Joe Biden won’t expel Russian journalists after US reporter detained

Evan Gershkovich - DIMITAR DILKOFF
Evan Gershkovich - DIMITAR DILKOFF

Joe Biden on Friday said there were no plans to expel Russia’s ambassador or Russian journalists as he faced pressure to act over the arrest of an American journalist.

Mr Biden told reporters on Friday his message to Russia is “let him go”. Asked whether he would expel Russian diplomats or journalists in response, he said: “That’s not the plan right now.”

Evan Gershkovich, a Moscow correspondent for the Wall Street Journal, was arrested while on a reporting trip to Yekaterinburg on Wednesday.

Russia’s Federal Security Service, the main successor to the KGB, has charged him with espionage. He is currently being held in Moscow’s Lefortovo prison, where the FSB keeps high-value prisoners in isolation cells.

On Friday, Foreign Ministry spokesman Maria Zakharova warned the US against threatening Moscow over Gershkovich’s arrest.

“They immediately turn to threats, reprisals against Russian journalists. If this logic continues in the public space, they will reap a whirlwind,” Ms Zakharova said.

The Wall Street Journal, along with Mr Gershkovich’s friends and colleagues, vehemently denied the FSB allegations and demanded Mr Gerkovich’s release.

Joe Biden tells a reporter it's 'not the plan right now' to expel Russian journalists - JONATHAN ERNST/REUTERS
Joe Biden tells a reporter it's 'not the plan right now' to expel Russian journalists - JONATHAN ERNST/REUTERS

The paper’s editorial board on Friday said the arrest demonstrated “declining ability to deter assaults on its citizens” and called on Mr Biden to consider “diplomatic and political escalation” in response.

“Expelling Russia’s ambassador to the US, as well as all Russian journalists working here, would be the minimum to expect,” the board wrote in an editorial on Friday.

“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.

Mr Gershkovich is the first American reporter in Russia to be charged with espionage since Nicholas Daniloff, a US News & World Report journalist, was arrested in 1986.

Mr Daniloff, who denied the spying charges, was released three weeks later in exchange for a Soviet diplomat detained by the FBI.

Targeted to intimidate the press

Russian political analysts have suggested that Mr Gershkovich will similarly be used as a bargaining chip for the release of convicted and suspected Russian agents being held in the US and other Western countries.

Dmitry Muratov, a Nobel-prize winning Russian newspaper editor, said Mr Gershkovich was clearly not a spy and that he was being targeted to intimidate the press.

“I know Gershkovich. I’ve met him two or three times over the last year. I know the practice exists of using journalists as spies, intelligence officers and ‘illegals’ (undeclared spies) - this is not that kind of case,” Mr Muratov told Reuters in Moscow.

Referring to Ivan Safronov, a former journalist sentenced to 22 years in jail for treason last year, he added: “At every turn, we’re being charged with espionage and treason. It’s a trend - to show that journalism is a dangerous profession ... both for Russian and other journalists.”

He was speaking outside a closed court session in the case of Vladimir Kara-Murza, an opposition politician who has been charged with treason and spreading false information about the armed forces.

'All journalists are working fine'

The Kremlin denied it was cracking down on foreign correspondents in Russia and said accredited reporters could continue to work.

“All journalists who have valid accreditation here - I mean foreign journalists - can and do continue their journalistic activity in the country. They do not face any restrictions and are working fine,” Dmitry Peskov, the Kremlin spokesman, told reporters on Friday.

Mr Gershkovich was fully accredited with the foreign ministry and had lived and worked in Moscow for six years.

Accredited journalists who incur the government’s displeasure have occasionally faced harassment or expulsion from Russia in recent years, but none have been jailed since the Cold War.

Reporters are thoroughly vetted before such accreditation is granted, meaning the FSB would probably have expelled him long ago if he were really a spy.