President Joe Biden has called on Russia to release Evan Gershkovich, a Wall Street Journal reporter arrested earlier this week on espionage charges and facing 20 years in jail.
“Let him go,” said Biden, when asked about the case on Friday. Previously, the White House press secretary, Karine Jean-Pierre, described the espionage charges levelled against Gershkovich as “ridiculous”.
The prospect of a speedy release seems increasingly unlikely, however, as Russian officials continue to speak about Gershkovich in terms suggesting his conviction is a foregone conclusion.
“We are dealing with activity conducted under the cover of journalism, activity that is essentially espionage. Since he was caught red-handed, the situation is plain and simple,” said Dmitry Peskov, a spokesperson for Vladimir Putin.
Gershkovich was arrested in Ekaterinburg on Wednesday, and flown to Moscow, where a court on Thursday officially charged him with espionage and remanded him in custody until the end of May.
The Wall Street Journal has vehemently denied the charges against the 31-year-old reporter, and friends and colleagues of Gershkovich have described the accusations as ludicrous.
Observers have suggested two possible motives for the arrest: to stifle critical reporting on Russia even further, and to take Gershkovich “hostage” as a bargaining chip for a possible future exchange for Russian spies caught in the west. Being included in such an exchange may be Gershkovich’s best chance of a speedy release.
Rachel Denber of Human Rights Watch described the arrest as a “depraved cynical move” designed to silence critical voices and dissuade foreign journalists from covering Russia.
“It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that Gershkovich’s arrest marks Russian authorities’ desire to keep foreign journalists away and stop their reporting on topics that are critical of the government or that unmask its abuses,” wrote Denber.
Since the full-scale invasion of Ukraine last year, most independent Russian journalists have left the country, after a spate of repressive new laws essentially making honest journalism illegal.
Many foreign journalists left too, but some stayed or continued to visit for short trips. The arrest of Gershkovich has changed the stakes.
“It’s a message to the journalists, and it’s also a very important message to Russian elites: don’t speak with foreign journalists. Keep your mouth shut,” said Yevgenia Albats, a veteran Russian journalist who left Moscow last August.
Working as a foreign correspondent in Russia has never been easy. Gaining or renewing official accreditation could be a long and tedious process, and insinuations of “Russophobia” or espionage activity were frequent. Hostility, intimidation and occasionally being followed by sinister watchers came with the territory.
But until now, the worst possible outcome for accredited foreign journalists had always been deportation or blacklisting. The arrest of Gershkovich shows Russian authorities are now willing to arrest even a well-known reporter from a high-profile publication, and will lead to a reassessment of the risks in reporting from the country for many.
“In the Soviet times there were clearcut red lines. It was known to us, I guess it was known to foreign journalists, what they could do and what they couldn’t. Now there are no red lines: you just don’t know,” said Albats.
Journalists who know Gershkovich paid tribute to him as a passionate and diligent reporter.
He is being held in Moscow’s notorious Lefortovo jail. Friends of his have set up an email address, firstname.lastname@example.org, where wellwishers can send messages for the detained journalist. If in English, the messages will be translated into Russian, as required by Russian law, and then sent to Gershkovich in prison.