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POLITICS

“We are genuinely dissatisfied with the tone of your reporting, Jason.” How the Kremlin is pushing foreign journalists out of Russia

Ekaterina Maksimova

Evan Gershkovich, a reporter for the Wall Street Journal, has made history as the first foreign media employee in modern Russia to be arrested on espionage charges. The challenges faced by Western journalists in Russia have been increasing following the country's invasion of Ukraine, but now the situation has become life-threatening. Journalists are closely monitored by intelligence officers, demonized by Putin's propaganda, and the Russian Foreign Ministry actively censors their reports. In addition, many reporters receive anonymous threats. According to interviews conducted by The Insider, correspondents from Britain, France, Spain, Germany, and other countries are concerned for their safety and fear that Gershkovich's arrest could result in a gradual exodus of Western media from Russia.

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ALL CARDS
  • Surveillance and wiretapping

  • A hunt on reporters

  • Border and police interrogations

  • Russian Foreign Ministry: “These are fakes”

  • Visa blackmail

  • No more comments

  • The silence of the officials

  • Implications of Evan Gershkovich's arrest

Surveillance and wiretapping

The news about the arrest of Evan Gershkovich, a journalist for the Wall Street Journal (WSJ), was reported on the morning of March 30th. However, the WSJ editorial team had lost contact with him the previous night, shortly after he had arrived in Yekaterinburg. After sending a text message to his colleagues at around 2 pm saying “Landed at the airport,” he had not communicated with them since.

Gershkovich was aware that he was being followed and monitored by Russian security forces, who harassed him during one of his editorial assignments, kept a record of his movements on camera, and exerted pressure on his sources. The journalist even suspected that his phone might have been bugged. On a separate trip to Pskov, he was also trailed and filmed by unknown individuals.

“There is always surveillance now if you leave Moscow,” explains a British reporter familiar with Evan who wished to remain anonymous. According to him, Russian siloviki constantly monitor the business trips of foreign editorial staff to the regions. A former employee of Deutsche Welle confirmed this to The Insider. Both foreign and Russian employees of foreign editorial offices are being monitored, a practice that started even before the war. In some regions, the constant presence of law enforcement has become commonplace for many people.

“Once I was 'met' right on the railway platform in a regional center. As I disembarked. That is, all our names were instantly known, as were all our business trips, where we lived, which flights we took, and so on. You have to register for everything,” the DW employee says. According to him, this system was put in place a few years before the war:

“Since 2017, when a foreign national checks into a hotel in Russia, they are immediately de-registered at their place of residence, and their details are sent to the migration service. As a result, the movements of foreign journalists can be tracked easily. It's as if someone is watching them from on high.”

A hunt on reporters

Starting with the invasion of Ukraine, propaganda Telegram channels began to target journalists. In the spring and summer of 2022, some Telegram resources linked to the Russian security services published photos of foreign media personnel, called for reporting on journalists' visits to the region and sending any information about them to specific Telegram chats.

“Attention, Yekaterinburg! A German journalist is spying for Ukraine,” the URALLive channel wrote in August, when Christian Esch from Spiegel arrived in the city to prepare a report. Routine journalistic work was described as “spying” - Esch planned to interview former mayor Roizman and visit the Yeltsin Center. In the same Telegram channel, Esch discovered images from a security camera showing him being searched at Yekaterinburg airport.

Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs-accredited propaganda Telegram channels have been targeting foreign journalists, accusing them of working for the Ukrainian special services without providing any evidence. The channels have also singled out other members of the Wall Street Journal, such as U.S. Moscow correspondent Anne Simmons and translator Valentina Ochirova, as well as cameraman Artur Bondar and German journalist Silke Bigalke. These journalists' reporting on the war has been labeled as “anti-Russian,” and the channels have called for the security services to “take action” against them.

Jason Corcoran, an Irish journalist with 17 years of experience in Russia and the CIS, also received threats. He was sent a message via Telegram from unknown individuals stating, “We are extremely dissatisfied with the tone of your reports, Jason. Now you have personal security problems.”

