What might the 'dead' Russian reporter incident mean for journalism?
A Russian journalist who was harshly critical of Russian President Vladimir Putin was reportedly "dead" yesterday. But today, Arkady Babchenko stunned a news conference in Kiev, Ukraine, where he appeared and said he helped government authorities stage his own death to prevent a contract killing.
Russian journalist and critic of the Kremlin, Arkady Babchenko, is alive. Normally that would not be much news, but only yesterday the world thought he was dead. As journalism groups called for an investigation, Ukraine's prime minister was already blaming Russia for the killing.
But Wednesday, Babchenko showed up at a news conference alive and well. Even his wife and six children did not know he was taking part in a secret Ukrainian undercover operation to catch the people who threatened his life. Ukraine officials said they knew of the threat two months ago and told Babchenko about a month ago.
Watch the news conference video. Three minutes and seventeen seconds into the news conference, authorities displayed video of the what they said was an undercover contact with a contract killer hired to kill Babchenko. At seven minutes and 44 seconds into the news conference, authorities played video of a man being arrested and stuffed into a security van.
Then, a minute later, investigators revealed to a stunned news conference that Babchenko was alive, and he walked in.
"It looks like Babchenko," a BBC reporter covering the news conference live said. "He looks alive and well."
Other journalists gasped then broke out in applause. Babchenko thanked the Ukrainian security services for "saving my life." He apologized to his wife saying, "Olechka, I am terribly sorry." He said he had buried many friends and colleagues over the years and was sickened by the thought they would feel the pain of his death.
"I am sorry you had to experience it," he said. "But there was no other way."
The journalism advocacy group Reporters Without Borders (RSF) reacted, "Nothing justifies faking journalist’s murder in Kiev." The RSF website added:
“This journalist’s reappearance is a great relief but it was distressing and regrettable that the Security Service of Ukraine played with the truth,” RSF secretary-general Christophe Deloire said. “Was such a scheme really necessary? There can be no grounds for faking a journalist’s death.”
On Tuesday, the Ukrainian state news agency Ukrinform reported that Babchenko had been shot three times in the back and that he died in an ambulance. Police said his wife found him outside their home. We do not know for certain whether his wife knew it was all staged.
His colleagues were stunned when they saw him on TV:
Реакція журналістів ATR 😍
Відео - Kateryna Lisunova pic.twitter.com/GmkBcXc157
— Радіо Свобода (@radiosvoboda) May 30, 2018
Police claimed they were looking for the killer and even released a sketch of a bearded man in his early 40's.
The ruse was so elaborate that it is unclear who was in on it and who was passing around bad information unknowingly.
In the Wednesday news conference, Ukrainian Security Services chief Vasyl Hrytsak accused "Russian security services" of ordering a hit on the journalist.
Hrytsak said that Russian special services paid a Ukrainian citizen $40,000 to plan the killing. The organizer then paid a gunman to carry it out. But when the Ukrainians learned of the plot, they said they hired the "killer" to act as a double agent and fake the shooting in order to trap the organizer, who authorities say they have arrested.
"We were able not only to thwart a cynical provocation but also document the Russian special service's preparations for this low crime," Hrytsak said.
Authorities called it Babchenko's "third birthday" because the journalist was nearly killed in 2014 covering the war in Ukraine and referred to it as his "second birthday" at that time.
Russian TV included this:
Commenting on the development to Interfax, Konstantin Kosachev, the chair of the Foreign Relations Committee in the Russian Senate, called the apparent ruse “a stage in a series of delusional actions of the Ukrainian authorities directed at Russia”. He said he regretted that Babchenko agreed to be part of it.
Babchenko has been the focus of threats before and reports of his death touched off a war of words between Ukraine and Russia.
The Ukrainian prime minister said Tuesday that the "killing" was likely the work of the "totalitarian machine that did not forgive" Babchenko's coverage of Russia's involvement in Ukraine and Syria. Babchenko fled from Russia last year after receiving death threats. He wrote about his decision to leave Russia in a personal essay for The Guardian.
He said in that essay:
All the elements of the propaganda machine were engaged. Channel One, Russia’s most powerful state channel, called on its viewers to create a petition supporting the removal of our citizenship and deportation. In 24 hours it was signed by 130,000 people.
Then, the tabloid channel LifeNews collaborated with the courts to serve me with a fine for not buying a bus ticket — I am a war veteran, and enjoy free public transport as a result. Fines are a familiar tactic in Russia, often issued to stop someone from leaving the country because of their debts.
Then a “beat ‘em up game” emerged online where players are asked to “deal with the enemies of the homeland using your own fists and boots.” These enemies have to be “beaten until they fall.” I’m one of them.
He also wrote a book, "One Soldier's War in Chechnya" in which he writes about the Russian army.
"This is not an army, but a herd drawn from the dregs of the criminal masses, lawless apart from the dictates of the jackals that run it," he wrote.
But he attracted the most heat when he said on Facebook that he had no pity for members of the Russian army choir who died in an air crash on their way to play for troops in Syria.
Ukrainian authorities said Babchenko and his family are now under 24-hour security.
The journalism fallout
Babchenko told the news conference that he took part in the fake because he said he believed the contract on his life was part of a much wider plan to kill Russians in Ukraine.
“As far as I know, this operation was in the pipeline for two months," he said. "I was let in the loop a month ago. Over this month I say the guys worked really hard. They were constantly in contact with me. We deliberated, thought things out, acted. And this covert action was the result.”
It took only moments before media critics began chiming in on social media saying it was just another example of how journalists are part of a propaganda machine that reports what it is fed. And Russian leaders said from the beginning they had no part in the "killing" and now that it is a fake, they are saying it is proof that they were falsely accused.
Reasonable people understand that extreme circumstances produce extreme decisions; way out of line with everyday ethics. Generally, journalists should not be part of a government deception plot. Generally, journalists should not be part of something that will produce untrue global coverage.
This fake may make it easier for Russians to plausibly deny being involved in other dark acts. It will give fuel to critics who doubt what they see in the news. The job of journalism organizations like Committee to Protect Journalism more difficult if this case provides cover for governments who deny or abet killers of journalists.
"Ukrainian authorities must disclose what necessitated the extreme measure of staging news of the Russian journalist's murder," the CPJ said in a statement.
Journalists who were burned by the fake death want to know what alternatives were considered and rejected to creating a fake news story. Everyone who published or broadcast the false information has a stake in knowing how these decisions were made.
The Guardian included these passages:
Mark Galeotti, a senior researcher at the Institute of International Relations Prague, wrote online: "Next time there’s some killing, Russia will be able to play the ‘do you know this is real?’ card."
Maria Zakharova, the (Russian) foreign ministry spokeswoman, said the story was imbued with "propagandistic effect."
The Guardian said some journalists wondered if police should produce a body in the future to prove that a murder is real.
Seven journalists have been killed in Ukraine over the last four years. The threat is real, which makes it more difficult to harshly judge a journalist who says he did what he thought he had to do to stay alive. Ukraine is ranked 101st out of 180 countries in RSF's 2018 World Press Freedom Index.
"I’ve done my work," Babchenko said. "I’m still alive for the moment."