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Russia detains U.S. citizen working for 'Wall Street Journal' Moscow bureau

SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:

An American has been arrested in Russia. This time, it's a journalist. A correspondent with The Wall Street Journal's Moscow bureau, Evan Gershkovich, was detained by Russian security forces on suspicion of espionage. With us to talk about the case from Moscow is NPR's Russia correspondent, Charles Maynes. Hi, Charles.

CHARLES MAYNES, BYLINE: Hi there.

PFEIFFER: Tell us what happened.

MAYNES: Yeah. At the time of his detention Wednesday evening, Evan Gershkovich was on a reporting assignment in Yekaterinburg. This is the main city in Russia's Ural Mountains, you know, which is known as a fairly liberal and modern city but also an industrial center, particularly with military-related industries. And this seems to be the focus of the charge against Gershkovich, whatever its merits. Now, Gershkovich, again, on assignment interviewing people, which is his job, was arrested by security agents from the FSB - this is the successor agency to the Soviet KGB - while in a local restaurant. The FSB later issued a statement saying that Gershkovich was suspected of spying in the interests of the American government on Russia's military industrial complex. He's since been brought back to Moscow and formally charged in a closed court hearing, where Gershkovich was ordered held at least until the end of May pending an investigation.

PFEIFFER: What have Russian officials had to say about this arrest?

MAYNES: Well, the Kremlin has clearly endorsed the FSB's actions. Here's the Kremlin spokesman, Dmitry Peskov.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DMITRY PESKOV: (Speaking Russian).

MAYNES: So here, Peskov says, "we're not talking about suspicions but someone who was caught red-handed." Russia's foreign ministry has also backed the arrest, and that's significant because foreign - all foreign correspondents in Russia work with their authorization. The ministry spokeswoman, Maria Zakharova, noted there had been a history of foreigners using their status as journalists as a cover for espionage. And yet we haven't seen an espionage case like this in decades. You know, you have to go back to the Cold War for a case of an American journalist charged with spying.

PFEIFFER: And what has been the response from Gershkovich's employer, The Wall Street Journal?

MAYNES: Well, the journal has vehemently denied the charges, and they're demanding Gershkovich's immediate release. They say their correspondents aren't spies but there to cover the story - in this case, the impact of the war in Ukraine on Russian society in all its facets. And that's also the message coming from the wider journalistic community. Reporting is not a crime. Again, Gershkovich was accredited by the Russian government to work and report in Russia.

PFEIFFER: Charles, how many Western journalists are actually left in Russia?

MAYNES: Well, not many. A lot of media outlets left initially because of laws passed in the wake of the Russian invasion that criminalized reporting that countered the official government narrative. But a small group of Western journalists have continued to report with what had appeared to be a degree of freedom. In fact, the Kremlin yesterday noted that even The Wall Street Journal, as an accredited media outlet, could continue reporting from Russia. And this makes this arrest all the more confusing and, you know, frankly, scary. You know, Gershkovich wasn't being accused of violating the government restrictions we've been grappling with this past year. He's accused of espionage, of spying, an even more serious charge that, if he's convicted, carries up to 20 years in prison.

PFEIFFER: That's NPR's Charles Maynes in Moscow. Thank you.

MAYNES: Thank you.

PFEIFFER: And the White House has issued a statement condemning the detention of Evan Gershkovich, quote, "in the strongest" terms, and it's called the targeting of Americans and journalists in Russia unacceptable.

(SOUNDBITE OF AK'S "23.01.2018") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.