World Press Freedom Day Event Serves as ‘Urgent Call to Action’ for Evan Gershkovich and Student Journalists Covering Protests

The Wall Street Journal and U.S. Representative to the UN commemorated World Press Freedom Day with an “urgent call to action” for the return of journalist Evan Gershkovich, and the dedication and bravery of student journalists across the country this week was also on the top of everyone’s mind.

The event, held Thursday on the eve of World Press Freedom Day, was a reminder that since Gershkovich was unjustly imprisoned in Russia 400 days ago, press freedom around the world has been encroached upon. Attendees at the event, which was held at the U.S. Mission to the UN, donned Free Evan pins.

Journalism “is as important as ever today as we face new and unprecedented challenges to our democracy, our communities and to international peace and security itself,” U.S. Representative to the United Nations Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield said at the event.

When Mariana Katzarova, Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Russian Federation, took the stage at the event on Thursday, the first thing she said was that she is “incredibly proud” to be a graduate of the Columbia School of Journalism.

“We’re talking about journalism and the freedom for journalists,” Katzarova said, referencing the recent protests and clashes with NYPD at Columbia. “I wish we had time to celebrate today, instead in the room and around the world, we have work to do.”

“And I don’t think we’ve done enough,” she continued, referring to both the lack of reporting access during the NYPD raid on Tuesday night to break up the protest encampments, and the considerable dangers posed to journalists across the world.

As the NYPD raided Columbia University Hamilton Hall on Tuesday night in an effort to quell pro-Palestinian protestors camped inside, student journalists at WKCR and The Columbia Daily Spectator provided the most up-to-date information. Mainstream media outlets were restricted from campus, but student journalists provided real-time information on the raid, driving so many listeners to WKCR that the website crashed.

The atmosphere, however, turned sour as the NYPD forced student journalists to shelter in place in the journalism school’s Pulitzer Hall. NYPD reportedly threatened journalists with arrest if they left the building.

“I don’t know how we comply,” a WKCR journalist could be heard saying on air. “No one is left here to document.”

Columbia student journalists were widely praised for their crucial reporting on the encampments and the NYPD raid, while concerns continue to surface about the access needed to accurately report on a raid of this nature, involving college students.

MSNBC anchor Andrea Mitchell moderated a panel at the World Press Freedom Day event and also recalled her experience as a radio journalist, praising Columbia student journalists for their “extraordinary work under difficult circumstances.”

“I started in the ’60s, a very tumultuous time, as a student journalist at the campus radio station,” Mitchell said. “You have to cover something that is in your own backyard. Trying to do the intended job is the most challenging experience.”

Mitchell also encouraged those in the room to consider how many talented young journalists are working under impossible situations across the country.

During the event, Thomas-Greenfield noted that this year’s World Press Freedom Day is “less a celebration than an urgent call to action.”

The U.S. Representative to the UN highlighted that Gershkovich was “wrongfully detained simply for telling the truth.”

“Locking Evan up was meant to be a sign of toughness and strength and control,” Thomas-Greenfield said. “It truly is this pernicious targeting by the Kremlin and by strongmen across the world that only reveals their weakness and their fear.”

Evan Gershkovich’s sister Danielle also spoke at the event, saying, “While I’m so grateful for the opportunity to speak on behalf of my family, none of us should be here.”

While her family was able to see pictures and videos of Gershkovich in Russian court recently, she said, “These are bittersweet moments for my family… It’s incredibly difficult to see my brother behind a piece of glass in the courtroom thousands of miles away.”

Danielle Gershkovich called on the U.S. and foreign governments to “redouble their efforts to bring Evan home … It has been more than a year now and everyday is a day too long.”

In March, a Russian court extended Gershkovich’s detention by three months, awaiting trial until at least June 30. Gershkovich, 32, has spent 400 days in a Russian prison on allegations of espionage, which the WSJ and the U.S. government have vehemently denied.

During last week’s White House Correspondent’s Dinner, President Joe Biden called on Vladimir Putin to release Gershkovich, adding that the U.S. government is “doing everything we can,” to bring him home. Gershkovich’s family also attended the annual dinner, receiving a standing ovation for their strength when recognized.

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