A Nobel prize-winning Russian journalist said on Friday he did not believe that arrested American reporter Evan Gershkovich was a spy, and that he hoped diplomacy could bring about his quick release.
Dmitry Muratov told Reuters the case against Gershkovich - a Wall Street Journal reporter facing espionage charges that carry up to 20 years in jail - was part of a wider trend to make journalism a "dangerous profession" in Russia.
"I know Gershkovich. I've met him two or three times over the last year. I know the practice exists of using journalists as spies, intelligence officers and 'illegals' (undeclared spies) - this is not that kind of case," Muratov said.
"He was no kind of so-called deep-cover operative - using being a journalist and his journalist's accreditation as a cover for espionage ... Gershkovich was not a spy," said Muratov, a co-winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 2021 for his efforts to defend press freedom in Russia.
He was speaking outside a closed court hearing in Moscow on Friday in the case of Vladimir Kara-Murza, an opposition politician facing charges including state treason and spreading false information about the armed forces.
Muratov also cited the case of Ivan Safronov, a former journalist sentenced to 22 years in jail for treason last year.
"At every turn, we're being charged with espionage and treason. It's a trend - to show that journalism is a dangerous profession ... both for Russian and other journalists."
Muratov was editor-in-chief of the independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta, which has seen several of its reporters killed in the last two decades, and had its registration revoked last year after Russia went to war in Ukraine. More than 260 publications have been closed, blocked or de-registered since then, he said.
"I don't really understand how, given that trend and the lack of media competition, you can hold the elections that President Vladimir Putin announced for 2024," he said.
"Does it mean they'll go ahead without difficult topics, discussions, candidate programmes? I'm starting not to understand how that can work."
Muratov said he was aware of the "popular theory" that Gershkovich had been seized as a bargaining chip for Moscow to use in a prisoner exchange with the United States, though he did not say if he believed that himself.
He said he very much hoped that "through back-channel diplomacy", Gershkovich would soon be freed.
(Reporting by Reuters; writing by Mark Trevelyan; Editing by Kevin Liffey)