The Media Today


April 9, 2024
Radio Free Europe-Radio Liberty editor Alsu Kurmasheva, right, speaks with her lawyer standing in a glass cage in a courtroom in Kazan, Russia, Monday, Oct. 23, 2023. (AP Photo/Vladislav Mikhnevskii)

A little over a year ago, Russia arrested Evan Gershkovich, a reporter at the Wall Street Journal, and the paper found itself in uncharted waters. “Occasionally we’ve had reporters pulled in by the police,” Paul Beckett—then the Washington bureau chief, who has since been tapped to work on Gershkovich’s case full time—recalls. “But this was obviously of a scale, and a prominence, and a geopolitical significance that was very new for us.” Quickly, Beckett and his colleagues took advice from those with more experience. Particularly helpful were leaders at the Washington Post, whose own reporter, Jason Rezaian, spent 544 days in prison in Iran in roughly analogous circumstances in the 2010s. Marty Baron, the Post’s former editor; Fred Ryan, then the publisher; and Rezaian himself “were all, in the days following, extremely gracious, extremely generous with their time, extremely supportive, and extremely open to being, like, We know what you’re going through. How can we help?” Beckett says.

A little over six months later, Russia arrested Alsu Kurmasheva, a dual US and Russian citizen who works for the US-funded broadcaster Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, on charges of failing to register herself as a “foreign agent.” (She was previously fined for failing to report her US citizenship to Russian authorities; she has since been charged with disseminating so-called “false news” about the Russian military.) Beckett had been in touch with someone at RFE/RL on a separate matter, and got in touch to pass on the sort of support that the Journal had received from the Post. “We’ve kept that up ever since,” he says. “This is not a community that anyone wants to join,” Diane Zeleny, RFE/RL’s head of external affairs, told me. “But now that we have, we’re grateful for the cooperation we’ve received from the WSJ and cannot thank them enough. At every level—from the corporate and legal to the editorial—they have been helpful to us, sharing wisdom that would otherwise be difficult to acquire given our limited resources.”

As Zeleny notes, the Journal has “made it a priority to include details about [Kurmasheva’s] case in its reporting on Evan.” Recently, the paper ran a story about the families of several other Americans incarcerated in Russia, topped with a photo of Pavel Butorin, Kurmasheva’s husband, and the couple’s daughters, Bibi and Miriam, the latter of whom sported a visible “#FreeAlsu” button on her sweater. Ten days ago, as Gershkovich passed the one-year mark in custody, the Journal reproduced the story on its print front page—below an eye-catching space that was left blank to symbolize Gershkovich’s missing byline.

Kurmasheva will herself pass the six-month mark behind bars next week; last week, a court extended her pretrial detention until June. Both she and Gershkovich appear to have been taken as hostages by Vladimir Putin’s regime, as part of both a war on journalism and a bid for diplomatic leverage against the US. And yet—despite these clear similarities, and the camaraderie of those working to free the pair—Americans are much less likely to have heard of Kurmasheva than Gershkovich. The former’s case can often seem to get overlooked.

When Tucker Carlson traveled to Russia to interview Putin recently, he raised Gershkovich’s case but not Kurmasheva’s. Late last year, President Biden said at a holiday reception that his administration was “fighting every day for the release of Evan and Alsu and Paul” (a reference to Paul Whelan, a former US Marine jailed in Russia)—but in a recent statement marking Gershkovich’s year in prison, he made no direct mention of Kurmasheva (despite name-checking Whelan again). More importantly, while the State Department has officially labeled Gershkovich and Whelan as “wrongfully detained,” it has not done likewise in Kurmasheva’s case.

