Has fake news gone too far? Ukrainian authorities stage death of Russian journalist Arkady Babchenko

Babchenko Journalist Fake Death Image courtesy of @StollmeyerEU: Twitter

Arkady Babchenko was reported to have been shot dead in the Ukrainian capital city of Kiev on Tuesday 29th May.

Last week, news broke that the veteran Russian war correspondent had been murdered, dying from three gunshot wounds to his back as he left his apartment to buy bread.

A firm critic of Putin’s government, 41-year-old Babchenko’s killing was allegedly linked to his reporting, having already left Russia in February 2017 after posting on Facebook that “he no longer felt safe” there, which incited threats against him.

His alleged death sparked a vehement reaction from OSCE Freedom of the Media representative Harlem Désir, who tweeted, “I call on Ukraine authorities to conduct immediate and full investigation.”

However, much to the astonishment and elation of his colleagues, family and friends, the following day he appeared, alive, at the very press conference on his death. His return was met with shouts and cheers from those who had believed him to be dead.

In what was described as “a special operation” to catch a team of assassins plotting to kill him, upon the advice of SBU (Ukrainian Security Service), Babchenko described how he had rehearsed and planned falling to the floor soaked in pig’s blood as if he was dead.

In the televised press conference, he attempted to explain himself, “Firstly, I’d like to apologise for everything you’ve had to go through, because I’ve been at the funeral of many friends and colleagues, and I know this nauseous feeling when you bury your colleagues. Sorry for imposing this on you but there was no other way. Special apologies to my wife for the hell she’s been through these two days.”

Alongside him, general prosecutor Yury Lutsenko described how the stunt had been necessary for those who had originally planned to kill him, so that they would believe that their plot had succeeded and that the journalist was dead.

As a common refuge destination for Russian Kremlin critics who are forced to flee their own country, Kiev has seen a number of killings of high profile figures in recent years, including journalists and politicians.

For instance, in July 2016, leading journalist and Kremlin critic Pavel Sheremet, from Belarus, was killed in a car bomb attack in Kiev. The following year, Ukrainian military intelligence officer Col Maxim Shapoval was also killed in the same way, along with ex-Russian MP Denis Voronenkov, who was shot outside a Kiev hotel.

However, the question being asked is whether Babchenko’s staged death takes the notion of ‘fake news’ to the extreme? BBC Security Correspondent Frank Gardner argues that it is perhaps the most obvious case of them all, pointing out that such a dangerous game has the potential to further worsen relations between Russia and the Ukraine. The already existing conflict in eastern Ukraine, along with Moscow’s annexation of Crimea indicate that the situation is already bad enough, he claims.

Speaking to not-for-profit news organisation NPR, Russian investigative journalist Andrei Soldatov also stated, “I still think it was a very bad idea for a journalist to take part in this operation…Babchenko is a journalist, not a policeman, and part of our job is trust. He undermined even further the credibility of journalists.”

On the other hand, Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova posted her support on Facebook, “It’s of course great news that Babchenko is alive. The shame is that this masquerade hasn’t worked out in other cases,” she commented.

After such an drastic stunt, while the majority of concerns now have to do with the issue of trust in the media, Babchenko maintains that it was a matter of life and death and that he had no choice. “Journalistic standards are the last thing I am thinking about now,” he said. “My goal was to stay alive and ensure the safety of my family.”

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