Ukraine criticized for ‘dead’ journalist subterfuge
iStock/Thinkstock(KIEV, Ukraine) — One day after the Russian reporter Arkady Babchenko was stunningly revealed to be alive, Ukraine has been criticized over the surreal special operation its security services carried out to fake his death in order to thwart, they said, a real Russian plot to murder him.
Babchenko on Tuesday was announced dead, found in a pool of blood by his wife after being shot three times in his apartment building. The apparent murder devastated his friends, and prompted an outpouring of grief and anger around the world. Obituaries were written, and posthumous tributes flooded Russian newspapers for the war reporter and uncompromising critic of the Kremlin. Foreign officials expressed their condolences, and there were demands that the killers be found.
Less than 24 hours later, Babchenko walked into a press conference, alive and well. Smiling slightly and shrugging, he apologized to his wife and colleagues, saying the deception had been necessary to save his life and to catch the real plotters.
Ukraine’s security services, also known as SBU, said two men — one of whom was allegedly paid $40,000 by Russian spies — were arrested as part of the sting. The operation also caught the Kremlin red-handed in its efforts to assassinate opponents in Ukraine, SBU said.
While the expressions of relief at Babchenko’s resurrection were almost universal, criticism of the extreme method was immediate. Critics said the fake-out posed a threat to media credibility and played into the hands of the Kremlin.
“It was distressing and regrettable that the Ukrainian police played with the truth,” Christophe Deloire, the head of Reporters Without Borders, a group that campaigns for journalists’ rights, said in a statement. “Was such a scheme really necessary? There can be no grounds for faking a journalist’s death.”
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which had urged a thorough investigation into Babchenko’s killing, now condemned Ukraine’s authorities for “spreading false information.”
“Relieved that Arkady Babchenko is alive! I deplore the decision to spread false information on the life of a journalist. It is the duty of the state to provide correct information to the public,” Harlem Desir, an OSCE representative, wrote on Twitter.
At the root of many concerns was the worry that the spectacular deception played into the Kremlin’s hands, lending credence to its frequent claims that attacks on its opponents and negative stories about it are fakes. Suggesting such incidents are staged has become standard practice in Russian denials in recent years, as the Kremlin and its state media have sought to cast doubt on whether any media reports can be relied on.
Most recently, the Kremlin has claimed that the poisoning of the former Russian double agent Sergei Skripal with a nerve agent was an elaborate false flag operation by U.K. intelligence, with Russian officials suggesting that Skripal and his daughter may never have been poisoned. In Syria, Russia claimed that chemical attacks that have killed dozens were in fact staged by rebels.
It is a “new step in information warfare,” Deloire said.
There were also mixed feelings among Babchenko’s journalist colleagues. Some said their happiness was cut with confusion and worry about whether the extreme ploy had been necessary.
Babchenko “has emerged from the grave as a victor, and now he owes many of his friends a vodka, time and some words in answer to what was written in the obituaries,” wrote Kirill Martynov, political editor at the Russian investigative newspaper Novaya Gazeta, where Babchenko had worked and which has lost six of its journalists in real assassinations.
Many journalists warned that the fake killing potentially increased the real danger for reporters.
“So now every time a journalist is murdered, those responsible will unleash their bots and propagandists to say it’s fake news. Thanks, Ukrainian security services. That’s really helpful to all who care about journalists’ safety,” Lindsey Hilsum, international editor and veteran reporter at Britain’s Channel 4, wrote on Twitter.
Babchenko himself was unapologetic, writing a series of pugnacious posts on Facebook since returning to the living and noting those criticizing him had never been in the same position.
“I wish all these moralisers could be in the same situation — let them show their adherence to the principles of their high morals and die proudly holding their heads high without misleading the media,” he wrote on Facebook.
Ukrainian authorities also defended the operation, saying Russia’s efforts to wage a covert war on its territory requires unorthodox responses, and stressed that they had kept Babchenko alive. There have been a string of assassinations in Ukraine over the past two years, including last year of a fugitive Russian parliament member, Denis Voronenko, who was gunned down in central Kiev after defecting to Ukraine.
“The hybrid war waged by the Russian Federation against Ukraine demands unorthodox approaches while effecting countermeasures,” Ukraine’s embassy in London said.
Others noted that there were a number, albeit very small, of precedents for such operations. AFP recalled the case of the Romanian dissident Virgil Tanase, whom French security services pretended to kidnap in order to thwart his assassination by Romania’s then-Communist government in 1982.
The evidence given so far describing the alleged Russian plot to kill Babchenko was vague. Many pointed out that Ukrainian authorities refused to answer questions about the assassination of one of his colleagues, Pavel Sheremet, an investigative reporter who was killed by a car bomb in Kiev in 2016 and who was reportedly under surveillance by SBU officers at the time of his murder.
Such reticence meant Ukraine’s authorities must still be pressed on this operation too, some said.
“We will hope all the same that in some future courtroom we’ll see the facts put on the table that really deserved such sacrifices from Babchenko and his family. In any case, live people are better than dead,” Martynov, the Novaya Gazeta journalist, wrote.
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