United States President Joe Biden has spoken with the family of Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich after calling the reporter’s detention in Russia “totally illegal”.
Biden made the call from his presidential jet on Tuesday while en route to Northern Ireland, a day after the US Department of State formally designated Gershkovich as “wrongfully detained”.
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White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters after the call that Biden “felt it was really important to connect with Evan’s family, his parents”. She said that Gershkovich, 31, has been “top of mind” for the president.
Russian authorities announced nearly two weeks ago that they had arrested Gershkovich on spying charges, which the Biden administration dismissed as “ridiculous” early on.
Gershkovich’s family welcomed the “wrongful” detention designation and the call from Biden on Tuesday.
“We are encouraged that the State Department has officially designated Evan as wrongfully detained,” the family said in a statement.
“We appreciate President Biden’s call to us today, assuring us that the US government is doing everything in its power to bring him home as quickly as possible.”
— WSJ Communications (@WSJPR) April 11, 2023
Before taking off from Andrews Air Force Base outside Washington, DC, Biden told reporters that the formal designation “changes the dynamic” of Gershkovich’s case.
“We’re making it real clear that it’s totally illegal what’s happening, and we declared it so,” he said.
The US determination makes it the official US position that Gershkovich is unfairly imprisoned and opens the door for Washington to devote more resources to pushing for his release.
Specifically, the designation moves Gershkovich’s case to the Office of the Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs, which leads efforts to secure the freedom of “wrongful detainees held abroad, support their families, and end the practice of hostage diplomacy”.
“Journalism is not a crime. We condemn the Kremlin’s continued repression of independent voices in Russia, and its ongoing war against the truth,” the Department of State said in a statement on Monday.
The Wall Street Journal’s editor-in-chief Emma Tucker and publisher Almar Latour said on Monday that they were working with US officials to push for Gershkovich’s release.
“He is a distinguished journalist and his arrest is an attack on a free press and it should spur outrage in all free people and governments around the world,” they said.
Washington has called on Moscow to grant consular access to the detained journalist, accusing Russia of violating international law by not allowing US officials to communicate with Gershkovich.
“We are engaged every single day and pressing for that access as well as pressing for Evan’s release,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on Tuesday.
Blinken also accused Russia of “detaining people arbitrarily for political purposes”, which he said will further damage Moscow’s standing around the world.
Press freedom advocates have denounced Gershkovich’s arrest, saying that it is part of a broader Russian crackdown on journalists, which has intensified since the start of the war on Ukraine.
But Moscow reiterated on Tuesday its claims that Gershkovich was “caught red-handed and violated the laws of the Russian Federation”.
The reporter is now one of two US citizens Washington says are “wrongfully detained” by Moscow.
Paul Whelan, a US Marine veteran, is imprisoned in Russia after he was sentenced to 16 years in 2020 on espionage charges that Washington has said are false.
Late last year, Russia released US basketball player Brittney Griner in a prisoner swap that did not include Whelan. Griner was detained on drug charges days before Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine.