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  1. Media Law
May 3, 2023updated 05 May 2023 12:43pm

Prisoner exchange ‘only route out’ for Evan Gershkovich, fears Independent’s diplomatic editor

Kim Sengupta thought the Russian government is otherwise unlikely to release the Wall Street Journal reporter.

By Bron Maher

A prisoner exchange is the “only route out” of jail for detained Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich, the defence and diplomatic editor of The Independent believes.

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.

Sengupta was speaking on Wednesday morning at a panel convened in London by Reporters Without Borders (RSF) and the Foreign Press Association for the launch of the 2023 World Press Freedom Index.

[Read more: Press Freedom Index 2023 – Russia slides down ranking amid global volatility]

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.

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Russia fell nine places in the RSF Press Freedom Index for 2023, to 164th.

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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.

[Read more: Why The Independent’s Geordie Greig and Bel Trew put footage of a murder in documentary about Ukraine]

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.

RSF World Press Freedom Index map 2023. Picture: RSF

[Read more: UK government silence over detention of Apple Daily owner Jimmy Lai ‘an outrage’]

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.

Former BBC World Service presenter Rana Rahimpour responded to Brown’s question saying that in her opinion the Government should “continue to fund BBC World Service”.

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.

Citing the closure of Iran International Television‘s UK offices, she said: “The threat is now so serious that even in London, journalists are not feeling safe to cover Iran.”

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.

Rahimpour holds up a picture of Niloufar Hamedi and Elahe Mohammadi, the Iranian journalists who broke the news of the death of Mahsa Amini after being beaten by morality police for allegedly wearing her headscarf incorrectly. Picture: Press Gazette

Email pged@pressgazette.co.uk to point out mistakes, provide story tips or send in a letter for publication on our "Letters Page" blog

Select and enter your email address Weekly insight into the big strategic issues affecting the future of the news industry. Essential reading for media leaders every Thursday. Your morning brew of news about the world of news from Press Gazette and elsewhere in the media. Sent at around 10am UK time. Our weekly does of strategic insight about the future of news media aimed at US readers. A fortnightly update from the front-line of news and advertising. Aimed at marketers and those involved in the advertising industry.
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