Journalism in Russia: A Crime?

By Sarah Walker

The arrest by Russia of American journalist Evan Gershkovich on March 29, 2023 raises serious questions about the safety of foreign correspondents and the protection of freedom of expression, both in Russia and abroad. Sarah Walker looks into the specific case of Gershkovich and analyzes the implications it has on journalism in a world facing a crisis of the American-led liberal international order.

Over 300 days have passed since Evan Gershkovich was illegally arrested on March 29, 2023 in Russia for doing his job as a foreign correspondent for the Wall Street Journal. Since then, he has been held at a high security prison on charges of espionage, charges which both the Journal and the United States government vehemently deny. If espionage is a false accusation, this raises the question: is journalism a crime? Despite freedom of expression being protected under international law, the number of journalists under intimidation, attack, or imprisonment is rising. According to the Wall Street Journal, 363 journalists were detained in 30 countries in 2022, averaging nearly one journalist a day. Therefore, it is important to consider the factors contributing to this rise in challenges facing journalists, including by foreign correspondents, and what it means for the future of the freedom of expression.

Why Evan, Why Now?

While there have been many detained journalists in recent years, Evan Gershkovich is the first American journalist detained in Russia since the Cold War. The Kremlin charged him with espionage, accusing him of collecting information on behalf of the US government on a Russian defense enterprise. Considering these accusations were denied by his employer and the US government, there must be other motives for his detainment. While the exact reasons have yet to be proven, a few analyses can be made.

First, Evan Gershkovich was known for being deeply connected to the Russian people. This helped him uncover stories that not all foreign correspondents would have been able to do, but also may have led him too close to stories uncomfortable for the Kremlin. His interest in Russian culture stems from being the son of Soviet-born Jewish exiles who grew up in New Jersey. He graduated from Bowdoin College in Maine and went to New York after college to start his career in journalism. In an event to mark 180 days since his detainment titled “Journalism is Not a Crime,” his close friend and fellow Bowdoin-graduate-turned-journalist Linda Kinstler told the audience that “he stayed throughout the pandemic as a correspondent for the Moscow Times, and a lot of what we know about how Russia weathered the pandemic and how it treated it was because of his reporting, which was picked up because it was in English and it was disseminated all over the world.” However, he may have been getting too close to sensitive stories. In December 2022, he led a team of four at the Journal on a watershed piece about Putin’s small advising circle on Ukraine. Russian accounts apparently suggest he was working on a piece about the military and the Wagner group. Whether or not that was the case, though his stories often focused on Russian daily life, some may have been too close to being critical of a wary government more than a year into its fight against Ukraine.

Second, the harsh political and social environment of Russian civil society just before and since the war also contributes to the “why now.” His arrest comes about a year after the American WNBA player Brittney Griner was arrested, which happened only a week before the February invasion of Ukraine, and later released in a major prisoner swap. Her case was much more minor in terms of the charges on which she was held, but it is suspected that Russia may see a similar endgame. This tactic of taking high profile civilians on minor or invented charges in order to hold them hostage in exchange for a valuable swap, while not new by any means, is being furthered by Russia lately and is a concerning trend for democracies who must engage in negotiations. Another aspect is that Russia has been increasingly considered hostile towards Western journalists with the escalation of its war against Ukraine. Eva Hartog, a half-Russian journalist who spent 10 years covering the country, wrote in September 2023 on Politico about the concerning trend of outsiders being forced to leave Russia. She says that “journalists from Western countries are slowly being squeezed out of Russia, as the Kremlin cracks down on the last few independent voices covering the domestic impact of the war in Ukraine ahead of a presidential election next year.” It is important, therefore, to view Evan’s arrest in the geopolitical context of American-Russian geopolitics, global Western-Russian relations, and domestic Russian politics.

A Worrying Issue with Deep, Global Implications

The case of Evan Gershkovich represents an issue broader than just himself or Russia. The increase in oppression against foreign correspondents represents a clear infringement on two of the most fundamental rights: freedom of the press and freedom of expression. Despite the UN Resolution 2222 in 2015 that recognized the international human rights protections for journalists, media freedom has decreased in the last decade according to Freedom House. This includes infamous cases of threats to and/or attacks against journalists, such as the one of American-based Saudi journalist  Jamal Khashoggi. These threats and attacks are coming precisely because of the political environments in which they are reporting. Reporters Without Borders links the challenges to journalist safety to a larger context of challenges facing journalists. These include the rise of authoritarian regimes and subsequent lack of guarantees for freedom of expression, increased polarization in democratic countries, the rise of misinformation threatening the public’s trust of media sources, and an economic crisis of funding. Each of these issues poses a threat to the future of freedom of expression in both their host countries and the globally connected public who depends on this reporting for accurate information.

While these challenges can all be considered mini crises in their own right to be addressed, they can also be seen as a reflection of a larger systemic crisis of the liberal international order. As Richard Haass wrote in 2019, signs of this crisis include the rise of authoritarianism, the decreased relevance of the UN Security Council, and resistance to American hegemony, among others. Three years later, he linked the declining world order to what he called the “dangerous decade.” The challenges being faced by journalists are situated within this dangerous decade and should be seen as a piece of the larger picture. For example, if journalist safety in conflict zones or for foreign correspondents reporting on local news might have previously been a stable staple of international communication, now this is not such a guarantee. In this era of declining US hegemony, Western democracies have to figure out how to continue to protect the freedoms of the press and expression. Hopefully bringing Evan home safely can be done soon and in a way that will not incentivize further such hostage situations, but rather emphasize the importance of journalistic endeavors despite global challenges to it.

Sarah Walker is a Political Science and Public Affairs Master of Arts student at SLU – Madrid from Seattle, Washington, USA. She graduated magna cum laude from Bowdoin College with a degree in Government and Legal Studies.

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