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Colleagues of Jailed WSJ Reporter Grapple With His Arrest by Russia

American journalist Evan Gershkovich, arrested on espionage charges, stands inside a defendants' cage before a hearing to consider an appeal on his arrest, at the Moscow City Court in Moscow, Apr. 18, 2023
American journalist Evan Gershkovich, arrested on espionage charges, stands inside a defendants' cage before a hearing to consider an appeal on his arrest, at the Moscow City Court in Moscow, Apr. 18, 2023

Journalist Margaret Sullivan says that when she received word that former colleague Evan Gershkovich had been detained in Russia on spy charges, “The color of the world changed.”

Sullivan was in a Washington hotel room watching the news when her former editorial assistant Gershkovich appeared on television.

The pair had worked together when Sullivan was the public editor at The New York Times. She is now a columnist at The Guardian.

“It just really hit me hard from a personal standpoint to imagine this wonderful, humorous, intelligent, helpful, dedicated journalist in the situation, charged with espionage for merely doing his job,” Sullivan told VOA. “So I felt very upset and certainly angry but mostly concerned for him.”

Gershkovich’s arrest in late March comes at an all-time high of journalists being jailed globally. Media watchdogs warn that press freedom is in decline globally. And by late 2022, at least 363 journalists were jailed around the world in retaliation for their work, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.

The arrest of a journalist has a ripple effect for newsrooms, as colleagues and the greater media community grapple with concern for jailed colleagues and efforts to report on the cases.

It’s an experience that Ben Dunant knows all too well. Dunant was in Britain in May 2021 when he received a 5 a.m. phone call to say that his colleague and friend — American journalist Danny Fenster — had been arrested in Myanmar.

Dunant, now editor-in-chief of the English-language news magazine Frontier Myanmar, had already left Myanmar for safety reasons a few months after a February 2021 coup. But Fenster, then the magazine’s managing editor, decided to stay a little longer.

“At first, there wasn’t really time to absorb the emotional impact, because there were some immediate practical steps to take to mitigate the extreme situation,” Dunant told VOA from Bangkok. “And as I did then consider what had happened throughout the day, there was just this incredibly strong sense that that could’ve been me.”

Survivor’s guilt is a normal response to this kind of trauma, according to Katherine Porterfield, a psychologist at Columbia University’s Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma.

“It’s incredibly distressing to think about a person losing their liberty because of the work that they do — and that you do,” Porterfield said. “It’s very distressing to think of someone whose human rights are really being violated in your field, doing your job. So I think that journalists need to recognize that that stress is valid.”

In Dunant’s words, “I felt it was just incredibly arbitrary and unfair. There was no good reason why it would be Danny and not me.”

That toll can come into play when journalists are tasked with reporting on their colleagues and friends, Porterfield said.

“When you’re touched by the content, in any way, of your own story,” she said, “you are going to be more vulnerable as a journalist.”

“The problem is when journalists ignore the fact that they’re having a reaction — minimize it, deny it, say it’s not valid, and then just charge ahead,” Porterfield said.

With Gershkovich’s case, Sullivan says that The Wall Street Journal has been doing a great job at maintaining attention on his case. “I don’t see his situation fading from our interest and our concern,” Sullivan said.

Gershkovich also worked as an editorial assistant for Elizabeth Spayd, who succeeded Sullivan as The New York Times’ public editor. Like Sullivan, Spayd said she was heartbroken to hear of the arrest.

“We’re pushing because he’s a journalist,” Spayd said about Gershkovich. “There are few more worthy causes in journalism than trying to get someone out who’s essentially being held hostage.”

Frontier’s Dunant said that Fenster’s case was an emotional challenge from the outlet, but an added difficulty was the military-imposed barriers to reporting on the situation, including a trial that took place behind closed doors.

Fenster was eventually released in November 2021.

“I was absolutely overjoyed. It felt like a weight was lifted off of all of us,” Dunant said. “It was just an incredibly happy day after we’ve had so much bad news from Myanmar.”

But some cases are prolonged.

Emily Angwin, a freelance reporter in the Philippines, worked in Beijing as an anchor at the Chinese state-run TV channel CGTN from 2019 until her colleague Cheng Lei’s arrest on espionage charges in 2020.

Cheng, an Australian national, had a closed-door trial last year, but China has still not publicly announced the verdict.

“She is a strong and resilient woman, but that uncertainty of being behind bars without a verdict or a sentence would take its toll on anyone,” Angwin told VOA.

“Lei’s detention is heart wrenching, not just because she is my friend, a former colleague and a fellow Australian but also because she is a journalist,” Angwin said. Angwin added that Cheng’s detention was a contributing factor in her decision to leave China and report elsewhere.

“Lei was a great colleague to have. We both connected as two Aussies and particularly as Melburnians,” Angwin added, recalling how Cheng always knew where to get a good meal or cocktail. “I miss her dearly and hope she gets some certainty about her situation as soon as possible.”

Sullivan and Spayd agreed that journalists have a duty to draw attention to cases like Gershkovich’s and advocate for a free press.

“I think it’s OK for journalists to stand for certain kinds of things, and press freedom is absolutely at the top of the list,” Sullivan said. “Whether it’s a personal story or a column or contributing to a news story about it, I just don’t see anything wrong with that.”