By Ed Holt
BRATISLAVA, Apr 12 2023 (IPS)
The arrest of a US journalist in Russia has not only sent a chilling warning to foreign reporters in the country but is a sign of the Kremlin’s desire to ultimately stifle any dissent in the state, press freedom watchdogs have warned.
They say the detention at the end of March of Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich signals the Russian regime may be tightening its already iron grip on control of information and expanding its repression of critics.
“The scale of this move is enormous. Not only is it the first time since the Cold War that an American journalist has been detained, but very serious charges have been brought against him. This is a big step,” Karol Luczka, Advocacy Officer at the International Press Institute (IPI), told IPS.
“[Cracking down on independent voices] has been the Kremlin policy for some time now and it seems they are targeting more and more people,” he added.
Gershkovich, a US citizen, was arrested in Yekaterinburg on suspicion of spying. He is being held at Lefortovo prison in Moscow pending trial and faces up to 20 years in jail on espionage charges. Among his recent reporting were stories about problems Russian forces faced in their war effort, as well as how Western sanctions were damaging the Russian economy.
The Wall Street Journal has denied the accusations against their reporter and the arrest has been condemned by western leaders and rights campaigners.
Some have seen the detention as a political ploy by the Kremlin and believe Gershkovich is being held to be used as part of a prisoner exchange with the US at some point in the future.
But press watchdogs say that, even if that is the case, the arrest also sends out a very clear message to any journalists not following the Kremlin line.
“I have no doubt that the arrest is a political thing. When I heard about the charges against Evan, the first thing that I thought was, ‘what high-profile Russian do the Americans have in one of their jails at the moment?’” Gulnoza Said, Europe and Central Asia Program Coordinator at the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), told IPS.
“Foreign correspondents offer a rare glimpse of the real picture in Russia to a global audience. The arrest sends a message to all foreign journalists that they are not welcome in Russia, and they can be charged with a crime at any time. From now on, it’s clear that the situation for them unpredictable and unsafe,” she added.
Independent media in Russia had faced repression even before the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, but it has increased since then.
The regime has moved to block websites of critical newspapers, as well as social media platforms, to stop people from accessing information critical of the war, while military censorship has also been introduced with new draconian laws criminalising the “discrediting” of the military.
This has led to some outlets shutting pre-emptively rather than risk their employees being sent to prison, while others have been forced to drastically slash staff numbers, or move newsrooms out of the country, operating in de facto exile.
But until now, foreign media outlets had been relatively unaffected by this crackdown. At the start of the war, many pulled their correspondents out of the country amid safety concerns. But a number, like Gershkovich, returned and had been able to report on the war with comparatively far greater freedom than their Russian counterparts.
For this reason, Gershkovich’s arrest is so worrying for the future of independent journalism under the current Russian regime, Jeanne Cavelier, Head of Eastern Europe and Central Asia desk at Reporters Without Borders (RSF), said.
“To arrest a foreign journalist for such serious charges is a new critical step in Putin’s information warfare. The aim is to intimidate all the remaining Western journalists on Russian territory who dare to report on the ground and investigate on topics linked to the war on Ukraine,” she told IPS.
“It is a signal that they are no more relatively protected than their Russian colleagues. As usual, [this is] to spread fear and silence them. Dozens of foreign media outlets have already left Russia since March last year, as well as hundreds of local independent journalists. This blow may worsen the situation and further reduce the sources of trustworthy information from Russia.”
Others believe that the arrest could signal the Kremlin is moving towards a goal of almost total control over information in Russia.
“We are still some way off the kind of censorship that existed in the USSR, but Putin and the Russian ruling regime have said for a long time that the system of censorship in the USSR is a role model for them. This is the way it is going in Russia and the way the government wants it to go. It is deplorable but it is the reality of things,” said Luczka.
“Eventually, it could become like the Cold War when all information coming out of Russia was strictly controlled,” added CPJ’s Said.
Meanwhile, some believe that the arrest is also a signal to the wider population.
In recent years the Kremlin has moved to shut down the opposition, both political and in other areas of society. While vocal critics such as opposition leader Alexei Navalny have ended up in jail, many civil society organisations, including domestic and foreign rights organisations, have been closed down by authorities.
This repression has intensified since the start of the war, and Russians who spoke to IPS said that, particularly following the introduction of legislation criminalising criticism of the invasion, many people have grown increasingly wary of what they say in public.
“It’s crazy. There are shortages because of the war, there are supply problems, and we see it at work all the time. We can talk about the shortages as much as we want to at work, but we cannot say what is causing them – the war – because just using the word ‘war’ can land you in jail for years,” Ivan Petrov*, a public sector worker in Moscow, told IPS.
He added that he knew many people who were against the war but were afraid to express even the slightest opposition to it.
“They know it’s wrong but just can’t speak about it. There is so much censorship. You can get jailed for treason just for mentioning its negative effects on the economy,” he told IPS.
Against this backdrop, Gershkovich’s arrest is likely to reinforce fear among ordinary Russians who do not support the war or the government and stop them speaking out, rights campaigners say.
“It’s hard to separate the stifling of all media freedoms from the stifling of all independent voices – they go hand in hand. When [the Russian authorities] arrest such a high-profile reporter on patently bogus grounds, no matter what the true purpose of the arrest may be, they are no doubt fully aware of the chilling message it sends to the broader public,” Rachel Denber, Deputy Director of the Europe and Central Asia Division at Human Rights Watch, told IPS.
*Name has been changed
IPS UN Bureau Report