MOSCOW — The heartbreaking “assassination” of Arkady Babchenko — in fact a sting set up by the Ukrainian Security Service (SBU) — has raised a great many questions, perhaps more about Babchenko and the SBU than about the plot they uncovered and the conspirators they claim were arrested.
There is now a widespread feeling, reflected in a post by the Committee to Protect Journalists, that serious damage has been done to the profession at a time when it already is under attack by rulers around the world who claim all investigations into their abuses and misdeeds are “fake news.”
“This extreme action by the Ukrainian authorities has the potential to undermine public trust in journalists and to mute outrage when they are killed,” wrote the Nina Ognianova, the CPJ’s Europe and Central Asia Program Coordinator. “CPJ takes a dim view of law enforcement impersonating the media,” she said, acknowledging that many elements “are not yet fully known.”
“What is known,” wrote Ognianova, “is that the Ukrainian government has damaged its own credibility. And given the SBU is an intelligence agency, which engages in deception, obfuscation, and propaganda, determining the truth will be very difficult.”
Many of us cried with joy when we heard the news that Babchenko was, in fact, alive, but almost from the moment he showed up at the SBU press conference in Kiev, things got complicated.
We were told that our colleague had cooperated with a state security service to help prevent “terror attacks” and save some 30 more people from assassins who allegedly were sent by Moscow. That was pretty extraordinary news, and fit into an ugly picture we’ve come to know all too well: the repeated murders of Russian critics of Vladmir Putin, and not only in Ukraine.
But journalistic suspicion of security services runs deep, and Babchenko’s old friends, both in Kiev and Moscow, wondered if the SBU had used him.
Part of Babchenko’s charm as a journalist has been his passion and his idealism. Now 41, fought as a young soldier in the Russian army in the Chechen War, and then became a journalist known for combat coverage in the North Caucasus and eastern Ukraine (Donbas). Over time, he became increasingly critical of the Kremlin, and identified with the Russian opposition.
In early 2017, after a plane crash killing a Russian military choir bound to Syria for a performance, Babchenko declared he had “no sympathy, no pity.” The statement triggered several death threats. A few weeks later he left Russia for Prague, and then for Kiev, where he eventually found work as a news anchor on the Crimean Tatar station ATR. Kiev is the only shelter that Babchenko has managed to find. He admitted he felt exhausted after endless threats on his life and needed some proper defenders.
On Wednesday at the SBU press conference officials announced that the Russian intelligence services working with a local operative had organized the hit on Babchenko and about 30 other exiled dissidents. They claimed on man was in custody, and they had the names of dozens more, including the mastermind. They even released a video supposed to show the alleged hit-man getting paid $30,000 by the alleged mastermind. But no names were released. And the video, apparently taken by a camera on a car seat looking up through a windshield, showed nothing but a tree and brief flashes of money being counted: no faces, no bodies.
Doubts about all this snowballed after Babchenko told his friends on Wednesday night that he had not seen the list of 30 potential victims.
“I wonder if he volunteered to participate in a scam created by SBU,” said Tikhon Dzyadko, deputy editor-in-chief of the New York based RTVI (Russian Television Interntional).
Journalists remain journalists, even when their friends get in trouble. “If he is our real friend, he should know that the truth is most valuable right now,” Pavel Kanygin, a reporter with Novaya Gazeta and Babchenko’s old friend, told The Daily Beast.
Before the SBU press conference, Kanygin had arrived in Kiev on Wednesday to investigate his friend’s assassination. ”Here is the main point: if the SBU really have evidence, that the alleged contract for killing Babchenko came from top Russian officials, they better show it, as otherwise it is unclear why they defrauded the entire world with fake news.”
All the headlines in both Kiev and Moscow were about Babchenko’s alleged assassination, diverting attention away from scandals involving Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, Trump lawyer Michael Cohen, and others.
“All I know for sure is that law enforcement agencies are happy that all media outlets are now busy with the Babchenko story and not the investigation of Michael Cohen and Poroshenko connections or stories about Oleg Sentsov, the Ukrainian film director, who’s been on hunger strike in a Russian prison for more than a week,” Anton Skyba, one of Babchenko’s friends in Kiev, told The Daily Beast.
Babchenko assured his friends that SBU had hard evidence, big enough to give a life sentence to the alleged assassin, who was said to have been arrested on Wednesday. Babchenko suggested the details would come out in Ukraine’s court. But until independent reporters have seen the assassin with their own eyes, it is hard to begin to reach any conclusions, especially about the alleged mastermind behind the alleged assassination plot.
The Committee to Protect Journalists post methodically listed the questions we all want answered, among them:
How imminent and credible was the alleged threat to Babchenko's life?
What evidence does the SBU have that the Russian security service orchestrated the alleged assassination plot?
What evidence does Ukraine have against the alleged organizer and alleged contract killer?
Who is the alleged mastermind of the plot?
What is the identity of the alleged organizer in custody?
What is the identity of the alleged contract killer? Where is he?
Why did the SBU need to go to the extreme measure of announcing Babchenko's murder in order to stop the alleged plot and arrest the alleged organizer?
Who in the Ukrainian government was aware of the operation?
Why did authorities publicly blame the Russian security services for the alleged assassination plot prior to completing an investigation and charging the suspected plotters?
How much did Babchenko know of the alleged threat on his life, and to what evidence was he privy?
Many colleagues are asking if Babchenko could be considered a professional journalist now, given that he is known to cooperate with Urkaine’s with secret service.
Natalia Rostova, a journalist specializing in Russia’s press issues since 2002, wondered whether, in light of Wednesday’s revelations, Babchenko’s expressive analyses of events in Ukraine and Russia could be considered professional journalism.
“The questions about his emotional posts on social media have grown more acute now, after such a major manipulation of public opinion—fake news he made in cooperation with a secret service, a successor of the KGB,” said Rostova, founder of the yeltsinmedia.com historical project.
"I am very happy that he survived," she said. "But besides the ethical part, there is a more important question: why all of us, journalists and readers, are ready to believe that a person can be killed for openly expressing criticism? And in our minds we go through names, thinking, who will be next?"
“As his former colleague," said Rostova, "I am concerned about the consequences he is personally going to have and whether that was ‘a game of special services.’”
In fact, that is exactly what it was. The question is who were the pawns, and who, in the end, will be the winners. It’s unlikely Babchenko or his profession will come out on top.
Arsen Avakov, Ukraine's interior ministry, criticized the reaction of reporters and civil society. "Did you want Babchenko to get killed?" The Minister said that in the future, law enforcement would not pay attention to public opinion.