“Glad I got out and I would recommend the remaining Western journalists in Moscow to leave. Putin will use them as pawns,” Corcoran wrote on his Twitter.

Border and police interrogations

Stefan Scholl, a correspondent for the German Südwest Presse stationed in Moscow, underwent an interrogation upon entering Russia from Latvia. He was questioned by officials, believed to be the FSB, for over an hour regarding his stance towards Putin and the situation in Ukraine.

“I responded to their inquiries with complete honesty, stating that nearly all of Putin's actions towards Ukraine, commencing with the annexation of Crimea, transgressed international laws. They proceeded to argue that a system where the majority consistently elects the same individual is superior. Our conversation culminated with the query, 'Are you truly a spy?'“

A Spanish reporter, who wished to remain anonymous, told The Insider that in February 2022, FSB officers asked him several unusual questions while he was passing through passport control at a Moscow airport. Among them, the FSB agent inquired if the journalist was carrying drugs or medication, and whether he suffered from depression or anxiety. The reporter described the incident as “very peculiar,” stating that prior to this encounter, neither he nor his colleagues had encountered significant difficulties crossing the border since the start of the conflict.

In July, Christian Esch was detained by border guards and an FSB officer at Sheremetyevo airport for a duration of three hours. During this time, his passport was confiscated, and he was subjected to an interrogation. The officers questioned him about his views on the “SMO” and whether he had visited Bucha, in addition to urging him not to publish negative content about Russia. After the conversation, Esch was returned his passport and granted entry into the Russian Federation.

Marc Bennetts, a British journalist who has been residing in Russia since 1997, was subjected to an interrogation by Russian security officers. In February 2022, while covering an anti-war rally in Moscow, Bennetts was detained and taken to the police van alongside protesters, before being transported to a police station and placed in a separate room. He was questioned by the officers about his knowledge of Russia and his opinions on Putin. Eventually, Bennetts was released without any formal charges being filed against him.

Mark Bennetts (third from left) in a police van in Moscow, February 28, 2022
Mark Bennetts (third from left) in a police van in Moscow, February 28, 2022

“Putin is taking Western hostages, and I wondered if I would be a pawn in a Cold War-style prisoner exchange. I tried to banish the thought, since Russia had never imprisoned a British journalist before. But in times like these, nothing can be ruled out,” Bennetts recalled in an article in The Times. At the time, it was hard to imagine that a year later his colleague Evan Gershkovich would be arrested for espionage.

Russian Foreign Ministry: “These are fakes”

Reporters hailing from the United States and the United Kingdom appear to be the primary targets of Russian surveillance, while journalists representing French and Spanish outlets face fewer obstacles in their work. This observation was corroborated by nearly all foreign journalists who were interviewed by The Insider. The disparity may stem from the fact that publications in French and Spanish languages have a comparatively smaller readership than major English-language newspapers, making their reporters less interesting to Russian security agencies and enabling them to travel with ease.

“We can go to the regions, we can travel,” notes the French journalist, who wished to remain anonymous. “I have been to Russian regions many times, I've visited small towns like Kursk and Belgorod – and in general there were no problems with security officers. I wasn't detained or questioned. They do not have much interest in what we write.”

Nonetheless, instances have arisen in which the Russian Foreign Ministry and embassies have made concerted efforts to censor reports written by foreign journalists stationed in Russia. Articles that include negative assessments of Russian authorities or information deemed unfavorable to the Kremlin are denounced as “fake.” According to The Insider's source, a journalist from Spain, this is a “subtle” tactic for exerting pressure on writers.

“In my home country of Spain, the Russian embassy has taken to sharing screenshots of articles from Spanish media, labeling them as “fake.” This gesture appears to be a means of surveillance and a warning to journalists, as if to imply that the embassy is closely monitoring their work and prepared to take action if it includes any false information about the Russian military. As a result, I am cautious about my words and how I express myself,” the Spanish journalist says.

