The faked murder of a Russian journalist in Ukraine has set off soul searching among journalists and a debate in civil society over the propriety of the gambit in an era of propaganda and "fake news."
On Tuesday, journalists were shocked by the apparent slaying of Russian dissident, war veteran and journalist Arkady Babchenko, who Ukrainian authorities said had been gunned down outside his apartment in Kyiv. The first reports came from personal friends of Babchenko on their social media pages. This was quickly followed by official announcements from the Ukrainian Ministry of Internal Affairs. Within hours of the killing, Ukrainian police even released a sketch of a possible suspect.
The next day, the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) caused an even bigger shock wave by revealing that Babchenko was in fact very much alive. The SBU said the killing had been staged as part of a sting operation to catch a suspected Russian agent who was targeting Kremlin enemies in Ukraine. Journalists around the world expressed their astonishment when Babchenko appeared at the press conference along with Ukrainian officials.
Perhaps the most dramatic reaction came from his own colleagues at the Crimean Tatar TV channel ATR:
"This may have been the appropriate way to go about saving someone's life," Michael Carpenter, a former U.S. adviser on Russia and Ukraine, told VOA News. "But it does have long-term consequences, the way it was carried out."
Critics and supporters of the act expressed relief that Babchenko was alive, but many voiced concerns about the credibility of Ukrainian government institutions. Others suggested that this would be a gift to Russia, which could now point to the stunt anytime Russia is implicated in some scandal.
Writing for the British newspaper The Independent, Oliver Carroll called the situation a "get-out-of-jail-free card" for the Kremlin.
"Ukraine is now a storyteller; nothing that comes out of Ukraine is really how it seems; everything Ukraine says is to show Russia in a bad light," Carroll wrote. "Russia has been accused by the U.S. of using disinformation campaigns to try and affect the 2016 presidential election and in such a climate there is no doubt Moscow will use the staged killing to undermine news out of Kyiv."
Threats did occur
There is little doubt Babchenko faced death threats in response to his years of journalistic work. In 2017, a wave of new threats in response to one of his Facebook posts forced him to flee Russia. Officials at Wednesday's news conference explained how they had detected a plot to assassinate not only Babchenko but other Russian dissidents living in Ukraine. In contrast to several other high-profile slayings or attempted slayings of Russian dissidents in other countries, this time a suspect was captured.
The intelligence agency that staged the fake hit, however, has its own checkered past in controlling the media inside Ukraine. In its annual report, Freedom on the Net 2017, Freedom House listed Ukraine as only "partly free." The democracy and human rights NGO said the SBU campaign was aimed at a pro-Russian news agency — blocking websites, forcing removal of content and even staging raids of two Ukrainian news outlets.
In late 2017, the English language Kyiv Post published a story that accused the SBU of using the armed conflict against Russia as a pretext "to persecute government critics and enrich themselves."
In this context, some suggest the SBU's faked homicide could be a propaganda gift to Russia, which could now point to the stunt anytime Russia is implicated in scandals or its own version of fake news.
"They will cite this, they will exploit this, they will use this to throw all sorts of doubts and seed questions about the legitimacy of Western news sources," said Carpenter, who served in the White House advising Vice President Joe Biden on Russia.
Defenders, however, pointed out that had Babchenko been killed, the Kremlin and Russian state media would spread disinformation about his death while continuing their denial of involvement in such cases as the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 in 2014 or the more recent poisoning of former spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Yulia, in London.
Among journalists, the debate rages on the ethics of one of their own participating in a fake news event. The OSCE Representative for Media Freedom condemned the "spread of false information" on Twitter. Russian journalist Andrei Soldatov also tweeted that Babchenko's involvement in the scheme was "crossing a line" with him. The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) published a statement condemning the stunt for raising many questions, which they listed. First among them was how "credible and imminent" the threat to Babchenko's life was at the time.
'Very difficult' matter
Frank Sesno, the director of the School of Media and Public Affairs at George Washington University, told Voice of America that the question of ethics in this case was "very difficult terrain."
"If in fact there was legitimate information that an assassination was pending, that his family and his children were threatened as well, which apparently they were — that's what he's claiming, anyway — and if the security forces felt this was the only way to flush out the perpetrators or planners of this sort of thing, then reluctantly I would say this is something that probably needed to happen," Sesno said.
Sesno pointed out that there are regimes that target and sometimes kill journalists, and "that needs to be exposed." Yet he called for "full transparency and honesty" from those involved.
The Committee to Protect Journalists said the press freedom implications depend on the answers to its series of questions, involving the seriousness of the threat to Babchenko, identities of the alleged plot organizer and contract killer, and who in the Ukrainian government knew of the staged killing.
"What is known is that the Ukrainian government has damaged its own credibility," Nina Ognianova of CPJ's European office wrote on Wednesday. "Given the SBU is an intelligence agency, which engages in deception, obfuscation and propaganda, determining the truth will be very difficult."
As to whether Babchenko's fake slaying was a "gift" to Russian propagandists, there seemed to be only mixed initial evidence supporting the concern. While Babchenko was still thought to be dead, the state media and Russian officials seemed to be launching a narrative. Sputnik News on May 29 advanced a narrative portraying Ukraine as inherently dangerous for journalists. Before news of Babchenko's "resurrection" broke, The Republic reported that Russian State Duma Speaker Vyacheslav Volodin said the U.S. bore responsibility for Babchenko's death.
Since the revelation, domestic Russian media fastened on the Skripal poisoning, but 30 hours later neither the Russian government nor state had demonstrated it was an international propaganda game changer.
In a way, the Babchenko story provides a good example of what is, and what is not, "fake news." The fiction was not promoted knowingly by any journalist, other than Babchenko himself. The narrative was created and supported by Ukraine security and police officials. Even Russia's Investigative Committee claimed it was opening a criminal case on the matter, citing the fact that Babchenko was a Russian citizen.
In a post-revelation interview, Babchenko explained how he was covered in pig's blood after donning a T-shirt with bullet holes already in it. He was actually taken to the morgue before being "resurrected." For all intents and purposes, Babchenko's "killing" was "real news," until it was publicly revealed as a hoax.
In the same interview, Babchenko gave his own opinion about disinformation surrounding the story:
"By the way, this is an example of birth of fake news: I don't understand why there's a version with me going to buy a loaf of bread [that] came up. I didn't go to buy bread, I went to buy water."
This story first appeared on Polygraph.info, a fact-checking website produced by Voice of America and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. Original reporting contributed by VOA's Ukrainian service and Russia service and RFE/RL.