oDR: Analysis

Evan Gershkovich’s arrest will damage media coverage of Russia

The arrest of the Wall Street Journal reporter is a watershed moment for reliable reporting on Russia

Ilya Yablokov
13 April 2023, 12.20pm

US reporter Evan Gershkovich was detained in Russia on 29 March


Image: Getty / openDemocracy

Two weeks after Wall Street Journal correspondent Evan Gershkovich was arrested in Russia, one thing is clear: his detention is a watershed in the history of Russian reporting – and it will change the way foreign media cover the country from now on.

The American’s detention, in the Urals city of Ekaterinburg on 29 March, has provoked a massive wave of support for the experienced and respected reporter. He has since been charged with espionage – the first US journalist to be accused of this since the Cold War.

Moscow officials have presented Gershkovich’s alleged actions as “activities that have nothing to do with journalism”, but without producing any evidence. In turn, the US State Department has declared that Gershkovich has been “wrongfully detained”. The 32-year-old is, US officials say, a hostage of the Russian legal system.

Media freedom in Russia has been rapidly deteriorating for at least a decade. News outlets have been declared “foreign agents” and “undesirable organisations”, and individual journalists have been arrested – including Ivan Safronov, who was sentenced to 22 years in prison last September for allegedly selling state secrets. Since Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine and subsequent mobilisation, hundreds of journalists have left the country.

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Over the past two years, this fast-deteriorating environment made foreign correspondents a rare – and valuable – source of information, though it’s hard to know how many are left now as some foreign media refuse to say whether they still have a presence inside Russia.

In the case of Gershkovich, his detention means the loss of a journalist who sought to see Russian society in all its complexity, rather than following the clichés that many Moscow correspondents promote. More broadly, it also signals the shrinking capacity to produce quality journalism about Russia in the second year of its war against Ukraine.

A place to make careers

Since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, Russia has attracted thousands of foreigners who sought to capitalise on the economic opportunities of the 1990s and the West’s fascination with the country.

For those who wanted a career in international media, it was the perfect place to start. First, a post in Russia, then a book about Russia, and then promotion or a lucrative post in another foreign country – this path was taken by many foreign journalists who covered Russia during and after perestroika.

Evan never wore a ‘safari helmet’. He was much more connected with the Russian journalism community and always tried to go deeper into a topic

International media editor

As an editorial assistant at The New York Times, Gershkovich received similar advice: pursue on-the-ground reporting and use his family background as the son of Soviet emigrés in New Jersey, and his knowledge of Russia, to boost his career.

He started in 2017 at The Moscow Times, the flagship English-language newspaper founded in 1992 by Dutch entrepreneur Derk Sauer. The newspaper attracted many English-speaking expats and was a reliable source of information for many Moscow residents with no knowledge of Russian.


Over the past year, Evan Gershkovich broke a number of stories about everyday life and power in wartime Russia


(c) Dimitr Dilkoff / Getty Images. All rights reserved

After moving between various international media, including Agence France-Press (AFP), Gershkovich joined the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) in January 2022 as Russia correspondent. As another foreign reporter told me, Gershkovich’s tolerance for risk, developed while in Russia, helped him quickly build his career.

A month later, Russia invaded Ukraine. Many foreign correspondents left the country at this point, but Gershkovich left after the February invasion but then returned shortly after, providing insightful stories on the state of the Russian army, and on war-torn life in the regions where some protest against the war and some fully support it.

Last December, he wrote about the increasing isolation of Vladimir Putin, describing how advisers and intermediaries from the country’s elite have allegedly drip-fed the Russian president information as the disastrous war unfolded. The article offered a rare image of Putin, lost and desolate, and provided a vital window into Russia’s corridors of power in wartime. It was also an act of bravery and openness by a foreign correspondent based in Moscow – very few reporters could have depicted Putin in that way.

Protection with the ‘little green piece of paper’

Despite Putin’s growing authoritarianism, the arrest of a foreign journalist under the protection of a major US news outlet has come as a shock to many. Foreign correspondents are shielded from the dangers that their Russian counterparts face at work.

