The Russian secret service FSB said on Thursday that it had stopped the “illegal activities of US citizen Evan Gershkovich”. The newspaper “vehemently” rejected the allegations against the 31-year-old, and the organization Reporters Without Borders was “concerned”. The US government condemned the man’s arrest “in the strongest terms”.
Two months in custody
According to the FSB, Gershkovich was detained in Yekaterinburg “when trying to obtain classified information.” The city is 1,800 kilometers east of Moscow. At a closed hearing before a Moscow district court in the Lefortovo district, Gershkovich pleaded not guilty, according to the Russian news agency Tass. The court ordered a nearly two-month pre-trial detention until May 29th.
Gershkovich’s attorney, Daniil Berman, told journalists outside the courtroom that he was not admitted to the hearing. Gershkovich is likely being held in the Lefortovo detention center, which is often used by the FSB. It is the most serious publicly known crackdown on a foreign journalist since the Russian war in Ukraine began in February last year. Russia drastically tightened its media laws after the start of the Ukraine invasion.
Up to 20 years in prison
The correspondent of the Moscow office of the Wall Street Journal, who is accredited to the Russian Foreign Ministry, is suspected of “espionage in the interests of the American government,” the FSB said. The 31-year-old is suspected of having collected information “about a company belonging to the military-industrial complex” in Russia. According to the Russian Criminal Code, if charged, you can face 10 to 20 years in prison.
Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said Gershkovich was caught in the act. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov also emphasized that it was not just a matter of suspicion, that the US reporter was “caught”. Peskow did not provide any specific information. The Kremlin spokesman warned the US against reprisals against Russian journalists: “We hope it doesn’t come to that and it mustn’t come to that.”
Wall Street Journal ‘deeply concerned’
The Wall Street Journal “vehemently” denied the allegations against its reporter and said it was “deeply concerned for Mr. Gershkovich’s safety.” Reporters Without Borders said it was “concerned by what looks like retaliation.” According to the organization, the 31-year-old researched “the Wagner military company,” a mercenary group that plays an important role in Russia’s offensive in Ukraine.
“The Russian government’s persecution of American citizens is unacceptable,” the White House said on Thursday. The US State Department is deeply concerned and in direct contact with the Russian government and is actively seeking to grant Gershkovich consular access.
White House condemns arrest
On Wednesday evening (local time), representatives of the US government spoke to Gershkovich’s employer, the Wall Street Journal. They are also in contact with the journalist’s family. “We also condemn the Russian government’s continued persecution and repression of journalists and freedom of the press,” the White House said in a statement. US President Joe Biden’s spokeswoman also stressed that Americans should heed the US government’s warning against traveling to Russia.
Before Gershkovich joined the Wall Street Journal last year, he was a correspondent for the AFP news agency in Moscow. He previously worked for the Moscow Times, an English-language news portal. Gershkovich is Russian by birth, his family emigrated to the United States when he was a child.
shadowing and censorship
The arrest of the 31-year-old represents an escalation in the Kremlin’s efforts to silence perceived critics. Western journalists face increasing restrictions in Russia.
Employees of Western media sometimes report shadowing – especially when traveling outside of the metropolitan areas of Moscow and St. Petersburg. Many Russians are reluctant to speak to foreign media because of the strict censorship laws enacted in the wake of the offensive in Ukraine.
Russian journalists are also being accused of espionage by Russian authorities. Last year, former investigative journalist Ivan Safronov was sentenced to 22 years in prison for allegedly leaking state secrets.
Hostage for prisoner exchange?
“The problem is the fact that the way the FSB interprets espionage today means that anyone who is simply interested in military affairs can be imprisoned for 20 years,” Russian political scientist Tatyana Stanovaya told the online service Facebook. This also applies to “special military operations (in Ukraine)” and “private military groups (like Wagner)”.
According to Stanovaya, the FSB may have taken Gershkovich as a “hostage” for a possible prisoner swap. Several US citizens are currently being held in Russia. Washington and Moscow have accused each other of making politically motivated arrests. In 2020, former US soldier Paul Whelan was sentenced to 16 years in prison in Russia on charges of “espionage”. The US is demanding his release.
The most recent exchange of prisoners between Washington and Moscow took place last December. At that time, Russia released US basketball player Brittney Griner in exchange for Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout.