‘No civilised pathways for getting a journalist out — only hostage exchange’

Wall Street Journal correspondent Evan Gershkovich was arrested in Russia on espionage charges. Here’s what we know so far

‘No civilised pathways for getting a journalist out — only hostage exchange’

Evan Gershkovich, photo from social media

Evan Gershkovich, a journalist for the American publication The Wall Street Journal, was detained in Yekaterinburg on 29 March under suspicion of espionage. On Thursday, 30 March, he was transferred to Moscow, where the Lefortovo court sent Gershkovich to a pre-trial facility for two months. He became the first American journalist arrested in Russia on espionage charges since 1986. Following the journalist’s arrest, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken ordered American citizens living or travelling in Russia to immediately leave the country. A correspondent for Novaya Gazeta Europe gathered all the information that is known about the arrest and journalistic work of Gershkovich.

The detainment of the journalist Evan Gershkovich became known in the morning of 30 March, when Yaroslav Shirshikov, a PR officer from Yekaterinburg whom he interviewed for an article, wrote about it on his Telegram channel. Shirshikov attached a screenshot from the local channel Vecherniye Vedomosti, which covers events in the Urals.

The article in Vecherniye Vedomosti which was published on the evening of 29 March, wrote: “One of our readers witnessed the detainment (or abduction) of a person in the centre of Yekaterinburg — outside the Bukowski Grill restaurant on Karl Libknecht street. [What were presumably] police officers in civilian clothes took the man away in a minibus. As they led the arrested person [onto the bus], they pulled a sweater over his head so that passersby could not see his face. Employees of the institution declined to comment. At the time of publication, official comment from the emergency services had not been obtained.”

Shirshikov explained that a couple of weeks ago, he’d given Gershkovich an interview about the general attitude toward PMC Wagner in Yekaterinburg society. He had also driven Gershkovich around the city and introduced him to other sources. In a conversation with the BBC, Shirshikov said that the journalist had come to Yekaterinburg to write about PMC Wagner chief Yevgeny Prigozhin and his scandal with the Yekaterinburg governor Yevgeny Kuyvashev.

“Evan worked for a few days without issue and then flew away to Moscow. Yesterday I saw this news (in Vecherniye Vedomosti) and was immediately stunned. I think, “What the hell is going on?” And then I went off on some errands. Finally I went to bed, and around one in the morning I get a call from London. A man by the name of Thomas anxiously informs me that Evan returned to Yekaterinburg on Wednesday and hasn’t been answering any messages for more than 9 hours. Apparently, he gave my number to his editors in case something happened. And then I remember that Evan and I had lunch at the Bukowski grill, and that’s right near not only my office but also the office of another source. It’s not wild to assume that in an unfamiliar city a person will go to familiar places, right? Plus, Evan had asked me on Tuesday about a meeting for today. I didn’t know that he was [planning] to fly in yesterday. Apparently, he decided to gather material,” Yaroslav wrote.

Sure enough, the detained person turned out to be Evan Gershkovich.

The FSB maintains that Gershkovich was on a mission from the US, “gathering information about one of the enterprises of the Russian military-industrial complex — that is, a state secret.” 

A criminal case has been opened against the journalist on espionage charges. The punishment is up to 20 years in prison. Following the decision of the Lefortovo district court of Moscow, the journalist was taken into custody for a period of one month and 29 days — until 29 May 2023. He is not allowed access to legal counsel.

“He wanted to get a comment from the head of the House of Officers, so he turned to the press office of the Central Military District. At first they agreed to an interview, and then they [did a 180 and] refused. So it’s possible that counterintelligence had developed an interest in him,” Shirshikov told the BBC.

The Wall Street Journal published the news of the journalist’s arrest, quoting the FSB report. The article says that the paper denies all allegations against [Gershkovich], demands his immediate release, and fears for his safety. Novaya Gazeta Europe sent a request for comment to the WSJ, which at the time of publication has not received a response.

What do Russian authorities say about the arrest?

Evan Gershkovich is an American citizen who had been actively working in Russia while living in London. Before he was hired by the WSJ, Gershkovich previously wrote for AFP, The Moscow Times, and The New York Times. He had a Russian visa and accreditation from the foreign ministry.

“What the employee of the American publication The Wall Street Journal was doing in Yekaterinburg had nothing to do with journalism. Unfortunately, this isn’t the first time that the title of ‘foreign journalist’, a journalistic visa, and accreditation have been used by foreigners in our country to cover up non-journalistic activities. It isn’t even the first well-known westerner to be caught like this,” foreign ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova wrote on her own Telegram channel.

The Russian president’s press secretary, Dmitry Peskov, went so far as to state that the American journalist was “caught red-handed”.

What might actually be behind the arrest of Gershkovich?

Friends and colleagues of Gershkovich say that he was conducting ordinary journalistic activities: collecting information about the topic he was working on. Since the beginning of the war in Ukraine, he had been covering its consequences for both Russians and Ukrainians.

