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Two US Journalist Detainment by Russia Shakes Press Freedom

Alsu Kurmasheva, detained by Russian courts, image from Punctual Pei

Arrest of Alsu Kurmasheva in Russia as the second detained US journalist this year

Alsu Kurmasheva, an editor with Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s (RFE/RL) Tatar-Bashkir Service, was taken into custody by Kazan, Russia, police on October 18. Kurmasheva is accused of not registering as a foreign agent. The maximum term for the offense is five years in jail.

Alsu Kurmasheva, a journalist with Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, was detained by Russian officials on October 18 for failing to register as a foreign agent. As a dual citizen of the US and Russia, Kurmasheva is the second American journalist to have been detained in Russia so far this year. Following the arrest of Wall Street Journal writer Evan Gershkovich in the spring of 2023, Kurmasheva was taken into custody. On March 29, Gershkovich was seized in Russia while traveling for work. He is the first American journalist jailed in Russia since the end of the Cold War on espionage-related grounds.

On May 20, Kurmasheva left for Russia due to an urgent family matter. On June 2, she was held in custody while she awaited her return flight. Kurmasheva’s Russian and American passports were seized by authorities at the Kazan airport. She was later penalized for failing to notify Russian officials that she was traveling with an American passport. When the brand-new charge was revealed on October 18, she was awaiting the return of her passports.

According to RFE/RL interim President Dr. Jeffrey Gedmin, “Alsu is a highly respected colleague, devoted wife, and dedicated mother to two children.” Kurmasheva is a dual citizen of the United States and Russia and currently resides in Prague, Czech Republic, with her husband and children.

In the Volga-Ural area of Russia, Kurmasheva is an established journalist who has covered ethnic minority populations in Tatarstan and Bashkortostan for many years. She has provided information on efforts being made by Russian authorities, who have recently escalated their pressure on Tatars, to safeguard and maintain the Tatar language and culture.

Since 2012, Russia has utilized legislation against “foreign agents” to penalize anyone who is considered to be a government opponent and who are thought to be “under foreign influence,” including civil society organizations, media outlets, independent journalists, and activists.

The detention and imprisonment of two American journalists mark a new high point in Russia’s conflict with the West. Although the Russian media has always been under the Putin regime’s control, actions against authorized foreign journalists working in the nation or foreign media representatives had previously been relatively uncommon and had normally just included entrance bans or deportation orders. In one particularly Orwellian move, Russian journalists have been forbidden from calling the invasion of Ukraine a “war,” and are instead required to use the government’s euphemistic “special military operation” terminology. Those still in Russia have found themselves forced to operate in an increasingly suffocating environment where any critical coverage of the war in Ukraine could potentially lead to prosecution for “discrediting the Russian military.”

But after launching a full-scale invasion of Ukraine, it is certain that Russia now regards international journalists as acceptable targets.

It is easy to understand why Kurmasheva would have been a target for the Russian government. She has questioned the Kremlin’s carefully crafted narrative of national unity and overwhelming popular support for the invasion of Ukraine through her reporting for RFE/RL on ethnic minorities in Tatarstan and Bashkortostan as well as her coverage of the Russian anti-war movement.

Though already second to being a US journalist detained in Russia, Kurmasheva is the first journalist to be detained under a specific section of the criminal code that punishes failure to register formally as a foreign agent, which critics claim is intentionally vague and can be applied to any group or person considered to be “under foreign influence.” Additionally, she is charged with “carrying out targeted information collection in the field of military activities of the Russian Federation.”

Along with making it much harder for the media to cover Russia, some worry the arrest of two American journalists may also be part of Kremlin efforts to imprison US citizens in order to later exchange them for Russian nationals detained in the West. As noted in the Washington Post’s article on Kurmasheva, her arrest marks an “ominous new phase in Russia’s repression of journalists.” Without a strong response from the international community to this latest arrest, it is likely that more foreign journalists working or traveling in Russia will suffer a similar fate, as stated by Janne Cavelier, head of Reporters Without Borders/Reporters sans Frontiers Eastern Europe and Central Asia desk. “Journalists must not be used as bargaining chips in Moscow’s war against Kyiv.”

The diminishing number of foreign correspondents operating in Putin’s Russia has been put on edge by the incarceration of US citizens Krumasheva and Gershkovich. Due to the perceived risk of imprisonment, several major foreign media organizations are currently unwilling to keep fully staffed operations in Moscow. Individual journalists are likewise no longer secure in their personal security. As a result, it is now even more challenging to write about Russia at a time when dependable foreign coverage of the nation is crucial.


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