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Jailed journalist Kurmasheva recognized for her courage

FILE - Russian-American journalist for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty Alsu Kurmasheva holds a card reading "She's expected home" as she attends a court hearing in Kazan, Russia, April 1, 2024.
FILE - Russian-American journalist for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty Alsu Kurmasheva holds a card reading "She's expected home" as she attends a court hearing in Kazan, Russia, April 1, 2024.

Alsu Kurmasheva, a journalist unlawfully detained in Russia since October, was recognized Friday with an award for her courage and determination.

Kurmasheva, an editor at the Tatar-Bashkir service of VOA’s sister outlet Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, is accused of failing to self-register as a so-called “foreign agent” and spreading what Moscow views as false information about the Russian military.

The Russian-American journalist, who is based in Prague, had traveled to Russia in May 2023 to care for her ailing mother. When she tried to return home, authorities confiscated her passports.

RFE/RL’s parent organization the U.S. Agency for Global Media, or USAGM, honored Kurmasheva, 47, with a David Burke Distinguished Journalism Award, which recognizes courage and journalistic excellence.

“I want to thank USAGM for recognizing the extraordinary sacrifices and dedication of our colleague Alsu,” RFE/RL President Stephen Capus said during the ceremony. “It is beyond time to free Alsu.”

American RFE/RL reporter marks 6 months jailed in Russia

The awards are named after news executive David Burke, who served as the first chair of the Broadcasting Board of Governors, which is now known as USAGM. Each year, journalists at the USAGM networks, which include Voice of America, are recognized through the awards.

“Amid rising threats to press freedom, this year’s Burke honorees epitomize the courage and resilience that’s needed to deliver objective, truthful reporting to audiences without a free press,” said USAGM CEO Amanda Bennett.

“It is a privilege to work alongside these remarkable journalists, who work tirelessly, often at tremendous risk to their own safety and wellbeing, to inform, connect and engage people around the world in support of freedom and democracy,” she added.

In Kurmasheva’s case, the journalist and her employer have rejected the charges Russia filed against her, and the U.S. government has called for her immediate release. If convicted, she faces up to 15 years behind bars.

Kurmasheva is currently set to be held in pre-trial detention until at least June.

“A family has been ripped apart,” Capus said, referencing Kurmasheva’s husband, Pavel Butorin, and their two daughters.

Butorin is the director of Current Time TV, a Russian-language TV and digital network led by RFE/RL in partnership with VOA. He accepted the award on Kurmasheva’s behalf.

“We know that Alsu is not a criminal. We know that she is behind bars because of her work at RFE/RL and her American citizenship. Russia has made it explicitly clear that it’s targeting Alsu because of her reporting,” Butorin said in his remarks.

Butorin also called on the U.S. government to declare Kurmasheva wrongfully detained, which would open additional resources to help secure her release.

“The U.S. government should not hesitate to designate Alsu as wrongfully detained and explore every possible avenue to secure her speedy release from Russian captivity,” Butorin said.

The State Department says it is still considering whether to declare Kurmasheva wrongfully detained. Press freedom groups have criticized the State Department for not yet making the designation.

“We’re just absolutely shocked that she has not yet been declared wrongfully detained,” National Press Club President Emily Wilkins said at an event in Washington.

“We know that she’s a reporter, we know that she did nothing wrong, we know that journalism is not a crime, and we know that ‘wrongful detention’ just aren’t words. It would actually help her case a lot,” Wilkins said.

Kurmasheva’s case underscores the state of press freedom in Russia, where a second American journalist — The Wall Street Journal’s Evan Gershkovich — has been jailed since March 2023.

Gershkovich is accused of espionage, which he, his employer and the U.S. government deny. In that case, the State Department declared Gershkovich, 32, wrongfully detained.

To date, the Russian government has not publicly provided any evidence to substantiate the charges against Gershkovich, who was accredited by the Russian Foreign Ministry to work in the country.

Russia’s Washington embassy did not immediately reply to VOA’s email requesting comment.

Gershkovich and Kurmasheva are among the 22 journalists — including 12 foreign nationals — who were jailed in Russia at the end of 2023, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. That total means Moscow is the fourth worst jailer of journalists in the world — and underscores the grave risks facing reporters in Russia.

“The profession of journalism should not be synonymous with danger,” Butorin said.