BERLIN/POTSDAM — The Glienicke Bridge is a 45-minute walk from the main railway station in Brandenburg’s largest city. Taking the trip, it’s hard not to notice the changes since Cold War days, when captured spies were traded between the East and West on the bridge. There are new and renovated buildings painted in bright colors, bigger cars, advertisements for “The Masked Singer” at tram stops.
But an arrest last week in Russia hearkens back to a period many had thought was long gone.
Russia’s Federal Security Service arrested Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gerschkovich. He has been charged with spying for the United States during his time in Russia. It is the first time since the Cold War that such an arrest of a reporter has occurred.
The last American reporter to be arrested for spying in Russia was Nicholas Daniloff, a Moscow correspondent for U.S. News and World Report. He was released in 1986 after 20 days of detainment, in a swap for an employee of the Soviet Union’s United Nations mission who was arrested by the FBI.
Gershkovich, who reported for The Moscow Times and AFP before joining the staff of the Journal, was visiting Yekaterinburg, in the Ural Mountains, when he was arrested, according to coverage from the Journal.
In a statement, the Biden administration decried “the Russian government’s continued targeting and repression of journalists and freedom of the press.”
“Obviously, (Gershkovich) has been taken hostage,” said Jeanne Cavelier, head of the Eastern Europe and Central Asia desk at Reporters Without Borders, in an email to Poynter. She said it would have been “totally absurd to ‘spy’ or to do anything else than journalism during his trip.”
According to his colleagues, Gershkovich, a 31-year-old who played soccer with his high school team in New Jersey before graduating from Maine’s Bowdoin College and moving to New York for a media career, faces a possible prison sentence of up to 20 years if convicted.
The son of immigrants from the Soviet Union, he grew up speaking Russian with his parents and worked as a cook for a catering company to pay off student loans before getting a job as an assistant with The New York Times which, his colleagues wrote, started his journalism career in earnest. He soon used his Russian speaking skills to join the English-language press corps in Russia.
By 2022, Gershkovich was the only American reporter to see the first wounded Russian forces being taken home, the Journal reported.
On Friday, after Gershkovich’s arrest, the Journal pulled its Moscow bureau chief out of Russia, according to the New York Post. The Journal has strongly denied that Gershkovich is guilty of espionage, as have his colleagues and the Biden administration. All have called for his immediate release, as have a bevy of other journalists in two group letters.
The Associated Press reported Friday that while previous American detainees have been freed in prisoner swaps, a top Russian official said it was too early to talk about any such deal.
Protecting journalists abroad
Newsrooms have a variety of tools to make sure that reporters are relatively safe on assignments abroad, said Wilson Lowrey, a journalism professor at the University of Alabama.
“There’s a world of information about keeping foreign reporters and freelancers safe and productive when reporting in risk areas,” Lowrey said in an email, citing guidelines from Committee to Protect Journalists, Reporters without Borders, ACOS alliance and the Rory Peck Foundation. “News outlets should be familiar with this material and mandate training for foreign reporters.”
Cavelier said that there’s “no magic recipe” for correspondents to stay safe in Russia.
“Everybody can be arrested,” she said. “But there is a need to assess thoroughly the security risks with the journalist on the ground, to tell him/her to coordinate any movement/travel with their hierarchy, with a protocol to be in touch at regular hours with a manager based abroad and to have an emergency message to send quickly by phone in case of a problem, to put digital security processes in place for all their communications, to be in touch with a lawyer specialised in the media sphere like from MMDC (Mass Media Defence Center) and take into account its advice in case of an arrest or a search.”
That can include knowing how the judicial system works so as to be psychologically prepared. Discretion is advisable where possible, according to experts — having auto-deletions of computer files happen automatically in the background, for example — but Cavelier says it’s still no guarantee.
Lowrey agreed that journalists should know the media- and technology-related laws in the countries that they’re covering: “what actions warrant arrest, who does the arresting, the journalist’s rights in contacting legal support and the US embassy,” he said.
“The reporter needs to keep the name and contact info for legal support on their person. The reporter’s news-organization employer should know this info as well and help journalists gain this info,” Lowrey said. “Journalist aid groups recommend that, to stay safe, journalists comply with authorities even if authorities’ actions are unlawful and unethical in the journalist’s eyes. Stay calm and be respectful; make steady eye contact. Make mental note of any identifying info about the arresting officers and any witnesses as this could be useful later. Don’t admit to anything or sign anything — wait for legal support.”