Speaking to openDemocracy, Alexandr Kolyandr, a former WSJ reporter in Moscow, recalled the independence that foreign correspondents enjoyed from Russian officials and business people: “No one wanted to bribe you. No one wanted to buy you. No one could call your boss and fire you.” To mess with a foreign journalist would take too many resources and would be too difficult for almost any company or politician in the country.

Apart from their citizenship, foreign reporters’ main line of defence against unpleasant encounters was the Foreign Ministry, which issues accreditation for all overseas journalists working in Russia. Upon arriving in Moscow, an incoming reporter had to submit all their documents to the ministry and wait for their application to be scrutinised by diplomatic officials – and most likely by Russian counterintelligence too, which closely monitors the activities of foreign reporters.


Since the invasion of Ukraine, Russia has criminalised spreading information about the war and war crimes


(c) Sergei Karpukhin / Getty Images. All rights reserved

The little green piece of paper – the accreditation – that resulted from this process protected the journalist from the Russian police, who could approach anyone, said Kolyandr. For many years, it was also part of the agreement between the Russian state and foreign media. If an accredited foreign reporter was attacked in Russia, the Foreign Ministry would quickly sort things out. If a foreign reporter was accused of spying or other crimes, the Foreign Ministry would quietly ask the media outlet concerned to replace that journalist with someone else.

As a result, it was crucial for journalists from abroad to maintain a good relationship with the Foreign Ministry. In effect, accreditation policed foreign media outlets, helping them to detect the ‘red lines’ – the crossing of which the Kremlin would not tolerate.

“Without these rules, the foreign press would have been much tougher on Russia,” an international editor with experience of working in Russia told openDemocracy. “In any other country, they would have been tougher on domestic reporting.”

Impact on reporting in Russia

Some of my interlocutors are surprised that the Kremlin has attacked the pool of foreign correspondents now. Perhaps the original hope was to quickly defeat Ukraine and then let foreign reporters cover Russia’s triumph. When things went awry at the front, the Kremlin became more concerned about how to sell the war to the domestic audience – people overseas were a secondary problem.

Now there is consensus among Russian and foreign correspondents working in Russia that Gershkovich’s arrest is a game-changer. First, in terms of how Russia will be covered abroad; second, in terms of security measures for journalists inside the country.

Many foreign reporters tend to repeat stereotypes about Russia and rarely search for original angles. But this was not true of Gershkovich, who was one of the best foreign correspondents in the country, admired equally by both his Russian and foreign colleagues in Moscow.

As the international media editor said: “Evan never wore a ‘safari helmet’. He was much more connected with the Russian journalism community and always tried to go deeper into a topic, to avoid a simplified picture.”

The espionage charges against Gershkovich will deter Russian sources from talking to foreign reporters, placing a greater burden on freelance Russian journalists

Now, after Gershkovich’s arrest, other foreign reporters are likely to be even more cautious and moderate in their search for stories.

The espionage charges against Gershkovich will also deter Russian sources from talking to foreign reporters, thereby placing a greater burden on freelance Russian journalists and producers, who have the local connections and know-how to navigate the dangerous environment of war-time Russia.

With foreign outlets having no obligations to evacuate local stringers in case of danger, many Russian journalists who work with such outlets for reasons of economic survival could wind up one-on-one with the siloviki, Russia’s security and law enforcement officials.

Many foreign outlets will also change their security protocols, changing bylines or even dropping them altogether. The number of anonymous sources (and the tolerance for anonymity) will probably increase. Editors might even signal to their readers that stories have been written under conditions of censorship.

The key question is whether foreign media still operating in Russia will dare to publish anything that might irritate the Kremlin and cause more problems for staff on the ground.

Ultimately, Gershkovich’s arrest will mean there is less verifiable information about Russia – which will make it even harder to come to informed and unbiased conclusions about what is happening in the country.

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