Evan Gershkovich, the 31-year-old Wall Street Journal reporter arrested by Russian authorities on charges of espionage, has been declared “wrongfully detained” by Secretary of State Antony Blinken, suggesting that U.S. officials hope he might be traded, like a hostage, for some Russian prisoner.
“Journalism is not a crime,” a State Department spokesman said of the young reporter’s arrest.
The problem is, in Vladimir Putin’s Russia, it often is a crime. In declaring Gershkovich a foreign spy, Putin may have been looking not for a token in a prisoner-exchange, but for an example to deter other reporters—foreign and domestic—from doing their jobs.
Gershkovich was arrested in Yekaterinburg, a manufacturing city in central Russia, where, according to some sources, he was interviewing employees of a tank factory and investigating the Wagner Group, a private militia key to Russia’s fighting in Ukraine. As the FSB (the intelligence service once known as the KGB) put it in its arrest statement, he was collecting “information constituting a state secret about the activities of one of the enterprises of the Russian military-industrial complex.” Or, as a journalist in the West would put it, he was reporting on a story.
Until a decade ago, that was how Russian authorities would have described the situation as well. But no longer. As the New Yorker’s Masha Gessen recently noted, the FSB and Russian parliament have since broadened the definition of “espionage” to include information-gathering that “the Russian government sees as threatening the security of the country.” This includes information gathered by journalists and other professionals. The previous law required the prosecution to prove hostile intent; under the new law, this is no longer the case. Nor does it matter whether the information is already public or whether the journalist has yet written a story.
Gessen, a former Russian journalist who emigrated to the U.S. a decade ago, describes the new, stricter version of the law as a “legalistic instrument of terror.”
Under its provisions, anyone looking too closely at anything regarding state secrets is, ipso facto, a criminal. Nor is the threat merely theoretical. Gessen cites several cases where Russian journalists have been charged with “high treason” and sentenced to long prison terms for simply criticizing the war in Ukraine or for reporting on Russian troop movements.
These cases have deterred many Russian reporters from going down the same road; most of them have long ago left the country. The arrest of Gershkovich may be seen as a message that the law applies to foreign journalists as well.
The most shocking thing about the Gershkovich case is that such cases are so rare. No American journalist has been arrested in Russia on charges of espionage since Nicholas Daniloff, then a Moscow reporter for U.S. News & World Report, in 1986, a particularly tense time of the Cold War. Even then, Daniloff’s jailing was seen at the time as retaliation for the arrest of Gennady Zakharov on spying charges. He was released, and traded for Zakharov, two weeks later.
It is conceivable that Putin might send Gershkovich back to the United States if President Joe Biden offers an appealing trade. But a hostage trade doesn’t seem to be what Putin and the FSB had in mind when they arrested him in the first place.
Biden has handed the case to the Office of the Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs, the usual step after the State Department declares that a U.S. citizen has been “wrongfully detained” by a foreign government. Negotiating such trades is a big part of what the office does. Even in this dreadfully tense time for U.S.-Russian relations, it has managed to pull off two high-profile prisoner trades with Moscow, involving women’s basketball player Brittney Griner and Marine veteran Trevor Reed. But neither of those cases involved accused spies, on either side; and, despite U.S. efforts, Moscow has ignored persistent appeals to free Paul Whelan, an American who has been locked up since 2018 on espionage charges. Meanwhile, Western prisons do hold a few Russians that Moscow would like returned (they are all prominent hackers, one of them the son of a member of parliament), but none of them are accused spies—making it hard to achieve “equivalence,” which the Russians usually demand in such trades, even if they often define the term strangely.
The bad news may be that, in Gershkovich case, Putin isn’t looking for a trade. He’s looking to keep his regime, especially its military machine, as opaque as possible. This reporter was trying to pierce that shield, as reporters do.