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US reporter charged with espionage in Russia: Will foreign reporters now flee?

The Wall Street Journal reporter, Evan Gershkovich.

The Wall Street Journal reporter, Evan Gershkovich.


Evan Gershkovich, an American reporter working in Moscow for the Wall Street Journal, was arrested last week. One day after co-authoring a bombshell report on how Western sanctions were finally taking a toll on the Russian economy, Gershkovich was pulled last Wednesday from a restaurant in Yekaterinburg, near the Ural Mountains, by Russian authorities. He was charged with espionage and could face up to 20 years in jail.

This marks the first time since 1986 that a US journalist has been accused of spying in Russia. The Journal, along with dozens of other media outlets, the Biden administration, and the Committee to Protect Journalists are demanding Gershkovich’s immediate release. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has spoken with his Russian counterpart on the matter. But things look bleak for the 31-year-old, whose parents fled the former Soviet Union, before settling in New Jersey.

GZERO sat down with New York-based Gulnoza Said, CPJ’s Europe and Central Asia program coordinator, to get her take on what comes next, how Western media firms might react to this event, the risks journalists face in Russia, and what this means for future coverage of the war in Ukraine. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What do you know about Evan Gershkovich’s case?

Gulnoza Said: He was detained and formally arrested. He was charged with espionage. The initial arrest is going to last for at least two months. [The court ordered that Gershkovich be kept in custody until at least May 29.] And then they are going to reconsider it and they are very likely to extend it – unless, of course, there is a very serious involvement from the United States, and I hope there will be.

What are the next steps diplomatically or behind the scenes?

I work for a non-governmental organization, and I can't speak for the authorities. We sent a letter to the Russian ambassador to Washington and published it on our website. We asked Russia to release him immediately and unconditionally.

How does this case compare to how Russia has treated foreign journalists since the start of the war?

This is the first case of a US journalist being detained on espionage charges since the end of the Cold War. It's very serious. It's sort of like in Soviet times, when the authorities would come up with fabricated charges against Americans and other western citizens. It's very concerning.

We have seen brief detentions [of other journalists]. We documented some brief detentions of people who had dual US citizenship in the past. Some of them were working or newsgathering when they were detained. But this is the most serious case – and it’s striking because we know how the Russian authorities treat anybody who is charged with espionage. We can expect a lengthy prison term. The trial itself is going to be a big secret, and Russian legislation allows the authorities to do that.

Even close contacts of Evan may not get detailed information about what exactly he's charged with. I don’t just mean the date; I mean, the details of what he was allegedly doing or who he was allegedly meeting with. Russian officials said yesterday that he was “caught red-handed.”

And given the nature of those statements from Russian officials, from the Russian foreign ministry spokesperson, and from the Kremlin spokesperson, I can say that this is a very, very serious case. That's why I'm so concerned about Evan. I hope that the United States government acts very quickly to get him back safely.

Your website says that at least 19 journalists were behind bars in Russia in December 2022. Is it fair to say that it’s gradually been getting more and more dangerous for reporters in Russia?

That's right. It's the highest number ever since we started keeping records in Russia. Russia has never been a safe place to be a journalist, but since Russia started its full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, it's become very risky to work as an independent reporter from inside Russia.

We know of hundreds of journalists who fled Russia in the last 12 months or so. We have been helping a lot of them because, as you know, CPJ has grants to support journalists in exile. When Russia started amending its legislation and soon after the invasion actively criminalizing the independent reporting on the war, a lot of foreign media outlets came to us to ask whether it was dangerous for them to keep their correspondents in Russia. Some media outlets decided to pull them out for some time.

So those foreign correspondents went to neighboring countries and stayed there for a while, and then they went back. And until yesterday, it was very risky for them to be there – I think it was just a matter of time before the first one would be detained or expelled. But I honestly didn't expect to hear about espionage charges until yesterday. I thought it would be done with accreditation … and then they would try to find other legal ways to reduce the size of the foreign press corps in Russia. But now it's clear that no one is going to be spared from this repressive machine.

How many Western journalists are still there? Which outlets still have journalists there?

I don't have that number. Even if I did, I wouldn't share it publicly now for security reasons. I'm sure a lot of media outlets are talking to their correspondents in Moscow, talking to their lawyers, and probably pulling some of their correspondents out. I haven't heard about any cases concretely, but I think that's what a media outlet would do.

Have you been in touch with Evan’s family?

I personally sent them a note, but I haven't been able to speak to any of them.

What would you do if you were a journalist in Moscow today?

I would be very concerned about the event, obviously, but also about myself and would probably seriously consider whether I should relocate.

So what does that mean for coverage of the war moving forward?

Well, that's the biggest point, because Evan and others who are still in Russia reporting on the war and any other issues like the impact of sanctions on the Russian economy – and also going and talking to ordinary people – is something that we are going to miss if there are no journalists left inside Russia. Being a journalist, as you know very well, means that you go to places and you tell the rest of the world what you see, what you hear, what you smell. It's very different from reporting from a distance. And that is the concern because through Evan and other journalists in Russia, we could see the real situation inside the country.


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