Corruption Human Rights Politics & Diplomacy Rule of Law Russia
Inflection Points Today May 18, 2024

‘There are Evans everywhere’

By Frederick Kempe

It’s a bad time for press freedom—which underscores that it unfortunately also is a very good time for the type of autocracies that are most determined to douse free speech.

So, it was a poignant moment at the PEN America Literary Gala, which I attended Thursday evening in New York, when Almar Latour, Dow Jones CEO and Wall Street Journal publisher, spoke about how the long-sought release of his reporter Evan Gershkovich from Russia’s dreaded Lefortovo Prison matters “on a macro level.”

“The grim reality is that there are Evans everywhere,” said Latour, who is also an Atlantic Council board member. “Journalists around the world face increasing resistance and hostility for just trying to do their jobs.”

More than a hundred journalists and photojournalists were killed in the past year, mostly in Gaza and Ukraine, and more than three hundred others were imprisoned for their work by one autocratic regime or another. Through our “Reporters at Risk” events, the Atlantic Council has worked to raise these issues for policymakers and the public. So too has Latour, who listed the names of many of the journalists behind bars, and he included Jimmy Lai, the Hong Kong media tycoon and pro-democracy advocate charged with endangering Chinese national security with his weapon of truth. One of the evening’s awardees sits in a Vietnamese prison for her critiques of state repression, the writer Pham Doan Trang.

It would have been easy in an evening that honored the music legend Paul Simon—who played his “American Tune” on acoustic guitar just a few feet away from me—to lose the singular and symbolic importance of one reporter’s imprisonment. 

With talk show host Seth Meyers as MC, with Malcolm Gladwell and other authors as presenters and speakers, and with PEN America at the center of controversies over whether Israeli and Palestinian free speech are created equal, one might, for a moment, forget Evan.

Amid the noise and glitter and controversy, however, there was a bigger story to be told. I scribbled down on my napkin Latour’s closing quote: “Russia may be an ocean and a continent away, but the distance between authoritarianism and a free society is measured by the strength of a free press.”

Frederick Kempe is president and chief executive officer of the Atlantic Council. You can follow him on Twitter: @FredKempe.

This edition is part of Frederick Kempe’s Inflection Points Today newsletter, a column of quick-hit insights on a world in transition. To receive this newsletter throughout the week, sign up here.

Further reading

Image: One year since Evan Gershkovich's arrest, a billboard in Times Square, calls for the release of the Wall Street Journal reporter held in Russia, in New York City, U.S., March 29, 2024. REUTERS/David 'Dee' Delgado