Exile: the price for defying Putin

She is a slight, beautiful, 24-year-old who graduated from university just last year and doesn't look like she could pose much of a threat to anyone. But in yet another sign that anyone who doesn't toe the Kremlin line is at risk, Natalya Morar has been exiled from Russia.

The young reporter's investigative reporting for the Russian magazine The New Times has angered Russian authorities, who have kicked her out and branded her a threat to national security. She is the latest in a long line of journalists to be pressured, persecuted or killed for their work in President Vladimir Putin's Russia.

Morar, a national of the former Soviet republic of Moldova, was returning to Moscow from a reporting trip to Israel in December when border guards told her that the Federal Security Service (FSB) had barred her re-entry. She was put on a plane to Moldova. This week, the Russian embassy in Chisinau, Moldova's capital, finally told her why she was expelled.

No concrete reasons were given, but a one-paragraph statement referred her to a clause in Russian law which says that anyone who poses a threat to the "national security, social order or health of the population" can be refused entry.

"She is a 24-year-old journalist at a legally registered Russian magazine," said Yevgenia Albats, the deputy editor of The New Times. "How on earth is it possible that she represents a threat to the security of the state?"

Morar said by telephone from Chisinau: "Given the billions of dollars spent on national security over the last few years, it's fairly worrying if a young girl can threaten it."

Igor Yakovenko, the general secretary of the Russian Union of Journalists, said: "Natalya Morar is a young person who has never been engaged in business or in any other form of activity except journalism. This is a clear case of persecution based on her journalistic activity."

Joel Simon, of the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists, said: "This is part of a disturbing trend [in Russia] of invoking broad security and anti-extremism laws to muzzle critical media." In several articles over the past year, Morar has investigated a state-run polling agency and an alleged money-laundering scheme used by top government officials. In the last article to appear before she was refused entry into Russia, she alleged the existence of a secret Kremlin fund that had been used to finance all of the political parties during December's parliamentary elections.

"In Russia, the problem is not how to find the information, but that people are too scared to do it," said Morar. "There are black areas where you're not supposed to go. [Anna] Politkovskaya went there and look what happened to her." She said that on many occasions, people close to the FSB had warned her that if she continued her reporting, she would encounter problems.

"There have been many cases in Russia of publications being closed down on economic pretexts, of journalists being fired, and even of journalists being killed, but this is the first case of a journalist being exiled," said Mr Yakovenko. "It's a new form of censorship."

Albats said that the Department of Economic Security, a branch of the FSB, was behind the decision. The department is headed by General Alexander Bortnikov, who was one of the people Ms Morar had implicated in her series of articles on money laundering.

In 2006, the British journalist Thomas de Waal, the author of a book on Chechnya, had been denied a Russian visa, but this is the first case of a local journalist being exiled. Although Morar is not a Russian citizen, she is a graduate of Moscow State University, is legally registered in Moscow and, as a Moldovan citizen, does not need a visa to visit Russia.

Albats said Morar would continue to write for The New Times. "She is a reporter by nature, capable of carrying out the most complicated and dangerous assignments," said Albats.

* Vladimir Putin said that a Western-supported declaration of independence by Kosovo would be "illegal and immoral". On a visit to Bulgaria, Mr Putin reiterated Russia's call for a compromise between Serbia and the ethnic Albanian leadership of the breakaway Serbian province.