Updated Apr 7, 2023 - World

Russia detains WSJ reporter in first spy charges against U.S. journalist since Cold War

Evan Gershkovich

Journalist Evan Gershkovich in July 2021. Photo: Dimitar Dilkoff/AFP via Getty Images

Russian authorities on March 30 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," 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 March 30 statement, Russian state news agency RIA Novosti reported.

  • The FSB did not specify when exactly the arrest took place, but the Wall Street Journal reported that he dropped out of contact with his editors on March 29.
  • Gershkovich could face up to 20 years in prison if convicted for espionage, per AP.

State of play: Russia’s Federal Security Service has formally charged Gershkovich with espionage on April 7, Russian state news agency TASS reported.He pleaded not guilty in a Moscow court, per TASS.

  • 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 March 30 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.
  • Wall Street Journal Editor-in-Chief Emma Tucker told staff in a memo Thursday that the paper was "very concerned" for Gershkovich's safety after he was detained the previous day, CNN reported.
  • The U.S. Embassy in Moscow and State Department did not immediately respond to Axios' requests for comment.

The U.S. response

The Biden administration is "deeply concerned" by Gershkovich's detainment, White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said in a statement.

  • "The targeting of American citizens by the Russian government is unacceptable. We condemn the detention of Mr. Gershkovich in the strongest terms," Jean-Pierre added.
  • The administration has been in contact with the WSJ and Gershkovich's family, and the State Department has been in touch with the Russian government in an effort to get consular access to Gershkovich, she added.
  • "In the strongest possible terms, we condemn the Kremlin’s continued attempts to intimidate, repress, and punish journalists and civil society voices," Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a statement.

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.

Editor's note: This story has been updated with additional details and developments throughout.

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