Wall Street Journal Editor Shares Thoughts on Jailed Journalist

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – Paul Beckett describes fellow American journalist Evan Gershkovich as “someone who could talk to anybody,” an athlete who scored the winning goal that sealed a victory for his high school soccer team in its state championship game.

By all accounts, Gershkovich is a great gift giver, one who can bring together a disparate number of friends, and a good cook.

“I’ve never met him,” Beckett, assistant editor of the Wall Street Journal, acknowledged before an audience Thursday evening. Yet Beckett is among the young man’s most fierce advocates, as he, the Journal, and Gershkovich’s family lobby tirelessly to secure the journalist’s release from a Russian prison.

Gershkovich has sat incarcerated in a Russian jail cell since he was arrested March 29, 2023, while on assignment for the newspaper.

Beckett presented his thoughts and the collective effort to help free Gershkovich during a talk Thursday evening at the Ford Family Recital Hall at the DeYor Performing Arts Center downtown. The event was organized and sponsored by the Youngstown Press Club. He came to Youngstown through a colleague, Wall Street Journal Senior Reporter Lisa Bannon, who started her career at the Tribune Chronicle in Warren.

The event featured a question and answer conversation between Beckett and Press Club member Brenda Linert, formerly the managing editor of the Tribune Chronicle. In addition to the press club, program sponsors included The Business Journal, DeYor Performing Arts Center, Pecchia Communications, WKBN-TV, Youngstown Area Jewish Federation and Edward M. Barr Foundation.

Beckett, the Journal’s former Washington Bureau chief, has since transitioned to a full-time position that is specifically devoted to help bring Gershkovich home safely. The “I Stand with Evan” campaign incorporates outreach initiatives, social media and public appearances – anything that places Gershkovich’s captivity as a priority before the U.S. government.

As a foreign correspondent in Russia, Gershkovich reported on ordinary life from within the country – including stories about how the war with Ukraine has affected Russian families.

“He is a fluent Russian speaker and a very resilient young man,” Beckett said of the 32 year old. Accounts relayed by his attorneys there – they meet with Gershkovich once a week – say he appears in good health, despite being allowed fresh air for just one hour a day.

“He is in a jail cell for 23 hours a day,” Beckett relates. “He has maintained his equilibrium remarkably well.” Gershkovich is detained at Lefortovo Prison in Moscow.

The Wall Street Journal hired the American-born Gershkovich in January 2022, just before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Beckett said. An accredited journalist in Russia with the permission of the Russian foreign ministry, he was pulled out of a restaurant and arrested on an espionage charge March 29, 2023.   

The U.S. government, the newspaper and Gershkovich deny the charges. At present, the journalist is regarded by the U.S. government as “unlawfully detained,” a designation that helped place his case on the fast track at the State Department.

Gershkovich is the first American journalist imprisoned in Russia since U.S. News & World Report reporter Nicholas Daniloff was arrested in 1986 on charges of espionage, Beckett said. It’s a case he and his team have since studied closely.

Beckett said it’s likely that Russian President Vladimir Putin is using Gershkovich as a bargaining chip to secure the release of an unnamed Russian prisoner.  

In a recent interview with former Fox News host Tucker Carlson, Putin said he believed “an agreement can be reached” regarding Gershkovich, comparing his case to that of a “person serving a sentence in an allied country of the U.S.”  It is widely believed that Putin was referring to Vadim Kariskov, a Russian hit man serving time in Germany for murdering a Chechen dissident.

Beckett said that, ultimately, any resolution would need to be negotiated government-to-government. He said that he expects the Biden administration to keep its word that it would bring the journalist home.

In December, the U.S. government said it had made an offer for the releases of Gershkovich and Paul Whelan, a former U.S. Marine also detained by Russia for the past five years, but the offer was rejected, Beckett said.

Nevertheless, Gershkovich’s arrest represents a chilling effect on a free press in Russia, Beckett said, as more foreign correspondents leave the country. He said journalists such as Gershkovich present an “easy target” for the Russian government, which is eager to gain leverage over the U.S. At present, the Wall Street Journal does not have a correspondent working in Russia, he said.

Beckett noted that there are plans to commemorate Gershkovich’s one year of captivity, and he urged other media outlets to participate in any way they can.  

“It’s a huge issue – an American reporter in jail now for almost a year,” Diane Laney Fitzpatrick, the press club’s executive director, said in a news release announcing Thursday’s event.

Beckett said it usually takes more than 12 months before these cases go to trial in the Russian judicial system. However, in the case of Paul Wheland, it took some 18 months before his case went to trial.

Should Gershkovich be convicted – a likelihood that is all but assured if he isn’t released – he would face up to 20 years in prison.

“We’re hoping the governments can figure something out,” he said. Beckett said they are also interested in helping the U.S. government in developing policies that would deter such crises in the future.

In addition to doing presentations in locations including Pennsylvania and New Jersey, Beckett said he and other Wall Street Journal editors have spoken about Gershkovich’s plight in London, Germany and the Davos World Economic Forum.

“We want him back,” Beckett said.

Pictured at top: Paul Beckett, assistant editor of the Wall Street Journal.

Copyright 2024 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.