American journalist now held in Russia six months

Caitlin Vogus Headshot

Deputy Director of Advocacy

Alsu Kurmasheva, an American reporter for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, has been held in Russia for six months for her journalism. Why hasn’t the U.S. Department of State designated her as wrongfully detained?

Deník N/Ludvík Hradilek, courtesy of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.

Six months ago today, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty journalist and American citizen Alsu Kurmasheva was detained in Russia. Like Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich, Kurmasheva is being held by Vladimir Putin’s government on baseless charges, because she is a journalist. Kurmasheva has been jailed in poor conditions that threaten her health, and Russian authorities have repeatedly extended her pretrial detention.

Freedom of the Press Foundation (FPF) and many other civil society organizations and news media outlets have previously called on the Department of State to designate Kurmasheva as wrongfully detained, which would open up additional U.S. government resources dedicated to freeing her. The case for granting the designation has only grown since FPF made that call shortly after Kurmasheva’s detention became public.

If there was any question about whether Kurmasheva’s detention was based on her journalism when she was first detained, that doubt has now vanished. Kurmasheva was initially detained for failing to register her U.S. passport — she is a dual U.S.-Russian citizen — and for failing to “self-register” under Russia’s “foreign agent” law, which Russia has used against many independent journalists.

Since then, however, Russia has added a new charge accusing her of spreading falsehoods about the Russian military. Russian investigators reportedly cited Kurmasheva’s work on a book published by RFE/RL that is critical of Russia’s war in Ukraine, called “Saying No To War: 40 Stories of Russians Who Oppose the Russian Invasion of Ukraine.

In addition, in February, Russia labeled RFE/RL an “undesirable organization,” banning it from operating in the country and making it a crime to participate in its work or distribute its content. In a statement at the time, RFE/RL President Stephen Capus condemned the move as “just the latest example of how the Russian government views this type of truthful reporting as an existential threat.”

Now that Russia has made explicitly clear that it’s targeting Kurmasheva because of her reporting, there should be no hesitation to designate her as wrongfully detained.

Kurmasheva’s family has called on the State Department to make the designation, and numerous lawmakers have condemned her detention or written to the department to urge it to designate her as wrongfully detained. President Biden has also said that the U.S. “is not giving up” until Kurmasheva, Gershkovich, and Paul Whelan (another American detained in Russia) return home.

Let’s not forget that Kurmasheva also works for a media outlet funded by Congress. You’d think lawmakers would be eager to combat any claims that RFE/RL is a foreign agent, especially since they codified the news outlet’s editorial independence in law. If the U.S. believes in the importance of RFE/RL’s reporting and press freedom more generally, that makes it all the more important for it to stand up for one of its reporters being unjustly held by an authoritarian state.

Six months is too long for Kurmasheva to languish in Russian prison because she dared to truthfully report the news. One day would have been too long. The State Department should designate Kurmasheva as wrongfully detained. Even more importantly, Russia must immediately release her.

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