While similar in many respects, the cases of Gershkovich and Kurmasheva, of course, are not identical. The charges are different, for starters. (Gershkovich has been accused of espionage.) Gershkovich was working as a journalist inside Russia; Kurmasheva lives in Prague, where RFE/RL is headquartered, and was only in Russia to visit her ailing mother in the city of Kazan. (The “false news” charges that she faces relate to her work coediting a book featuring critical Russian perspectives on the war in Ukraine.) Gershkovich is a classic foreign correspondent for a big Western newspaper; Kurmasheva is a broadcaster whose life’s work has been to preserve the language and culture of the Russian region of Tatarstan (whose capital is Kazan). Gershkovich was born in the US to parents who emigrated from the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Kurmasheva opted into US citizenship, under a program for broadcasters.

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The State Department labeled Gershkovich as wrongfully detained less than two weeks after he was arrested—quick by bureaucratic standards (even if some of his supporters feel the designation was still too slow). Asked why Kurmasheva had not been similarly designated a month after her detention, a spokesperson said that the department tries to act quickly, but still needed to assess the facts of her case since “every circumstance is different.” Since then, the department has reiterated that observers shouldn’t read anything into the lack of a designation, and said that her case remains under continuous review. (In a statement, a spokesperson told me much the same thing, suggesting that Kurmasheva’s case is a “priority” and describing her detention as “just another sign of the weakness of Putin’s regime,” but declining to discuss deliberations.)

Being designated as wrongfully detained is by no means a precondition for diplomats to work to get a prisoner home—indeed, in some cases, officials consciously steer clear of the label, fearing, for example, that it could lead a foreign adversary to take a tougher negotiating stance because they consider a given prisoner’s “price” to be higher. Still, this concern could conceivably apply to Gershkovich’s or Whelan’s cases, too. And the designation isn’t merely a rhetorical tool—at least in theory, it unlocks greater official resources that can be swung behind a case. When it comes to the prospect of designating Kurmasheva, “I don’t know one single source outside of the United States government who thinks it’s a bad idea or feels ambivalent about it,” Jeffrey Gedmin, an RFE/RL board member, told me.

Kurmasheva’s family and supporters have campaigned for the designation since the early days of her detention; RFE/RL argues that she satisfies all the necessary criteria to receive it under the Levinson Act, a 2020 law that, observers told me, was intended to codify who counts as wrongfully detained to prevent the label’s arbitrary application. It’s not clear exactly why it has not yet been accorded to Kurmasheva, but observers of her case suggested several possible reasons, including the current political climate, both at home and geopolitically; Putin’s greater current leverage over prisoner swaps; diplomatic bandwidth issues; and concerns linked to how best to manage the “queue” of Americans detained in Russia. “There is too much of a view that this is a break glass in case of emergency approach,” Bill McCarren, a press freedom consultant for the National Press Club, told me. He and others think that jailed journalists should get the designation automatically, at least until they are proven to have committed a real crime.

Recently, Butorin, Kurmasheva’s husband, visited Washington and met with officials; he said that he hadn’t been sure what to expect from the trip, but that he left feeling that the US government cares about Kurmasheva and that “some progress” was being made toward the designation. When we spoke last week, Butorin declined to discuss specifics of his conversations with officials but told me that he appreciates their support. (“The Russian government, they’re the bad guys here,” he stressed.) He also said, though, that “every time I hear the State Department say, We will continue to work to free those Americans who have been determined to be wrongfully detained, those statements give me pause.” He and other supporters would like to hear Biden say Kurmasheva’s name much more often, too. (The US ambassador to Russia has recently tweeted specifically about her case, and consular officials attended her pretrial hearing in Kazan last week having previously been denied access.)

Butorin told me that while the designation alone won’t bring Kurmasheva home, he and his family are trying to raise her profile to make it more likely that she will be included in talks over a prisoner swap. To this end, he and his daughters have recently appeared in US media, too, including on their trip to DC; in addition to the story in the Journal, Butorin and his eldest daughter (Bibi, who is fifteen) appeared on CNN, while Sunday Morning on CBS profiled the family in a segment filmed in Prague. Press-freedom groups have also banged the drum loudly for Kurmasheva. The National Press Club will soon run a full-page ad in the Post on her behalf.

