Perspectives April 27, 2023
Wrongfully Detained: Discussing Evan Gershkovich’s Arrest with Paul Beckett from the Wall Street Journal
Ahead of World Press Freedom Day, Freedom House spoke to the Wall Street Journal’s Washington bureau chief, Paul Beckett, about Gershkovich’s arrest and the increasingly dangerous environment for working journalists.
Wednesday, May 3, is World Press Freedom Day, when we recognize the essential role of a free media in the open exchange of ideas and in holding the powerful to account. We also pause to recognize the threats journalists face from powerful figures who understand that truthful and independent reporting threatens their stranglehold on power.
In an act that drew worldwide condemnation, Russian authorities on March 29 arrested Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich and charged him with espionage. Gershkovich, who covered Russian politics, the economy, and the Russian military’s invasion of Ukraine, is the first American journalist detained in Russia on espionage charges since the Cold War. He faces as long as 20 years’ imprisonment for his reporting.
Freedom House: Let us start by saying how sorry we are that Evan has been targeted by the Russian regime. How are you and your colleagues doing?
Paul Beckett: Thank you. It is obviously a dark time for Evan, for his family, for his friends, and for his colleagues in the Wall Street Journal newsroom. But we are all buoyed by the support across the board—from other journalism organizations, the United States and other governments, and the public. I think everyone here realizes this is about Evan as a reporter and about the freedom of the press more broadly in a world where the repression of the media is all too common.
Evan is an accomplished journalist, having worked for Agence France Presse, the Moscow Times, and the New York Times. He joined the Wall Street Journal about a year ago. What would you like readers to know about Evan?
By all accounts, he is what we call in the business a natural: boundlessly curious, affable, independent-minded, sociable, and smart—excellent qualities in a reporter—whose ability to report on Russia was augmented by his own personal story. His parents are Soviet émigrés who fled to the United States. It was Evan’s interest in his heritage, as well as his mastery of the Russian language, that paved the way for him to do such excellent work there.
Evan’s detention shows how dangerous it can be for journalists to operate in repressive regimes that don’t value independent media. Did he identify himself openly as a journalist? What kind of stories was Evan writing in Russia?
Evan was accredited to operate in Russia by Russia’s foreign ministry, and it is our standard operating procedure always to identify ourselves as reporters. His interest in Russia and the Russian people was deep and broad, so he reported on a wide range of stories—including the precarious state of the Russian economy, since we are the Wall Street Journal! He was part of a small band of foreign journalists and local independent journalists in Russia still trying to do the brave work of reporting on the ground in a hostile government environment.
The United States government has officially determined that Evan was “wrongfully detained.” Why is that an important designation?
It means that the secretary of state has determined that he is, in effect, a hostage, albeit in the hands of a government. It pushes Evan’s situation from being an issue primarily for consular affairs to a different office within the State Department whose mandate is to secure the release of Americans held abroad.
Do you know if Evan has been able to communicate with his legal counsel or his family?
He has had access to lawyers provided by the Wall Street Journal and its parent company, Dow Jones & Co., and very belatedly to US consular officials. He is receiving letters and his parents have received a letter from him.
In doing research for this piece, we saw that 153 Americans have been wrongfully detained by state actors since 2001. According to the Foley Foundation, the problem is growing, increasing from an average of 11 Americans wrongfully detained from 2001-2011, to an average of 34 Americans held each year since 2012. What have you and your colleagues been surprised to learn through this process?
We have learned a lot in a short space of time. One lesson is that the journalism community, while competitive every day on stories, is genuinely a community when it comes to preserving and defending issues of press freedom around the world. It also has reinforced to us that reporting can be dangerous around the world even when we are not in war zones or chaotic environments.
Is there anything our readers can do to help Evan or his family?
Get to know Evan and his work. There is a trove of resources free to read on our website, and please use the hashtag #IStandWithEvan on social media as we endeavor to keep awareness high about his unlawful imprisonment.
As we reflect on World Press Freedom Day, why do you think an independent media is so important to society?
Think about how we know anything about countries around the world that are major factors in US life, politics, and economics. How do we get trusted, accurate information that fosters our understanding of Russia, China, and other places that we read every day are in some state of conflict or tension with the United States? The answer is through the bravery of correspondents like Evan who deliver trusted and independent viewpoints to counter the state-run propaganda that supports autocratic regimes.
Thank you very much for taking the time to answer our questions, Paul. Is there anything you’d like to add that we haven’t asked?
Please keep Evan in your thoughts as we work tirelessly to secure his release. Thank you.