Russia’s counterintelligence agency says Evan Gershkovich was detained in Yekaterinburg.
Russia’s top security agency has arrested an American reporter for the Wall Street Journal on espionage charges, the first time a U.S. correspondent was put behind bars on spying accusations since the Cold War.
The Federal Security Service (FSB), the domestic security and counterintelligence agency that is the successor agency to the Soviet-era KGB, said Thursday that Evan Gershkovich was detained in the Ural Mountains city of Yekaterinburg while allegedly trying to obtain classified information.
The security service alleged that Gershkovich “was acting on the U.S. orders to collect information about the activities of one of the enterprises of the Russian military industrial complex that constitutes a state secret.”
The FSB didn’t say when the arrest took place. Gershkovich could face up to 20 years in prison if convicted of espionage. Gershkovich covers Russia and Ukraine as a correspondent in the Wall Street Journal’s Moscow bureau.
The FSB noted that he had accreditation from the Russian Foreign Ministry to work as a journalist, but Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova said Gershkovich was using his journalistic credentials as a cover for “activities that have nothing to do with journalism.”
His last report from Moscow, published earlier this week, focused on the Russian economy’s slowdown amid Western sanctions imposed when Russian troops entered Ukraine last year.
The Wall Street Journal said it “vehemently denies the allegations” and is seeking Gershkovich’s immediate release.
“We stand in solidarity with Evan and his family,” the paper said.
Reporters Without Borders, the non-profit organization that advocates for press freedoms, tweeted that it was “alarmed by what looks like retaliation” for Gershkovich’s recent reporting.
Independent media crackdown
Gershkovich is the first reporter for an American news outlet to be arrested on espionage charges in Russia since the Cold War. His arrest comes amid the bitter tensions between Moscow and Washington over the fighting in Ukraine.
Soon after the invasion, Russia clamped down on domestic and foreign media outlets, blocking the websites of the BBC, Voice of America and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, among others.
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In May, CBC News journalists were expelled from Russia after a 44-year presence in Moscow.
Russia’s Novaya Gazeta newspaper, whose editor, Dmitry Muratov, was a co-winner of 2021’s Nobel Peace Prize, was also shuttered.
Gershkovich is the first American reporter to be arrested on espionage charges in Russia since September 1986, when Nicholas Daniloff, a Moscow correspondent for U.S. News and World Report, was arrested by the KGB. He was released without charges 20 days later in a swap for an employee of the Soviet Union’s United Nations mission who was arrested by the FBI.
Bill Browder, the investment fund manager who has worked to expose Russian corruption after the arrest and prison death of his colleague Sergei Magnitsky, characterized the arrest of Gershkovich on Thursday as “[Vladimir] Putin’s standard playbook.”
Ottawa-born Paul Whelan, who holds Canadian, American and Irish citizenship, is in his fourth year of a 16-year sentence on espionage charges that he disputes. Whelan was accused of receiving a thumb drive of classified information while travelling in Russia.
Russia in December released pro basketball player Brittney Griner, arrested just days before the Ukraine invasion and sentenced to prison for drug possession. Griner came back home to the U.S. as a part of a prisoner swap that saw notorious arms dealer Viktor Bout released from American custody after several years.
The Journal in its long history has seen reporters detained overseas. Gerald Sieb, until recently the newspaper’s Washington bureau chief, was interrogated in Iran for several days in 1987 before being released.
Journal reporter Daniel Pearl was killed in 2002 after being abducted by Islamist extremists.
With files from CBC News
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