Working as a foreign journalist in Russia was always a nervous dance – one that left you constantly guessing where the Kremlin’s red lines were, as it gradually came to view Western media as a hostile force.
Once, there was goodwill. Or at least a willingness to tolerate foreign journalists as part of a détente with the West that saw post-Soviet Russia increasingly integrated into the international community in the 1990s and early 2000s.
But in my 20 years of working in Russia, first as The Globe and Mail’s Moscow bureau chief and later as a visiting correspondent, the regime’s attitude toward my colleagues and me slowly shifted from indifference to confrontation. We were a nuisance, constantly reporting on issues – including persistent homophobia, a dismal environmental record and lingering poverty in the regions beyond Moscow and St. Petersburg – that the Kremlin would rather not have to explain to its new global partners.
I was summoned to the grim headquarters of the FSB security services in 2004 over my reporting on the war raging in Chechnya. More often, it was our sources who took the greater risks, knowing they could be labelled as “foreign agents” simply for speaking honestly to a Western journalist about what was going on in their country.
But while independent Russian media has been under intensifying pressure for years – the 2006 murder of Novaya Gazeta reporter Anna Politkovskaya was merely the most famous act of violence against a journalist critical of the Kremlin – it has only been in the 14 months since Vladimir Putin launched his full-scale war against Ukraine that Russia has become a truly dangerous place to be a foreign reporter.
Many of my colleagues hastily left Russia in the first days of the invasion, sensing that the country they were living and working in had been plunged into a dangerous period of change. Some of us were put on a sanctions list and banned “indefinitely” from entering the Russian Federation.
A brave few stayed to try to continue reporting on the seismic shifts taking place in the world’s largest country. One of them was Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich, a 31-year-old American citizen who has been jailed since March 29, when he was detained in the central Russian city of Yekaterinburg.
Mr. Gershkovkich was apparently there working on a report about the Wagner mercenary group that has played a front-line role in the war for Ukraine. In other words, he was doing his job: trying to shed light on a corner that the Kremlin would rather keep dark.
On April 24, Mr. Gershkovich’s friends and colleagues – 322 of us who have all at one point been accredited by the Russian Foreign Ministry – signed an open letter to Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov calling for the jailed reporter to be released immediately.
Today, on the eve ofWorld Press Freedom Day, we’re hoping Mr. Lavrov remembers that all of us, including Mr. Gershkovich, were welcomed into Russia and given legal permission to work there. As the open letter says: “Seeking out information, even if it means upsetting political interests, does not make Evan a criminal or a spy, it makes him a journalist. Journalism is not a crime.”