Evan Gershkovich, a reporter for the Wall Street Journal, has been denied bail and will remain in pre-trial detention until the end of March, according to Russian news agencies. Gershkovich was arrested in March 2023 on espionage charges that he and his employer deny.
A closed-door hearing
Gershkovich’s appeal against his arrest was heard on Friday in a Moscow court, behind closed doors. The authorities say that the details of the criminal case against the American journalist are classified. United States Consul General Stuart Wilson attended the hearing, but was not allowed to speak to Gershkovich.
In a video shared by state news agency Ria Novosti, Gershkovich was shown listening to the ruling, standing in a court cage wearing a hooded top and light blue jeans. He was later seen walking towards a prison van to leave the court.
A reporting trip gone wrong
Gershkovich, 32, was detained in March 2023 while on a reporting trip to the Russian city of Yekaterinburg, about 2,000 kilometers (1,200 miles) east of Moscow. He was covering a story about a local company that produces components for the Russian military-industrial complex.
Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) alleged 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.” The FSB did not specify what information Gershkovich allegedly obtained or how he did it.
Gershkovich and the Wall Street Journal deny the allegations, and say that he was doing his job as a journalist. The U.S. government has declared him to be wrongfully detained, and has called for his immediate release. Russian authorities have not presented any evidence to support the espionage charges, which carry a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison.
A possible prisoner swap?
Gershkovich is the first American reporter to be charged with espionage in Russia since 1986, when Nicholas Daniloff, a Moscow correspondent for U.S. News and World Report, was arrested by the KGB. Daniloff was later released as part of a prisoner exchange with the Soviet Union.
During his end-of-year news conference in December 2023, Russian President Vladimir Putin said that Moscow is in dialogue with the United States on bringing home both Gershkovich and another jailed American, Paul Whelan, who was convicted of espionage in 2020. Putin said that the Kremlin hopes to “find a solution” even though “it’s not easy.”
Putin was replying to a question about an offer the Biden administration made to secure the two men’s release. The U.S. State Department reported it in December, without offering details, and said Russia rejected it.
“We have contacts on this matter with our American partners, there’s a dialogue on this issue. It’s not easy, I won’t go into details right now. But in general, it seems to me that we’re speaking a language each of us understands,” Putin said. “I hope we will find a solution,” he continued. “But, I repeat, the American side must hear us and make a decision that will satisfy the Russian side as well.”
The Russian Foreign Ministry has said it will consider a swap for Gershkovich only after a verdict in his trial. In Russia, espionage trials can last for more than a year, and are often influenced by political factors.
A chilling effect on press freedom
Gershkovich’s case has raised concerns about the state of press freedom in Russia, which ranks 150th out of 180 countries in the 2023 World Press Freedom Index compiled by Reporters Without Borders. The organization says that Russia is “one of the world’s biggest jailers of journalists,” and that the authorities use “draconian laws and lawsuits” to silence independent media and bloggers.
According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, an estimated 320 journalists around the world were imprisoned because of their work toward the end of 2023. Of those, 11 were in Russia, including Gershkovich.
The Wall Street Journal has called Gershkovich “a talented and dedicated journalist” who has reported on a range of topics in Russia and other countries. The newspaper has urged the Russian government to respect his rights and release him as soon as possible.