MOSCOW - Russia announced Thursday it has detained Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich in the eastern city of Yekaterinburg on suspicion of espionage.
The 31-year-old reporter is part of the Journal's Moscow bureau and had official Russian press accreditation, the paper reported. He has worked in Russia since 2017.
Russia's security service, the FSB, released a statement saying it has "halted the illegal activities" of Gershkovich, saying he was 'suspected of spying in the interests of the American government."
Evan Gershkovich, a reporter for U.S. newspaper The Wall Street Journal, appears in an undated handout image taken in an unknown location. (The Wall Street Journal/Handout via Reuters)
The Journal denied those claims and called for Gershkovich's immediate release.
"We stand in solidarity with Evan and his family," the Journal said in a statement.
Media watchdog Reporters Without Borders said that Gershkovich had been investigating a story on the mercenary Wagner Group at the time of his arrest.
In January, the United States announced sanctions on Wagner, which has been supporting Russia in Moscow's war in Ukraine.
US Sanctions Russian Wagner Group, Urges Others to Follow
The White House in late 2022 said Wagner had deployed around 50,000 fighters to Ukraine, many of them recruited from Russian prisons.
The FSB has accused Gershkovich of gathering information on a 'military-industrial complex."
The accusation was repeated by Russian foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova and Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov, who both alleged Gershkovich was 'caught in the act."
The Washington-based National Press Club on Thursday called for Gershkovich's immediate release in a joint statement from its president, Eileen O'Reilly, and Gil Klein, head of the National Press Club Journalism Institute.
"Evan Gershkovich is a journalist. He should be released immediately and unharmed and allowed to return to his important work," the club's statement read. "We consider this an unjust detention and call on the State Department to designate his detention in that manner at once."
Several U.S. citizens are in detention in Russia, and both Washington and Moscow have accused the other of carrying out politically motivated arrests, Agence France-Presse reported.
In February of last year, U.S. basketball star Brittney Griner was arrested in Russia for carrying a small quantity of cannabis oil in an electronic cigarette cartridge. She received a nine-year sentence and was transferred to a prison labor camp. Griner was released in December in exchange for Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout.
Russia opened a criminal case in January against an unnamed U.S. citizen whom it said is suspected of espionage.
Former Marine Paul Whelan is serving a 16-year sentence on espionage charges in a penal colony outside Moscow.
Russia has become an increasingly difficult place for journalists in recent years, with authorities using its foreign agent law and other regulations to pressure media, according to rights organizations.
Violence, War and New Laws Increase Risks for Media in 2022
When Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022, it issued new directives and laws regarding how media can report on or refer to the war, which carry heavy penalties.
Foreign correspondents have previously reported being followed while on assignment in Russia, especially when reporting outside the main cities.
Gershkovich has been working for the Journal for just over a year, covering Russia and Ukraine.
His recent stories include coverage of economic problems in Russia, Chinese leader Xi Jinping's visit to Moscow, and the Russian jets that collided with a U.S. drone over the Black Sea.
Before joining the Journal, Gershkovich worked in Moscow for AFP and spent three years as a reporter for The Moscow Times. He also was a news assistant at The New York Times.
AFP reported that Gershkovich's family immigrated to the United States from Russia when he was a child.
Some information for this story is from Agence France-Presse. Rob Garver contributed to this report.