The arrest of Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich in Russia on espionage charges marks an unusual return to old Soviet tactics for dealing with foreign correspondents.
Authorities in Vladimir Putin’s Russia are increasingly using criminals charges against their own journalists as part of an “increasing crackdown on free and independent media,” as Jodie Ginsberg, the chair of the Committee to Protect Journalists, has put it. But prosecutions of international journalists in Russia are still rare enough.
Indeed, media historians like myself have to go back decades to remember similar incidents. History shows that arrests of foreign journalists on espionage charges, when they occur, often provoke a diplomatic storm.
Tinker, tailor, soldier, journalist?
Take for example the Prague “show processby Associated Press reporter William Oatis at the height of the Cold War in 1951. The prosecution of Oatis on espionage charges was choreographed to suit the Soviet authorities, but the only real problem was that Oatis spoke to Czechs and did not get permission from the government received First.
“Reporting is not espionage,” The New York Times said in an editorial at the time. “[Oatis] did what all good newspapermen do in countries whose governments have chosen not to retreat to the dark depths of prehistoric barbarism.”
The case became a cause celebre from 1951 to 1953, and led to years of travel and trade embargoes between the US and Czechoslovakia, then tightly controlled by the Soviet Union.
When Oatis was finally released in 1953, the journalist was found to be weak and tuberculous. describes his prison experience as akin to being ‘buried alive’. Still, he continued to report, returning to the US to report for the United Nations for several decades before retiring.
The Oatis case may have been the most famous during the Cold War, but it was far from the only one. Other American journalists arrested in Soviet flights from countries behind the Iron Curtain included Oatis’ fellow Associated Press reporters Leonard Kirschen – arrested in Romania in 1950 and spent ten years in prison – And Endre Martinwho was arrested in Hungary in 1955 with his wife, Ilona Marton, who worked for United Press. They were released in 1956 and smuggled out of the country the following year to the US. Around this time, dozens of reporters from other agencies and other Western countries were also expelled from Eastern Europe.
The risks of reporting
Of course, arrest wasn’t the only way to silence a reporter. Then – as now – there is a risk of violence and death.
In each year of the Cold War, dozens of journalists were killed around the world’s hot conflicts. With the fall of the Soviet Union in the 1990s attacks on journalists slowed down. Nevertheless, the global death toll since 1992 stands at over 2,190, said the Committee for the Protection of Journalists. And in almost 8 out of 10 cases, the killers go unpunished. At least 12 of those deaths are involved journalists covering the war in Ukraineaccording to a March 2023 report by the Council of Europe human rights organization.
As part of the crackdown on free and independent media, Russian armed forces have shown particular hostility to journalists on Ukraine’s front lines, the Council of Europe report said. Meanwhile, data from the Committee for the Protection of Journalists points to an increase in the number of Russian journalists being held behind bars. Of the 19 currently imprisoned, half were rounded up by the authorities after the invasion of Ukraine.
Journalists working in hostile countries or war zones do so knowing that death or imprisonment can be used as diplomatic leverage or as a warning to other journalists. It’s part of the job.
Yet not all reporters or editors are innocent observers. It is true that American journalists have indeed worked with or even for the US government or intelligence agencies over the years. At least several hundred worked closely with the CIA and other intelligence agencies during World War II and throughout the Cold War, according to evidence that emerged during the Watergate era.
For many, the collaboration had laudable goals. American journalist Virginia Hall used her credentials as a New York Post reporter to aid the French Resistance in World War II, carrying downed Allied airmen to safety in neutral countries and dropping weapons.
Her story was told in the book “A woman of no importance.” The Norwegian journalist Erling Espeland did similar work in World War II.
In some cases, such as that of The Donald A. Allan of the New York TimesAmerican journalists transitioned from World War II coverage to intelligence work with relative ease. Allan left the New York Times in 1952 and supposedly went to work for CBS and United Press. But later he said that it was nothing more than a blanket for his work at the CIA.
In 1975, USA and Russia signed the Helsinki Final Act, starting a process of relaxation and normalization of trade, including guarantees of freedom of the press. Yet Western journalists were routinely harassed and detained in the Cold War Soviet Union. In a case that resonates with Gershkovich’s, in 1986 Nicholas Daniloff, the Moscow correspondent for U.S. News & World Report, arrested and detained on charges of espionage. He was later allowed to leave the Soviet Union.
A totalitarian tool
Most journalists today would reject the practice of getting caught up in the work of the intelligence community. In 1996, G. Kelly Hawes President of the Society of Professional Journalists rejected the use of American journalism as a cover for intelligence.
“The public should not be afraid to speak to the press, and journalists should not be afraid for their safety,” she said. “Our integrity has been compromised and our lives are in danger. That’s wrong.” And to be clear, Gershkovich and The Wall Street Journal did denied the espionage claims.
But to officials in an authoritarian government like Russia, journalists are not much different from spies. After all, it’s a reporter’s job to expose inconvenient truths, often hidden from the rest of the world.
Seen in that light, accusing a journalist of espionage is one of the more Orwellian tools in the authoritarian playbook.