‘Chilling Effect’: Arrest of Journalist Has Made Covering Russia Even Tougher

The exodus began roughly a year ago, in the first days of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Western news organizations, confronting a harsh crackdown on free speech by President Vladimir V. Putin, pulled correspondents from Moscow and suspended their news gathering in Russia. The risk to journalists, in a country where describing a war as a “war” was suddenly a crime, was too great.

Some outlets, like the BBC, quickly resumed their work in the country; others, like Bloomberg News, never returned. Newspapers that once maintained permanent Moscow bureaus began rotating correspondents in and out from safer posts like Berlin and Dubai. Still, even under challenging circumstances, Western correspondents were hopeful that their work could continue.

That hope was shattered last week by the arrest of Evan Gershkovich, the Wall Street Journal reporter who is believed to be the first American reporter held on spying charges in Russia since the fall of the Soviet Union. The Journal rejects the claims against Mr. Gershkovich, 31, a son of Soviet Jewish émigrés, and the Biden administration has lobbied for his release.

Regardless of the outcome of Mr. Gershkovich’s case, his arrest sent an indisputable signal that foreign reporters were newly vulnerable. Now, news organizations are re-examining how to chronicle one of the world’s most urgent geopolitical stories as their journalists face even greater peril.

“It has a chilling effect for everyone,” Polina Ivanova, a Russia correspondent for The Financial Times, said at a recent gathering of journalists in London, where attendees lined up to write letters of support to be delivered to Mr. Gershkovich inside the Lefortovo prison in Moscow.

“It’s very difficult to know what the security situation is like when you’re working in a place like Russia, especially when things are changing very, very quickly,” Ms. Ivanova said. “You have to constantly reassess, and try and make a wise calculus about the risks, based on signs and signals and things sometimes just in the tea leaves.”

Mr. Gershkovich had been accredited by the Russian Foreign Ministry, a process that had continued even after the invasion of Ukraine and was thought to grant a degree of protection for Western journalists. The move against Mr. Gershkovich scrambled that assumption. Since his arrest, the Journal’s Moscow bureau chief has left the country. The New York Times, whose journalists had been traveling regularly to Russia, currently has no reporters there.

American journalists, in particular, had worried that they might be detained by the Russian authorities to instigate a prisoner exchange. Correspondents who are European citizens were perceived to be slightly less vulnerable. The Gershkovich episode shows that, now, all bets are off.

“It’s very clear that no foreign correspondents are going to be spared from this repression,” said Gulnoza Said, who monitors press freedoms in Russia for the Committee to Protect Journalists. “The world is losing that window into Russia, and the Russian people are losing one of the very few platforms where they can be heard.”

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

For a nation increasingly viewed as an avatar of repression and autocracy, Russia had, until recently, afforded Western correspondents a fair amount of leeway in reporting on its politics, society and culture. Reporters assumed their movements and communications were monitored. But starting in the mid-1980s, the reforms of Mikhail S. Gorbachev meant that Western journalists could interview civilians and cultivate sources in the bureaucracy.

David Remnick, the editor of The New Yorker, said the current situation was “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 were bugged,” Mr. Remnick said in an interview. “The foreign ministry was all over us, our travel was restricted. All that said, we reported incredibly freely compared to what had been the case for the entire Soviet experience.”

Inside Russia, scoops reported by Western media outlets would sometimes be picked up by Russian state newswires, and local journalists felt emboldened to cite foreign reporting when questioning state authorities.

For the Kremlin, the presence of journalists from prominent outlets like the BBC, CNN, and Agence France-Presse was deemed a sign of the government’s legitimacy and influence on the world stage. Foreign outlets also provided a vehicle for Mr. Putin’s government to try to shape its global image and speak directly to a Western elite.

The Ukraine invasion has evidently shifted that calculus. Mr. Gershkovich’s arrest signaled that Mr. Putin — who has made elaborate efforts to shield Russia’s struggles in Ukraine from public view — may see diminishing utility in accommodating foreign journalists.

Inside Russia now, “the propaganda is total,” said Ms. Ivanova of the FT. “It’s gone from being one very loud voice to being the only voice, and that’s kind of the transition that Russia has gone through in the past year.”

As local Russian journalists were suppressed or exiled, Western news outlets have sought ways to maintain aggressive coverage. Numerous organizations — including the BBC, CNN, Reuters, and others — still have correspondents on the ground in Moscow. Many reporters have cultivated a hybrid approach, supplementing occasional visits with remote reporting via the internet and encrypted communications to stay in touch with sources. In Ukraine, journalists continue to cover the conflict from the front lines.

Bill Keller, who reported in Moscow for The Times from 1986 to 1991, said that Mr. Gershkovich’s arrest — a “hostage-taking,” in Mr. Keller’s view — was a clear attempt to intimidate foreign reporters and the Russian citizens who might speak with them.

“It may prolong the de-staffing of foreign news bureaus in Russia, but it won’t stop reporting from surrounding countries,” said Mr. Keller, who later served as executive editor of The Times. Journalists covering Russia from abroad, he added, can now station themselves in more proximate areas like the Baltics and Ukraine, which in past generations were under Moscow’s control.

Ms. Ivanova, who has helped lead efforts to galvanize support for Mr. Gershkovich and secure his freedom, said that “within the realms of the possible,” news organizations would endeavor “to operate on the ground for as long as it is possible.”

“Obviously that comes with great challenges, and that process of calculation is very difficult, and sometimes things come at you which you completely did not expect,” she said. “But reporting on the ground is absolutely essential.”

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