‘Chilling effect’: Journalist arrests make Russia harder

The exodus began nearly a year ago, in the first days of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Western news agencies, President Vladimir V. Putin has pulled reporters from Moscow and suspended their newsgathering in Russia in the face of a severe crackdown on freedom of speech. The danger for journalists in a country where it is suddenly a crime to describe a war as “war” is high.

Some outlets, such as the BBC, quickly began their work in the country; Others, such as Bloomberg News, did not return. Newspapers that once maintained permanent Moscow bureaus began rotating reporters in and out of safer posts such as Berlin and Dubai. However, despite the challenging situation, Western correspondents remained hopeful that their work could continue.

That hope was dashed by last week’s arrest Ivan Gershkovich, a Wall Street Journal reporter believed to be the first American reporter accused of spying in Russia since the fall of the Soviet Union. The son of Soviet Jewish immigrants, Mr. The Journal denies the allegations against Gershkovich, 31, and the Biden administration has pressed for his release.

Mr. Regardless of the outcome of Gershkovich’s case, his arrest sent an undeniable signal that foreign correspondents were newly vulnerable. Now, news organizations are rethinking how to cover one of the world’s most urgent geopolitical stories as their journalists face even greater risk.

“It has a chilling effect on everyone,” Polina Ivanova, Russia correspondent for The Financial Times, said at a recent press conference in London, where attendees lined up to Mr. They wrote letters of support to give to Gershkovich. Lefortovo prison In Moscow.

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“When you’re working in a place like Russia, especially when things change very, very quickly, it’s very difficult to know what the security situation will be like,” Ms Ivanova said. “You have to constantly reassess and try to make an intelligent account of the risks, based on signs and signals and sometimes things in the tea leaves.”

Mr. Gershkovich was recognized by the Russian Foreign Ministry, a process that continued after the invasion of Ukraine and was supposed to provide a measure of protection for Western journalists. The action against him overturned that presumption. Since his arrest, The Journal’s Moscow bureau chief has fled the country. While New York Times journalists have traveled frequently to Russia, there are currently no correspondents there.

American journalists in particular worried that Russian authorities might detain them in order to trigger a prisoner exchange. Reporters who are European citizens were seen as slightly less vulnerable. The Gershkovich episode shows that, for now, all bets are off.

“It’s very clear that no foreign correspondent is going to be immune from this crackdown,” said Kulnosa Said, who monitors press freedom in Russia for the Group to Protect Journalists. “The world is losing that window into Russia, and the Russian people are losing one of the very few platforms they can listen to.”

On Friday, Senators Chuck Schumer, the Democratic majority leader, and Mitch McConnell, the Republican minority leader, called on Mr. They issued a rare joint statement calling on Russia to immediately release Gershkovich. “Journalism is not a crime,” the leaders wrote.

For a nation increasingly seen as the epitome of repression and autocracy, Russia has, until recently, given Western reporters a fair amount of leeway in reporting on its politics, society and culture. Reporters assumed their movements and communications were monitored. But since the mid-1980s, Michael S. Gorbachev’s reforms meant that Western journalists could interview citizens and cultivate evidence in the bureaucracy.

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David Remnick, editor of The New Yorker, said the current situation is “180 degrees different” from his experience as a young reporter in Moscow from 1988 to 1992.

“Of course our phones were tapped; Of course our apartments are faulty,” said Mr. Remnick said in an interview. “The Ministry of External Affairs was on us. Our trip was interrupted. We reported incredibly freely compared to the entire Soviet experience.

Inside Russia, scoops reported by Western media are sometimes picked up by Russian government spokespeople, and local journalists dare to cite foreign reports when questioning government officials.

For the Kremlin, the presence of journalists from major outlets such as the BBC, CNN and Agence France-Presse was seen as a sign of the government’s legitimacy and influence on the world stage. Foreign outlets also Mr. They gave Putin’s government a vehicle to shape its global image and speak directly to Western elites.

The invasion of Ukraine changed that calculus. Mr. The arrest of Gershkovich, Mr. Putin — who has made extensive efforts to shield Russia’s struggles in Ukraine from the public eye — could see the use of accommodating foreign journalists diminishing.

Now inside Russia, “propaganda is total,” said Ms. Ivanova of The Financial Times. “It’s gone from being the loudest voice to being the only voice, and that’s the transition that Russia has gone through in the last year.”

As local Russian journalists were repressed or exiled, Western news organizations sought ways to maintain coverage of the occupation. Several organizations still have correspondents in Moscow, including the BBC, CNN and Reuters. Many reporters have developed a hybrid approach, reporting remotely via the Internet and making occasional visits via encrypted communications to stay in touch with sources. In Ukraine, journalists continued to report on the conflict from the front lines.

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Bill Keller, who reported in Moscow for The Times from 1986 to 1991, said Mr. Arrest of Gershkovich – Mr. In Keller’s view it was a clear attempt to talk to “hostages” – foreign reporters and Russian citizens. they.

“It may prolong the layoff of foreign news bureaus in Russia, but it won’t stop reporting from surrounding countries,” said Mr. Keller said. He added that journalists reporting on Russia from abroad could now base themselves in areas as close as Moscow’s control in past generations, such as the Baltics and Ukraine.

Mr. Mrs. Gershkovich helped to rally support and secure his freedom. Ivanova said that “within possible areas,” news organizations will “try to operate as much as possible on the ground.” “

“Obviously it comes with great challenges, and that calculation process is very difficult, and sometimes things come at you that you completely don’t expect,” he said. “But reporting on the ground is absolutely necessary.”

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