In detaining The Wall Street Journal (WSJ) journalist Evan Gershkovich on suspicion of espionage, Russia has disobeyed the unspoken rule “not to touch accredited journalists,” which is yet another sign of war and escalating confrontation with the West, Ivan Pavlov, a human rights activist and lawyer, told The Insider.
Pavlov added the Kremlin is showing that absolutely any journalist, whether Russian or foreign, can be considered a spy. The authorities are also hoping to exchange the “hostage” journalist for any Russian citizen detained on similar charges, said the lawyer:
“A journalist was taken hostage, accused of espionage [for the] ‘collection of data constituting state secrets.’ The journalist did collect information, that’s [part of] his profession, and the fact that in our time of war any information can become so sensitive that the authorities will treat it as secret, should not surprise anyone. This is the kind of signal that is sent to foreign journalists that the ‘unspoken rule’ now does not apply. Any foreign or Russian journalist who is simply performing his or her duties honestly and professionally can be charged with espionage or treason.
Referring to this [Criminal Code] article, Russia can detain foreign journalists, the law allows it. When a journalist is accredited, he or she has tacit immunity, but now it has ceased to exist. To release a journalist, there is a thorny legal path. It is unlikely that this high-profile decision was not made in good faith – if the journalist is not released soon, we need to prepare for a serious process. This is a foreign journalist from a respected media outlet, so there will be a political part, they will try to release him [both] diplomatically and politically. This path is more or less clear – there will be unofficial negotiations and the fate of not only Evan, but someone in whom the Russian regime is interested, will be determined.
Russia is also signaling that it is closing down, and will no longer tolerate foreign journalists, at least not giving them implied immunity. The Russian regime will now be able to bargain, [working] to free the people it wants. Now they are constantly detaining someone, either Russians accused of espionage or pro-Russian agents. This is already a trade and a diplomatic way of negotiating.
If we're talking about the detention itself (a witness in Yekaterinburg reported that security forces in civilian clothes took a man into a minibus by pulling a sweater over his head – The Insider), the security forces act that way. It's similar to detentions in [other] cases like this. Clearly, there may be a SWAT team present, but overall it fits the pattern typical of these cases. Sometimes they put a bag or some kind of sack over their head, because the law does not prescribe this procedure. This is common practice, to which few people pay attention. Whether or not it is legal will have to be analyzed based on how Evan felt when he was apprehended. If he was subjected to force without justification, then we can talk about [illegality]. But the prospects of a claim on these grounds seem unclear to me.”
WSJ journalist Evan Gershkovich was detained on March 29 on suspicion of espionage, according to a report from Russian state-owned news agency TASS on the morning of March 30, citing the FSB. Gershkovich was taken to Moscow’s Lefortovo District court, where he was arrested until May 29.
Attorney Daniil Berman, who represents Gershkovich, was not allowed into the courtroom after authorities alleged that the journalist already had a lawyer, wrote Mediazona.
“The Wall Street Journal vehemently denies the allegations from the FSB and seeks the immediate release of our trusted and dedicated reporter, Evan Gershkovich,” the Journal said. “We stand in solidarity with Evan and his family.”
According to reports from Russian government-run news agencies, the WSJ journalist was gathering information about a company in the Russian military-industrial complex – that constituted state secrets – at the behest of the United States. Before being detained, Gershkovich worked in Yekaterinburg, preparing a story about ordinary Russians’ attitudes towards the Wagner Private Military Company (PMC). He managed to interview local resident Yaroslav Shirshikov as part of the piece.
On March 29, the Vecherniye Vedomosti newspaper reported that one of its readers witnessed the arrest outside the Bukowski Grill restaurant in Yekaterinburg's Karl Liebknecht Street, where Shirshikov and Gershkovich had met. Plainclothes law enforcement officers took Gershkovich into a minibus and pulled a sweater over his head.
A source among Western journalists working in Moscow told Meduza that in addition to visiting Yekaterinburg, Evan Gershkovich traveled to Nizhny Tagil, where defense enterprise Uralvagonzavod is based.
Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova commented on the situation, saying that Gershkovich's activities in Russia “have nothing to do with journalism” and alleging that the journalist's visa was used as a cover. In turn, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov claimed that Gershkovich's arrest was not a question of suspicion – the journalist was detained for espionage after being caught “red-handed,” said the official. Peskov did not mention the specific reasons for the journalist’s arrest, or the nature of the information involvled.
Oleg Matveychev, deputy chair of the State Duma's information policy, information technology and communications committee, considered the WSJ's activities in Russia “unnecessary.” In an interview with the Govorit Moskva radio station, he said the WSJ’s Moscow bureau should be shut down, and all its reporters' accreditations recalled.
“We haven't seen anything good from this newspaper, not only are they engaged in propaganda and fakery, but it turns out they are also engaged in espionage. Given that they have shut down all of our media outlets in America, it is high time we had a tough, symmetrical response – just kick them out.”
Gershkovich, 31, has worked as a journalist in Russia since 2017. Before joining the WSJ, he worked at Agence France-Presse and The Moscow Times, as well as an assistant at the NYT in New York. The Bowdoin College graduate most recently wrote about the impact of Western sanctions on the Russian economy.
The journalist may face up to 20 years in prison on espionage charges.
Cover photo: The Wall Street Journal