to be one payment if I didn't report on RusAl at all during its listing attempt in Hong Kong; a second, bigger payment if I reported positively about RusAl," Helmer said.

The listing decision was controversial because RusAl was highly indebted. The IPO did raise more than $2.2 billion, but shares dived 11 percent on debut. On Tuesday they closed at 5.52 Hong Kong dollars (70 cents), almost half the offering price of 10 HKD.

Helmer said he did not accept the offer but went on to report, among other things, about new taxes threatening the company’s bauxite mines in West African Guinea and that Deripaska and a son of Moammar Gadhafi had negotiated the possible sale of a 10 percent stake in RusAl to Libya.

He said Tkachenko was “furious at the new reporting” and made threatening remarks.

Tkachenko declined to comment for this article.

Sergei Babichenko, a spokesman for Deripaska, said he could not comment on the accusations because he had never heard of them.

Helmer said he received an e-mail from the Australian Embassy on Dec. 20, 2009, warning that his personal security was in danger. (He published the e-mail on his web site.)

A day later, he said, a man claiming to be from the Federal Security Service, or FSB, came to his Moscow office and tried to take photographs. He wasn't allowed onto the premises but returned with two other men on Dec. 28. When they were not let in, the three waited in a car parked outside his office apartment.

Helmer called the police, who detained the men. He said the men carried air guns, a blueprint of his house and forged Interior Ministry and FSB badges. “They told police that their orders were to use weapons to hurt me but not to kill me,” he said.

He said the men claimed they had been engaged by a private security company called Alfa-Inform on behalf of Deripaska. As proof, Helmer published a copy of a report that he said was found in their car. The report —? on Alfa-Inform letterhead and with “RusAl” mentioned at the top — contains a brief account of his private life and his photo.

Hours after the arrests, a lawyer for Alfa-Inform appeared and the men were freed. In January 2010, police closed the case. Helmer then challenged this decision and won a city court order in summer 2010 that the investigation be reopened.

That, however, never happened. That fall, Helmer's visa problem “miraculously appeared," his lawyer Oleg Kuznetsov said by telephone.

Kuznetsov said Helmer’s wife has sued the Federal Migration Service for its refusal to issue an invitation for her husband. After being delayed eight months, a court hearing was set for last week, only to be postponed to December because the judge suddenly went on vacation, the lawyer said.

A woman who picked up the phone at Alfa-Inform last Friday said company officials would call back if they decided to comment. They had not replied by Tuesday.

Helmer has both Australian and U.S. citizenship, and spokespeople for both countries' embassies declined to comment on the matter.

The three arrests outside his office apartment did, however, make it into a U.S. Embassy cable published by WikiLeaks earlier this year. The February 2010 report says that in a conversation with embassy staff, a RusAl official, Sergei Chestnoi, said: "what Helmer needs is a psychiatrist."

Helmer claims to be the country’s longest continuously serving foreign correspondent and “the sole reporter to Africa of Russian news" and is perhaps best known for his prolific blog “Dances With Bears” at?, where he publishes lengthy stories almost daily, usually accompanied by wildly photoshopped images.

Last week, he ran a photo of media tycoon Alexander Lebedev in a morning coat standing next to "banana king" Vladimir Kekhman portrayed as a striptease dancer. The article claimed under the headline "Tarts and Toffs" that Lebedev's British daily The Independent had "tarted up" Kekhman's business by reporting about his hire of two Bolshoi dancers for St. Petersburg's Mikhailovsky Theater.

Helmer is not the only journalist to complain about RusAl.

In November 2009, Vedomosti accused RusAl of bombarding reporters with threatening phone calls and e-mails after it published an article that revealed that the company had posted a $5.98 billion net loss for 2008. The paper’s then-editor Yelizaveta Osetinskaya said at the time that RusAl was employing “information terror” to force it to reveal its source and prevent it from writing about the company again.

Earlier that year, the company threatened legal action against The Moscow Times, after it quoted a RusAl miner in an April 2009 article as saying spending cuts forced workers to cut corners on safety.

Helmer is also not the first correspondent to be banned from the country. Luke Harding from London’s The Guardian experienced similar troubles in November last year, when the Foreign Ministry refused to renew his visa.

After the British Embassy intervened he was given a six-month extension, only to be deported by border guards on arrival at Moscow’s Domodedovo Airport in February.

Harding, who is now based in London, published a book earlier this fall about his time in Russia. In “The Mafia State” he accuses the FSB of harassing him and his family for no apparent reason.

Former Moscow Times reporter Thomas de Waal was refused a visa in 2006 when he wanted to present a book that he wrote about the Karabakh conflict. Other cases include two Czech TV correspondents whose visas were not renewed and Moldovan reporter Natalya Morar, who has been banned since December 2007 after authoring muckraking reports about corruption in the Kremlin in the New Times magazine.

While Helmer said he believed that he was the first journalist to be expelled at the demand of a Russian company, other foreigners have faced visa problems amid commercial disputes here. William Browder, a dual U.S.-British citizen and head of the Hermitage Capital investment fund, was refused entry in 2005 after he criticized Gazprom, and BP CEO Bob Dudley, a U.S. citizen, hurriedly left the country in 2008 when, as head of TNK-BP, he locked horns with Russian shareholders and his visa was not renewed.

… we have a small favor to ask. As you may have heard, The Moscow Times, an independent news source for over 30 years, has been unjustly branded as a "foreign agent" by the Russian government. This blatant attempt to silence our voice is a direct assault on the integrity of journalism and the values we hold dear.

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