It was recently found that prominent Kremlin critic and journalist Arkady Babchenko was in fact, alive. Babchenko had staged his death with help from Ukrainian authorities to thwart an alleged Russian assassination plot.
The event has received widespread criticism for propagating a false narrative and potentially trivialising violence against journalists.
Since the 1990s, a number of Russian reporters who have covered the situation in Chechnya, contentious stories on organized crime, state and administrative officials, and large businesses have been killed. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, since 1992, 50 journalists have been murdered for their professional activity in Russia. Some internal estimates within Russia peg the number to be higher. Amnesty International reported in 2009 that "Human rights defenders, journalists and lawyers who spoke openly about human rights abuses faced threats and intimidation. The police appeared to be reluctant to investigate such threats and a climate of impunity for attacks on civil society activists prevailed." Some recent high-profile murders in Kiev include Ukrainian intelligence officer Col Maxim Shapoval, former Russian MP Denis Voronenkov, Belarusian journalist and Kremlin critic Pavel Sherement, and pro-Russia Ukrainian journalist Oles Buzyna.
In March 2018, former Kremlin intelligence officer turned British spy Sergei Skripal was attacked. Skripal and his daughter were found to be poisoned by Novichok, a nerve agent first developed by the Soviet Union in the 1970s and 1980s. UK Prime Minister Theresa May stated that it was “highly likely” that Kremlin was behind the attack. As a consequence, UK, US and a number of allies expelled over a 100 Russian diplomats from their soil. Russia vehemently denied that it was involved in the attack. It has said that Britain and its allies are making groundless allegations.
Arkady Babchenko was a veteran war correspondent and a frequent Kremlin critic. He has criticised Putin’s military intervention in Syria and Eastern Ukraine. In 2017, he had to leave Russia after he caused a scandal with a post he published on Facebook. In the post he expressed indifference over the deaths of a military choir and other passengers aboard a Russian plane that crashed en route to Syria. This resulted in him getting death threats and his home address being published. After leaving Russia, he briefly stayed in Israel and Czech Republic, and is now based in Kiev.
On May 29th, it was reported that Arkady Babchenko had been murdered. Ukrainian officials said that the journalist had been gunned down in his apartment building, and pictures of his dead body were published. However, in a major twist, Babchenko walked into a televised news conference on his death the next day. He claimed that he had staged his murder with the assistance of Ukrainian officials as part of an operation to prevent an alleged Russian assassination plot. He said that when he was first informed about the plot to murder him, he had thought of running. “But then I realized, where do you hide? Skripal also tried to hide,” he said.
Ukrainian officials claimed that Russia had placed a “contract kill” order of $30,000 on Babchenko. “We were able to foil a cynical plot and prove how the Russian security service was planning the crime,” said Vasyl Hrytsak, the head of Ukraine’s Security Service (SBU). Ukrainian security services reportedly have two suspects in custody.
The incident has been criticised by a number of international organisations, some going so far as to compare it to the disinformation campaigns carried out by Russian intelligence. The Russian Foreign Ministry stated that Ukraine’s actions were a “Russophobic lie” that was “obviously designed to attain a certain propaganda effect.” “In Ukraine, matters of life and death and the trust of the international community in its policy are nothing but a bargaining chip in Kiev’s efforts to incite anti-Russia hysteria,” it said in an official statement.
The International Federation of Journalists called the Ukrainian government’s actions “intolerable” and “unacceptable”. “Ukrainian authorities have seriously eroded the credibility of information, and their communication runs the risk of being considered a propaganda operation. Was it really necessary to stage his death in order to stop an alleged attack?” the organisation’s president Philippe Leruth asked. Christophe Deloire, head of Reporters Without Borders, called the Ukrainian actions “part of an information war.” “It is always very dangerous for states to play with facts and especially on the backs of journalists," Deloire added.
The Committee to Protect Journalists said, “We recognize that Babchenko participated in the ruse and said he would not be alive without the SBU's intervention.” However, “this extreme action by the Ukrainian authorities has the potential to undermine public trust in journalists and to mute outrage when they are killed,” the agency added.
Ukrainian authorities have defended their actions. The Ukraine embassy in London asked for support in its fight against Moscow. “The hybrid war waged by the Russian Federation against Ukraine demands unorthodox approaches while effecting countermeasures,” the embassy said. “No other way to uncover the Russian-schemed attempt at Mr Babchenko’s life had existed than a special operation conducted in full secrecy.”
Maxim Eristavi, co-founder of independent news outlet Hromadske International, said that the incident cannot be equated to Kremlin disinformation campaigns. “Our Western friends who criticize the outcome should acknowledge that they speak from a position of privilege: Saving the life of a journalist in Eastern Europe is worth celebrating,” he wrote in an op-ed for the Washington Post. Babchenko maintained that he had to give more priority to his life than to journalistic ethics.
Our assessment is that this incident can be construed as a case of “fake news” propagated by the Ukrainian government. The actions taken by authorities in Kiev could damage the reputation of the government and journalists. We believe that the Ukrainian government will have to justify its manipulation of the truth to the international community in order to restore its credibility. The event could now potentially be used as a defence by the Kremlin if Russia is accused of such events in the future.