Was the faked “murder” of Russian journalist Babchenko really necessary?

Arkady Babchenko as a military reporter for Novaya Gazeta in the Russian-occupied Georgian city of Tskhinvali. August 2008, Georgia. Photograph: starshinazapasa.livejournal.com 

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The “death” of Putin critic, exiled Russian journalist Arkady Babchenko staged by the Ukrainian Security Service (SBU) on 29 May, made press freedom groups and some media outlets ask questions about the ethics of the sting operation and its impact on trust in the media. But did Babchenko and the SBU have any other choice?

In the evening of 29 May, Russian journalist Arkady Babchenko was reportedly shot dead in his back on the doorstep of his Kyiv apartment. The vocal critic of the regime of Vladimir Putin lived in the Ukrainian capital since August 2017 after he fled Russia due to death threats to him and his family.

A day later, the SBU revealed that Babchenko was alive and his “assassination” was a sting operation to catch the organizer of the contracted murder red-handed.

Read more: Russian journalist Babchenko alive, SBU staged his “assassination” to catch organizer [Updated]

Twenty hours of “death”

Russia has managed to do much within the 20-hour timeframe between the reported assassination and the SBU press briefing where Babchenko refuted his death himself and disclosed some details of the SBU sting operation to save his life.

Here are some of the actions performed by the Russian top officials and state bodies:

  • Less than an hour after the reported murder, the Russian Investigative Committee launched a criminal case “into the murder of Russian citizen Arkady Babchenko in Kyiv.”
  • The Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs demanded  that “the Ukrainian authorities make every effort to promptly investigate the crime.”
  • Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said it was “very sad” that Moscow has been accused of murdering anti-Kremlin journalist Arkady Babchenko.
  • Russian ombudsperson Tatyana Moskalkova told that she planned to ask her Ukrainian counterpart, Liudmyla Denysova, to assume personal control over the investigation.
  • Some two hours after the news on Babchenko’s death, the Russian Ambassador to the UN Vasily Nebenzya mentioned Babchenko’s reported death in a lengthy speech, telling that Ukraine would blame Russia for the assassination, implying that Russia, of course, wasn’t guilty.
  • Putin’s spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said, “We vigorously condemn this murder and hope for the real, not flawed investigation. Ukraine becomes a very dangerous place for journalists.” (As we can see how Russia reacts to the MH17 investigation, a real one means one where Russia won’t be guilty).
  • Speaker of the Federation Council Nina Matvienko said that “Russia is ready to render aid to his [Babchenko’s] family.”
  • Russian State Duma Chairman Vyacheslav Volodin stated that Russian law enforcement authorities were ready to help Kyiv in the investigation.
  • A memorial plaque to Babchenko was unveiled on a memorial wall near the Moscow-based “House of Journalists” (and it was hastily taken down after it turned out that he was alive).
  • On the next day minutes before the SBU press briefing at which Babchenko revealed his staged death, the Russian Foreign Ministry published another statement urging the “OSCE, UNESCO, special reporters of the UN Human Rights Council and the entire international human rights community” to step up “their efforts on compelling the Ukrainian authorities to take effective measures to ensure the physical security of journalists and protect their rights, as well as to observe Ukraine’s international legal commitments on the freedom of expression.”

The Ukrainian Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin stressed that the Russian reaction on the reported Babchenko’s death was prompt and coordinated:

After revealing the sting operation

The SBU sting operation angered press freedom groups and some media.

OSCE media freedom representative Harlem Désir said that the state should “provide correct information to the public”:

Reporters Without Borders (RSF) condemned the “distressing simulation of Russian exile journalist Arkady Babchenko’s murder, which was done with the aim of unmasking those who wanted to kill him.”

RSF secretary-general Christophe Deloire commented, “Was such a scheme really necessary? There can be no grounds for faking a journalist’s death.”

Well, maybe saving a journalist’s life is worth staging his or her death?

In his comment to the Atlantic Council, Global Affairs Analyst and Former OSCE Spokesperson Michael Bociurkiw said, “The explanation is irrelevant. This could have been staged differently. What happened has crossed a line: the fake scenario not only duped the public but also journalists and colleagues.”

On 31 May in his post on Facebook, Arkady Babchenko revealed what he feels after the operation has been completed,

“My God, how it’s great not to be a target! When you know for sure – that’s it, for this time. Finished. They [the Russian FSB – ed.] won’t shoot you. A couple of days they will be shocked, then a couple more weeks they will pretend it was raining, then a couple weeks they will be screwed for the blown operation, God willing, someone will be fired – [if so] then I will have a great lot of time, and if they won’t [dismiss anyone], then anyway they will need a few months to build new schemes, find a new doer, search for firearms, bring money and for other technical issues. And this means you obviously have a couple of months up to the moment when you are paranoid again, no matter whether they hunt you again or not. I guess this will be the best couple of months in my life’s recent years…” he wrote.

