After a career spanning three decades and just as many continents, the Wall Street Journal’s Paul Beckett has a new assignment that he hopes will be his shortest yet: freeing his colleague Evan Gershkovich.
Since Gershkovich was detained in Russia in March, Beckett has been working on his case in an informal capacity in addition to his duties as Washington bureau chief. But in his new role as assistant editor, Gershkovich will be Beckett’s sole priority.
“The longer this goes on, the harder we need to work,” Beckett told VOA recently over coffee. “I couldn’t think of a greater cause to pile in on.”
Russian authorities arrested Gershkovich while he was on a reporting trip. Moscow accused the reporter of spying, which he, the Journal and the U.S. government vehemently deny. The U.S. has also declared Gershkovich wrongfully detained.
The Journal’s response to the arrest has been lauded by media advocates for its relentless coverage and social media blitzes, high-profile events and full-page newspaper ads. News about Gershkovich’s case remains at the top of the outlet’s homepage.
“If you were ever in Evan’s situation, what would you like to see your employer doing on your behalf?” Beckett said. That’s his guiding principle.
Four main constituencies are involved in working to free Gershkovich, according to Beckett: the reporter’s family, his newspaper, the U.S. government and the public.
Gershkovich’s older sister Danielle is part of that first group. Her brother’s plight, she says, has clarified the important role that reporters play.
“It makes me just believe stronger that journalism must be protected, and journalists must be protected and be able to do their jobs,” she told VOA.
Beckett is quick to add that he is part of a larger “Team Evan” composed of the Journal’s lawyers and top editors. But in his role, he plans to start by working closely with those key groups, adding, “This is all learning on the job.”
And while discussions for Gershkovich’s release will be government-to-government, Beckett said, part of the strategy is to keep the public’s attention on the reporter.
People should care about Gershkovich’s case, Beckett said, because it underscores broader threats against journalists and press freedom around the world.
“The countries that matter the most to the United States, at the moment, are also the same countries that are doing the most against press freedom,” Beckett said. “And if those countries are attacking press freedom, how do you know what is happening in the world? And, therefore, how do you know what’s happening to America’s place in the world?”
Authorities have repeatedly extended Gershkovich’s pre-trial detention, most recently in early October when a court ordered the reporter to remain in custody until at least November 30.
Under Russian law, he can be detained for up to one year before a trial has to begin.
That reality hits hard for Gershkovich’s family.
“Every single day he’s detained is a day too long,” said his sister, Danielle Gershkovich.
Media watchdogs rank Russia among the world’s worst press freedom environments, noting it is one of the countries with the most journalists in prison.
Gershkovich is one of two American journalists imprisoned there.
Authorities in mid-October detained Alsu Kurmasheva, an editor at VOA’s sister outlet Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. Russia said Kurmasheva, a dual U.S.-Russian national, was arrested for failing to register as a foreign agent.
Russia’s Washington embassy did not reply to VOA’s email requesting comment.
Over the course of his career Beckett — who originally hails from Scotland — has worked in several places that now have repressive media environments, including Mexico, India and Hong Kong.
Since working on securing Gershkovich’s release, Beckett has found himself reflecting on another Journal colleague — Daniel Pearl, who was kidnapped in Pakistan and killed in 2002.
At the time, Beckett was covering terrorist financing and had met Pearl just a few months before Islamist militants captured him.
“It was a huge shock to the Wall Street Journal,” Beckett said. Pearl and Gershkovich’s cases are very different, but Beckett admits the case has him thinking more about Pearl.
Beckett didn’t know Pearl well, but he has never even met Gershkovich in person. Besides some emails here and there, they’ve never really interacted, Beckett said.
He acknowledges the ironic one-sidedness of their relationship. The Scotsman spends most of his days thinking about Gershkovich. After many months of conversations with Gershkovich’s family, friends and close colleagues, Beckett knows more about the reporter than most people.
“I have never met him, but I feel like I know him very well,” Beckett said. In turn, Beckett recognizes that Gershkovich barely knows who he is at all.
None of that really matters, though, Beckett added.
“I think he would rather have me doing this than not.”
Thinking about the moment when Gershkovich will be released is sensitive for Beckett. When asked about their eventual meeting, he averted his eyes.
“I get pretty emotional,” he said after a long pause, still concentrating on the coffee shop door. “That would be an extraordinary time.”
Source : VOA News