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National Press Club provides updates on detained journalists

Updated: May 20

Advocates unite on World Press Freedom Day to discuss challenges faced by U.S. journalists held abroad.

By Star Eisenberg, Editor-in-Chief 

Illustration by Milan Rafaelov

The National Press Club hosted a briefing on World Press Freedom Day to provide updates on U.S. reporters detained abroad.

During the May 3 conference in Washington, D.C., advocates discussed the cases of Austin Tice, Evan Gershkovich, and Alsu Kurmasheva.  The event highlighted the ongoing challenges facing press freedom globally.

Austin Tice, an American freelance journalist and veteran U.S. Marine Corps officer, has been held captive in Syria since 2012. He traveled to Syria in May of that year to cover the country’s civil war.  Shortly after turning 31, he was abducted at a checkpoint near Damascus.  A video later emerged which appeared to show Tice surrounded by armed men, blindfolded, and saying, “Oh, Jesus.” Despite efforts, including recent U.S.-Syria talks, his release remains uncertain.

“I can tell you, without a doubt, Austin is exceedingly eager to walk free,” said Deborah Tice, mother of Austin Tice.  “I just hope he doesn’t have to mark the day that he has been detained for twelve years.  I hope we can get this done before August.”

Evan Gershkovich, associated with the Wall Street Journal, remains detained by Russian security forces, charged with espionage. He was arrested on March 29, 2023 in Yekaterinburg, marking the first time a journalist working for an American outlet had been arrested on charges of spying in Russia since the Cold War.  The White House and media advocacy groups have condemned the arrest.

The Wall Street Journal’s Assistant Editor Paul Beckett urged prompt action from both the United States and Russian governments before June 30 to secure Gershkovich’s release, noting the lack of evidence and trial uncertainties.

“The reason it’s so important now is what happens next is completely opaque to us, and we see challenges ahead potentially,” said Beckett.  “It is one of those equations where there is only one definition of success.  We really appreciate all the work that has gone into trying to get this done up to this point, but him being home is the only thing that counts for a success in this equation, and we’d like to see it done now.”

Alsu Kurmasheva, a journalist at Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty who holds dual American and Russian citizenship, was detained in the Russian city of Kazan on October 18, 2023, for failing to register as a foreign agent.  Allegations claim she collected military intelligence on Russian activities online and shared it with foreign entities.  Despite reportedly meeting all criteria to dispute her detention, the U.S. government has not designated her as wrongfully detained. She risks up to five years in prison if convicted.

“For more than 25 years, [Alsu] has been an intricate part of this organization, and yet she’s just one of so many who come to work knowing the risks,” said President of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty Stephen Capus.

The conference intersected with recent incidents closer to home.  Student journalists from The Daily Bruin reported being violently attacked, followed, and assaulted during clashes at UCLA between April 30 and May 1.  The violence occurred as counter-protesters clashed with pro-Palestinian demonstrators on campus.  The Daily Bruin condemned the lack of protection for student journalists during the assaults, prompting the university to cancel all classes the following day.

The briefing also shed light on the increase in journalist fatalities, notably in the Israel-Hamas War.  Nearly 100 journalists have lost their lives in the conflict since October 7, 2023.

The Committee to Protect Journalists reported 99 journalist fatalities in 2023, the highest since 2015.  Additionally, CPJ documented 320 journalists imprisoned worldwide as of December 1, nearing the all-time high of over 360 recorded the previous year.

The United Nations General Assembly officially designated May 3 as World Press Freedom Day in 1993 to highlight the importance of press freedom and remind governments of their responsibility to uphold this essential right.  This day was founded upon the principles outlined in Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which emphasizes everyone’s right to freedom of opinion and expression across all media platforms, transcending geographical boundaries.

World Press Freedom Day annually commemorates the core principles of press freedom and the vital role of an independent media in democratic societies.  It recognizes the diverse challenges journalists encounter globally, from censorship to harassment, imprisonment, and violence.  Moreover, it pays tribute to those dedicated to safeguarding journalists’ rights and upholding press freedom, enabling journalists to fulfill their duty of informing the public without hindrance or fear.

“While today’s event is about wrongfully detained American reporters, I would be really remiss if I did not recognize at this point these extraordinary circumstances that we find ourselves during this World Press Freedom Day,” said National Press Club President Emily Wilkins.  “Our democracy, our press freedom, it’s going to be tested this year like it’s never going to be tested before.”


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