Being asked to comment on the notes that it’s unacceptable to mislead the press because not every end justifies the means, Babchenko said,

I wish for all such morally upstanding “unacceptablers” to find themselves in the same situation and show their adherence to high moral principles and die, standing tall and not unacceptably misleading the media. It’s, well, so that you practice what you preach. May success attend you, good luck, and an assassin to your door – I believe in you, guys, you won’t let us down!”

Ukraine’s Ambassador to Austria Oleksandr Shcherba expressed his amazement on the matter:

Many critics of the SBU operation believe that the staged “murder” undermines the international and domestic trust in the Ukrainian Government and discredits media as well. However, they mention no real alternative options to the sting operation, which could both save the journalist’s life and help to detain the organizer.

Here are some opinions by journalists and public figures:

“Ukraine is just like Russia”

 

“What was the real alternative?”

 

“[Russian propaganda] lies about everything anyway already,” highlights Russian dissident politician Garry Kasparov, who had fled Putin’s Russia to the USA.

 

“Was it worth discrediting of every credible news agency?” “Nobody was discredited”

There was a Franco-Romanian precedent for Babchenko faux death.

Meanwhile, Arkady Babchenko himself pushed back against criticism that he had undermined trust in journalism by participating in the SBU operation, saying his aim was to keep himself and his family safe. “I was thinking about my survival,” he said to the press briefing on 31 May, “not journalistic ethics.”

Answering a question on the SBU operation, Spokesperson for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy/European Neighbourhood Policy and Enlargement Negotiations Maja Kocijančič has said that Ukraine has right to protect its national interest,

“As you know, Ukraine is placed in a very special situation regarding its security, given the situation in Crimea and the conflict in the east of the country. In this context, like all countries, Ukraine has the right to protect its national interest and its territory,” she said at a briefing in Brussels on 31 May.

The Ukrainian Embassies to Great Britain and to Finland have published a statement clarifying the official position, it reads,

  • …No other way to uncover the Russian-schemed attempt at Mr. Babchenko’s life had existed than a special operation conducted in full secrecy.
  • The risks of losing the chance to expose all the accomplices in the criminal attempt had outweighed all the other risks in this case. We count on understanding by Ukraine’s international partners and support for our country as it resists Russia’s hybrid acts.
  • Saving Mr. Babchenko’s life had been the biggest challenge facing the Ukrainian special services and law-enforcement agencies, and this mission was successfully accomplished.
  • As a result of the skilfully conducted covert operation, the journalist’s life was saved, the perpetrator of the assassination attempt detained, and its organizers discovered…

Other journalists in private conversations with Euromaidan Press contended that such an operation is acceptable only if there was no other way to handle the situation, and wondered whether the operation was a staged provocation.

In his first interview after the “resurrection,” Babchenko said that he doubted that his faked murder was an SBU provocation.  So many people were involved into the operation (SBU, police, hospital, special forces, top officials, including the president) that it would be strange to believe they had nothing else to do than plan this provocation, he says.

But was the deception absolutely necessary or not? After all, the assassin himself, a veteran of the Donbas war, upon being recruited came to the SBU himself after which they started collaborating. The SBU had known the name of the middleman before the operation was carried out. So why the need for such a play?

What the Secret Service and Prosecutor General’s Office say

Answering the question why they staged a faked murder of the Russian journalist, the Prosecutor General’s Office (GPU) told that it allowed receiving the list of 30 other planned assassinations, which came up in conversations of the middleman, “Citizen H.” GPU spokeswoman Larysa Sarhan told Ukrayinska Pravda that “it had to be staged to bring the fact of the commissioned murder and executed murder to the finish line, and then receive the very same list of 30 people from the client.” 

According to her, the list was actually received.

Prosecutor General Yuriy Lutsenko said that the fake assassination had the goal of”receiving more information about this list during the second tranche of payment for the implemented murder” and “to track the connections of the middleman with the mastermind after the murder.” He claims that enough facts were gathered to testify “in favor of the Russian version of the mastermind.”

A lawyer of the Ukrainian Helsinki Human Rights Protection Group Yuriy Levytskyi told BBC that law enforcers stage such pretend murders all the time. In Babchenko’s case, the Secret Service found out that somebody was purchasing weapons and searching for an assassin. But the SBU decided to not apprehend this person.

Levytskyi said that these steps already constitute a crime and that the middleman, “Citizen H,” could have been apprehended at this time. However, the expert said, in that case, he would have had many opportunities to defend himself, deny everything, say that he was misunderstood. That’s why law enforcers imitate murders: to receive definite proof and identify the middlemen and masterminds of the crime.

“When some moments need to be registered: converations, transfer of money, then something is imitated. When there is a goal to fixate the completion of the crime in the imagination of the middleman – and then he can contact the mastermind. The law enforcers try to establish the contacts between the middleman and the mastermind,” Levytskyi said.

The investigation into the identity of the mastermind is continuing, the Prosecutor General Yuriy Lutsenko informed. Meanwhile, the SBU Head Vasyl Hrytsak told about “irrevocable proof of the terrorist activity of Russian special services in Ukraine.”

/with contributions by Alya Shandra


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