Russia: an American journalist arrested for “espionage”, France says it is “worried”

Russia announced on Thursday the arrest for “espionage” of an American journalist from the daily wall street journal, Evan Gershkovich, who was subsequently taken into custody. An unprecedented case in the recent history of the country in a context of repression since the offensive against Ukraine. Without substantiating this accusation, the Kremlin claimed that the reporter had been caught “in the act” and warned Washington against any form of reprisals against Russian media working in the United States.

FSB says it ‘thwarted journalist’s illegal activity’

On Thursday, Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) said it had “foiled the illegal activity of the accredited correspondent (…) of the Moscow office of the US newspaper ‘Wall Street Journal’, US citizen Evan Gershkovich”, who was arrested in Ekaterinburg, in the Urals, on an unspecified date. He is “suspected of spying for the benefit of the United States” and of collecting information “on a Russian military-industrial complex company”, he added in a press release. This charge is punishable by 10 to 20 years in prison, according to article 276 of the Russian penal code.

According to the Ria Novosti agency, citing the Lefortovo court in Moscow, the FSB requested his placement in pre-trial detention. Before joining the American daily in 2022, Evan Gershkovich was a correspondent for AFP in Moscow, and before that, for the English-language newspaper Moscow Times. Perfectly Russian-speaking, the 31-year-old journalist is of Russian origin and his parents are settled in the United States. “The ‘Wall Street Journal’ is deeply concerned for the safety” of Evan Gershkovich, the daily said in a brief statement.

France calls on Russia to respect freedom of the press

The NGO Reporters Without Borders said it was “alarmed” by “what appears to be a reprisal measure: journalists must not be targeted!” France said it was “worried” and called on Moscow to respect press freedom. Russian diplomacy said that the journalist had been caught “hand in the bag”. “We hope there will be no” reprisals against the Russian media in the United States, added Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov, assuring that the American journalist had been caught “flagrante delicto”.

Independent Russian analyst Tatiana Stanovaya, who heads the R.Politik analysis center, noted that Russia has recently tightened its laws against espionage since its assault on Ukraine in February 2022. “The problem is that the new Russian legislation (…) makes it possible to imprison for 20 years anyone interested in military affairs, the special military operation (in Ukraine), private military groups (like Wagner), the state of the army,” she wrote on Facebook. But it also notes that the FSB was able to take the journalist “hostage” with a view to a possible exchange of prisoners.

Previous prisoner exchanges

Russian-American exchanges have taken place a few times in recent years, amid growing tensions over Ukraine and what the Kremlin sees as a NATO proxy war against Russia. Asked about a potential future exchange with Washington, Russian diplomacy deemed the subject premature, calling via its Deputy Foreign Minister, Sergei Riabkov, to “see how this story evolves”.

Several Americans are already detained in Russia, one of whom, Paul Whelan, is serving a 16-year prison sentence for “espionage” in a case that the person concerned and Washington consider fabricated. He was arrested in 2018 and negotiations have been ongoing for several years to have him released. The latest exchange between Moscow and Washington took place in December when Russia handed over American basketball player Brittney Griner, detained for drug trafficking, in exchange for the release of arms trafficker Victor Bout, imprisoned in the United States.

Another American currently being held in Russia, Marc Fogel, a former diplomat who worked as a teacher at an American school in Moscow. He was sentenced in June 2022 to fourteen years in prison for “large-scale” cannabis trafficking, after the discovery of drugs in his luggage at Sheremetyevo airport in Moscow.

Stronger repression since the invasion of Ukraine

If the Russian press and journalists critical of the Kremlin are often the target of criminal proceedings, foreign journalists have been spared, Moscow having preferred to expel correspondents and toughen accreditation rules. Since the launch of the offensive against Ukraine, the repression has accelerated against the Russian opposition and independent media, often using provisions of the criminal code punishing the act of “discrediting the army” .

Foreign reporters are also sometimes followed by the security services during their reporting, especially outside Moscow. In this context, many Western media have greatly reduced their presence in Russia since the entry of Russian forces into Ukraine.

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