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Saturday, June 10, 2023

Evan Gershkovich arrested in Russia on spying charges

The Wall Street Journal’s Evan Gershkovich, an experienced Russia reporter, has been arrested in Yekaterinburg, Russia and accused of spying. The Kremlin claimed he was caught “red-handed”, but the Wall Street Journal denies the allegations.

The White House and US officials have condemned his detention and sought access to him, but have not received a response. Gershkovich’s lawyer was not allowed into the courtroom during his formal arrest, and he has been ordered to remain in detention until May 29th.

Espionage in Russia carries a maximum jail term of 20 years. Gershkovich’s most recent article for the WSJ was about Russia’s declining economy and military expenditures. BBC Russia Editor Steve Rosenberg describes him as an excellent and principled journalist.

Reporters Without Borders, a press freedom watchdog, reported that Evan Gershkovich had traveled to Yekaterinburg to cover the Russian mercenary group Wagner, which has been involved in some of the most intense fighting in eastern Ukraine. Gershkovich has been reporting on Russia for the Wall Street Journal for over a year, having previously worked for the AFP news agency and the Moscow Times.

He started his career in the United States. The Wall Street Journal released a statement expressing solidarity with Gershkovich and his family, while vehemently denying the allegations from the Federal Security Service (FSB) and calling for his immediate release.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov stated that it is the FSB’s responsibility and that Gershkovich was caught red-handed. Even before the full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, reporting from Russia had become increasingly challenging.

Independent journalists were branded as “foreign agents,” and BBC Russia correspondent Sarah Rainsford was expelled from the country. When the war began, Russia introduced a criminal offense for reporting “fake news” or “discrediting the army,” leading to the conviction of dozens of Russians for criticizing the invasion on social media.

Almost all independent media outlets were silenced, shut down, or blocked, including major news sources such as TV Rain, Echo of Moscow radio, and Novaya Gazeta newspaper. As a result, many Western media outlets decided to leave Russia.

According to Tatyana Stanovaya, a Russian political expert, the detention of Evan Gershkovich was unexpected. She explained that, in the FSB’s interpretation of espionage, “collecting information” could merely involve soliciting opinions from specialists, while acting on US directives could refer to his editors at the Wall Street Journal.

Russian foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova claimed that the activities of the Wall Street Journal employee in Yekaterinburg had “nothing to do with journalism” and that the status of “foreign correspondent” had often been used to disguise non-journalistic activities. The tension between the Kremlin and the West has risen sharply over the 13 months of Russia’s conflict in Ukraine.

Reporters Without Borders expressed alarm at what appears to be a retaliatory move. Numerous American citizens are currently detained in Russia. Shortly before the invasion, American basketball star Brittney Griner was apprehended at a Moscow airport and imprisoned for carrying cannabis oil.

She was released ten months later in exchange for notorious Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout. Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov stated to local news outlets that it was premature to discuss prisoner exchanges.

“I would not even put the question in this plane now, because you understand that some exchanges that happened in the past took place for people who were already serving sentences,” he said.

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