American journalist Evan Gershkovich made a pointed observation last year following the arrest of prominent Russian opposition figure Ilya Yashin.
“Reporting on Russia,” he wrote, “is now also a regular practice of watching people you know get locked away for years.”
Those words have a terrible resonance today, following the arrest of Gershkovich in the Russian city of Yekaterinburg. The Federal Security Service, Russia’s domestic intelligence agency, claimed Thursday that Gershkovich had been trying to obtain state secrets, a charge that could potentially mean a lengthy prison term. A district court in Moscow said Thursday that Gershkovich would be detained until May 29.
The Wall Street Journal has categorically denied the allegations, calling Gershkovich a “trusted and dedicated reporter.” Gershkovich’s many friends have rallied to his defense. And the White House called Russia’s espionage claims “ridiculous.”
But the Kremlin has already succeeded on two fronts: The move sends a chill through Russia’s foreign press corps, and further sharpens a confrontation with Washington.
On Friday, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said accredited foreign journalists could continue to work in the country, when asked about the Journal’s editorial board urging the Biden administration to consider diplomatic and political retaliation against Russia.
“All foreign journalists who have valid accreditation here can and continue their journalistic activities in our country,” Peskov said. “They don’t face any restrictions and work fine.”
That bland statement, of course, contains a brazen untruth. Russia has cracked down extensively on its few remaining press freedoms since the full-scale invasion of Ukraine last year, particularly with the passage of a law that makes it a crime to disseminate “fake” information about Russia’s so-called “special military information” or discredit the Russian military (Yashin, the opposition leader, was sentenced to eight and a half years for spreading “false information” about the war in Ukraine.
The arrest of Gershkovich further tightens the screws. A statement by Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokeswoman Maria Zakharova was particularly noteworthy for anyone who has ever worked as an accredited journalist in Russia.
“Under the cover of journalism, this person was involved in a completely different activity,” she said. “There are lots of reports that he had accreditation, therefore he’s a journalist. No, No, No … this is what he claims to be.”