Russia arrests Wall Street Journal reporter on espionage charges

White House denounces detention of US citizen Evan Gershkovich and Russia’s continued ‘repression of journalists’.

Evan Gershkovich
Russia accuses Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich of 'collecting classified information' [Courtesy:]

The administration of United States President Joe Biden has condemned the detention of Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich in Russia, calling his arrest “unacceptable”.

Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB), the top KGB successor agency, had said on Thursday that Gershkovich, a US national, was detained in the Ural Mountains city of Yekaterinburg on the suspicion that he was trying to obtain classified information.

As the news broke on Thursday, Washington denounced Gershkovich’s arrest as well as Moscow’s broader crackdown on journalists.

“The targeting of American citizens by the Russian government is unacceptable. We condemn the detention of Mr. Gershkovich in the strongest terms,” White House spokesperson Karine Jean-Pierre said in a statement on Thursday.

“We also condemn the Russian government’s continued targeting and repression of journalists and freedom of the press.” Later, during a press conference, Jean-Pierre called the espionage charges against Gershkovich “ridiculous”.

The US Department of State said it was seeking consular access and “all appropriate support” for the journalist, reiterating its warning that American citizens should avoid travelling to Russia.

Russian authorities allege that Gershkovich “was collecting classified information about the activities of one of the enterprises of the Russian military-industrial complex that constitutes a state secret”.

Hours later, Gershkovich was formally arrested at a Moscow court pending trial. He will be held in pre-trial detention until May 29.

Gershkovich, a Russian speaker who was properly accredited as a journalist, was covering the war in Ukraine, developments in Russia and the Wagner mercenary group from the Wall Street Journal’s Moscow bureau.

The FSB did not say when the detention took place. Gershkovich could face up to 20 years in prison if convicted of espionage.

The Wall Street Journal voiced solidarity with Gershkovich and his family.

“The Wall Street Journal vehemently denies the allegations from the FSB, and seeks the immediate release of our trusted and unbiased reporter, Evan Gershkovich,” the paper said in a statement.

He is the first reporter for a US news outlet to be arrested on spying charges in Russia since the Cold War.

Al Jazeera’s Dorsa Jabbari, reporting from Moscow, said Gershkovich had lived in Russia for the past six years.

“He was gathering information to do a story about how people felt in [the] Yekaterinburg region about the involvement of the Wagner group in the conflict in Ukraine,” she said.

Kremlin warnings

The Kremlin warned Washington against retaliatory measures targeting Russian media.

Russia’s foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said Gershkovich had been caught “red-handed”.

“Unfortunately, this is not the first time that foreign correspondent status, a press visa and accreditation, is used by foreigners in our country to cover up activities that are not journalism. This is not the first well-known Westerner to be caught red-handed,” Zakharova said.

Gershkovich’s last report, published this week, focused on the Russian economy’s slowdown amid Western sanctions.

Before joining the WSJ, the 31-year-old worked for AFP in Moscow and was previously a reporter for The Moscow Times.

Gershkovich’s parents live in the United States but are originally from the Soviet Union.

The journalist is now one of at least two American citizens detained in Russia. Paul Whelan, former US Marine veteran, was previously sentenced to 16 years in a Russian prison in 2020 on espionage charges that Washington says are false.

Late last year, Russia released US basketball player Brittney Griner in a prisoner swap.

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said on Thursday that it was too early to talk of a possible prisoner swap involving Gershkovich, the state RIA news agency reported.

‘Shocked by the horrifying news’

Media freedom groups and journalists, many of whom know Gershkovich personally, raised the alarm and vouched for his innocence.

“Shocked by the horrifying news of Russia’s absurd espionage charges against @evangershkovich, an excellent reporter and friend,” Max Seddon, Moscow bureau chief at the Financial Times, wrote on Twitter.

Francesca Ebel, the Washington’s Post Russia correspondent, said the allegations against Gershkovich were “absurd”.

“Evan is an excellent thoughtful journalist who cares deeply about his work,” Ebel added on Twitter.

Leonid ХВ Ragozin, a Russian freelance journalist, said: “The Kremlin has taken him hostage.”

Reporters Without Borders expressed serious concern, saying it was alarmed by “what looks like retaliation”.

For its part, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), a watchdog, called for Gershkovich to be released “immediately and unconditionally”.

“By detaining the American journalist Evan Gershkovich, Russia has crossed the Rubicon and sent a clear message to foreign correspondents that they will not be spared from the ongoing purge of the independent media in the country,” Gulnoza Said, CPJ’s Europe and Central Asia programme coordinator, said in a statement.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies