Evan Gershkovich, a journalist for the Wall Street Journal, has been arrested by Russia and accused of spying. The Kremlin claims the reporter was caught “red-handed,” accusing him of “acting on US instructions” and “collecting state secrets.” The Wall Street Journal commented on his arrest, saying they were “deeply concerned” for his safety, and denied any allegations of spying made against him. Regardless, the Russian state police, the FSB, confirmed that they detained Gershkovich after he “collected information constituting a state secret about the activities of a Russian defense enterprise.” Political experts claim that Gershkovich’s arrest is a shock, saying that the ‘espionage’ he was committing could have just been collecting comments from experts. However, a spokeswoman for the Russian foreign ministry said that whatever Gershkovich was doing had nothing to do with his job as a journalist. Committing a crime of espionage in Russia carries a potential jail term of at least twenty years.
By Paul Kirby; March 30, 2023
US journalist Evan Gershkovich has been arrested in Russia and accused of spying while working for the Wall Street Journal.
An experienced Russia reporter, he was working in the city of Yekaterinburg at the time of his detention.
The White House has condemned his detention “in the strongest terms”.
The Kremlin claimed he had been caught “red-handed” but the Wall Street Journal vehemently denied the allegations against him.
Mr Gershkovich, 31, is well known among foreign correspondents in Moscow and BBC Russia Editor Steve Rosenberg describes him as an excellent reporter and a highly principled journalist.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken echoed the Wall Street Journal in saying he was “deeply concerned” by the arrest. US officials said they had immediately sought access to Mr Gershkovich but had not had any response.
The WSJ said its reporter had dropped out of contact with his editors while working in Yekaterinburg, about 1,600km (1,000 miles) east of Moscow, on Wednesday afternoon.
US officials said Mr Gershkovich’s driver had dropped him off at a restaurant and two hours later his phone had been turned off. The newspaper said it had hired a lawyer to try to find him at the FSB headquarters in the city, but they told the lawyer they had no information.
Russia’s FSB security service claimed that it had halted “illegal activities”. The journalist had been detained “acting on US instructions”, it added, alleging that he had “collected information classified as a state secret about the activities of a Russian defence enterprise”.
It said its investigation department had launched a criminal espionage case and one source told Russian media it was classed as “top secret”.
FSB agents took him to Lefortovo district court in Moscow on Friday, where he was formally arrested and ordered to remain in detention until 29 May.
Russian media said the court had already been cleared of staff and visitors and Mr Gershkovich’s lawyer said he had not been allowed into the courtroom.
Espionage in Russia carries a maximum jail term of 20 years. Tass news agency reported that the journalist had denied the charge. He was then seen being escorted from the building before being driven away.
In his most recent WSJ piece, published this week, Evan Gershkovich reported on Russia’s declining economy and how the Kremlin was having to deal with “ballooning military expenditures” while maintaining social spending.
Press freedom watchdog Reporters Without Borders said he had gone to Yekaterinburg to cover Russian mercenary group Wagner, which has taken part in some of the heaviest fighting in eastern Ukraine.
He has covered Russia for the Wall Street Journal for more than a year, having worked there previously for the AFP news agency and the Moscow Times. He began his career in the US.
In a statement, the Wall Street Journal said it stood in solidarity with the reporter and his family: “The Wall Street Journal vehemently denies the allegations from the FSB and seeks the immediate release of our trusted and dedicated reporter, Evan Gershkovich.”
“This is the responsibility of the FSB, they have already issued a statement,” said Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov. “The only thing I can add is, as far as we know, he was caught red-handed.”
Even before the full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, reporting from Russia had become increasingly difficult.
Independent journalists were labelled “foreign agents” and BBC Russia correspondent Sarah Rainsford was expelled from the country.
When the war began, Russia introduced a criminal offence for reporting “fake news” or “discrediting the army”, under which dozens of Russians have been convicted for criticising the invasion on social media.
Almost all independent media were silenced, shut down or blocked, including major outlets TV Rain, Echo of Moscow radio and newspaper Novaya Gazeta. Many Western media chose to leave Russia.
Russian political expert Tatyana Stanovaya said Mr Gershkovich’s detention had come as a shock. In the FSB’s view of espionage, “collecting information” could simply mean gathering comments from experts, she said, while acting on US instructions could simply refer to his editors at the Wall Street Journal.
Russian foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said what a Wall Street Journal employee was doing in Yekaterinburg had “nothing to do with journalism”.
It was not the first time the status of “foreign correspondent” had been used to “cover up activities that are not journalism”, she said.
Tensions between the Kremlin and the West have become increasingly tense in the 13 months of Russia’s war in Ukraine. Reporters Without Borders said it was “alarmed by what looks like retaliation”.
Several US citizens are being held in Russia. Days before the invasion, American basketball star Brittney Griner was detained at a Moscow airport and jailed for carrying cannabis oil. It was 10 months before she was freed in exchange for notorious Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout.
Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov told local news agencies that it was too early to discuss prisoner swaps.
“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.