Russia: an American journalist arrested for “espionage”
Russia announced Thursday the arrest for “espionage” of an American journalist from the daily “Wall Street Journal”, Evan Gershkovich, an unprecedented case in the recent history of the country in a context of repression since the offensive against Ukraine.
“The FSB foiled the illegal activity of the accredited correspondent (…) of the Moscow office of the American newspaper “Wall Street Journal”, the citizen of the United States Evan Gershkovich”, indicated the Russian federal security service in a press release. quoted by the Russian agencies.
He is “suspected of spying for the benefit of the United States” and of collecting information “on a Russian military-industrial complex company”. A crime punishable by 10 to 20 years in prison, according to article 276 of the Russian criminal code.
Before joining the American daily in 2022, Mr. 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 independent Russian analyst Tatiana Stanovaïa, who heads the R.Politik analysis center, has noted that Russia has recently tightened its laws against espionage since its assault on Ukraine.
“The problem is that the new Russian legislation (…) allows anyone who is interested in military affairs, the special military operation (in Ukraine), private military groups (such as Wagner), to the state of the army,” she wrote on Facebook.
But the analyst also notes that the FSB was able to take the journalist “hostage” with a view to a possible exchange of prisoners.
Exchanges of prisoners
Russian-American exchanges have taken place a few times in recent years.
Several American nationals are still 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 underway for several years to have him released.
The 53-year-old ex-soldier suffers, according to his family, from health problems in his prison, located in the Russian region of Mordovia.
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 who is incarcerated in the United States.
Another American currently being held in Russia is 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.
The Russian authorities claimed to have found marijuana and hashish oil in his luggage during a customs check upon his arrival at Sheremetyevo airport in Moscow.
If the press and Russian journalists critical of the Kremlin are often the target of criminal proceedings in Russia, foreign journalists have been spared, Moscow having preferred to expel correspondents and toughen accreditation rules.
Since the launch of the Russian offensive against Ukraine, however, the Russian authorities have accelerated their repression of the opposition and independent media, generally by using provisions of the criminal code punishing the fact of “discrediting the army”.
At the same time, for foreign journalists, the conditions for issuing accreditations, on which visas depend, have been tightened.
Foreign reporters are also sometimes followed by the security services during their reports, in particular outside of Moscow.
In this context, many Western media outlets have sharply reduced their presence in Russia since the entry of Russian forces into Ukraine in February 2022.