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Blinken urges US journalist's release in call with Lavrov

April 2, 2023

Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich was detained by security agents in Russia for alleged spying. Moscow has accused the US of politicizing the journalist's case.

A split image of US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov
Blinken told Lavrov that Washington was gravely concerned by the detention of a US citizen

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov held a rare phone call on Sunday to discuss the arrest of Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich, who has been accused of spying in Russia.

"The American side initiated the phone call," the Russian Foreign Ministry said on Telegram.

Blinken and Lavrov are said to have discussed "the importance of creating an environment that permits diplomatic missions to carry out their work," according to a State Department summary of the call.

Blinken expressed "grave concern" over Gershkovich's detention and urged for his immediate release.

But Lavrov accused Washington and Western media of politicizing the case. "His further fate will be determined by the court," the Kremlin said.

Journalist Evan Gershkovich
The Wall Street Journal has denied that Evan Gershkovich is a spyImage: The Wall Street Journal/AP/picture alliance

Blinken also urged Moscow to release Paul Whelan, another detained American citizen who has also been held in Russia since late 2018 on espionage charges. He is currently serving a 16-year sentence. 

WSJ denies espionage accusations

Russia's FSB, the country's top security agency and successor to the KGB, has accused Gershkovich of collecting information on an enterprise of the military-industrial complex.

The case marks the first time a US correspondent has been held in Russia on spying accusations since the Cold War.

Russia's Foreign Ministry said Lavrov "drew Blinken's attention to the need to respect the decisions of the Russian authorities" about Gershkovich, whom Moscow claims, without evidence, "was caught red-handed."

The Wall Street Journal denounced the arrest, denied the allegations and demanded the reporter's release. 

"Evan's case is a vicious affront to a free press, and should spur outrage in all free people and governments throughout the world," the newspaper said in a statement on Twitter.

"The timing of the arrest looks like a calculated provocation to embarrass the US and intimidate the foreign press still working in Russia," it added.

Gershkovich's family had Soviet origins

According to the Wall Street Journal, Gershkovich was the son of Soviet-born Jewish exiles who had settled in the US state of New Jersey. The newspaper said he spoke Russian at home and had deep ties to the cultural heritage of his parents. 

The 31-year-old had been living and working in Russia since late 2017, when he joined The Moscow Times and later the French news agency AFP. 

He took the job as Russia correspondent for the Wall Street Journal in January 2022, just a month before the war in Ukraine began. Although press freedom was always under threat in Russia, the Wall Street Journal reported that Gershkovich had noticed a major change in Moscow after the war. 

"Reporting on Russia is now also a regular practice of watching people you know get locked away for years," he wrote in a tweet, as Russia was months into the Ukraine war. 

In his year reporting for the paper, he covered the war as it was seen from inside Russia.

He wrote about Russians who were silenced when they opposed the war, the casualties of the warfront, life in Russia's cities as the war raged on, Putin's world view and reliance on his inner circle, and, in his most recent article, he had reported on the paramilitary Wagner group and its relations with the Kremlin in the pursuit of Ukraine's Bakhmut. 

jcg/nm (AFP, Reuters)

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