One example is an article published in The Times regarding Vladimir Putin, which suggested that he might plan to flee Russia if the need arose. Despite being based on information from a range of political analysts and experts, many of whom were Russian and cited publicly available sources, the Russian embassy in Britain dismissed the article as “fake.” In a scathing tweet, the embassy announced that the journalist responsible for the article, Marc Bennetts, would be barred from entering Russia for several years.

“Marc Bennetts, who was banned from entering Russia several years ago, seems to have forgotten that he is not writing one of his fairytale books, but a news story where he needs to get his facts in order. On the other hand, that hasn't been The Times' strong suit lately anyway,” the diplomatic mission post said.

Bennetts' article titled “Who Attacked the Nord Stream Pipelines?” also drew the ire of the Russian Foreign Ministry, as it suggested the Kremlin's possible involvement in the explosions. While the article did not definitively attribute blame to anyone, the Foreign Ministry still published a “rebuttal” article on their website, which did not disprove anything in Bennetts' article as it did not make any direct accusations. The article simply outlined the various theories surrounding the terrorist attacks on the Nord Stream and Nord Stream-2 pipelines without promoting any specific one. Despite this, the Foreign Ministry labeled Bennetts a “propagandist” and demanded that he apologize, write a new article, and “name the real organizers and executors of that act of sabotage (as determined by the Russian Foreign Ministry), who are lying low across the Atlantic.” However, to date, there has been no official information regarding who may have been responsible for the explosions.

Arja Paananen, a correspondent of the Finnish newspaper Ilta Sanomat who has worked in Russia for over 30 years, was unable to renew her visa after the Russian Foreign Ministry lashed out at her. The ministry did not like an article in Russian about civilian victims of the Russian military invasion of Ukraine. The Foreign Ministry called the article a fake and an example of “unfounded anti-Russian propaganda,” and published a “retraction” on its website. Roskomnadzor blocked access to Ilta Sanomat's website, and in October 2022, the journalist was denied accreditation – for the first time since 1990.

Arja Paananen with Boris Yeltsin, 1996
Arja Paananen with Boris Yeltsin, 1996
Ilta Sanomat / MAURI RATILAINEN

Foreign journalists were also impacted by laws in Russia that pertain to spreading fake news and discrediting the Russian army, which can lead to imprisonment of up to 3 and up to 15 years, respectively. “Work has definitely changed since the war started, particularly after the implementation of the Russian fake news law,” says a Spanish reporter. “Many stopped using the term 'war' on TV, instead saying 'special military operation.' However, the term 'war' is currently widely used again, since propagandists on Russian TV also use it.”

Stefan Scholl points out that some foreign authors resort to using pseudonyms to evade administrative or criminal charges, while others avoid writing about sensitive topics altogether. According to Scholl, “there is now a new division of labor in Western media. Those who write about Ukraine are mostly based outside Russia, which is a departure from the way it was before large-scale hostilities.”

“Expressing oneself in a manner that does not appear to disparage the Russian army can be a challenging task. There have been instances where I have declined certain writing assignments from my superiors, recognizing the potential risks involved. Alternatively, I may recommend that the subject matter be assigned to a colleague who is not based in Russia, while offering my assistance as needed,” a Spanish journalist says.

Visa blackmail

One of the main problems faced by reporters from Western countries is the inability to obtain visas or renew them. According to a British correspondent who wished to remain anonymous, the Foreign Ministry very rarely gives visas to journalists who are not currently in Russia:

“I only know one person like that who has been allowed to enter since February 2022. I'm trying to get a new visa now. I asked them to make an exception. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs told me I had to write an explanation about why I left Russia.”

Foreign reporters have also faced a challenge with the reduction of the visa renewal period from one year to three months by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. According to a French journalist, this poses a significant problem as it requires collecting a new set of documents and doing paperwork for the renewal every three months. Additionally, a British journalist confirms that “after extending one visa, they already have to start collecting documents for the next renewal.”

