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Washington, March 31 – The US has condemned in the “strongest terms” the detention of an American Wall Street Journal reporter, Evan Gershkovich, in Russia over alleged espionage.
This is the first such case of an American journalist detained in Russia for allegations of spying since the Cold War. Espionage in Russia carries a maximum jail term of 20 years.
In a statement on Thursday, Russia’s intelligence agency Federal Security Service (FSB) said that the 31-year-old reporter was detained in the Urals city of Yekaterinburg for “acting on the instructions of the American side, collected information constituting a state secret about the activities of one of the enterprises of the Russian military-industrial complex”.
According to The Wall Street Journal, Gershkovich is accredited to work as a journalist in Russia by the country’s Foreign Ministry.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said FSB investigators have opened a criminal case against the US citizen under Article 276 of the Russian Criminal Code (“Espionage”), reports Russia’s state-run TASS News Agency.
Moscow’s Lefortovsky District Court arrested the reporter until May 29, TASS said, adding that he will be lodged in the Lefortovo detention facility.
In response to the development, White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said the US is “deeply concerned by the troubling reports” of the reporter’s detention, adding that President Joe Biden has been informed of the development.
“The targeting of American citizens by the Russian government is unacceptable. We condemn the detention of Gershkovich in the strongest terms.
“We also condemn the Russian government’s continued targeting and repression of journalists and freedom of the press,” the Press Secretary added.
The Press Secretary went on to say that the State Department is in “direct touch with the Russian government on this matter, including actively working to secure consular access to Gershkovich”.
She also reiterated that Americans should heed the US government’s warning to not travel to Russia.
“US citizens residing or traveling in Russia should depart immediately, as the State Department continues to advise,” Jean-Pierre added.
In a statement on Thursday, The Wall Street Journal said it “vehemently” denied the allegations against its employee.
“The Wall Street Journal vehemently denies the allegations from the FSB and seeks the immediate release of our trusted and dedicated reporter, Evan Gershkovich… We stand in solidarity with Evan and his family,” the newspaper said.
On his part, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said that the US has sought immediate consular access to Gershkovich so that it can provide the appropriate support.
“In the strongest possible terms, we condemn the Kremlin’s continued attempts to intimidate, repress, and punish journalists and civil society voices… If you are a US citizen living or traveling in Russia, please leave immediately,” he added.
Gershkovich joined The Wall Street Journal in January 2022. He has worked as a reporter in Russia since 2017, first for the Moscow Times and then for Agence France-Presse (AFP).
Earlier, he was a news assistant in New York for the New York Times.
In his most recent Wall Street Journal piece, published this week, Gershkovich reported on Russia’s declining economy and how the Kremlin was having to deal with “ballooning military expenditures” while maintaining social spending.
Even before Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, reporting from the country had become increasingly difficult, says the BBC.
Independent journalists were labelled “foreign agents” and BBC Russia correspondent Sarah Rainsford was expelled from the country.
When the war began on February 24, 2022, Russia introduced a criminal offence for reporting “fake news” or “discrediting the army”, under which dozens of Russians have been convicted for criticising the invasion on social media.
Almost all independent media were silenced, shut down or blocked, including major outlets TV Rain, Echo of Moscow radio and newspaper Novaya Gazeta. Many Western media chose to leave Russia.
Tensions between the Kremlin and the West have become increasingly tense in the 13 months of Russia’s war in Ukraine.
Several US citizens are being held in Russia. Days before the invasion, American basketball star Brittney Griner was detained at a Moscow airport and jailed for carrying cannabis oil.
It was 10 months before she was freed in exchange for notorious Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout.