Antony Blinken urges Russia to release US journalist in call with Sergei Lavrov | Russia

Antony Blinken, the US secretary of state, called for Russia to free the detained American journalist Evan Gershkovich in a rare phone call with his Moscow counterpart since the start of the war in Ukraine.

The American’s plea was rejected by Sergei Lavrov, who responded by saying that US officials and media outlets must “not make a fuss” or try to politicise the plight of the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) reporter.

Blinken said the arrest of Gershkovich on espionage charges was unacceptable, and according to a US official readout of the call insisted that he be given “immediate release” by the Russian authorities.

Gershkovich, 31, was detained on Wednesday in the Urals city of Ekaterinburg and accused by Russia’s FSB internal security agency of collecting “classified information” on a company in its military industrial complex.

The WSJ says it “vehemently denies the allegations” and would campaign for his release, while experts said Russia might be trying to use the reporter as a hostage and bargaining chip.

However, Lavrov told Blinken the reporter “had been caught red-handed attempting to obtain classified information”, according to a statement from Russia’s ministry of foreign affairs. Gershkovich was collecting state secrets under journalistic cover, the Russian minister added.

No further evidence was offered in support of Lavrov’s assertion, but he warned the US against trying to ratchet up campaigning for his release, arguing that Russia’s judicial process should be allowed to take its course.

“It was stressed that officials in Washington and the western media must not make a fuss over this case with the clear intention of giving it a political overtone,” Moscow’s foreign ministry said in a statement released on Telegram.

Before his arrest, Gershkovich was reportedly working on a story about Wagner, the notionally private military group run by the businessman Yevgeny Prigozhin, which has done much of the fighting in Ukraine.

Media freedoms in Russia have been dramatically eroded since the full invasion of Ukraine in February last year, but the detention of Gershkovich marks a further downturn in an increasingly tense atmosphere.

No US journalist has been arrested and accused of spying by Moscow since the end of the cold war over three decades ago, and his capture is likely to prompt reappraisals by media organisations of the safety of reporters working in Russia.

More than three dozen editors of news organisations from across the world signed a letter condemning the arrest over the weekend, including Katharine Viner, the editor-in-chief of Guardian News & Media. “Russia is sending the message that journalism within your borders is criminalised,” they wrote.

Journalist friends of Gershkovich described him as a conscientious and diligent reporter. A Russian speaker, he had lived in Moscow for six years, working previously at Moscow Times and Agence France-Presse.

Russia has previously shown itself eager to trade Americans in its custody with its citizens held in the US. Last year, Russian authorities arrested the US basketball player Brittney Griner on drugs charges and sentenced her to nine years in prison. She was swapped in December for Viktor Bout, an arms dealer nicknamed the Merchant of Death, who had long been held in the US.

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