– The detention of Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich, accused of espionage, raises serious concerns for foreign journalists covering Russia from inside the country who were already on high alert following the February 2022 invasion of Ukraine.
By Andrew Heslop
FRANKFURT, Germany – Navigating a regime that has been hostile to the press since its inception, Russian journalists have long been direct targets for the Kremlin and its security apparatus. As a result, independent journalism inside the Russian Federation has been decimated, with many individuals forced into exile. Desperate for leverage by any means, the policy seemingly now extends to foreign correspondents, but not solely as a means of suppressing information.
The least that can be said is that Russian president Vladimir Putin’s position regarding the foreign press has been consistently explicit. In 2002, just two years into his ‘first’ presidency, 31 foreign correspondents had their credentials revoked for supposed “illegal journalistic activity” – 18 of them eventually had their visa applications rejected.
As Andrei Soldatov wrote in yesterday’s Moscow Times, this period contributed to foreign journalists increasingly coming to rely on an informal “early warning system” involving two key Russian institutions: the foreign ministry and Dmitry Peskov, Putin’s spokesperson. “In a country where the letter of the law matters only when someone powerful decides to use it, this mechanism has been the only way most journalists have been able to continue operating safely inside the country”.
According to Soldatov, Russia’s federal security forces (the FSB) also played a role in the Kremlin’s “cat-and-mouse game” with foreign correspondents, as it was the agency’s counterintelligence department that formally revoked press visas. “It also fell to the FSB to look out for any “missteps” by foreign correspondents… and then to use those mistakes to approach and recruit.”
The years since have brought varying degrees of intensity to the threats and intimidation against foreign journalists, often fluctuating in parallel to Putin’s approval ratings or levels of paranoia. The label ‘foreign agent’ has been thrown around to tarnish independent journalists: notably, the BBC’s Sarah Rainsford was expelled from the country in 2021 as a “national security threat”.
However, since the start of the war in Ukraine, an already complicated legal environment for journalism has significantly hardened. The blocking of social media platforms and crackdown against unfavourable coverage (particularly of the military), has led to military-style censorship of local media. Shaun Walker, writing in The Guardian, confirms that reporting from inside Russia has become much more difficult. “Russia’s foreign ministry has put dozens of journalists on blacklists, barring them from entry, and refused accreditation to others. A series of laws, including one outlawing “fakes”, have made honest reporting on the war from inside Russia difficult and dangerous, and many journalists have left.”
Indeed, many hundreds of Russian journalists have taken the deeply traumatic step of fleeing the country and disappearing into exile; an indeterminable, precarious life preferable to the alternative of staying in Russia and risk being forcibly ‘disappeared’. It is the ultimate recourse given the many unknowns involved.
A misconception is that foreign correspondents can simply ‘go home’ if their safety or security is threatened. For correspondents like Evan Gershkovich (six years in Moscow, formerly with AFP and the Moscow Times) and many others, this oversimplifies their situation and somewhat demeans their role. To be as effective as Evan – and many of those who choose to remain in Russia at this time – requires deep investment in forging a life inside your adopted country. As the outsider you work twice as hard: to get the story and navigate a constantly shifting environment, one that is doubly hostile to you both as a journalist and as a foreigner. The option to board a plane may, in some cases, always be there, but the ties that bind – to a story, to a chosen life – are not so easily uprooted.
These are considerations for all foreign correspondents at the best of times, but under wartime conditions the stakes are significantly heightened. As Andrei Soldatov reports: “Many foreign journalists left the country as it was not at all clear how far the Russian authorities were prepared to go in implementing draconian new legislation that criminalised the ‘discrediting’ of the military when it came to foreign media coverage.”
It is somewhat miraculous that Gershkovich is the first foreign reporter to be criminally charged since the war’s beginning.
But it marks a significant escalation; not in the Kremlin’s attempts to control the narrative (a control it never fully had, in reality, thanks to the brave defiance of independent Russian journalists as well as the ongoing work of their foreign peers in the country), but rather in the blatant targeting of foreign journalists – and foreign nationals of any profession – as the latest weapon in its war.
To varying degrees of tolerance, foreign journalists had thus far been broadly able to operate inside Putin’s Russia. The risk was largely understood: their relative immunity was granted but by the grace of the leader. But the rules, many of them until now unwritten, have been completely upended. Russia experts writing across today’s media agree that this latest move points to a calculated effort to improve Russia’s negotiating position in potential hostage exchange situations, with Evan Gershkovich adding to the pool of foreign citizens already being detained in the country to eventually use – like currency – in exchange for Russians arrested abroad.
Evan Gershkovich faces up to 20 years in prison if convicted of the espionage charges brought against him. Before his arrest, he was reportedly working on a story about Wagner, the private military group run by businessman Yevgeny Prigozhin. Speaking to the BBC, Russian political expert Tatyana Stanovaya said in the FSB’s view of espionage, “collecting information” could simply mean gathering comments from experts, while acting on US instructions could simply refer to his editors at the Wall Street Journal.
In any case, the message is clear to all foreign journalists: you are fair game in this war, you are no longer safe inside Russia.