The arrest of widely respected Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich in Russia on bogus “espionage” charges has sent shockwaves through the journalism world.
And for good measure. Gershkovich’s disturbing imprisonment is the latest escalation in Russia’s effort to dismantle the little semblance of what’s left of press freedom in the country. Since its appalling invasion of Ukraine last year, Russia has censored television studios critical of its savage war, outlawed mentions of phrases like “occupation,” and has either arrested or forced the closure of almost all the country’s remaining independent outlets. Now, it seems it’s targeting foreign reporters as well.
US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken has rightly declared Gershkovich “wrongfully detained.” That status carries special meaning, because, as the Journal reported, the official designation “rev[s] up the U.S. government’s efforts to win Evan Gershkovich’s release.”
It is a welcome development; the White House and State Department can and should aggressively push for Gershkovich’s freedom. The charges are clearly a sham. There’s not one iota of evidence Gershkovich was doing anything other than his job as a journalist, and Putin is cruelly using him as a geopolitical tool. (The White House called accusations he’s a spy “ridiculous.”)
But the Biden administration’s calls to free Gershkovich would have a lot more meaning if they also weren’t attempting to prosecute a publisher for “espionage” here in the United States. WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange is currently sitting in a UK prison facing extradition to the US, after the Trump administration indicted him in 2019 on seventeen counts of violating the Espionage Act.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m not equating the work of Gerschkovich and Assange or alleging that press freedom in Russia and the U.S. is even remotely the same. What I’m saying is that many of the disturbing facts of Gershkovich’s imprisonment also apply to the facts of Assange’s case.
As in Russia, when a publisher or whistleblower is charged with “espionage” in the United States, it very much deserves to be described in scare quotes. The Justice Department hasn’t accused Assange of giving or selling information to foreign governments or anything of the sort. They’ve accused him of speaking with whistleblower Chelsea Manning in 2010 and 2011, and receiving hundreds of thousands of classified documents from her, which WikiLeaks later published for public consumption.
In other words: the same kind of thing newspapers that cover national security do all the time. Whatever you might think of Assange or his activities since 2011 is irrelevant because that’s not what he’s charged with and the precedent his prosecution would set isn’t limited to him.
If Assange is convicted under the Espionage Act for normal newsgathering activities, then reporters at the New York Times, Washington Post, and Wall Street Journal will be extremely vulnerable to the exact same type of charge here in the United States. Virtually every major press freedom, civil liberties, and human rights organization in the United States, as well as newspapers like the New York Times and the Guardian, has said the same thing. Shamefully, the Biden administration has ignored them. So far it’s also ignoring an April 11 letter from Rep. Rashida Tlaib and six other lawmakers calling on the administration to drop the prosecution. A DOJ spokesperson confirmed plans to proceed with the extradition just last week.
Just as it is outrageous that Russia has said it will ignore the pleas of major news outlets to release Gershkovich, the same can and should be said for the Justice Department, which is putting press freedom at dire risk in this country, with eerily similar charges to those Russia is pinning on Gershkovich.
This isn’t an exercise in hypotheticals either. Former President Donald Trump, who refers to journalists as “enemies of the people,” has rocketed to the top of 2024 Republican primary polls. Recently, he has taken to literally musing on stage at his rallies about how he could potentially throw reporters in jail. It is mind-boggling that the Biden administration may be handing him the ability to do just that on a silver platter.
Will dropping the Assange charges mean Russia will immediately release Gershkovich? Of course not. But if we all want the United States to have credibility on the world stage, and for their voice to carry weight not just with Russia but the rest of the world, it needs to practice what it preaches, and not open the door for the exact type of prosecution it is condemning Russia for.
The outpouring of support for Gershkovich has been inspiring: countless people tweeting “journalism is not a crime” and protests in his honor have been staged all over. Only time will tell if they will have an effect. Needless to say, Gershkovich is as loved in the journalism community as Assange is polarizing. But this much is true: If journalists banded together to protest the Assange prosecution in a similar fashion, we could end this dire threat to press freedom at home almost immediately.