Russia Arrested American Journalist Evan Gershkovich
Melissa Harris-Perry: You're listening to The Takeaway. I'm Melissa Harris-Perry.
Last week, Russian authorities arrested Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich on charges of espionage. This is the first time since the Cold War that Russia has accused a foreign journalist of spying. Gershkovich is a 31 year old American citizen from New Jersey. His parents are Soviet emigres who fled to the US in the late 1970s, and he'd been reporting on Russia for several years.
Pjotr Sauer: We spoke on Wednesday morning like we always do. We always check in in the morning, just talk about everything about life. That morning we just talked about football, and then two hours later I asked him a question and he replied. Two hours later, his phone went silent. My name is Pjotr Sauer. I'm a Russia correspondent for The Guardian.
I didn't make much of it at that moment and then in the evening I had a call from his dad saying they can't reach Evan. Then at that moment I realized something has happened to my friend. Then the next morning, everything we feared really happened when [unintelligible 00:01:14] issued that statement saying that they've arrested him.
Melissa: Sauer is a Dutch journalist who grew up in Russia. He and Evan met while working together at the Moscow Times, and they quickly became friends.
Sauer: I was new to the industry. He really took me under his wing, showed me the ropes, taught me everything I know today. I think as a person, as a colleague, he was my role model really.
Melissa: Russia has increasingly targeted the press and freedom of speech. Many journalists who were reporting in Russia before the war in Ukraine, including Sauer, fled once Russia invasion began last February. But Evan had accreditation from Russia's Ministry of Foreign Affairs, so he stayed behind. Recently, he's been reporting on the Russian economy and the Wagner Group, that's a paramilitary organization fighting in Ukraine that has close ties to the Kremlin.
Sauer: We discussed the risks, but he always said, "I have to get the story right. I need to let readers know what's going on in the country." He was doing a few reports outside of Moscow recently in [unintelligible 00:02:21] north of Russia, in the east over the country. He was always followed and harassed, but we believe these are just intimidation tactics. We could not imagine that they would actually charge him with espionage.
Melissa: Espionage trials in Russia are conducted behind closed doors. They almost always end in conviction, and if convicted, Evan faces up to 20 years in prison.
Sauer: We can see Russia is behaving, it's moving towards like a criminal organization, just taking Americans hostages, innocent journalist hostages. This is really unprecedented but it also shows the extent they're willing to go to achieve their goals. It's early to speculate about this right now, but it seems they're in for prisoner exchange, probably in the long term. It really shows the direction Russia has gone since the start of the war, really. It really doesn't care about the national rules or norms.
Melissa: The Wall Street Journal and colleagues have denied Russia's allegations and have called for his immediate release. Last week when asked about Evan's detainment, president Biden said Russia should, "Let him go." Sauer is hopeful he will see his friend again someday, but he also recognizes the possible reality.
Sauer: I wrote him a letter to say how much he's loved, how much I love him, how much I miss him, can't wait to see him, and I know he is strong. I know he's taking care well of himself. I think everyone has to keep him in our minds for the time being because this will take a while.
Melissa: Thank you to Pjotr Sauer of The Guardian for sharing his thoughts with us here on The Takeaway. Joining us now is Dani Gilbert, fellow at the John Sloan Dickey Center for International Understanding at Dartmouth College. Dani, welcome back to The Takeaway.
Dani Gilbert: Thank you so much for having me.
Melissa: Dani, it's been almost four months since Brittney Griner was released from Russian custody, which we covered extensively here on this show and now this. Can you help us to understand how this situation might be connected or different?
Dani: Brittney Griner's arrest and ordeal in Russia last year, I think really alerted people in the United States and the world to this growing trend of hostage diplomacy. How the Russian government increasingly is using their criminal justice system to take Americans and other foreigners hostage. By this point in Brittney Griner's arrest, by just about a week in, the world didn't even know that she had been arrested.
Russia invaded Ukraine seven days after arresting Brittney Griner. This is super early so there's a lot that we don't know yet about Evan's ordeal, about what's going on. What we do know is what might happen from here. He has been accused of espionage, which is what often and typically happens in these cases, that the foreigner is accused of espionage, like other Americans have been charged in Russia. We'll start to see over the days, weeks, and perhaps months ahead, a continued reaction from the US government.
Melissa: When you say that espionage is a charge that is something foreigners are often charged with, help us to understand though, what this means for Evan.
Dani: One of the cases that we can look at that can help us wrap our heads around what might be happening with Evan here, is the case of Paul Whelan. He was arrested in Russia back in 2018 and convicted with espionage in 2020. He's serving a 16 year sentence in a labor camp in Russia. We heard Paul Whelan's name a lot last year while the US government was making efforts to bring Brittney Griner home, they were trying to bring Paul Whelan home as well.
To the best of our understanding, all of the statements from the US government suggest that though they were trying to bring Paul Whelan home along with Brittney Griner, the Russian government wouldn't accept it. This is a different level, in some senses, of what an American can experience abroad, that might mean that the Russians are going to be more reluctant to let him go.
