Russia Detains RFE/RL Journalist Sparking Warnings Of A New Level Of Censorship By Moscow

Russia has detained Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) journalist Alsu Kurmasheva, the second U.S. media worker to be held by Moscow this year, triggering a wave of criticism from rights groups and politicians saying the move signals new level of wartime censorship.

Kurmasheva -- a journalist with RFE/RL's Tatar-Bashkir Service based in the Czech Republic, who holds dual U.S. and Russian citizenship -- traveled to Russia for a family emergency in May.

She was temporarily detained while waiting for her return flight on June 2 at Kazan airport, where her U.S. and Russian passports were confiscated. She has not been able to leave Russia since as she awaited the return of her passports.

Authorities initially fined her for failing to register her U.S. passport with Russian authorities.

While still waiting for the return of her passports, Kurmasheva was detained again and charged with failing to register as a foreign agent, a crime that carries a maximum sentence of five years in prison.

“Alsu is a highly respected colleague, devoted wife, and dedicated mother to two children,” RFE/RL acting President Jeffrey Gedmin said in a statement.

“She needs to be released so she can return to her family immediately," he added. Kurmasheva lives in Prague with her husband and children.

The Russian government did not immediately comment.

Russia has been accused of detaining Americans to use as bargaining chips to exchange for Russians jailed in the United States. Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich was arrested for allegedly spying -- a charge he and the newspaper vehemently deny -- in March.

Since 2012, Russia has used its so-called foreign agent laws to label and punish critics of government policies. It has also been increasingly used to shut down civil society and media groups in Russia since the Kremlin launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

"The persecution of Alsu Kurmasheva is an example of the relentless crackdown on journalism and the right to freedom of expression in Russia," said Marie Struthers, Amnesty International’s director for Eastern Europe and Central Asia.

"It also marks an alarming escalation in the harassment of media professionals, as it’s the first time this offence has been used to directly target a journalist for their professional activities, putting her at risk of a five-year imprisonment."

The UN Human Rights Office, the Committee to Protect Journalists, and the chairman of the U.S. House of Representative's Foreign Affairs Committee also called for the immediate release of Kurmasheva.

The U.S. State Department said it was aware of reports that Kurmasheva had been arrested but it had not received official notification from Russia over the matter.

"This appears to be another case of the Russian government harassing U.S. citizens," State Department spokesman Matt Miller told reporters.

U.S. Representative Michael McCaul (Republican-Texas), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said on X, formerly Twitter, that he was "appalled" by Kurmasheva’s detention.

"This is sadly another example of Russia’s war on freedom of expression, and shows that the Putin regime is targeting Americans. I call for her immediate release,” McCaul said.

The foreign agent law allows authorities to label nonprofit organizations as “foreign agents” if they receive funding from abroad and are engaged in political activities.

RFE/RL says the law amounts to political censorship meant to prevent journalists from performing their professional duties and is challenging the authorities' moves in Russian courts and at the European Court of Human Rights.

More than 30 RFE/RL employees have been listed as "foreign agents" by the Russian Justice Ministry in their personal capacity.

In March, a Moscow court declared the bankruptcy of RFE/RL's operations in Russia following the company's refusal to pay multiple fines totaling more than 1 billion rubles ($14 million) for noncompliance with the law.

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Key Words: Russia, Media, Journalist Arrests, Russian News, Human Rights

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