When Kiev’s police chief announced the assassination of the well-known Russian journalist, Arkady Babchenko, on Ukrainian state television, the terrible news was taken at face value and fingers were immediately pointed at the Kremlin.
The former soldier in the Chechen wars – who had become a celebrated war correspondent and who was a fierce critic of Vladimir Putin – had fled Russia in 2017 after receiving death threats. The announcement, on May 29, set obituary writers all over the world working on the life story of yet another Russian journalist killed in the past two decades.
Less than 24 hours later, Babchenko appeared alive and well at a press conference flanked by the head of Ukraine’s security service, Vasily Hrytsak, and the prosecutor-general, Yuriy Lutsenko. They explained to stunned audiences the world over that staging the journalist’s death was the only way of preventing his imminent murder, instigated and funded by Russia’s security forces, and of capturing the middlemen as well as the putative assassin.
The sudden turnaround triggered hurried corrections and last-minute editorial amendments accompanied by relief that the protagonist had not died after all – including by his wife who was reportedly unaware it was fake. Babchenko’s obituaries were pulled or abandoned and, at the Central House of the Journalist in Moscow, a memorial plaque for Babchenko was quickly taken down. The venue is quite significant for Russian journalists as it hosts annual commemorations of hundreds of Russian and former Soviet Union journalists killed since 1991 who were either murdered, vanished or died in unexplained circumstances.
But soon after, this concern gave way to a flurry of questions and online discussions about the impact of the Ukrainian authorities’ strategy.
Official records list only about 20 Russian journalists as killed in the past 15 years. A well-known journalist in the West, Anna Politkovskaya is among them – but five more of her colleagues also working for Novaya Gazeta, lost their lives in recent years. There are many more to remember – those who either disappeared without trace or died mysterious deaths, such as the investigative journalist, Yuri Shchekochikhin, whose death in 2003 is being increasingly seen as the result of possible radioactive poisoning.
Bad for the business
There are many concerns that Babchenko’s staged death may cause collateral damage to independent and trustworthy journalism and to the freedom of expression while serving non-journalistic ends. One immediate concern is that efforts by the Central House organisation to keep the memory of perished Russian journalists alive and the issue of violence against journalists in the public domain will be devalued by the Ukrainian unexpected coup.
Reporters Without Borders condemned the simulation of Babchenko’s murder, while the Committee to Protect Journalists said that the “extreme action” by the Ukrainian authorities has the potential to undermine public trust in journalists and to mute outrage when they are killed.
Writing in the Washington Post, Anne Applebaum, a journalist and author on Russia and the former Soviet Union, described the Ukrainian operation as breaking the norm of factual reporting. Ukraine, she said, had now joined the Russians in tit-for-tat counter-disinformation tactics. She also pointed to the already extremely low levels of public trust among Ukrainians in their government and the media that would be further eroded by the security services operation.
Other commentators have pondered whether the staged death will actually provide ammunition to the Russian side and unleash a new wave of fake news. A former BBC reporter, Leonid Ragozin, described the operation on Twitter as the fake news of the century, which had discredited both journalists, Russian liberals and Ukraine all at the same time as leaving Moscow the only winner.
Voices from Ukraine have been full of concern about the future credibility of the security services and other government agencies. The editor-in-chief of the Odessa Review, Vladislav Davidizon, was quoted by the Atlantic Council saying that the outcome of the incident will be solely to sink the credibility of the Ukrainian state and undermine its capacity to frame any narrative:
We will all be ten times as suspicious of anything SBU says from now on, and I am not sure this sting was worth it.
While we await more details of the sting – or stunt – to emerge, conspiracy theories will proliferate linking it to alleged efforts of the Ukrainian government to divert international attention from its systemic corruption and stalled reforms, or to renew a wave of patriotism which has shown signs of fatigue four years after the Maidan events which brought it to power and were the precursor to the Russian occupation of the Crimea.
The World Press Freedom Index ranked Ukraine as 101 out of 180 assessed countries in its 2018 report, with its own unexplained murders of journalists, human rights activists and lawyers who had been challenging the authorities. A question from a journalist at the press conference for Babchenko about the progress in finding the killers of the journalist, Pavel Sheremet, who was murdered in Kiev for real in 2016, was left unanswered.
The Ukraine-born writer, Andrey Kurkov, captured the sociopolitical context of early independent Ukraine in his surreal novel, Death and the Penguin more than two decades ago. Its protagonist, Viktor Zolotaryov, writes advance obituaries to order of people who die shortly afterwards in contract killings.
It feels as if Babchenko’s simulated contract killing turns this model upside down as the situation in Ukraine reaches a new level of surrealism.