Evan Gershkovich, an American journalist with the Wall Street Journal, appeared in a court in the Russian city of Yekaterinburg on Wednesday, at the start of a trial on spying charges in the first espionage case involving a foreign journalist since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Gershkovich appeared for the trial in a glass cage, his head shaven clean, wearing a black-and-blue plaid shirt. The hearing, which is being held behind closed doors, will focus on Moscow’s charges that the reporter acted as a United States agent who “collected top-secret data about the activity of an enterprise of the Russian military-industrial complex” while on a reporting trip in March last year. He denies any wrongdoing. If found guilty, Gershkovich could face up to 20 years in prison, Russian state-run news agency TASS said.

The US administration and the Wall Street Journal have repeatedly denied the accusations. Speaking to reporters last week, State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller said Gershkovich “should have never been arrested in the first place”, adding that the charges were “completely bogus”. In effect, the US is treating Gershkovich as a political hostage. Miller added that US officials were working to try to attend the trial.

The Wall Street Journal and Dow Jones, the newspaper’s publisher, have also vehemently rejected Russian claims.

“Evan Gershkovich is facing a false and baseless charge,” WSJ Editor-in-Chief Emma Tucker said in a statement on June 13. “Russia’s latest move toward a sham trial is, while expected, deeply disappointing and still no less outrageous,” she added.

Who is Evan Gershkovich?

The 32-year-old is the American-born son of Jewish immigrants who moved to the US from the Soviet Union in the 1970s.

He grew up in New Jersey, speaking both Russian and English at home.

Gershkovich moved to the Russian capital in 2017 where he started working as a journalist with the Moscow Times – an independent English and Russian language online newspaper publication before joining the Agence France Press news agency.

He joined the Journal in 2022 and decided to remain in the country after Russia invaded Ukraine. He was arrested a year later on March 29 by Russia’s FSB security service in the industrial city of Yekaterinburg. Russian officials claim he was gathering secrets about a Russian tank manufacturer on the orders of the CIA.

The Journal did not offer details on the purpose of the reporting trip but said its reporter had full media credentials from Russia’s foreign ministry.

Gershkovich is now being held in Moscow’s Lefortovo prison where he spends most of his day in a small cell, according to the newspaper. A person familiar with Gershkovich’s condition said he is “apparently in good spirit in spite of it all”.

Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich, who is in custody on espionage charges, makes a heart-shaped gesture inside an enclosure for defendants before a court hearing in Moscow, Russia, April 23
Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich, who is in custody on espionage charges, makes a heart-shaped gesture inside an enclosure for defendants before a court hearing in Moscow, Russia [File: Tatyana Makeyeva/Reuters]

Is a prisoner swap on the cards?

This is the first time since the Cold War that an American journalist has been accused of being a spy in Russia. The last high-profile case of an international correspondent being jailed under espionage charges dates back to 1986. Nicholas Daniloff, of the US News & World Report, was freed after three weeks as part of a wider deal which included the release of suspected Soviet spy Gennady Zakharov.

In recent months, there have been growing signs that a prisoner swap involving Gershkovich might be on the table.

In February, Russian President Vladimir Putin said he would like to see Gershkovich freed and that talks for a prisoner exchange were ongoing. He hinted that he wanted to see the release of Vadim Krasikov, a Russian citizen jailed in Germany for murdering a former Chechen fighter in Berlin in 2019. A Kremlin spokesperson did not confirm nor deny the widespread interpretation of Putin’s typically indirect comments.

In response to Putin’s message – made during an interview with former Fox News host Tucker Carlson – a US top diplomat said there was an open channel where “official offers will be levied and responses will be received”.

At the media briefing last week, Miller said the US had put a “significant offer” on the table for the return of Gershkovich and Paul Whelan, another US citizen in jail since 2018 on similar charges. He did not elaborate further.

There is a history of prisoner swaps between the US and Russia. In 2022, Russian officials exchanged basketball superstar Brittney Griner – who had been arrested for possessing less than a gram of hash oil in her vapouriser – for former Soviet military officer Viktor Bout. US officials had arrested Bout on conspiracy charges in 2008. And Russian drug trafficker Konstantin Yaroshenko was exchanged for former US Marine Trevor Reed in 2022.

US basketball player Brittney Griner, who was detained at Moscow's Sheremetyevo airport and later charged with illegal possession of cannabis, is escorted in a court building in Khimki outside Moscow
US basketball player Brittney Griner, who was detained at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport and later charged with illegal possession of cannabis, is escorted in a court building in Khimki outside Moscow, Russia [File: Kirill Kudryavtsev/Reuters]

What’s the state of press freedom in Russia?

In a word, bad.

While Putin has been tightening its grip on media freedom and freedom of expression over the past decade, repression has intensified dramatically since Russia invaded Ukraine in 2022, watchdogs say.

Three months after the start of the war, Putin expanded laws against “foreign agents” to include nonprofit organisations, media outlets, journalists and activists. That meant that organisations that receive any foreign support – including any donations or other funding – could be designated as foreign agents.

And in 2023, Putin pushed for war censorship laws criminalising anyone who could be accused of discrediting Russian armed forces or sharing information about their conduct that doesn’t subscribe to the government line. Those accused of breaching these laws can incur up to 15 years in prison.

“It’s no longer the same country, it’s now on a path to tyranny,” said Rachel Denber, Human Rights Watch’s deputy director for Europe and Central Asia division. “And the arrest and charges against Evan fall squarely into this pattern – one of the hallmarks that show the Kremlin has no inhibition about making the most ludicrous allegations to send a message about their complete intolerance towards journalism,” Denber said.

How have journalists responded?

With state censorship closing several respected independent media outlets or persecuting prominent journalists, hundreds of reporters have fled into exile.

Others have remained in Russia at great cost. Last year, Russian authorities arrested Alsu Kurmasheva, an American Russian journalist with Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, for failing to register as a “foreign agent” and for spreading “false information”.

Other dual nationals find themselves behind bars as potential bargaining chips.

In January, Moscow arrested Robert Woodland Romanov, a dual US-Russian citizen, on drug charges. And last Thursday in Yekaterinburg, another US-Russian citizen, Ksenia Karelina, 33, went on a closed-door trial on high treason charges. Her employer, a California-based spa, said she was accused of donating $50 to a Ukrainian charity in the US.

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