Political scientist Tatiana Stanovaya thinks that the arrest of Evan Gershkovich is an attempt to take a hostage for a future exchange with Western countries.

“The FSB thinks that the journalist was collecting state secret information about a Russian military enterprise. This is, of course, a huge shock. We’ll wait and see what specific [evidence] the FSB presents, but it looks like they took a hostage. They could exchange [Gershkovich] for, for example, Vladislav Klyushin (the Russian arrested in Switzerland who created the company “M-13,” which specialises in IT products for monitoring social media and mass media — editor’s note), whom they didn’t manage to get back in the last exchange,” Stanovaya said.

In her words,

“the current law in Russia allows imprisonment of up to 20 years (on espionage charges) for anyone who is at all interested in military affairs — that is, anyone who writes about the war, 

or PMCs, or the state of affairs in the army, or the troops’ supply of ammunition, or military tactics and strategy.

“‘Gathering information’ in and of itself — which can mean even the completely standard gathering of quotes from experts or even searching for information on sites — is enough to justify an accusation. It’s interesting that the FSB evasively states that Evan was engaged in activity ‘under orders from the American side’ — which can be interpreted in the broadest possible sense. The editors of The Wall Street Journal are also on the ‘American side’. From this [phrasing] we can assume that the FSB has nothing to suggest that Evan was actually working for counterintelligence under journalistic cover. But this, without a doubt, brings the relationship between Russia and the US to a new pitch of confrontation. The arrest of Evan Gershkovich is a conscious choice on the Kremlin’s part — [he is] a hostage whose arrest would incite serious outrage in Western circles, creating pressure on the Biden administration to enter into talks with Moscow about an exchange. Dmitry Peskov’s statement that Gershkovich was ‘caught red-handed’ — that’s direct evidence of the fact that Putin personally stands behind all of this, and there isn’t — and will never be — a civilised pathway for getting the journalist out. There’s only an exchange,” says Tatiana Stanovaya.

Gershkovich’s friends and colleagues express the same hypotheses. Investigative journalist Andrei Zakharov recalls that at the beginning of the year, two undocumented Russians who had been living in Slovenia in disguise as Argentinians were arrested on espionage charges. At that time, Russia’s “exchange fund” had only the American citizen Paul Whelan, convicted in 2020 for espionage charges.

“Evan is a bright, impassioned and courageous journalism-enthusiast. The fact that he procured a visa to Russia, was not afraid, came here in dark times when many journalists preferred simply not to come to Russia — this fact speaks to his character,” says journalist Pavel Kanygin. “We were worried about him. He also decided to go to the Urals, to a region where there is a huge number of military facilities. He was supposed to go there to report on life in Yekaterinburg, on the consequences of the war.”

Kanygin compares Gershkovich’s arrest to the time when he himself was arrested by FSB employees — who also tried to convict him of espionage — in the Donetsk “people’s republic” in 2015. Kanygin recalls that his business cards in Ukrainian, his correspondence with people from France and America, and his paper with English writing were, back then, sufficient proof for the police officers.

“Their immediate conclusion was: if you have business cards and notes, that means that you are connected either with the British or with the American intelligence services. It seemed to me absurd, like a terrifying dream. On the basis of this illogical nonsense, they threaten to throw you in jail. In Evan’s case, I think that there are several purposes. First, his arrest [can be used] for future exchanges with some Russian intelligence officers.

And the second purpose is to frighten others: more foreign journalists better not come here. The government is sending a signal that travel to the region has come to an end.”

“The most logical and likely situation is, it seems, that they just snatched up the first American they came across, without any evidential base at all,” Kanygin suggests.

Evan’s friend Arina [whose name has been changed at her request — editor’s note] told Novaya Gazeta Europe that before his arrest, the journalist hadn’t received any threats or warnings, but he did notice that he was being followed.

“He left Russia before the war and came back only for work. But it was always official, with accreditation from the foreign ministry. The foreign ministry knew what he was doing there, and they knew where he was going. The last time I saw him was two weeks ago; we were sitting calmly and discussing his plans; it was a totally normal conversation, he didn’t suspect anything,” Arina recalls.

After the war started, many foreign journalists left Russia, and the foreign ministry instated a new law: every three months, journalists must renew their visas and accreditation.

“Evan renewed [his visa and accreditation] every single time, because for him it was important to work in Russia. What Maria Zakharova said is just nonsense. I think she herself knows that it’s all a lie. Evan’s goal was always to listen to people, to describe how they see the world. He never approached his work about Russia like “Look, I know these people are all just vatniks (a pejorative term for followers of Russian propaganda — translator’s note), these are all Z-activists, so I’ll write about them that way.” On the contrary, he talked with everyone, trying to hear, to understand, what actually bothered them. And I think that’s a very important quality for a journalist, especially a foreign journalist. He understood the general Russian context very well. Evan is one of the most honest people I know. He always thought that the worst thing they could do to him was refuse to renew his visa. And even that would have been a huge tragedy for him. What actually happened never would have occurred to him at all,” his friend said.

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