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The Canberra Times
The Canberra Times
Scott Hannaford

Detained reporter under 'unimaginable pressure' in Russian jail, say parents

The parents of detained American journalist Evan Gershkovich have appealed to governments and media organisations around the world to maintain pressure on Russia to drop spying charges charges against their son as he prepares to face a court hearing at the end of the month.

Mr Gershkovich was taken at a steakhouse in the Ural province city of Yekaterinburg in March, accused by the Russian Federal Security Service of espionage under the cover of working as a journalist, a charge he and The Wall Street Journal strongly deny. His is the first espionage case of its kind since the Cold War.

Since that time the only regular contact his parents Ella Milman and Mikhail Gershkovich have had with their son is through letters and updates from his legal team and embassy officials in Russia.

"Everyone says he's doing well, but I can't even imagine how hard it is for him to fight every day to keep himself mentally strong, physically strong. It's a lot," Mrs Milman said.

Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich stands inside an enclosure for defendants during pre-trial hearing in Russia on October 10. Picture AAP

Mrs Milman said Evan's curiosity about the world and his own Russian ancestry had led him to journalism and reporting in Russia, where he'd become known as a very generous person, always willing to help other reporters with translations or assistance.

"Everyone knows him and he has a lot of friends in Russia," she said.

If found guilty, Mr Gershkovich, 31, could face a 20-year prison sentence.

"It is incredibly hard, but hope is something that we have to have," Mr Gershkovich's father Mikhail said at a meeting with international journalists in Washington last week.

Since his arrest there has been a concerted political and social media campaign under the hashtag #IStandWithEvan which has attracted bipartisan support in Washington. US President Joe Biden has raised the possibility of a prisoner exchange to get him back.

But given espionage trials in Russia are typically conducted behind closed doors and almost always end in a conviction, it is unlikely that could occur until after the legal process is complete.

Wall Street Journal Assistant Editor Paul Beckett said he was expecting another three-month extension of Mr Gerkovich's detention when his matter returns to court on November 30, and Russian officials have said already they would only entertain the idea of a prisoner swap once the trial was complete.

Wall Street Journal assistant editor Paul Beckett, General Counsel of Dow Jones Jason Conti and Mr Gershkovich's parents Mikhail and Ella in Washington in mid November. Picture by Brittney Levinson

"We're obviously extremely hopeful that the US government before they go through a sham trial can deliver a result, so that's our hope is to short circuit that process," Mr Beckett said.

General Counsel of Dow Jones Jason Conti said governments around the world needed to think seriously about the consequences if such actions were left unpunished.

Australian journalist Cheng Lei was released in October after spending almost three years in China's prison, accused of breaking an embargo by a few minutes.

"If there isn't a clear articulable reaction when a reporter is taken from the US government or Australian government or a coalition of governments that care about a free press then this may get replicated by authoritarian types in different locations. This case is being watched very closely as the first espionage charge since the Cold War," Mr Conti said.

While the Wall Street Journal and publisher Dow Jones have thorough risk assessment processes in place for all staff sent overseas, he said the work of many foreign correspondents had become more dangerous in recent years, particularly for local reporters employed in country.

"If you were a Russian citizen, we wouldn't really have any cards to play in order to get him out. There is always this tension of do you parachute journalists into a location to give their perspective, or do you rely on local journalists who are on the ground to give that perspective?

"Traditionally we've done both, but I think the risks to on the ground reporters who are nationals of the country where they are those risk of going way up," Mr Conti said.

Wall Street Journal assistant editor Paul Beckett talking to journalists about the campaign to free reporter Evan Gershkovich. Picture by Scott Hannaford

Mr Beckett implored all governments and media organisations to support efforts to have Mr Gershkovich released.

"Please save a seat and a thought for Evan at your Thanksgiving table. There are no holidays in Russian prison," he said.

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