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Russia’s Crackdown on Journalism: Wall Street Journal Reporter Arrested on Spying Charge

by Ryan Lee
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Russia’s security service arrested an American reporter from The Wall Street Journal and charged him with spying – the first time ever since the Cold War. The newspaper disagreed with these accusations, urging for his immediate release.

Evan Gershkovich was taken into custody in Yekaterinburg while he was reportedly trying to get information that is not meant to be shared publicly. This was confirmed by the Federal Security Service (called FSB).

The service, which is like a special police for Russia, reported that Gershkovich was doing something the American asked him to. They believe he tried to get information about a secret project of the Russian military (like the Army).

The Journal has firmly rejected the claims made by the FSB and isworking to get their reporter, Evan Gershkovich, freed. They are standing alongside Evan and his family.

This arrest is taking place at a time when there’s a lot of disagreement between Russia and other Western countries concerning the dispute in Ukraine, and Moscow is getting stricter about cracking down on activists for rights, journalists who don’t follow what they say and organizations fighting for civil rights.

Russia is doing something that has not happened since the Soviet times – they are preventing people from speaking out against their war. This week, a court sentenced a dad to two years in prison simply because he said stuff on social media that wasn’t in favour of the war. His 13-year-old daughter was then taken away and sent to an orphanage.

Gershkovich is the first American reporter who has been arrested on spying charges in Russia since 1986. Nicholas Daniloff of U.S. News and World Report had already been arrested 20 days before by the KGB, but he was let go without any punishment. This happened because an employee from Soviet Union’s United Nations mission had been caught doing the same thing and was arrested by the FBI – so both were released in exchange for each other.

At a court hearing on Thursday, it was decided that Gershkovich must stay in prison until the investigation is finished. In the past, other Americans who got detained by Russia were eventually swapped for free. However, a high-up Russian said that it’s too early to talk about something like that yet. The U.S. government doesn’t really have anything to say right now but they are checking up on what’s happening in Russia with Gershkovich.

Gershkovich writes news stories about Russia, Ukraine, and other former Soviet countries for the Journal newspaper. If this person is found guilty of espionage, they could go to prison for up to 20 years. According to lawyers who specialize in this field, previous investigations into similar cases have lasted up to 18 months where Gershkovich would most likely not be able to communicate with people outside of the investigation itself.

The FSB (a Russian government organization) found that Gershkovich had a special permission from the Russian Government to work as a journalist. But, Maria Zakharova (from the Russian Foreign Ministry) stated that he was actually using his journalist credential for activities other than journalism.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov further said, “We knew about it and caught him on the spot”.

Gershkovich is very good at speaking Russian and he used to work for two places: Agence France-Presse and The New York Times. In 2014, Gershkovich finished college in Maine called Bowdoin College where he majored in philosophy. At Bowdoin, he was known for helping local newspapers and supporting freedom of the press. This information was shared by the college’s president Clayton Rose.

Recently, a report about Russia was published. According to it, the economy in Russia is slowing down due to certain sanctions from other countries because of Russian troops invading Ukraine last year. Furthermore, Ivan Pavlov — a high-ranked lawyer who handles espionage and treason cases related to Russia — noted that this is the first criminal case against a foreign journalist after the Soviet era.

According to Pavlov, a lawyer from the First Department, an “unwritten rule” stopping people from touching foreign journalists is no longer in effect. He believes that Gershkovich’s case was meant to give Russia some “bargaining power” and it will be resolved through politics instead of by following legal procedures. However, Sergei Ryabkov, the Russian Deputy Foreign Minister, has said that this won’t happen quickly.

Ryabkov said, according to Russian news agencies, that he wouldn’t think of this problem yet as the people who were already swapped had already served their sentences. In December last year, Brittney Griner – a professional WNBA player – was released after spending 10 months in prison. She got freed in exchange for Viktor Bout – an arms dealer from Russia.

Paul Whelan, an American from Michigan who works in corporate security, has been locked up in Russia since December 2018. His family and the United States government said that the charges against him are not true.

The family of Paul Whelan, who was wrongfully arrested in Russia over 1,553 days ago, said they’re sorry that another American family is now facing the same trauma. It appears that this new person, Mr. Gershkovich, was framed just like Paul was. A group called Reporters Without Borders also suggested that Mr. Gershkovich’s arrest might be a way for Russia to retaliate against the US.

The people in charge of the Paris-based group monitoring Eastern Europe and Central Asia are worried that a Russian journalist was intimidated before travelling to Yekaterinburg, which is very far away from Moscow. This could be a way to scare off Western journalists who want to investigate what’s happening in Russia.

Kolezev wrote that he was getting ready for his job as a journalist, even though it wasn’t safe to do so at the moment.

Yevgeny Smirnov, a prominent lawyer, said that people arrested for espionage or treason are held at the FSB’s Lefortovo prison. They have to stay all alone in the prison without talking on the phone, seeing visitors or reading newspapers. All they can do is getting letters sometimes after some weeks. And according to Yevgeny Smirnov, these conditions are meant to stop them from doing anything ‘bad’.

Smirnov and Pavlov both said that any trial must be private, not open to the public. According to Pavlov, no one in Russia accused of treason or spying has been found innocent since 1999.

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