It's really hard to know what's happening behind the scenes. Espionage is a tricky charge because we'll never really know. Intentionally these kinds of charges are quite secret. There's another analogy that we might look to, which is the case of Jason Rezaian, who was arrested and charged with espionage in Iran in 2014. This is the kind of thing that authoritarian governments will charge foreign journalists with, potentially in hopes of using them for leverage.
Melissa: When you talk about using them for leverage, and we also heard from Sauer from The Guardian there, this question of hostage diplomacy. Help us understand what this hostage diplomacy is, if for example in the case of Paul Whelan, they're unwilling to let him go.
Dani: Hostage diplomacy is when states use their criminal justice system to essentially take foreigners hostage. They arrest and charge the foreigner through the criminal justice system. They operate under the pretense that this is a normal and legitimate trial but all along in the background, they're intending to use the foreigner for some sort of exchange that might be a prisoner swap, like we've seen with Brittney Griner, with Trevor Reed in Russia before her, or it might be for a whole other set of geopolitical concessions like we've seen other countries demand from the United States and from others.
The United States government, to the best of my understanding, made offers to try to bring Paul Whelan home, despite these espionage charges. The fact that the Russians wouldn't let him go suggests that whatever the United States was willing to give for Paul Whelan was not enough. We don't really know what the Russians might have accepted in exchange for his release, if they would've exchanged anything at all.
Melissa: Given what you're saying here, is there something that the US government can do, at least at this moment for Evan. As you pointed out, it's still relatively early.
Dani: What we know has happened so far is that US Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, has spoken with his counterpart, Russian Foreign Minister, Sergey Lavrov, to demand that Evan be released, so we know that that first call has already happened. If we're looking at this case in this ongoing trend, we might expect that the next step would be for the US government to officially designate Evan as wrongfully detained.
That puts him in a special legal category where the state department is actively involved in trying to resolve the case and to bring Evan home. That would be because the United States government has looked at the case and has realized that he was targeted explicitly because he was an American, or the Russian government intends to use him for these leverage purposes, or one of nine other possible criteria that the State Department looks at. Once someone receives that wrongfully detained designation, it puts into motion a whole process with the US government that launches negotiations and conversations behind the scenes where they will be making efforts to bring him home. In the meantime, as far as we can tell, he has not even yet received consular access, which is the baseline expectation of what the US government will do when an American is arrested abroad. The Russians so far have not even allowed him to see representatives of the US government to visit him in jail.
Melissa: More about detained journalist Evan Gershkovich, right after this. We're back and we're talking about Evan Gershkovich, the Wall Street Journal reporter detained in Russia on charges of espionage. Of course, he's an American citizen, but also a journalist. There have long been international norms around journalists who are doing their job. Help us to understand also the Wall Street Journal's role here, whether or not it has any capacity and also, in general how these large media organizations even think about weighing the risks that affect their reporters.
Dani: I've been really heartened to see the way that the Wall Street Journal has come out so forcefully and so quickly in support of Evan, making statements about his release, having his colleagues and people that knew him talking about what an amazing person that he is and standing up for him and his innocence. This is a really tricky question, Melissa. I personally would not travel to a place like Russia right now, but at the same time, think about all of the things that we only understand about what's happening in Russia and Ukraine because people like Evan were brave enough to go there and to do that reporting for us.
It creates this quite tricky bind where traveling to places like Russia are exceptionally dangerous, but we are grateful for the existence in the United States of a free press, and the fact that American citizens are willing to go to these places to uncover the truth. I think that that's a quite complicated thing to weigh. The fact that Evan had received credentials from the Kremlin itself, might have conferred some sense of safety that clearly the Kremlin was willing to violate,
Melissa: Perhaps similarly complicated, but for those of us in media who are safe and stateside, this went back and forth a great deal during the ordeal that Britney Griner endured, and there were questions about whether by reporting on it, we give into the hostage diplomacy, or whether it's necessary to keep saying the names of these detained Americans as a way of ensuring that we do not forget them and pressure our own government to move towards their release. Where are you now, especially four months after Griner's release, in terms of thinking about how stateside media should be approaching this?
Dani: I think there's really three different audiences here when we talk about whether or not we should discuss these cases publicly. The first audience is the United States government, and so typically the debate about whether or not to go public, is really a debate about pressuring the United States government, about keeping the attention on this case so that the US government can't ignore it and has to work on the case. I think there's a lot of evidence that that pressure is valuable in that sense. At the same time, I think we've seen a lot of evidence that this administration is working on these cases, whether they get attention or not.
Yes, we saw Britney Griner come home in the midst of all of this attention, but we also saw a handful of other Americans come home at the end of last year and the beginning of this year, who were not household names at all in the American public. I think that that attention is beneficial, but I don't think it's what makes the difference. Another potential audience here is the Kremlin, is Vladimir Putin, the audience in Russia. Frankly, I think at this point, they fully understand how valuable it is to hold an American in this way, and that raising attention is probably not going to raise the price, even though that might be something that we worry about.
The final audience is Evan and his family and the people that he works with, and I think keeping his name in the public conversation, showing that he has support, is the kind of thing that will help him and his loved ones get through this ordeal.
Melissa: Dani Gilbert is a fellow at the John Sloan Dickey Center for International Understanding at Dartmouth College. Dani, thanks so much for taking the time with us on The Takeaway.
Dani: Thank you so much for having me.
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