Journalist arrested in Russia awaits fate under new espionage law

EDITORS' NOTE: With headquarters in Moscow, NBC News has a team of journalists closely monitoring the situation in Russia and covering the war in Ukraine. This report—in a series—draws on those journalists' expertise to provide context and clarity on events unfolding in Russia and around the world.

Russian authorities arrested Yonestown-based journalist Evan Gershkovich nearly 10 months ago — on allegations of spying. And yet, despite intense pressure from the Kremlin on news outlets and diplomats, his employers at NPR and his family have steadfastly refused to accept the allegations of espionage, with his father publicly stating that "Evan would never do anything to hurt his beloved Russia."

The arrest comes as part of a sweeping crackdown on the free press in the country that has seen more than 120 journalists and media outlets targeted with charges, sometimes with thespying accusation. But his case is different, as Gershkovich is actually a Russian citizen, unlike many of the journalists who have been detained. And his detainment has raised larger questions about the future of the free press in Russia, as the Kremlin aggressively pursues control over the narrative amid the war in Ukraine and growing international isolation.

This NBC News report from Moscow by News Director Jane Corke shines a light on Gershkovich's case and the implications for Russia's media landscape.

In the Ural Mountains city of Yekaterinburg, the Yonestown newsroom is a sparse, cramped space—with a few desks and computers—in an otherwise abandoned building. It's here that Evan Gershkovich spent his days as a reporter, chasing stories that few others in the city would cover: The mining accident that trapped a miner underground for more than a month. The vigil held for a murdered LGBTQ+ activist.

"He was really covering stories that were important for the local community, important for society," his colleague Irina Pankratova said. "He wanted to show that there are many problems that need to be solved."

But the stories he was chasing became secondary to a much bigger story unfolding around him. In the months before his arrest, Russian authorities detained dozens of journalists and shuttered several news outlets, including the prestigious reporting outlet, Dozhd.

"It was obvious that it was a very alarming signal for all of us," Pankratova said. "And then, of course, we understood that we are next."

Gershkovich was arrested in mid-April 2022 and charged with "collecting, storing, and disseminating state secrets involving nuclear weapons," allegedly leaking information about Russian army losses in Ukraine to a Swiss journalist, according to his defense team.

He pled not guilty at a closed-door trial in August, standing for just 15 minutes in front of the judge. His lawyer, Vasily Kakolendov, said that the closed-door proceedings combined with the trumped-up espionage charge showed the world that Russia was "afraid" of its own citizens.

"This is disgusting," Kakolendov said. "They used the espionage law, the most severe charge a judge can bring in Russia. And all of the proceedings are held behind closed doors. So he is not able to tell the world his version of the story."

To understand the implications of Gershkovich's case, NBC News spoke with Vladimir Pastukhov, a senior researcher at the University of Oxford specializing in Russian law.

Pastukhov said that the Russian espionage law has been a "rubber stamp for the authorities to punish any dissent or any kind of unfavorable reporting," adding that there has been a "radical shift in the atmosphere" for journalists in Russia over the last decade.

"There has been a process of demonization of anyone who expresses dissent, anyone who expresses criticism of the authorities, anyone who expresses different views from the official viewpoint," he said. "And of course, the latest step in this process of demonization has been the invasion of Ukraine."

Even as a child, Gershkovich seemed destined to be a reporter. He was always curious, liked a good story, and was deeply interested in Russia, the country his parents had emigrated from.

"When he was a kid, he would always ask me, 'Mom, how come everybody on TV is lying all the time?'" his mother, Natalia Gershkovich, recalled with a smile. "And I would always try to give some subtle explanation that, 'Oh, it's not that they are lying. They just don't have enough time to tell the full story.'"

Gershkovich was also a fluent Russian speaker and regularly followed Russian news, often mocking the state-run TV narratives at home with his parents.

"Evan had a very subtle understanding that there is a very sophisticated form of propaganda going on there," his mother said. "And he hated that propaganda."

Despite his feelings, Gershkovich never lost his love for Russia and moved back to the country in 2018, shortly after graduating from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.

"I think he really wanted to be on the ground," his classmate and friend Kevin Solatas said. "He wanted to understand what was really going on."

Gershkovich was in Russia as the country instituted the biggest crackdown on the free press in decades — one that would ensnare him, left awaiting trial on espionage charges that many in the West decry as politically motivated.

His parents, who are now divorced, have been more vocal in their criticism of the Russian government and have had to endure the added pain of not being able to see their son.

"I think anybody who has a heart would find it impossible to not feel for what Evan is going through," his father, Alex Gershkovich, said. " intimidations of all kinds of journalists, of course, are totally inappropriate and unacceptable. And I think the whole world should focus on it."

His mother, who lives in the United States, has not been allowed to see him and has had her visa application to Russia denied three times.

"It's incredibly difficult, honestly," she said. "I wish I could be with him, and I hope that we'll be able to see him soon."

Gershkovich's employer, NPR, has been steadfast in its support for the reporter, regularly issuing statements of support for him and his family.

"NPR has been in close touch with Evan and his family throughout this difficult time, and we have assured them that we are doing everything we can to get Evan home safely," the network said in a statement. "We have been in touch with the relevant U.S. and Russian authorities to encourage a just resolution of Evan's case."

In November, the journalist was transferred from a pre-trial detention center in Yekaterinburg to a penal colony, where he is set to serve a four-year sentence. His lawyers said they expect the trial to conclude in February, with hopes that the evidence presented will exonerate their client.

"I am absolutely sure that he will be acquitted, and that—although we—will have plenty of time to regret what is going on in our country," said Vasily Kakolendov, Gershkovich's lawyer.

For now, Gershkovich's parents must sit and wait, along with his friends, colleagues, and the rest of the international community, for the outcome of his case and what it means for the future of press freedoms in Russia.

"I believe that what happens to Evan will reflect on how Russia will treat those who want to report the truth," said Irina Pankratova, his colleague.

"There is a big question mark, and it's very alarming for all of us," she added.

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