White House condemns Russia’s arrest of US journalist ‘in the strongest terms’

The Biden Administration on Thursday slammed Russia’s arrest of Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich as part of an ongoing pattern of intimidation against journalists and warned Americans to avoid travel to or leave Russia.

Mr Gershkovich, a US citizen who extensive experience reporting from Russia, was arrested in Yekaterinburg on spying charges, according to Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) – the successor to the KGB.

He was brought to Moscow where a court at a closed hearing ordered him held in pre-trial detention until 29 May. The TASS state news agency said he pleaded not guilty. The authorities released no evidence publicly and the case is said to have been marked “top secret”.

In a statement, White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said the administration is “deeply concerned by the troubling reports” that Mr Gershkovich had been detained by Russian authorities.

She said the White House and State Department spoke with executives at the Journal late Wednesday. Administration officials have also been “in direct touch” with Mr Gershkovich’s family as well, she added.

Ms Jean-Pierre said Russia’s “targeting of American citizens” is “unacceptable” and said the administration “condemn[s] the detention of Mr Gershkovich in the strongest terms”.

“We also condemn the Russian government’s continued targeting and repression of journalists and freedom of the press,” she added.

Espionage charges against someone from an American news outlet have not been seen since the end of the Cold War – with the detention coming amid a bitter war of words between Moscow and Washington over the Ukraine war.

National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby told reporters on Thursday that the arrest of Mr Gershkovich did not appear to be part of a deliberate effort to target journalists, but stressed that as of now the Biden Administration has very little information on the case.

“I wish we could provide you more context about your colleague, but we we just don't know. it's the early hours. we're doing the best we can to glean as much information as possible and ... get access to Evan — that's where our heads are. And as we learn more and can share more, we certainly will, but we're just not at that stage right now,” he said.

The White House and State Department have both said the US Embassy in Moscow has requested consular access to Mr Gershkovich.

The last time an American reporter was detained by Russian authorities was 1986, when the KGB arrested US News and World Report correspondent Nicholas Daniloff and alleged him to be a spy.

He was released as part of a prisoner swap arranged by the Reagan administration 20 days later, in exchange for a Soviet citizen who’d been arrested by the FBI in New York while working at the Soviet mission to the UN.

Arpan Rai and Chris Stevenson contributed reporting