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Biden: All jailed journalists should be released

 Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich, who is in custody on espionage charges, speaks with his lawyers while standing behind a glass wall of an enclosure for defendants as he attends a court hearing in Moscow, Russia, April 23, 2024. [Reuters]

U.S. President Joe Biden has called for the release of all imprisoned journalists including three American reporters who have been jailed over their work, in a Friday statement commemorating World Press Freedom Day.

“Journalism should not be a crime anywhere on Earth,” Biden said in the statement. “On World Press Freedom Day, the United States calls for the immediate and unconditional release of all journalists who have been put behind bars for simply doing their jobs. And we call for the protection of journalists everywhere, including during military operations.”

At the end of 2023, 320 journalists were jailed for their work around the world, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.

That total includes three American journalists: Evan Gershkovich and Alsu Kurmasheva in Russia, and Austin Tice in Syria.

Gershkovich, a Russian correspondent for The Wall Street Journal, has been jailed since March 2023 on espionage charges that he, his employer and the U.S. government vehemently deny. The State Department has also declared him wrongfully detained.

“We’re so proud of him. I can’t believe he’s holding up so well. And he works so, so hard to be able to keep his spirits up,” Gershkovich’s sister Danielle said at a Friday in Washington Friday commemorating World Press Freedom Day.

Danielle said her family manages to stay in touch with Evan through letters.

“I get a letter from him — it’s like Christmas morning. And I hear his voice in my head when I’m reading it. And it just feels like I get to chat to my brother. It's a lifeline to my parents and I,” she said at the event, which was held at The Washington Post headquarters.

Since his jailing, Russian authorities have not publicly revealed any evidence to substantiate the spying accusations against Gershkovich, who was accredited by Russia’s Foreign Ministry to work in the country. The reporter will be held in pretrial detention until at least June.

Meanwhile, Kurmasheva, a Prague-based editor at VOA’s sister outlet Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, has been jailed for more than six months and is also set to be held in pretrial detention until at least June.

The dual U.S.-Russian national traveled to Russia in May 2023 for a family emergency. Her passports were confiscated when she tried to leave the country in June 2023. She was waiting for them to be returned when she was arrested in October 2023.

Kurmasheva stands accused of failing to self-register as a so-called “foreign agent” and spreading what Moscow views as false information about the Russia military. The journalist and her employer reject the charges against her.

“She’s the mom of two wonderful young women who had to grow up awfully quickly over the last six months that she's been in prison,” RFE/RL President Stephen Capus said at the event.

In a prerecorded video message, Kurmasheva’s 15-year-old daughter Bibi called for her mother’s immediate release.

“My mom, Alsu, has been behind bars in Russia for six months now, because she is a journalist,” she said. “My sister and I are so proud of her, and we miss her so, so much. She needs to be freed immediately so she can come home to us. Free Alsu.”

Press freedom groups have criticized the State Department for not yet declaring Kurmasheva wrongfully detained, which would open additional resources to help secure her release.

Russia’s Washington embassy did not immediately reply to VOA’s email requesting comment.

This year’s World Press Freedom Day takes place against a backdrop that experts say is concerning for journalists around the world.

“Media freedom is under siege,” U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said Friday in a statement. “Without facts, we cannot fight mis- and dis-information. Without accountability, we will not have strong policies in place. Without press freedom, we won’t have any freedom. A free press is not a choice, but a necessity.”

In particular, the ongoing war between Israel and Hamas has led to the deadliest period for journalists since the Committee to Protect Journalists, or CPJ, began gathering data in 1992. As of Friday, at least 97 journalists have been killed since the war began, including 92 Palestinians, two Israelis, and three Lebanese, according to CPJ.

“Journalists are civilians, so they need to be protected as any civilian is during a war zone. They shouldn’t be targeted,” CPJ chief Jodie Ginsberg said at the event on Friday.

New York-based CPJ has accused Israel of targeting journalists, which the Israeli government has denied.

About half of the world’s population is set to vote in national elections in 2024, which has press freedom experts concerned about the safety of reporters and potentially harmful effects for press freedom.

“This year is going to be really indicative not just of the future of a free press, but the future of democracy, because how we treat our media in the run-up to these elections is a litmus test for how the other freedoms that we enjoy, and the other democratic rights we enjoy, are likely to be treated afterwards,” Ginsberg said.

Discussions about press freedom tend to center on the negative, but Clayton Weimers, the head of the U.S. office of Reporters Without Borders, or RSF, said it’s also important to recognize governments that are defending press freedom.

“World Press Freedom Day should be a celebration of the values of the free press,” Weimers said.

RSF on Friday released its annual press freedom index, which ranks 180 countries and territories in terms of media freedom. Norway and Denmark topped the list this year.

“There’s no freedom without press freedom,” Weimers said. “It’s the freedom on which all the others are based.”

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