Evan Gershkovich: Why a Wall Street Journal reporter has spent a year in Russian jail

Evan Gershkovich’s case isn’t just about press freedom. It’s about geopolitics.

Evan Gershkovich: Why a Wall Street Journal reporter has spent a year in Russian jail0

US journalist Evan Gershkovich, arrested on espionage charges, stands inside a defendants’ cage before a hearing to consider an appeal on his extended pre-trial detention, at the Moscow City Court on February 20, 2024. Natalia Kolesnikova/AFP via Getty Images Ellen Ioanes covers breaking and general assignment news as the weekend reporter at Vox. She previously worked at Business Insider covering the military and global conflicts.

Evan Gershkovich, the Wall Street Journal reporter detained in Russia on charges of spying, just had three months added to his jail time — and he hasn’t even gone to trial yet.

It’s been a year since Gershkovich, who had covered the country for five years at that point, was arrested by Russian security forces. He was on assignment in Yekaterinburg, a city in the Ural Mountains nearly 900 miles east of the Journal’s Moscow bureau. And because of Russia’s opaque and autocratic justice system, the trial — when it comes — will likely be conducted in secret. If convicted, he could face up to 20 years in a Russian penal colony.

The US government says he is “wrongfully detained” — a designation the US applies to citizens detained overseas on what it considers to be unfounded charges and whose release it is actively working to secure.

While foreign reporters have been kicked out of the country since the start of Russia’s war in Ukraine, and many Russian reporters have been detained, forced to flee the country, or killed while President Vladimir Putin has been in power, Gershkovich’s case is somewhat unusual in that he’s an American reporter accused of espionage. He’s the first foreign reporter detained on espionage charges since the Cold War, when US News & World Report’s Nicholas Daniloff was arrested in 1986.

Daniloff, like Gershkovich, is the child of Russian immigrants; like Gershkovich, he was also not a spy, though he did come into Soviet intelligence that he handed over to the CIA. Gershkovich’s case is emblematic of a few trends in Russia right now — not just the destruction of press freedom there, but also the use of detainees as a bargaining chip between Russia and the US.

Gershkovich’s time in Russia parallels increasing repression

Gershkovich’s parents fled the country during a wave of Jewish emigration from the Soviet Union in the 1970s and ’80s, according to the Journal. Though he grew up in the US, he spoke Russian at home, and his childhood was tinged with Russian superstitions and cultural specificities. He moved to Russia in 2017, where he worked first for the Moscow Times and then for Agence France-Presse.

As a reporter for the Journal, where he was hired in 2022, Gershkovich covered Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, its economy, and the internal politics of the Kremlin. But criticizing or truthfully reporting about the war in Ukraine became increasingly dangerous due to the Kremlin’s draconian laws against what it refers to as fake news and against disparaging the war effort. That environment forced many Western journalists and outlets covering Russia out of the country. (The BBC’s Russia bureau, for instance, is now located in Riga, Latvia, and the Russian outlet TV Rain has moved to Amsterdam.)

Russian journalists have suffered even worse for years. “Since the Kremlin launched its invasion of Ukraine, between 1,500 to 1,800 Russian journalists were forced into exile,” according to an investigation by a journalist support fund created by Reporters Without Borders.

Even though Gershkovich, according to the Journal, had the appropriate accreditation from the Russian foreign ministry to work as a reporter in the country, the Federal Security Bureau (FSB, Russia’s successor to its notorious KGB spy agency) had previously followed him on other assignments, filming him while he worked and discouraging sources from talking to him.

The Kremlin and FSB have claimed — without clear evidence — that Gershkovich, “acting on the instructions of the American side, collected information constituting a state secret about the activities of one of the enterprises of the Russian military-industrial complex.”

Gershkovich’s family, his employer, and the Biden administration have all denied that he was working as a spy, which is not an uncommon accusation against foreign journalists working in authoritarian countries.

He has been denied access to the attorney the Journal hired for him and has gone through at least a dozen secret pre-trial hearings over the past year in which he has appealed for his release. Those appeals ended in an extension of his pre-trial sentence.

Russia has used prisoners as political pawns before

Gershkovich fits into a larger trend of the Kremlin using US citizens as pawns to achieve political goals or express displeasure — rather than using diplomatic channels.

A week before Gerskovich’s arrest, the Justice Department charged Russian citizen Sergey Cherkasov with several crimes including visa fraud, wire fraud, and acting as an agent of a foreign power. Though it’s not clear the two cases are linked, Gershkovich’s arrest could have been in retaliation for Cherkasov’s indictment.

There’s another American reporter currently detained in Russia: Alsu Kurmasheva, a reporter for Radio Free Europe, has been detained in Russia since June for allegedly failing to register her US citizenship while on a personal visit to see her sick grandmother.

You might also remember how star basketball player Brittney Griner was arrested in a Moscow airport in February 2022 for carrying a gram of hashish oil in her luggage. Her saga — from her sham trials to her nine-year sentence to her transfer to a penal colony in Russia’s Mordovia region — merited significant attention in the US press and from the Biden administration.

Griner was released in December 2022 in exchange for Victor Bout, a Russian arms trafficker nicknamed the “merchant of death” for his role in funneling arms to the Taliban and al-Qaeda.

“The cases are often resolved through this kind of swap, and they take a long time, so it can feel hopeless when you haven’t heard any news for weeks and months and you know an American is suffering in a foreign country,” Danielle Gilbert, a professor at Northwestern University who studies hostage negotiations, told Vox in 2022.

Putin told American media personality Tucker Carlson in February that he would be open to swapping Gershkovich for a Russian currently in prison abroad; that is speculated to be Vadim Krasikov, who is serving a life sentence for the 2019 murder of a Georgian man who was living in Berlin. But releasing Krasikov is up to Germany, not the US.

Gershkovich was apparently part of a prisoner swap deal that included Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, who died in February while in detention in Siberia, as well as Paul Whelan, a former Marine who has been detained on espionage charges since 2018. That deal could have seen the three traded for Krasikov, but the deal was called off upon Navalny’s death at the hands of the Russian state.

Sourse: vox.com

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