The risk of doing journalism in Russia increased: WSJ reporter Gershkovich is detained on suspicion of spying

“The unjustified and unjust arrest of Evan Gershkovich is a significant escalation of the Russian government’s actions against the press. Russia sends a message that journalism within its borders is criminalized and that foreign correspondents seeking to report from Russia do not enjoy the benefits of the rule of law,” the collective letter reads.

The letter was signed by 38 editors, including Catherine Wiener, editor-in-chief of Guardian News & Media, which owns the Observer, as well as the heads of The Wall Street Journal, New York Times, BBC, Washington Post, and “other major news organizations and journalistic groups.”

Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Hershkowitz was arrested by Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) on March 30 on espionage charges, the first American journalist to be arrested in Russia since the Soviet era in 1986.

According to the FSB, Hershkovich was detained in Yekaterinburg in the Urals, where he was collecting classified information about a Russian defense company.

Gershkovich, 31, was taken to and from the court with a hood over his head and his hands handcuffed behind his back, the independent Mediaphone newspaper reported.

A statement from the Wall Street Journal reads: “We stand in solidarity with Evan and his family. The Wall Street Journal strongly denies the FSB’s accusations and demands the immediate release of our trusted and dedicated journalist, Evan Gershkovich.”

Under Russian law, espionage charges can lead to up to 20 years in prison. After the invasion of Ukraine a year ago, Russian media laws were significantly tightened, and the use of the word “war” in reporting was made illegal, punishable by lengthy prison sentences. Many foreign media outlets immediately moved their staff out of the country.

The Wall Street Journal denies the allegations and calls for Gershkovich’s immediate release. Gershkovich is a US citizen but was born in Russia to Russian parents who emigrated to the US, where he was born. At a court hearing in Yekaterinburg, Gershkovich pleaded not guilty to the charges and is currently in custody in Moscow.

Gershkovich was reportedly in Yekaterinburg to research local reactions to the war in Ukraine and the Russian mercenary group Wagner and specifically intended to interview workers leaving the Uralvagonzavod plant in Nizhny Tagil or the Novator missile plant in Yekaterinburg, military production plants, about their opinions on the war.

Presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov said that Gershkovich was caught red-handed with incriminating classified materials and that his arrest had nothing to do with journalism. Previously, Gershkovich worked for the French news agency Agence France-Presse, The Moscow Times, and The New York Times. His colleagues in the Moscow press corps generally denied the espionage allegations, saying that Gershkovich was an intelligent and hardworking journalist cut from the classic correspondent’s cloth who had taken a very well-worn path in the profession.

Many commentators have suggested that the Kremlin intended Gershkovich’s arrest as a warning to other foreign media outlets with journalists in Russia, as well as to obtain assets that the Kremlin could use in exchange for Russians arrested in the West, such as the exchange for Russian arms dealer Viktor Booth for the release of American athlete Britney Griner in May. According to recent reports, The New York Times pulled out its remaining staff in Russia within 24 hours of Gershkovich’s arrest.

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