Russia arrests Wall Street Journal reporter on ‘espionage’ charges

Russia arrests Wall Street Journal reporter on ‘espionage’ charges

Russia’s top security agency says it has arrested a reporter for The Wall Street Journal over alleged espionage.

Journalist Evan Gershkovich was arrested in Yekaterinburg on spying charges, according to Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) – the successor to the KGB.

He was brought to Moscow where a court at a closed hearing ordered him held in pre-trial detention until 29 May. The TASS state news agency said he pleaded not guilty. The authorities released no evidence publicly and the case is said to have been marked “top secret”.

The arrest is the most serious public move against an international journalist since Russia invaded Ukraine in February last year. Espionage charges against someone from an American news outlet have not been seen since the end of the Cold War – with the detention coming amid a bitter war of words between Moscow and Washington over the Ukraine war. If convicted, Mr Gershkovich could face up to 20 years in prison.

The Wall Street Journal said in a statement it was “deeply concerned” for Mr Gershkovich’s safety and that it “vehemently denies the allegations from the FSB and seeks the immediate release of our trusted and dedicated reporter”.

The White House said it is "deeply concerned" that Mr Gershkovich has been detained in Russia and said the "targeting of American citizens by the Russian government is unacceptable".

The statement added: "We condemn the detention of Mr Gershkovich in the strongest terms. We also condemn the Russian government’s continued targeting and repression of journalists and freedom of the press.”

It said the state department has been in direct touch with the Russian government over his detention, including actively working to secure consular access to Mr Gershkovich.

Daniil Berman, a lawyer representing Mr Gershkovich, was not permitted inside the courtroom or allowed to see the charges, he told reporters outside. Mr Berman said he believed Mr Gershkovich would be taken to Lefortovo, the 19th century central Moscow jail notorious in Soviet times for holding political prisoners.

The US has been full-throated in its support of Kyiv, with Russia’s president Vladimir Putin having repeatedly hit out at Washington – and the wider West – for the weapons it is providing Ukraine. Mr Putin’s rhetoric has only grown more inflammatory as his invasion has faltered amid months of intense fighting in the country’s eastern regions.

Moscow has a habit of using detainees for political leverage. Basketball star Brittney Griner was caught arriving in Moscow with cannabis oil a week before the invasion of Ukraine began and was freed in a prisoner swap in December. Russia’s deputy foreign minister, Sergei Ryabkov, told the state RIA news agency that it was too early to talk of a possible prisoner swap for Mr Gershkovich.

Another American, Paul Whelan, a Michigan corporate security executive, has been imprisoned in Russia since December 2018 on espionage charges that his family and the US government have said are baseless.

As for US correspondents being detained by Russia, Nicholas Daniloff, based in Moscow for US News and World Report, was arrested by the KGB in September 1986. The US believed he had been detained in retaliation for the arrest by the FBI of an employee of the Soviet Union’s United Nations mission. Mr Daniloff was released without charges 20 days later, with the UN worker also allowed to leave the US.

Evan Gershkovich leaves the court building in Moscow (Evgenia Novozhenina/Reuters)
Evan Gershkovich leaves the court building in Moscow (Evgenia Novozhenina/Reuters)

The FSB said it had “stopped the illegal activities of US citizen Gershkovich Evan, born in 1991, a correspondent of the Moscow bureau of the American newspaper The Wall Street Journal, accredited at the Russian foreign ministry, who is suspected of spying in the interests of the American government”.

The Kremlin claimed the reporter had been “caught red-handed”. It was not immediately clear when the journalist was arrested. The FSB said Mr Gershkovich had been tasked “by the American side” with gathering information on “the activities of one of the enterprises of the military defence complex” – believed to be a factory.

The security service did not name the factory or say where it was but added that it had detained the 31-year-old journalist in the Urals city of Yekaterinburg as he was trying to procure secret information. The FSB did not provide documentary or video evidence of his guilt. Mr Gershkovich was reportedly visiting Nizhny Tagil, the site of the Russian battle tank producer Uralvagonzavod, according to Russian news website Meduza, which is based in Latvia. Dozens of companies producing weapons are based in the city.

Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova claimed that Mr Gershkovich’s activities in Yekaterinburg were “not related to journalism”. Ms Zakharova later suggested there would be an opportunity to verify the allegations as they would be made public. “Relevant statements have been made through our security services... I think [they] will also provide it publicly, and you will have an opportunity to verify it,” she said at an afternoon briefing.

The Kremlin said other journalists working for the US publication in Russia could remain in post, provided they had the right credentials and were carrying out what it called “normal journalistic activity”. A diplomatic source said that the US embassy in Moscow had not been informed about the incident and was seeking information from the Russian authorities about the case.

The Reporters Without Borders group said it was “alarmed” by the arrest of Mr Gershkovich and that it “looks like a retaliation measure of Russia against the United States”.

Andrei Soldatov, an author and expert in Russia’s security agencies who is outside the country, said on social media: “Evan Gershkovich is a very good and brave journalist, not a spy, for Christ’s sake. It [his detention] is a frontal attack on all foreign correspondents who still work in Russia. And it means that the FSB is off the leash.”

Mr Gershkovich covers Russia, Ukraine and the former Soviet Union for the WSJ. He has previously worked with news agency Agence France-Presse, The Moscow Times and The New York Times.

Russia has tightened censorship laws since the start of the Ukraine invasion, bringing in jail terms for people deemed to have “discredited” the military. This has curtailed all independent Russian news outlets but authorities have continued to accredit some foreign reporters. The definition of what constitutes a state secret, particularly in the military sphere, has been broadened too.

In Mr Gershkovich’s last report, “Russia’s economy is starting to come undone”, Mr Gershkovich reported that the country’s economy felt the heat of Western sanctions and faced a slowdown, adding that the Russian government’s revenue is “being squeezed”.

The news report said the Russian economy was entering a long-term regression.