Russia’s FSB security service said on Thursday it had detained a reporter for U.S. newspaper The Wall Street Journal on suspicion of spying for Washington, the most serious public move against a foreign journalist since Russia invaded Ukraine.
The Journal said the detention of U.S. national Evan Gershkovich was based on false allegations.
The action will worsen already dire relations between Russia and the United States, which is Ukraine’s biggest military backer and has imposed sanctions on Moscow to try to persuade it to withdraw its troops. The Kremlin shows no signs of doing so.
The FSB said in a statement it had opened a criminal case against Gershkovich for suspected espionage, accusing him of gathering information classified as a state secret about a military factory.
It did not name the factory or say where it was, but said it had detained the 31-year-old journalist in the Urals city of Yekaterinburg as he was trying to procure secret information. It did not provide documentary or video evidence of his guilt.
“It has been established that E. Gershkovich, acting on an assignment from the American side, was gathering information classified as a state secret about the activity of one of the enterprises of Russia’s military-industrial complex,” the FSB said.
The Wall Street Journal said in a statement it was “deeply concerned” for Gershkovich’s safety and that it “vehemently denies the allegations from the FSB and seeks the immediate release of our trusted and dedicated reporter”.
Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said Gershkovich’s activities in Yekaterinburg were “not related to journalism” and that it was not the first time a foreign journalism role had been used as a cover for other activities.
The Kremlin said it understood Gershkovich had been caught “red-handed.” Other journalists working for the U.S. publication in Russia could remain in post provided they had the right credentials and were carrying out what it called “normal journalistic activity,” it said.
The U.S. Embassy in Moscow said it had no immediate comment.
A U.S. diplomatic source said the embassy had not been informed about the incident and was seeking information from the Russian authorities about the case.
TOUGH CENSORSHIP LAWS
Russia has tightened censorship laws since it sent tens of thousands of troops into Ukraine on Feb. 24 last year in what it called a “special military operation,” bringing in jail terms for people deemed to have “discredited” the military.
The definition of what constitutes a state secret, particularly in the military sphere, has been broadened too.
“The problem is that recently updated Russian legislation and the FSB’s interpretation of espionage today allow for the imprisonment of anyone who is simply interested in military affairs,” said Tatiana Stanovaya, a Kremlin watcher and founder of the R.Politik political analysis firm.
“That is, (anyone who) writes about the war against Ukraine, private military companies, the state of affairs in the army, the equipment of troops with ammunition, military tactics and strategy,” she said.
Other foreign journalists covering Russia expressed support for Gershkovich online, saying he was a professional reporter, not a spy.
Andrei Soldatov, an author and expert in Russia’s security agencies who is outside the country, said on Twitter:
“Evan Gershkovich is a very good and brave journalist, not a spy. It is a frontal attack on all foreign correspondents who still work in Russia. And it means that the FSB is off the leash.”
New York-based Human Rights Watch called for his release.
Russia’s Kommersant newspaper reported that Gershkovich would be transported to Moscow and held in the capital’s Lefortovo prison, an FSB pre-trial detention facility.
Gershkovich, who has covered Russia since 2017, previously worked at The Moscow Times newspaper and at Agence-France Presse news agency before joining the Wall Street Journal’s Moscow bureau in January last year.
In recent months, he had primarily covered Russian politics and the conflict in Ukraine.
His mobile phone could not be reached on Thursday and, according to the Telegram messenger service, he was last online on Wednesday at 1:28 p.m. Moscow time.