At the same time, the process of extending the visa has become more difficult, even for a period of three months. In order to accomplish this, one must obtain a letter of accreditation, a registration, and a medical certificate. A Spanish journalist notes that the accreditation is provided by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs at the eleventh hour:

“Suppose that my visa expires on Friday, and the accreditation letter is issued by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs on Wednesday or Tuesday, for instance. In fact, I have only two days to complete the entire procedure. The documents must still be submitted to the migration service on Pokrovka Street. You have to wait for these letters to arrive, and when they do, you have to rush to gather everything and get everywhere on time. This can be very stressful since everything is done at the last minute.”

Foreign journalists have faced difficulties in obtaining visa renewals due to the intentional policies of the Russian Foreign Ministry. The Ministry claims that this is a response to the “Russophobic” policies of foreign media in unfriendly countries, but the true motive may be to reduce the amount of content that is uncomfortable for the Kremlin.

“Western journalists from unfriendly countries, almost all of them, constantly complain that it has become very difficult for them to work in Russia, because they now have to apply for visas more often and apply for accreditation more often. Well, they'd better get used to it,” Zakharova commented on the issue at the March 16 meeting of Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov with the heads of bureaus of foreign mass media accredited in Russia. She mentioned the “boorish” attitude of foreign journalists at least three times.

Some journalists from friendly countries were also impacted by visa-related issues. For instance, an Indian freelancer Vikram Aditya (name changed for safety reasons) was cautioned against communicating with Russian opposition activists while applying for a visa. Although Vikram knew most members of the diplomatic mission, things did not go as planned. When Vikram arrived, an unfamiliar person accepted his passport and documents. The conversation occurred in January 2022, just before Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

“I think you know it, but I need to warn you that this is a very difficult time for our country,” the diplomatic official began. “You need to be discreet in your contacts so that there are no problems with your stay.”

“Is that a threat?” Vikram tried to clarify what kind of contacts the consul was talking about.

“Just watch who you communicate with, contacts with those who act against our country will not do you any good,” said the consul.

The journalist believes the warning was likely issued after the Russian authorities learned of his contacts with a Russian activist who had been designated as a “foreign agent.” Vikram's colleague also received a similar warning, suggesting that these warnings are part of a larger effort by the Russian authorities to intimidate journalists and prevent criticism from countries that Moscow considers to be allies.

“To be honest, I don't really understand why Russia has not expelled all Western correspondents, despite passing a law allowing for such action,” a British journalist says. This law pertains to enacting similar measures as those imposed by other countries to ban Russian media. According to the law, the General Prosecutor's Office has the authority to prohibit foreign media from operating in Russia and suspend the license of Russian media for up to three months if it publishes information deemed inaccurate. For repeated violations, this term may be extended up to six months, media registration may be invalidated, and broadcasting licenses can be suspended. Foreign journalists may also have their accreditation revoked if they engage in unfriendly actions, or if restrictions are imposed on the distribution of Russian media outlets operating abroad.

Some reporters use different methods to continue working in the country. One of the journalists who wished to remain anonymous told The Insider, “I have found a way, like many others here, to continue working in the country by applying for a residence permit, as I have such an opportunity, I have a family and children here.”

No more comments

Due to the Russian Foreign Ministry's hostile language towards foreign media, there has been a growing perception among Russians that foreign journalists are a threat to their homeland. As a result, ordinary Russians are displaying more aggression towards foreign reporters.

“Some people started reacting aggressively when they find out that I am a foreign journalist. They say that I bring harm to Russia or something like that. It's not very common, but I've never heard such statements before,” a Spanish reporter says. “It affected my personal life as well. Some acquaintances of mine here in Russia openly criticize my activities, they think I work against Russia and its people, which is not true.”

According to all of The Insider's interlocutors, the most significant issue is people's fear of communicating with foreign journalists. While discussing politics with Russians has always been challenging, even finding a speaker for non-political subjects like art or sports has become difficult. This problem is particularly severe for TV journalists, a correspondent from Spain says.

“Absolutely no one wants to speak on camera, which makes it virtually impossible to prepare a TV report on topics related to the war or human rights. People are just afraid to speak out.”

