BRATISLAVA, Apr 12 (IPS) – The arrest of an American journalist in Russia not only sent a chilling warning to foreign journalists in the country, but is a sign of the Kremlin’s willingness to ultimately stifle any dissent in the state, press freedom watchdogs have warned.
They say the late March detention of Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich signals that the Russian regime could tighten its already iron grip on information control and expand its crackdown on critics.
“The scale of this movement is enormous. Not only is this the first time since the Cold War that an American journalist has been detained, but very serious charges have been brought against him. It is a big step,” said told IPS, Karol Luczka, head of advocacy at the International Press Institute (IPI).
“It has been Kremlin policy for some time now and it seems they are targeting more and more people,” he added.
Gershkovich, an American citizen, was arrested in Yekaterinburg on suspicion of espionage. He is being held in Lefortovo prison in Moscow awaiting trial and faces up to 20 years in prison for espionage. Among his recent reporting were articles about the problems Russian forces were facing in their war effort, as well as how Western sanctions were hurting the Russian economy.
The Wall Street Journal denied the charges against their reporter and the arrest was condemned by Western leaders and rights activists.
Some have seen the detention as a Kremlin political ploy and believe that Gershkovich is being held to be used in a prisoner exchange with the United States at some point in the future.
But press watchdogs say that even if that’s the case, the arrest also sends a very clear message to any journalists who don’t toe 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 I thought of was, ‘What a top Russian the Americans have- are they currently in one of their prisons?” Gulnoza Said, Europe and Central Asia program coordinator at the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), told IPS.
“Foreign correspondents offer a rare insight into the real situation in Russia to a global audience. The arrest sends a message to all foreign journalists that they are not welcome in Russia and can be charged with a crime at any time. From now on, it is clear that the situation for them is unpredictable and dangerous,” she added.
Independent media in Russia had faced repression even before the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, but it has since intensified.
The regime moved to block critical newspaper websites, as well as social media platforms, to prevent people from accessing critical war information, while military censorship was also introduced with draconian new laws criminalizing the “discredit” of the army.
This has led to some outlets preemptively closing rather than risk their employees being sent to prison, while others have been forced to drastically reduce staff or move newsrooms out of the country, operating from de facto in exile.
But until now, the foreign media had been relatively spared from this repression. At the start of the war, many withdrew their correspondents from the country for security reasons. But a number, like Gershkovich, returned and were able to report on the war with comparatively much greater freedom than their Russian counterparts.
This is why Gershkovich’s arrest is so worrying for the future of independent journalism under the current Russian regime, said Jeanne Cavelier, head of the Eastern Europe and Central Asia desk of Reporters Without Borders (RSF).
“Arresting a foreign journalist on such serious charges is another critical step in Putin’s information war. The aim is to intimidate all remaining Western journalists on Russian territory who dare to report from the field and investigate topics related to the war against Ukraine,” she told IPS.
“It is a signal that they are not more relatively protected than their Russian colleagues. As usual, to sow fear and silence them. Dozens of foreign media outlets have already left Russia since March last year, along with hundreds of independent local journalists. This blow can aggravate the situation and further reduce reliable sources of information from Russia.
Others believe the arrest could signal that the Kremlin is moving towards a goal of near total control of information in Russia.
“We are still far from the type of censorship that existed in the USSR, but Putin and the ruling Russian regime have long said that the censorship system in the USSR is a model for them. This is how it is in Russia and how the government wants it to go. It’s deplorable but it’s the reality of things,” Luczka said.
“Eventually, it could become like the Cold War when all information from Russia was strictly controlled,” said CPJ’s Said.
Meanwhile, some believe that the arrest is also a signal to the general population.
In recent years, the Kremlin has decided to silence the opposition, both politically and in other areas of society. While vocal critics such as opposition leader Alexei Navalny have ended up in jail, many civil society organizations, including domestic and foreign rights organizations, have been shut down by authorities.
This crackdown has intensified since the start of the war, and Russians who spoke to IPS said that, particularly following the introduction of legislation criminalizing criticism of the invasion, many people have become increasingly more suspicious of what they say in public.
“It’s crazy. There are shortages because of the war, there are supply issues, and you see it happening all the time. We can talk about shortages all we want at work , but we can’t say what causes them – war – because just using the word ‘war’ can land you in jail for years,” said Ivan Petrov*, a public journalist. sector in Moscow, told IPS.
He added that he knew many people who were against the war but were afraid to voice any opposition to it.
“They know it’s wrong, but they just can’t talk about it. There is so much censorship. You can be imprisoned for treason just for mentioning its negative effects on the economy,” he told IPS.
In this context, Gershkovich’s arrest is likely to deepen fear among ordinary Russians who do not support the war or the government and prevent them from speaking out, rights activists 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 arresting such a high-profile journalist on patently false grounds, regardless of the true purpose of the arrest, they are no doubt fully aware of the chilling message it sends to the general public,” said Rachel Denber, deputy director of the Europe and Central Asia Division of Human Rights Watch, told IPS.
*Name has been changed
Report of the UN IPS Office
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