Wednesday marked eight months since Russian authorities detained Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich and charged him with espionage. If convicted, he faces a sentence of up to 20 years in a penal colony.
His only "crime" was practicing journalism and reporting in Russia about that country's invasion of Ukraine. Gershkovich's detention is an outrage and his plight puts a spotlight on the danger reporters face when trying to peer into the darkness to provide a better understanding of events for the public.
Gershkovich was arrested on March 29 in the Russian city of Yekaterinburg, making him the first American reporter detained by authorities in that country since the end of the Cold War. The Russian Federal Security Service alleges that Gershkovich, "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."
Gershkovich, the Wall Street Journal and the White House have all decried the charges and proclaimed the reporter's innocence. They consider Gershkovich a political prisoner and have protested to the Russian government about his detention, so far to no avail.
He turned 32 last month as he awaited a trial that was delayed for a third time on Tuesday. He may come before a court in January, and Russia has refused to discuss a prisoner swap until there is a verdict in his case.
Gershkovich may be the first American reporter detailed by Russia in decades, but there should be no illusion about how that country treats domestic news operations. The Committee to Protect Journalists counts 43 media workers killed since Vladimir Putin ascended to the presidency in 1999, including "at least 25 journalists who have been murdered in direct retaliation for their work."
That includes the 2006 murder of Novaya Gazeta investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya, who reported on the Kremlin actions in the Chechnya war. Her death was described by the Guardian in 2016 as "The murder that killed free media in Russia."
It is horrifying, yet little surprise, that Putin's efforts to stamp out a free press would extend to his brutal war of conquest in Ukraine, which Russia launched in February 2021. At least 17 journalists have died while covering the conflict, including American filmmaker and journalist Brent Renaud in March 2022.
The Ukraine war was the driving force in making 2022 one of the deadliest for journalists in years. CPJ reports that 67 media workers died on the job in 2022, a 50% increase from the year prior and the greatest loss of life since 2018.
Expect 2023 to be worse when the final numbers are released. CPJ says nearly 60 journalists have died covering the Israel-Hamas war, which the organization says is the deadliest period since it began compiling those numbers in 1992.
The White House has been forceful in its criticism of Gershkovich's arrest. The State Department says the WSJ reporter was "wrongfully detained" and transferred his case to the office of the Special Envoy for Hostage Affairs. President Joe Biden has called Russia's actions "totally illegal."
The response reinforces that the United States is unique, but not alone, in recognizing the importance of a free press and often uses its diplomatic voice to advocate for reporters. Journalists abroad could only hope to live under the protections afforded by the First Amendment here.
But those efforts are undermined by U.S. officials who echo authoritarians by denigrating journalists. Calling reporters "the enemy of the people" — and worse — puts media professionals at risk. It tacitly allows egregious constitutional violations such as a police raid this summer on a small-town newspaper in Marion, Kan., or the detention and arrest of dozens of reporters during the racial justice protests in the summer of 2020.
Gershkovich's detention is an affront to those values and his captivity is a violation of international law. Regardless of political affiliation, the nation's leadership should speak in a united voice to demand his release and halt this attack on those seeking to expand our understanding of the most intractable conflicts through their courageous reporting.