Russia Formally Charges US Reporter

AP file photo
Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich is escorted by officers from the Lefortovsky court to a bus, in Moscow, Russia, Thursday, March 30, 2023.

MOSCOW (AFP-Jiji) — Moscow has formally charged U.S. journalist Evan Gershkovich with espionage, Russian news agencies reported Friday, accusations rejected both by the reporter and his employer.

The charges against Wall Street Journal correspondent Evan Gershkovich are the first of their kind in Russia since the fall of the Soviet Union, prompting an outcry from media outlets, rights groups and foreign governments.

Investigators from the FSB, the state security service that succeeded the KGB, “charged Gershkovich with espionage in the interests of his country,” state-run agency TASS said, citing a law enforcement source.

“He categorically denied all accusations and stated that he was engaged in journalistic activities in Russia,” TASS said.

The Wall Street Journal, one of the leading U.S. newspapers, said it heard of the charges through the media reports and rejected them.

“As we’ve said from the beginning, these charges are categorically false and unjustified, and we continue to demand Evan’s immediate release,” the newspaper said in a statement.

It has previously called Gershkovich a “trusted and dedicated reporter.”

The case has been classified as secret, limiting the amount of information available.

His arrest comes as Moscow’s relationship with Washington has seriously deteriorated because of the Ukraine offensive.

Washington has long accused Moscow of arbitrarily arresting Americans in order to secure the release of detained Russians.

U.S. President Joe Biden has called for Gershkovich’s release. White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre earlier described the allegation of espionage as “ridiculous.”

The arrest led the State Department to summon the Russian ambassador and Secretary of State Antony Blinken pressed the case in a telephone call to Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, only their third one-on-one interaction since the Ukraine offensive began in February 2022.

The case has drawn bipartisan alarm in politically divided Washington, where the Democratic and Republican leaders of the Senate issued a rare joint statement Friday to seek Gershkovich’s freedom.

“We strongly condemn the wrongful detention of U.S. citizen and Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich, and demand the immediate release of this internationally known and respected independent journalist,” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Republican leader Mitch McConnell said.

“Let there be no mistake: journalism is not a crime,” the Senate leaders wrote. “We demand the baseless, fabricated charges against Mr. Gershkovich be dropped and he be immediately released.”

Schumer and McConnell also reiterated their “condemnation of the Russian government’s continued attempts to intimidate, repress and punish independent journalists and civil society voices.”

The U.S. State Department has not yet formally determined that Gershkovich is “wrongfully detained,” a designation that would open up a more robust U.S. response including efforts by the U.S. envoy on hostage affairs.

“I’ll let that process play out. In my own mind, there’s no doubt that he’s being wrongfully detained by Russia, which is exactly what I said to Foreign Minister Lavrov,” Blinken told reporters Wednesday on a trip to Brussels.

“There is no higher priority than the safety and security of American citizens around the world and that includes those who may be wrongfully detained,” Blinken said.

Russian officials insist Gershkovich was “caught red-handed” when he was detained in Yekaterinburg, some 1,800 kilometers east of Moscow.

“Hype around this case, which is being fanned in the United States, with the aim of pressuring Russian authorities and the court … is pointless and meaningless,” Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov told U.S. Ambassador Lynne Tracy on Thursday, according to a statement.

Gershkovich worked for AFP in Russia before taking a job with the Journal.