Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich, in a photo taken July 24, 2021. (Dimitar Dilkoff/AFP via Getty Images)
2 min

The arrest of Wall Street Journal correspondent Evan Gershkovich in Russia on espionage charges should be seen clearly and immediately for what it truly represents: hostage-taking by the Kremlin. President Vladimir Putin is engaging in state-sponsored barbarism.

This latest Russian flash point with the United States is the first such arrest of an accredited Moscow correspondent for a U.S. news organization in Mr. Putin’s 23 years in power, and the first since the Cold War ended. U.S. correspondents working in Russia are accredited by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, meaning they have permission to practice basic journalism. They have often been harassed, threatened and surveilled, and must get a valid visa to work in Russia, but correspondents have not been summarily hauled off to jail and accused of espionage.

Mr. Putin’s critics and opposition figures have regularly faced violence and death. Brave reporter Anna Politkovskaya was murdered in her apartment building; dissident ex-KGB officer Alexander Litvinenko was poisoned with radioactive material in his tea; opposition leader Boris Nemtsov was shot near the Kremlin walls; anti-corruption campaigner Alexei Navalny and politician Vladimir Kara-Murza, a Post Opinions contributor, were both targets of serious poisoning attempts and today are unjustly imprisoned.

Mr. Gershkovich was arrested in Yekaterinburg by Russia’s Federal Security Service, or FSB, and accused — without evidence — of obtaining classified information about "the activities of one of the enterprises of the Russian military-industrial complex.” The Journal denied the allegations and demanded his release.

The context here is important. Yekaterinburg is in a region chockablock with military industry. At the outset of the war against Ukraine, Russia introduced criminal punishment for discrediting or spreading false information about any force fighting for Russia in Ukraine, including private military companies such as the Wagner Group. A web of laws and restrictions means that practically anyone can be detained, even on the thinnest pretext. Many news organizations have temporarily relocated out of Russia as a result.

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In Vietnam, a one-party state, democracy activist Tran Van Bang was sentenced on Friday to eight years in prison and three years probation for writing 39 Facebook posts. The court claimed he had defamed the state in his writings, according to Radio Free Asia. In the past six years, at least 60 bloggers and activists have been sentenced to between 4 and 15 years in prison under the law, Human Rights Watch found. Read more of the Editorial Board’s coverage on autocracy and Vietnam.
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Mr. Gershkovich may have been taken because the FSB profited handsomely from the arrest of American basketball star Brittney Griner, who was later traded for the notorious Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout. Can it have been incidental that the arrest came after the Justice Department on Friday indicted an agent for the GRU, Russia’s military intelligence agency, who was being positioned to become a deep-cover spy in Washington?

Mr. Gershkovich is not a pawn to be traded. Journalism is not a crime. He should be released immediately.

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