Russian security services arrested US reporter Evan Gershkovich on suspicion of spying. Gershkovich’s detention and accusations of espionage against him indicate the Kremlin’s ramped-up pressure on journalists and its hostility towards the west. The FSB, Russia’s Federal Security Service, claimed the Wall Street Journal journalist had been collecting information constituting a state secret about a military-industrial complex in the Russian city of Ekaterinburg. Gershkovich had official accreditation from the Russian Foreign Ministry as required of all foreign journalists working in Russia. He faces a sentence of up to 20 years in prison.
Gershkovich had been investigating the paramilitary group Wagner, which is part of Russia’s offensive in Ukraine. Gershkovich reported on the attitude of Russians to the ongoing conflict. Putin’s spokesperson, Dmitry Peskov, told reporters that Gershkovich was “caught red-handed”, but gave no further details. Maria Zakharova, Russia’s foreign group spokesperson, stated that Gershkovich’s trip had “nothing to do with journalism”.
There is ongoing concern that Gershkovich’s arrest spells a further souring of relations between Russia and the United States. His arrest comes as Russia is under international scrutiny after arresting opposition leader Alexei Navalny and related public protests. Gershkovich is the first foreign journalist detained since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, condemned Russia’s “continued attempts to intimidate, repress, and punish journalists and civil society voices”, describing the country’s actions as “deeply concerning”. A Moscow court ordered Gershkovich to be held in pre-trial detention in the notorious Lefortovo prison, where Russia incarcerates most suspects in espionage cases. The U.S. has secured the release of Americans in prisoner swaps over the past year. However, Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister, Sergei Ryabkov, said it was too early to speak of an exchange ahead of Gershkovich’s likely conviction.
Media freedom organisations have expressed surprise at the journalist’s detention and urged Russia to immediately release him. Jeanne Cavelier, Head of Eastern Europe and Central Asia Desk at Reporters Without Borders, stated: “We are very worried and alarmed by this arrest. It is very alarming if journalists are being targeted for retaliatory measures for their country of origin.” There is a concern that the accusations of espionage against Gershkovich, who was reporting on the attitude of Russians towards the war, are part of a campaign of intimidation against foreign journalists that work in Russia.