Besides the law on fake news and the law on discrediting the army, Russians are also concerned about unintentionally divulging information to foreigners that the Russian government deems confidential or classified as state secrets. On December 1, Order No. 547 “On approval of the list of information in the field of military and military-technical activities of the Russian Federation which may be used against security of the Russian Federation if obtained by foreign sources” went into effect. The Order essentially categorizes any data related to the activities of the Russian military, including mobilization, as information that could be utilized against Russian security if acquired by foreign sources. In theory, this means that any analytical material concerning military-related subjects could fall under this order. It is difficult for both Russians and foreign journalists to discern which information is considered a state secret and which is not.

However, not all Russians are frightened by Western correspondents, notes German reporter Stefan Scholl. According to him, the appearance of a foreigner from a Western country is often perceived positively, in large cities, in the countryside, in Moscow, and in the regions alike:

“They say, 'It's a good thing you're still here!' Many people are happy when they hear my accent,” the reporter says. “Once in Cheboksary a stranger was very happy to talk to me. She even let me know right away that she was ashamed of what her country was doing in Ukraine.”

The silence of the officials

Once the war started, even officials who were previously willing to provide comments, such as representatives of the Communist Party, ceased to communicate with foreign journalists. “I attempted to contact every official in Belgorod, but not a single one responded to my letters,” a Spanish journalist says.

“On one occasion, I attempted to interview a specialist associated with an official institution related to the CIS countries. Initially, the specialist agreed to the interview, but later canceled it and ceased responding. It's unclear whether this was an instance of self-censorship or if someone advised them not to speak with me,” says a journalist from another media outlet in Spain.

Interestingly, Evan Gershkovich's affair also included a cancelled interview, says Yaroslav Shirshikov, a political strategist from Yekaterinburg who aided Gershkovich in arranging the meeting. According to Shirshikov, the journalist agreed to receive an official statement from the Defense Ministry, but the military cancelled everything 15 minutes before the scheduled interview.

Implications of Evan Gershkovich's arrest

Commenting on Gershkovich's detention, Ivan Pavlov, a member of the legal aid group at First Department, said, “It was an unwritten rule not to touch accredited foreign journalists, and now it has stopped working.” According to The Insider's sources, the arrest of the WSJ correspondent will have significant implications for foreign media working in Russia. A French journalist expressed concern that reporters will become cautious about traveling to specific areas and discussing war-related issues.

“This is a new twist, a new precedent that the authorities can use. The fact that Evan was declared a spy creates a huge risk for any journalist, especially when you collect information, for example, about the Wagner PMC, the Russian army, those killed in action and their families.”

The enactment of the fake news law has prompted numerous foreign media organizations to shut down their editorial offices and dismiss their correspondents in Russia. Journalists who previously resided in Russia, such as those from The New York Times, now make business trips to the country, considering this to be a safer way of working. Several media employees contemplated returning to Russia, but they abandoned the idea after Gershkovich's detention.

“Friends and relatives asked me to return to my home country to stay safe, or at least to leave Russia and move to a friendlier country. They are afraid I might be imprisoned or deported,” a Spanish media correspondent says.

“It's a very sad and horrible situation because Gershkovich was arrested and accused of being a spy while merely fulfilling his professional obligations by gathering information for an article. There is speculation that Gershkovich was detained as part of an effort to bolster the prisoner exchange fund with the United States. Regrettably, this situation raises concerns about the possibility of similar occurrences in the future,” a French journalist says.

Maria Zakharova's comments suggesting that Gershkovich was not the only journalist engaged in espionage may have prompted foreign media outlets to consider such a possibility. It is conceivable that the trend of detaining alleged “spies” will persist, leading to a dearth of foreign correspondents in Russia. The departure of both Russian independent and foreign media organizations has created a vacuum that pro-government outlets are filling with pro-Putin propaganda. “The loss of this window to Russia is not only detrimental to the international community, but also to Russians who are deprived of one of the few channels through which they can express themselves,” remarked Gulnoza Said, the Committee to Protect Journalists' (CPJ) coordinator. It seems likely that this outcome is precisely what the Russian authorities intended.

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