Journalist Evan Gershkovich in July 2021. Photo: Dimitar Dilkoff/AFP via Getty Images
Russian authorities on Thursday said they had detained an American reporter for the Wall Street Journal on espionage charges.
Driving the news: Evan Gershkovich is the first U.S. journalist to be detained in an espionage case since the Cold War, the Committee to Protect Journalists told Axios.
The big picture: The move ratchets up Russia's longstanding crackdown on freedom of the press, which escalated with the onset of the Ukraine invasion.
- In March 2022, Russia enacted a punitive "fake news" law that threatened to imprison journalists and individuals who spread information about the war in Ukraine that Russia deemed to be false.
- Many news organizations temporarily suspended their operations in Russia as a result.
- "We consider this an unjust detention and call on the State Department to designate his detention in that manner at once," the National Press Club President Eileen O'Reilly said in a statement Thursday, calling for Gershkovich's immediate release. (O'Reilly is Axios' managing editor of standards and training).
What we know about the arrest
Gershkovich was detained in the city of Yekaterinburg, in the Ural Mountains, Russia's Federal Security Service (FSB) — the successor organization to the Soviet Union's KGB — said in a statement Thursday, Russian state news agency RIA Novosti reported.
- The FSB did not specify when exactly the arrest took place.
- Gershkovich could face up to 20 years in prison if convicted for espionage, per AP.
State of play: Gershkovich pleaded not guilty in a Moscow court on Thursday, Russian state news agency TASS reported.
- The court has ordered that he held in custody until May 29, according to TASS.
- Trials for espionage in Russia can take months and are often held in secret, according to the WSJ. Acquittals are extremely rare.
What Russia said about the arrest
The FSB accused Gershkovich of trying to obtain classified information "on the instructions of the United States," according to RIA Novosti.
- Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov told reporters Thursday that Gershkovich had been "caught red-handed," TASS reported. They accused him of trying to gather information "on the activities of one of the enterprises of the Russian military-industrial complex."
How the WSJ has responded
The Wall Street Journal said in a statement that it "vehemently denies the allegations from the FSB and seeks the immediate release of our trusted and dedicated reporter, Evan Gershkovich."
- “We stand in solidarity with Evan and his family," the statement added.
- The U.S. Embassy in Moscow and State Department did not immediately respond to Axios' requests for comment.
What to know about Gershkovich
Gershkovich has worked at the WSJ since January 2022 as part of the paper's Moscow bureau, where he had helped cover the war in Ukraine, domestic developments in Russia, and other former Soviet states.
- The FSB acknowledged in their statement that Gershkovich was accredited as a journalist by Russia’s foreign ministry, per RIA Novosti.
- Prior to joining the Journal, Gershkovich worked as a reporter for Agence France-Presse and the Moscow Times. Before that he was a news assistant at the New York Times.
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