Kim Sengupta said he thought the Russian government is otherwise unlikely to release Gershkovich, who was arrested on a reporting trip in March under charges of espionage.
Appearing alongside Sengupta, RSF London’s bureau director Fiona O’Brien said the British government needed to “stop pushing ‘business as usual’ lines” in its dealings with governments that detain journalists.
Russia fell nine places in the RSF Press Freedom Index for 2023, to 164th.
Sengupta, a longtime war correspondent who has been reporting from inside Ukraine since the country was invaded by Russia, told the audience at London’s Royal Over-Seas League: “It seems to me – talking to people at The Wall Street Journal – the only route out now [for Gershkovich] would be some kind of a prisoner exchange. The Russians are not going to free him any time soon.”
Sengupta said that “the situation in Ukraine is dangerous” for journalists, but not as dangerous as Iraq in “the really bad days”.
“But the difference is it’s the first war that many of us have covered [in which] two relatively modern states” were fighting, he said.
When covering Syria or Iraq during the insurgency, Sengupta said, journalists would “run into a checkpoint and if you were really unlucky, you’d get abducted.
“But here, if you’re unlucky, or you miscalculate, you run into a barrage of missiles.”
Sengupta said that early on in the war, a spot he had been at with a Sky News colleague was shelled ten minutes after his departure, killing four people.
“At one point in March, April last year, the [insurance] premium for a journalist [posted to Ukraine] was £15,000 a week,” he added.
Asked by Daily Express deputy political editor Martyn Brown whether the UK government was doing enough in the face of global press freedom abuses, RSF’s O’Brien said: “It’s not just about sticking up for press freedom… the UK needs to stop pushing ‘business as usual’ lines.
“So countries like China, at the same time as we have these massive abuses of human rights going on, we have the Foreign Secretary talking about the value of trade and welcoming Chinese dignitaries without ever raising issues that are essential to the values we claim to hold in this country.
“It’s two things that have to happen in tandem.”
The RSF is currently engaged in the campaign to free Hong Kong publisher Jimmy Lai, who is imprisoned in the city over lease fraud charges his lawyers contend are spurious. Lai faces at least ten further years in prison if found guilty of charges levied under Hong Kong’s new National Security Law.
China comes second to last in RSF’s 2023 index, at 179th. The only country with a lower score is North Korea.
O’Brien also said “a very practical thing that the UK can do right away is have an emergency visa scheme, in small numbers, for journalists, who need for the sake of their lives to escape the situation they’re in”, citing the cases of journalists trapped in Afghanistan by a hostile Taliban administration.
Referencing the closure of BBC Persian Radio and other non-English language services, Rahimpour said: “It’s a huge asset for this country to have a service that employs journalists from all over the world – some of the best journalists in their own countries – who are broadcasting impartial views to all these countries… You need to educate people about their rights so they can demand those rights.”
Rahimpour told the audience she had herself been the subject of targeted harassment after covering protests over the death in Iran of Mahsa Amini, receiving 500,000 abusive mentions on Twitter. A recording of a phone conversation Rahimpour had with her mother was also published online, she said, the same day her car was broken into at her home in London.
But Rahimpour focused attention on the detentions of Niloufar Hamedi and Elahe Mohammadi, holding up a picture of the two journalists who originally broke news of Amini’s death. The pair, who were charged last week, have been in detention for 223 days as of Wednesday.
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