US reporter’s arrest steps up pressure on foreign correspondents in Russia
In the wake of a US journalist’s arrest on a spying charge, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) has interviewed Moscow-based foreign reporters about the constant pressure they are under from the Russian authorities, how they are increasingly forced to censor themselves, and how they are finding it harder and harder to access sources.
Should they leave Russia or should they stay in order to keep reporting, despite the risk? This is the question that most foreign correspondents in Moscow are now asking themselves after Evan Gershkovich’s arrest on 29 March.
“We are feeling rather fragile,” said one, whom we are calling Louis because he spoke on condition of anonymity. He and his colleagues had already been subjected to a high level of stress and uncertainty about their future ever since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine but the stress has increased even more since the Wall Street Journal reporter’s arrest.
More than 300 former Russia-based foreign correspondents signed a letter to Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov on 24 April saying they were appalled by Gershkovich’s arrest on a spying charge and by what it signalled about Russia’s disregard for independent media. Journalism is not a crime, they insisted, calling for the immediate release of this “young, talented and honest journalist.”
“Evan Gershkovich’s arrest has removed a safety net. Until now, foreign correspondents had considered themselves relatively protected – implicitly – by their Russian foreign ministry accreditation. Even if they had felt the increased limits on their ability to work in the field since February 2022 and even if they had become much more careful, most were convinced that expulsion was the worst that could happen to them. We are concerned about the impact that the pressure they are now under is having on coverage of Russian reality and we call for Evan Gershkovich’s release.
Within days of the invasion of Ukraine, Russia adopted a legislative amendment under which publishing “mendacious” information about the Russian armed forces or information “discrediting” them became punishable by up to 15 years in prison. And the authorities made it very clear that this amendment would also apply to foreign reporters, as would all the anti-media laws subsequently adopted.
“This was the first time that a repressive law could explicitly be applied to us,” Louis told RSF. “Until them, no foreign correspondent complied with the requirements imposed on Russian journalists.” These requirements include, for example, having to specify in their reports when a source has been declared a “foreign agent” or “undesirable organisation” by the Russian authorities. Prosecutors can now revoke a media outlet’s licence or even, in practice, expel a foreign reporter without reference to a court.
Many foreign correspondents initially censored themselves very strictly, avoiding any mention of the word “war,” which could result in imprisonment. In the course of the weeks that followed, some decided to defy these bans, but most continued to steer clear of subjects regarded as off limits, such as Russia’s arms industry.
Threat of administrative reprisals
The authorities have also increased the administrative obstacles since March 2022. The duration of visas and accreditations, which are issued together, has been drastically reduced from one year to three months. Reapplying is time-consuming and undermines journalists’ work and morale, especially as the outcome is often uncertain. “This creates a very precarious and stressful situation,” said Paul Gogo, who reports from Russia for the French daily Ouest-France. “In one case, I received my visa only 48 hours before the previous one expired.”
The pressure is all the more effective because the threats are sometimes are carried out. Correspondents have had to leave Russia because their accreditation was not renewed. Even harsher methods are sometimes used. When Danish journalist Matilde Kimer returned to Moscow on 1 August 2022, she was denied entry and was declared “persona non grata” for ten years without being given any grounds, despite her repeated requests. She had covered Russia and Ukraine for more than a decade for the Danish public radio and TV broadcaster DR.
“Foreign reporters who dared to highlight the presence of Russian soldiers in the Ukrainian Donbas had been monitored more closely since 2014, with more frequent and significant checks and interrogations,” Kimer said. “The pressure increased last year. On my return from reporting in Ukraine at the start of the war, I was interrogated at the airport for a very long time, and I was asked what I had done, who I had interviewed and photographed, and what my country thought of Russia.”
On her return from another trip in May 2022, she was subjected to another interrogation lasting several hours at customs and immigration, during which her cell phone was examined. Kimer thinks it was bugged: “On one occasion, a call with my editor in Copenhagen was cut off and I heard our entire call replayed from the beginning.”
As well as being subjected to intimidation and having their phones bugged, reporters are often followed when they leave Moscow and go to sensitive areas, such as regions close to Ukraine or those with many ethnic minorities, the sources of many of the soldiers sent to Ukraine.
When Gogo was visibly followed by a member of the Federal Security Service (FSB) during a trip to Dagestan, he cancelled his planned report on the anti-war demonstrations there so as not to endanger his sources. Louis has been forbidden to go on some trips out of Moscow by his editors because of the growing risks involved.
Access to sources has become particularly problematic. Many correspondents have found that their contacts have either fled the country or been imprisoned. In a climate of heightened paranoia about spies and the FSB’s pursuit of them, few people dare to answer questions by foreign journalists. They may be afraid of potential reprisals or they many even report journalists to the police, as Gogo found. Since December 2022, the FSB has banned the provision of information about military and military-technical activities to “foreign sources” without defining these activities. As a result, “the wives of mobilised soldiers, who had readily expressed their anger in past, stopped responding to our questions,” Louis said.
What Moscow-based foreign correspondents had feared became a reality when Gershkovich was arrested in Yekaterinburg. After seeing him within a glass cage in a Moscow court, where so many Russian journalists had already appeared, they are facing difficult questions. Now that it looks increasingly as if reporting in Russia is becoming an impossible mission, many can no longer rule out the possibility that they will either choose or be forced to leave.