The arrest of an American journalist in Russia is awful. For me, it’s also painfully personal | US news

His face stared out from news stories on Thursday morning, accompanied by headlines like this one in the Guardian: “Russia arrests reporter and accuses him of espionage.”

Oh, that’s awful, I thought at first, reflecting that we really are involved in some kind of new cold war, and there is no end to the toll that authoritarian governments will take on journalists. The imprisonment of journalists is at a historic high worldwide; I’ve written columns about that. And I know that there are close to 20 journalists in Russian jails and that Vladimir Putin’s administration has instituted harsh consequences for what it considers “fake” news, a highly subjective judgment.

And then, a moment later, another reality hit me.

“Evan,” I said out loud in my hotel room. In that moment, this news story moved out of the realm of professional dismay and into the intensely personal.

Suddenly, this was the fresh-faced young man in his early 20s, a recent graduate of Bowdoin College, often wearing a pine-green pullover sweater and with his hair in slight disarray, with whom I had worked so closely at the New York Times.

During my last year there as public editor (the paper’s reader representative and ombudswoman), Evan Gershkovich was my editorial assistant.

Funny and helpful, hard-working, thoughtful beyond his years and idealistic about journalistic ethics, Evan was an utter pleasure to have around. In our two-person department within the Times’s newsroom, he and I spent most of each working day talking about the readers’ concerns that were pouring into the public editor’s email and how best to respond to them. Our personal connection was deepened, for me, by his age: he is slightly younger than my son, and slightly older than my daughter.

I finished my stint at the Times in 2016, moving to the Washington Post, and Evan stayed on for another year or so, first as my successor’s assistant and then – once the paper ended the public editor role in 2017 – joining the staff of the Times’s reader center.

But it was clear to those who knew him that he was always going places, especially because he was a fluent Russian speaker and such an energetic, ambitious person.

I was happy to serve as a reference for him when he applied to the Wall Street Journal after he reported for two other news organizations in Russia; I gladly sang his praises to a supervising Journal editor.

On Thursday, other former Times colleagues were thinking of him too, recalling his combination of a graceful, light touch with people and his hopes for his own career as a foreign correspondent.

“I sat next to Evan when he was your assistant and we were great buddies in the way desk proximity provides,” recalled features reporter Katherine Rosman, who came to the Times from the Wall Street Journal. “He was ambitious in a very sweet way, like he was proud to be joining the ranks of journalism.”

Later, when he joined the Journal, they corresponded. “He seemed so proud to have been hired for such a pivotal role at such a distinguished paper,” Rosman told me.

Jonah Bromwich, an earlier assistant of mine in the public editor’s office and now a Times metro reporter, recalled Evan’s personality similarly: “He made friends very easily, and could seem lighthearted, but he wanted a lot for his career and was very driven.”

Once Evan moved to Moscow, they exchanged some messages about his adjustment.

“Always over my head with work, which was what I needed,” he told Bromwich.

On Thursday, I spoke with Gulnoza Said of the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), who encouraged me – and other journalists who know him – to “put a human face” on what has happened.

She is extremely concerned. “If this case has a solution, and I hope it will, it will be political, not legal.” The legalities, such as they are, “are done in secret, behind closed doors”. And if there is a trial, she predicted, “the sentence is likely to be very lengthy. He’s going to be locked up for a long time.”

The Wall Street Journal strongly objected to the allegations of espionage, referring to Gershkovich as “our trusted and dedicated reporter,”, and stressing that he was on a reporting trip. Friends told the Financial Times he had travelled to Ekaterinburg, a large Russian city east of the Ural Mountains, for a story on a paramilitary group that is part of the Russian offensive in Ukraine.

“Evan was not unaware or naive about the risks,” Joshua Yaffa, who writes about Russia and Ukraine for the New Yorker, noted in a tweet. “It’s not like he was in Russia because no one bothered to tell him it was dangerous. He is a brave, committed, professional journalist who traveled to Russia to report on stories of import and interest.”

Gershkovich, a US citizen who is accredited to work as a journalist in Russia by the country’s foreign ministry, has done just that in his deeply reported coverage, like a story earlier this month about protests in Georgia over a controversial Russian-style foreign-agents bill.

Yet now he has become, essentially, a hostage.

“They’ve chosen a well-known journalist from an authoritative media outlet,” Ivan Pavlov, Russia’s leading defense lawyer in espionage cases, was quoted in the Guardian. “The idea is to have an ace up their sleeve for negotiations.”

If it is helpful, as CPJ’s Gulnoza Said insists, to keep the world’s attention on Evan Gershkovich’s awful plight, let’s do just that.

The idealistic, hardworking and professional young journalist I know and admire deserves nothing less.

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