‘Let Him Go’- Biden Roars As Russia Orders American Journalist Held Until May  

‘Let Him Go,’ Biden Says As Russia Orders American Journalist Held Until May  

President Joe Biden on Friday urged Russia to release American journalist Evan Gershkovich from custody.

Gershkovich, a reporter for The Wall Street Journal, was detained in Yekaterinburg, a city about 800 miles from the Russian capital, on accusations of espionage. His media outlet has denied those allegations.

A Moscow court on Friday ordered Gershkovich to be held in pre-trial detention until May 29.

When Biden was asked by reporters if he had a message for Russia on Gershkovich’s case, the president responded, “Let him go.”

Vice President Kamala Harris also spoke about the case during her visit to Zambia, telling reporters the administration was “deeply concerned.”

“We will not tolerate – and condemn, in fact – repression of journalists,” Harris said.

The Journal’s editorial board said Thursday in an op-ed piece that neither the paper nor U.S. government officials had been allowed contact with Gershkovich since his arrest.

In the column, the Journal said that FSB agents “snatched” the 31-year-old while he was on assignment in Yekaterinburg.

The media outlet questioned whether the arrest was made in response to the U.S. Justice Department’s filing of charges in March against Sergey Vladimirovich Cherkasov, a Russian accused of operating in the U.S. as an illegal agent for Kremlin intelligence services.

A criminal complaint said Cherkasov pretended to be a student from Brazil to fraudulently gain a visa to enter the U.S.

The U.S. said Thursday that it had been in direct contact with the Russian government about Gershkovich’s arrest.

The Journal on Thursday said it thought the U.S. should respond to Gershkovich’s arrest by expelling the Russian ambassador and any Russian journalists working in the U.S.

Biden told reporters on Friday, “That’s not the plan right now.”

In 2020, then-U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the U.S. would limit the number of visas open to staff at Chinese media outlets. In announcing the move, he cited the increased surveillance and harassment of American reporters in China.

The statement came after Beijing expelled three Journal correspondents.

Media rights groups at the time, including the Committee to Protect Journalists, warned against a “tit for tat” response and called for the U.S. to not adopt “authoritarian tactics.”

Increased tensions

Andrey Kolesnikov, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told VOA that Gershkovich’s arrest reflected a “general deterioration of relations with the West.”

“This is a signal both to [international] reporters who are still working in Russia with three-month accreditations from the Foreign Ministry and to local dissidents,” Kolesnikov told VOA’s Russian Service. “It also aims to increase the general atmosphere of fear and suspicion, to create an ‘exchange fund’ with the West.”

Kolesnikov said it appeared that Gershkovich “was in the wrong place at the wrong time,” adding that Moscow is always in need of individuals that it can exchange for Russians who are detained overseas.

More than 30 international and U.S. news outlets and advocacy groups on Friday issued a letter to Russia’s ambassador to the U.S., Anatoly Antonov, demanding Gershkovich’s release.

The organizations said Russia should ensure that the journalist has “immediate access to an attorney provided by his employer” and asked for confirmation of his well-being.

“Gershkovich’s unwarranted and unjust arrest is a significant escalation in your government’s anti-press actions,” the letter read. “Russia is sending the message that journalism within your borders is criminalized and that foreign correspondents seeking to report from Russia do not enjoy the benefits of the rule of law.”

The Kremlin said Friday that journalists with official media accreditation could still work in Russia.

“All journalists who have valid accreditation here I mean foreign journalists can and do continue their journalistic activity in the country. They do not face any restrictions and are working fine,” said spokesperson Dmitry Peskov.

Gershkovich, who has worked in Russia as a journalist since 2017, had official accreditation.

No published evidence

Moscow has said that Gershkovich was carrying out espionage “under the cover” of journalism. It has not published evidence to back up that claim, Reuters reported.

David Satter, a former Moscow correspondent for the Financial Times and contributor to the Journal, said he thought Russia could have several motives for the arrest.

“They may want to use [Gershkovich] as some type of future trade or, on the contrary, they may want to harass the United States,” said Satter.

Satter in 2014 became the first U.S. correspondent to be barred from Russia since the Cold War. At the time, he was working as an adviser to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.

Another reason for the Journal reporter’s arrest, Satter told VOA, could be to deter newsgathering.

“I think that the core reason here is to make sure that the Russian population doesn’t start providing truthful information to Western journalists about losses, about the collapse of the economy, about demoralization,” he said.

Conditions for journalists in Russia declined swiftly after the country invaded Ukraine, with Moscow issuing new laws and regulations on how they could cover the war. The increased pressure resulted in many local journalists moving their operations into exile.

Foreign correspondents have previously reported being followed while on assignment in Russia, especially when reporting outside the main cities. And data from the Committee to Protect Journalists showed at least 19 local journalists detained for their work in the country as of late 2022.

‘Direct threat’

The U.S.-based James W. Foley Legacy Foundation, which advocates for American hostages, issued a statement saying that Gershkovich’s “unjust detention … is a direct threat to media freedom in Russia and beyond.”

The founder’s president, Diane Foley, told VOA the arrest was “a new low for diplomatic relations between Russia and our country.”

“What’s frightening is it’s going to create more and more black holes around the world where journalists are not going to go and dare report,” she added.

The foundation, created in memory of Foley’s son Jim an American journalist killed by Islamic State militants in Syria said that at least four U.S. nationals were currently being held in Russia, including former Marine Paul Whelan, who has been detained for 1,553 days.

Whelan is serving a 16-year sentence at a Russian penal colony after being convicted of espionage.

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