NEW YORK – The arrest of a Wall Street Journal reporter on espionage charges in Russia has news organizations based outside the country weighing for the second time in a year whether the risks of reporting there during wartime are too great.
The Journal and other news outlets continued to press Friday for the release of Evan Gershkovich, He was taken into custody by Russian security officials a day earlier and accused of spying, charges the newspaper vehemently denies.
More than 30 press freedom groups and news organizations, including the Journal, The New York Times, BBC, The Associated Press, The New Yorker, Time and The Washington Post, signed a letter Friday to Anatoly I. Antonov, Russia’s ambassador to the U.S., expressing concern about "a significant escalation in your government's anti-press actions.
“Russia is sending the message that journalism within your borders is criminalized and that foreign correspondents seeking to report from Russia do not enjoy the benefits of the rule of law,” they said.
A reporter for The New York Times who was temporarily in Moscow, Valerie Hopkins, left after Gershkovich's arrest, the newspaper said.
“This is a significant shift and one that a lot of news outlets that have maintained journalists there will be looking at with alarm,” said Jodie Ginsberg, president of the Committee to Protect Journalists, an advocacy group that promotes press freedom and safety.
Gershkovich's arrest comes a year after the Russian government, shortly after its full-scale invasion of Ukraine, imposed harsh new restrictions on journalists that threatened punishment for reports that went against the Kremlin's version of events — even forbidding the use of the word “war” to describe the conflict.
Some news organizations pulled their journalists out as a result. Some of those journalists returned later when it became clear the restrictions were aimed mostly at Russians.
A free-lance Russian journalist, Andrey Novashov, was sentenced to eight months of “correctional labor” for allegedly reporting false information about the Russian military, CPJ said. Ilya Krasilshchik, former publisher of the Latvia-based news site Meduza, was prosecuted on a similar charge but he left the country, CPJ said.
Hundreds of Russian journalists have left the country, Ginsberg said.
To date, the advocacy group said it was unaware of any non-Russian journalists arrested or prosecuted under those laws. Gershkovich was detained on separate spying charges.
“Pretty much any foreign correspondent who is still there is getting ready to depart, or giving that very serious consideration at this point,” said Ann Cooper, who was a National Public Radio bureau chief in Moscow and former executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists. Gershkovich's arrest is “very unsettling and would make anybody feel uncomfortable,” she said.
“Every journalist and news organization has to weigh the circumstances and make their own decision,” Cooper said. “If I were an American correspondent based in Moscow right now, I don’t believe I would stay.”
The New York Times does not have a reporter based in Russia now but has sent journalists, like Hopkins, in for periodic assignments, a spokeswoman said. For Tuesday's newspaper, Hopkins wrote about a single father who was convicted of discrediting the army and had his 13-year-old daughter put in an orphanage in a case that stemmed from an antiwar drawing she made at school.
One journalist who left and came back, Steve Rosenberg, Russia editor of the BBC, tweeted that he was “shocked by what has happened” to Gershkovich. His Twitter account said nothing about his own status, and the BBC declined comment Friday.
CNN has rotated international correspondents like Matthew Chance and Fred Pleitgen in and out of Russia for the past year, and Chance has been reporting from Moscow about Gershkovich's arrest. The network would not say more about its plans for staffing in the country.
“We are concerned by the news coming from Russia and are monitoring the situation there closely,” it said in a statement.
The Washington Post has three journalists reporting on Russia — Robyn Dixon, Mary Ilyushina and Francesca Ebel — but is not commenting on their whereabouts, a spokeswoman said. Dixon wrote about Gershkovich's arrest from Latvia. In a memo announcing Ebel's hiring last fall, the Post said its Russian team is working from outside the country.
The Associated Press story about Gershkovich's arrest, as well as a separate profile of the journalist, carried no bylines or datelines. The AP does not speak about the moves of its personnel for security reasons, but it “maintains a presence” in Russia, spokeswoman Lauren Easton said.
Bloomberg News pulled its reporters from Russia last year, with Editor-in-Chief John Micklethwait telling staff members then that the new laws seem “designed to turn any independent reporter into a criminal purely by association.” Bloomberg reporters have not returned to the country, a spokeswoman said on Friday.
Even journalists who fled Russia last year continued to report on the country, taking advantage of technology unavailable to predecessors from earlier generations: the Internet, encrypted communications, and mobile-phone cameras in the hands of millions of potential witnesses.
Still, Ginsberg said, “technology never replaces being there.”