Russia announced Wednesday that Evan Gershkovich (31-year-old American journalist for Wall Street Journal (WSJ)), was detained in Ekaterinburg, and charged with espionage.
Gershkovich was “vehemently” denied by the WSJ, who demanded his “immediate release”.
Russia’s FSB security agency, which is the successor to the notorious KGB was able to say it received authorization to arrest Gershkovich following a closed-door meeting at the Lefortovo district Court in Moscow. Gershkovich’s lawyer was not permitted to attend the meeting. Journalists were also barred from all floors of the courthouse, where the meeting took place. Russian state media claims that these precautions were required because of a bomb threat.
Gershkovich was charged by the FSB with “collecting information regarding one of the enterprises in the Russian military-industrial complex which constitutes a secret state” and he allegedly carried out this vaguely described espionage for the U.S. government.
Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov insists that it was not about suspicion but the fact that he had been caught red-handed.
Gershkovich has been covering the attitudes of the Russian people towards the invasion of Ukraine by the Ural Mountains town of Ekaterinburg over the past few weeks. At the time of his arrest, he was working on a story about Wagner Group mercenary organizations.
Gershkovich had lived six years in Moscow before his assignment in Ekaterinburg. Before joining the WSJ, he worked at the Moscow Times as well as Agence France-Presse. He was a news assistant at the New York Times before moving to Moscow.
Gershkovich was granted a Russian Foreign Ministry journalist accreditation. However, Maria Zakharova, a Ministry spokeswoman, claimed that he had abused his credentials for “activities which have nothing to do journalism.”
Russian media reports that the reporter was taken into custody in Ekaterinburg by FSB agents and then transported to Moscow where he pleaded guilty to the charges. If convicted, he could spend up to 20 years prison. Experts in the Russian “legal system,” said that he could spend at least a year in prison, mostly incommunicado before the investigation is complete. Sergei Ryabkov, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister, said that Gershkovich could not be released if he was given a quick prisoner exchange.
Gershkovich is not only the first American journalist to have been detained in Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union but also the second high-profile foreigner taken hostage by Vladimir Putin’s regime since his invasion of Ukraine.
Some believe Gershkovich was kidnapped in order to give Russia more leverage when negotiations are underway for the release of two Russian spies who were arrested in Slovenia in December. Some people saw his arrest as part Putin’s increasing crackdown on journalism as the war in Ukraine drags on. Others saw it as revenge against the U.S. sanctions. Many wondered if Putin felt a weakness that he could exploit following the release of Viktor Bout, the legendary arms kingpin, for Brittney Griner, U.S. women’s basketball player in an absurdly unfair December prisoner swap.
We are alarmed as it may be a means to intimidate any Western journalists trying to investigate aspects the Russian war on the ground. We urge the West to immediately inquire about clarifications regarding these charges. He was simply doing his job as journalist.
Russian defense lawyer Ivan Pavlov warned that “the unwritten rule not touch accredited foreign journalists had stopped working.”
Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), stated that it was “deeply disturbed” by Gershkovich’s arrest. This was “the latest in an endless line of Russian attempts to use national security laws to silence journalism.”
In a statement, the National Press Club stated that:
Evan Gershkovich works as a journalist. He should be freed immediately without injury and allowed to resume his important work. Evan had a distinguished and long-lasting career with the New York Times, AFP and the Wall Street Journal. We believe this is an unfair detention and ask the State Department immediately to declare his detention.
Tatiana Stanovaya, a Carnegie Russia Eurasia Center senior Fellow, told the New York Times (NYT), on Thursday that Moscow took Gershkovich to be a “negotiating tool” and a provocative in order to “attract attention politically in America so that authorities can react.”
As of Thursday morning, the Biden administration hadn’t responded to Gerhskovich’s arrest.
“The Wall Street Journal strongly denies all allegations made by the FSB. We seek the immediate release and compensation of Evan Gershkovich, our dedicated and trusted reporter. The WSJ stated that it stood in solidarity with Evan’s family on Thursday.
Gershkovich’s editors claimed that they lost touch with him Wednesday afternoon, while he was in Ekaterinburg. A Telegram photo that showed an unidentified male being taken out of a city restaurant and loaded into a van gave the first clue to his whereabouts. Initial statements by Ekaterinburg FSB officials denied knowing about Gershkovich’s arrest.