This week marked World Press Freedom Day as well as one month since the arrest in Russia of Wall Street Journal correspondent Evan Gershkovich. IPI spoke to Pjotr Sauer, Russian affairs reporter for The Guardian and a close friend of Gershkovich, on the challenges faced by foreign correspondents who have decided to continue covering Russia. While the initial shock following the arrest “does not wear off”, says Sauer, journalists are trying to adapt to the situation and look to the future with hope for change.

IPI: Does Evan’s arrest impact your work and that of other foreign correspondents covering Russia?

Sauer: On a personal level, since Evan is such a good friend, the shock doesn’t really wear off. It doesn’t really get easier or anything like that. But that is also just because Evan is my best friend. And for other friends as well, it was just hard to see him in that cage when he appeared in court. It’s not becoming normal, because it’s not normal. On the reporting side, many foreign journalists have left (since Evan’s arrest). I had already left in March 2022, when the war started. I know others have recently left. It’s hard to really say if journalists are going to return or not, and unfortunately, this has impacted the way we report.

IPI: Did you or any of your colleagues see Evan’s arrest coming?

Sauer: I don’t think anyone saw this coming, because this has never happened in Russia, it only happened in the Soviet Union. They’ve never done this with a foreign correspondent in modern Russia. So even in our worst scenarios, I don’t think people saw this coming, because it’s so unprecedented. You expect being detained, and, maybe, kicked out of the country, like they’ve done before, but not charged with these ridiculous charges of espionage.

IPI: Despite this, many foreign correspondents have decided to stay in Russia. How do they justify this?

Sauer: Some of the wires have stayed, like Reuters, AFP, BBC. This is often really the choice of every bureau, some find it very important to be on the ground. There are considerations people have to make, and I’m not the one to judge and say what is the good or bad decision, I think it’s personal. Still, everyone will now have at the back of their minds that they can now get arrested.

IPI: How will this change reporting from Russia?

Sauer: I think people will just be more careful, unfortunately, [for instance] they won’t be doing as many reports outside Moscow, editors will think twice before sending their correspondents to places. This will definitely make reporting less strong, because people will be more careful and more scared.

IPI: Is there still a point in staying in Russia to report from there?

Sauer: I think everything can change, some things could even change in a few months, so I don’t want to say what other journalists should or shouldn’t do. But I think that definitely everyone should take into consideration that they could be taken hostage, just like Evan. Especially if you’re American, you’re always a target when reporting in Russia.

IPI: What do you make of the motivations of Russian authorities behind Evan’s arrest?

Sauer: We can only speculate, but history has shown that they’ve used foreigners to exchange (prisoners). To me this (forcing a prisoner exchange) looks like the prime motivation behind what they did, but also they were trying to send a signal to Western countries and journalists, [saying] ‘we can take whoever we want, so you’d better not snoop around and report too much’. So, I think it’s two things: both having a prisoner to exchange and to send a signal to repress journalism.

IPI: Some people say Russian authorities are not really interested in controlling the reporting published in foreign media, because this has little influence on the situation in Russia. Would you disagree with this?

Sauer: We have just gotten to a place where Russia restricts all reporting. Back in the day, the priority was Russian journalists. Once they repressed those, they probably thought: ‘now it’s time to repress Western journalists as well’. The repressive machine only escalates. It goes after whoever it can get. They repressed all the Russians, so we became the next target.

IPI: Will the Russia coverage in international media now only be partial, after Evan’s arrest?

Sauer: It’s not like you can’t cover Russia without being on the ground. It’s harder, for sure, but we are quite a few experienced journalists who understand the country and are able to work even while being outside. Even being in Russia already involves problems: people wouldn’t want to go on the record, people were scared to say what they really thought. It will be harder to reach people, there will be less on-the-ground reporting, but in the end, journalists are still able to provide a good picture of what is going on inside the country.

IPI: How do you see Evan’s situation moving forward? Are you hopeful that he will be released soon?

Sauer: Past cases have shown that espionage cases can take a while. Paul Whelan’s case took over a year (before the pronouncement of a verdict). Unfortunately, usually Russia only trades (prisoners) after they’ve convicted them. So, if we look at past experiences, it could still take a while before his exchange. But again, this has never happened before to journalists, so maybe Russia will move quicker, and the Biden administration will move quicker. It’s hard to say, but for now, we need to be prepared that this will take months.

Evan Gershkovich was detained on March 29 in the city of Yekaterinburg, in Russia’s Urals region, where he had traveled to gather material for a report on Wagner, a Russian private military company, and on its efforts to recruit soldiers for the war in Ukraine. The following day, Gershkovich was taken to Moscow’s Lefortovo prison, with a local court placing him under arrest for two months on charges of espionage. Those found guilty of this charge can be sentenced to 10 to 20 years of prison, according to the Russian criminal code. Following Gershkovich’s arrest, Russian officials have speculated on a possible prisoner exchange with the United States, but only after the journalist’s likely conviction. IPI, its global network, and the international free press community, continue to denounce the arbitrary detention and imprisonment of a journalist prosecuted simply for doing his job, with the aim of using him as a bargaining chip by a government making a point in showing its disregard of independent journalism, in Russia and abroad.