That legal support has been slow to get access in the Gershkovich detention. Their first meeting was April 4, according to NBC, nearly a week after his initial detainment.
Lowrey says that while reporters must know they are going into a situation with significant risks, there are useful digital tools if an organization wants to help its journalists’ chances abroad. This includes common-sense precautions recommended for everyone — using strong passwords, two-factor authentication and malware scans — but he also recommends that reporters use separate emails for personal and work contacts, along with strong encryption.
“Backing up devices frequently is critical. Using more than one phone is recommended, with no personal contacts provided on (the) second phone,” Lowrey wrote.
“Setting up remote wipes on laptops and phones before leaving is strongly recommended, as is removing any unnecessary info from the reporter’s laptop and phone — reduces risk should a computer or phone be stolen. Create separate work and family social-media accounts — these precautions protect both journalist and family.
“Also,” he said, “Facebook has guidelines for journalists about setting up private Facebook groups, and these groups have been useful for foreign reporters helping and protecting one another in high-risk situations.”
Other experts recommended measures such as hostile environment training — RISC training, for example — and cultural training, along with legal knowledge and access to supportive networks of people such as lawyers, translators or fixers, both in- and out-of-country.
To that end, Lowrey said “local journalists and fixers are at greater risk of killings and imprisonment than are foreign reporters.” That’s notable, he said, as Americans often focus on danger to Western journalists.
“I will note that risks to local ‘fixers’ and local journalists have been getting more attention in the West in recent years,” Lowrey said, “as journalism professional and industry organizations are spreading awareness of these inequities.”
The Journal said a location-tracking app was installed on Gershkovich’s phone, which stopped pinging just before 4 p.m. Wednesday. It showed him at a steakhouse in Yekaterinburg, where the arrest was later reported.
While that type of tool can help prevent kidnappings by extralegal groups, like gangs in war zones, it’s less useful when deployed against civilian governments with legal detention powers.
That’s why experts say it’s important that outlets doing foreign reporting be well prepared, with preestablished embassy and State Department contacts already in hand should something go wrong. The best-case scenario for Gershkovich would be a trade of prisoners between governments, which experts say Russian leaders may be counting on.
“Sadly, this journalist and the Journal are pawns in a geopolitical game, much as Brittney Griner was,” said Joseph Weber, a journalism professor at the University of Nebraska, in an email. “That game may involve yet another trade of prisoners, but only after a long time and a lot of suffering by Gershkovich.”
In the months since the invasion of Ukraine, Russia has adopted anti-speech laws similar to the USA Patriot Act’s material support clause. Alexei Moskalyov, the father of a Russian teenager who drew an antiwar picture, was convicted last week of denigrating the Russian military — now a serious crime in Russia — and the daughter who drew the picture was sent to an orphanage. Moskalyov fled the country during house arrest, and his daughter hailed him as a hero.
Vandalism, open windows
The Guardian’s Luke Harding, who has reported extensively from Russia, said there are other ways that governments can crack down on reporters without arresting them.
“I was thrown out of Moscow in 2011 — turned back at the airport, visa canceled and deported back to London after four years as bureau chief,” Harding wrote in an email.
Harding wrote an essay documenting low-level harassment by authorities during his time reporting in Russia, including bizarre home break-ins where nothing was touched, but a window was left open and an alarm clock was set for 4:10 a.m. His harassment also included obvious surveillance in public and incidents where phone calls were abruptly cut off mid-sentence when sensitive topics were being discussed.
Cavelier confirmed that it is common for reporters in Russia to say they have been followed.
The Washington Post’s Josh Rogin separately wrote in 2016 about a campaign of harassment against western diplomats at the hands of Russian authorities, including similar tales of break-ins — this time featuring a story of finding excrement on a rug and rearranged furniture.
Also in 2016, The New York Times covered allegations of Russian authorities planting child pornography on the computers of people who went against the wishes of the state.
For its part, the Russian government has claimed that the FBI and CIA also undertake harassment campaigns against some Russians in the United States.
And, of course, there is the specter of arrest, should a journalist do something that a large, well-resourced state like Russia does not like.
As for Americans in Russia, “my feeling is we are near the end of western reporting from Moscow,” Harding said. “At the time (of my deportation), this seemed like the worst fate that might befall a foreign correspondent.”
“Now,” he said, “the risks are greater.”