Russia detains Radio Liberty journalist accused of being ‘foreign agent’

RIGA, Latvia — Russian authorities have arrested an editor for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, an American news outlet based in Prague and financed by the U.S. government, accusing her of collecting information about the Russia military that could damage the nation’s security.

The editor, Alsu Kurmasheva, holds dual U.S. and Russian citizenship and had traveled to Russia for family reasons. Her detention Wednesday in Kazan, southwestern Russia, follows the arrest of Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich, a U.S. citizen, who was seized by agents of the Federal Security Service in March and charged with spying — an accusation that his newspaper and the State Department strongly deny.

Kurmasheva’s arrest highlights the continuing dangers for journalists traveling in wartime Russia and operating in an environment in which senior officials have described their work as part of an “information war” against Moscow.

Government officials have taken a tough line in particular against U.S. journalists, with Russian Foreign Intelligence Service director Sergei Naryshkin claiming in July that American journalists had been ordered by the State Department to incite Russians to violently oppose the government, including mounting an armed insurrection. Naryshkin did not provide evidence of his assertion.

Kurmasheva, who is based in Prague, also was charged with failing to register as a “foreign agent,” although she does not reside in Russia. She was initially detained in June, as she was waiting to fly out of Russia, after visiting the country for family reasons. Her employer, RFE/RL, has been designated a foreign agent by Russian authorities.

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RFE/RL is financed by the U.S. Congress through the United States Agency for Global Media, an independent federal government agency that oversees U.S. civilian international media.

RFE/RL demanded Kurmasheva’s immediate release. “Alsu is a highly respected colleague, devoted wife, and dedicated mother to two children. She needs to be released so she can return to her family immediately,” acting RFE/RL president Jeffrey Gedmin said in a statement.

Kurmasheva was accused by Russian authorities of deliberately collecting information about Russian military activities that “could be used against the security of the Russian Federation,” marking an ominous new phase in Russia’s repression of journalists.

The Committee to Protect Journalists said it is the first time that that provision in Russian law has been used, citing the Russian legal rights group OVD-Info. If convicted, Kurmasheva could face five years in prison.

The CPJ described the charges as “spurious” and called on Russian authorities to release her immediately.

The situation in Russia is even more dangerous for Russian journalists, with hundreds forced to flee the country to avoid arrest because of Russia’s draconian laws on discrediting the military. Those proscriptions effectively bar any independent, critical reporting on Russia’s military and its serial missteps in the war on Ukraine.

Russia has used its “foreign agent” law to stifle Russian activists, independent media and human rights groups on the basis of any funding received from outside the country.

The designation carries a heavy stigma, implying that those branded with it are paid agents of foreign powers and echoing a phenomenon of the Soviet era, when dissidents were branded enemies of the people.

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The state news agency Tatar-Inform spelled out the charges against Kurmasheva in more detail, reporting that she was accused of having “deliberately conducted a targeted collection of military information about Russian activities via the internet to transmit information to foreign sources” in September 2022.

She also was accused of using information about Tatarstan university teachers drafted into the army to prepare “alternative analytical materials” for “relevant international authorities and conducting information campaigns discrediting Russia.”

A Russian court last week denied Gershkovich’s third legal appeal, rejecting his bid to overturn a court order that he remain in custody until Nov. 30. Gershkovich’s detention is likely to be extended on that date, as it has been several times since his arrest in March.

Gershkovich, 31, was seized by security agents at a restaurant in the city of Yekaterinburg during a reporting trip in March and has since been held in Moscow’s Lefortovo prison.

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