And yet Gershkovich’s case has reliably attracted much more media interest. One reason for this is the Journal’s greater financial clout—it has ample cash to plow into its (highly impressive) PR campaign on his behalf; RFE/RL’s budget is smaller and set by Congress. The Journal has great reputational clout in the US, too; by contrast, RFE/RL is not a household name, even if taxpayers fund its journalism. While it has a Web presence, much of its programming isn’t broadcast into the US or even in English, instead serving countries with repressed media spaces. “Raise your hand in the audience if you know where Kazan is,” Gedmin told me. For various reasons, Kurmasheva’s case is “all a little bit less obvious, or easy, or accessible for a lot of Europeans, certainly for Americans, to understand.”

On the other hand, her case might be less well-known if Gershkovich hadn’t become such a cause célèbre. Kurmasheva is only one of four RFE/RL reporters currently jailed overseas (the other three are in Belarus and Russian-occupied Crimea)—cases that “don’t get a lot of attention” since the reporters in question aren’t American, RFE/RL’s Zeleny said, but that all involve a journalist who “was bravely doing their job for an American-funded organization.” Viewers of CBS, at least, might now know who these reporters are—they were pictured in frames in RFE/RL’s offices during the network’s segment on Kurmasheva. When it comes to press freedom, attention to any case has “the potential to lift all boats,” McCarren told me.

Greater exposure, of course, has not yet brought Gershkovich home. Still, Butorin “commends” the spotlight that has been shined on his case. “This is not a competition,” Butorin told me. “All I want for Evan is to return to his family.”

Other notable stories:

  • Yesterday’s total solar eclipse above North America attracted wall-to-wall media coverage. TV news networks “deployed anchors and crews along the path of totality from Mazatlán, Mexico, to Indianapolis to Vermont,” CNN’s Oliver Darcy notes, “capturing the awe-inspiring and quasi-religious experience millions felt with live cameras.” On CNN, anchors and correspondents dressed up as the sun and Earth and checked in on how zoo animals were faring in the unexpected darkness; Fox News, meanwhile, linked the eclipse to the crisis at the southern border, because of course it did. All the coverage eclipsed (sorry) a simultaneous speech that Biden gave on student debt relief—a clash, per Politico, that irked White House aides and reporters alike.
  • In January—amid a tumultuous moment for the LA Times following the departure of Kevin Merida, the top editor, and mass layoffs—the paper’s owners, the Soon-Shiong family, tapped Terry Tang, its editorial page editor, to replace Merida on an interim basis. Now Tang has been given the job full time. “Terry in short order has demonstrated the capability of building on our legacy of excellence in journalism with stories that matter,” the Soon-Shiong family said, adding that she “understands how vital it is that we connect the community with our journalism, better engage with our readers and build new audiences as we seek to transform the Times into a self-sustaining institution.”
  • Nieman Lab’s Joshua Benton reports that the Epoch Times—a “Trump-loving, communist-hating, conspiracy-devoted newspaper connected to the Chinese Falun Gong movement”—is considering starting a journalism school. “The newspaper seems to think of the potential school as a training ground for future Epoch Times staffers, saying that it and sibling network NTD Television ‘would be excited to offer jobs and internships to high caliber students,’” Benton writes. He notes that while “anyone can start a journalism school, the challenge would be in getting it accredited.”
  • And the chief investment officer of abrdn (pronounced “Aberdeen”), a financial firm, hit out at the British media for making fun of the spelling of its name, accusing journalists of “corporate bullying” and suggesting that they wouldn’t make fun of a person’s name in the same way. This morning, the London newspaper City AM apologized—or, rather, aplgzd—on its front page, saying “sry” to abrdn for “tkng th pss ot of yr mssng vwls.”

ICYMI: A deadly six months for a press at war

Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.