Is the Outrage Justified Over Russian Journalist Babchenko’s Participation in a Sting to Catch His Would-Be Assassins?

June 2, 2018
Arkady Babchenko (center) Russian journalist who fled to Ukraine to escape death threats, flanked by Vasyl Hrutsak (L), head of Ukrainian Security Service (SBU) and Yuriy Lutsenko (R), Prosecutor General of Ukraine

Many Western journalists are outraged that Russian journalist Arkady Babchenko cooperated with Ukrainian intelligence in a sting operation involving the faking of his murder to catch would-be Russian assassins.

Is the Outrage Justified Over Russian Journalist Babchenko’s Participation in a Sting to Catch His Would-Be Assassins?

Caption: “Shalom, it is an intelligence operation by the SBU!”. A meme on Ukrainian social media. Image by The Moscow Times.

The community of journalists, regional watchers and researchers around Ukraine has been roiled this past week by the news of first the assassination of yet another journalist, Arkady Babchenko — and then the astounding news of his “resurrection” at a press conference, where intelligence officials and prosecutors explained that they had set up a ruse to catch suspects involved in planned attacks on journalists and activists.

While the death was fake, the would-be perpetrators were said to be real and tied to the Kremlin, with a plot against his life to murder Babchenko and others for cash. Babchenko is a former soldier who fought in both Chechen wars in the 1990s and wrote a well-respected book about his experiences in Russia, who later went on to become a blogger critical of Russia’s wars in Ukraine and Syria. He fled to Ukraine recently with his family because of death threats in Russia.

To the joyous cheers of his colleagues who had been mourning him and grimly investigating his “death,” at the news conference, Babchenko said he took part in the staging of his shooting in the back in order to smoke out a perpetrator who was to get a payoff. Most of his colleagues don’t condemn his decision, as Max Eristavi explains. He has been very blunt with any critics of his choice to participate in the sting, saying essentially they don’t have any understanding of what it is like to look death in the eye. Babchenko and his wife have six foster children.

Media Freedom Groups Denounce Subterfuge 

The Committee to Protect Journalists, the Columbia Journalism Review, Reporters Without Borders and other organizations as well as the Kyiv Post have denounced the SBU’s subterfuge used in the operation as harmful to media credibility and freedom.

I have made up lists of those on both sides of the controversy. The first list is of those who are happy that Babchenko is alive, but angry that he has cooperated with Ukrainian law-enforcers in the sting, which they view as unjustified and damaging to the mission of reporting the truth in a climate of “fake news.” And for them, Ukrainian prosecutors had little credibility to start with for many reasons. (This is dubbed the “mad” list).

The second list is of those who are also relieved that Babchenko is alive, but feel that the means used to “resurrect” him were justified to smoke out alleged Kremlin-sponsored plot — in a situation where no other method such as investigations or publication by journalists or police has resulted in justice for decades. (This is the “glad” list.)

US History and Law

In the US, certainly, the CIA’s use in the past of journalists in their operations led to landmark exposes, congressional hearings, and policies against such practices. With that history, cooperation by the press corps with intelligence agents in any form outside of using them as sources is going to be seen as wrong, and should be applied to Ukraine or Russia by extension.

Both US law and liberal journalistic public opinion have also been against the use by journalists of subterfuge and disguise, as was deployed by reporters who wanted to get the inside story about tainted meat and posed as food workers (see the Food Lion case). A conservative activist named James O’Keefe who secretly filmed leftists in a bid to try to expose their perceived hypocrisy ended up exposed himself, in part because he and his staff were very incompetent.

Protecting Sources and Running Stings 

But journalists demand the right to keep their sources and research methods protected — it’s the law in the US — and want full control over the timing of their revelations. (FBI agents demand the same rights, as former FBI special agent Josh Myers points out.) Sting operations by law-enforcement are in a different category than journalism — but they are not illegal and are used all the time by the FBI to catch terrorists in the US (which is why such cases are often criticized). Russian police have used such stings frequently, as a Fontanka reporter has noted and has RFE/RL has reported; there are also historical examples in Eastern Europe. It’s really the combination of an illegal or politicized journalistic ruse (the feigned death) combined with a law-enforcement sting without a a smoking gun (so far) that has sparked so much outrage.

Western Media’s Double Standard 

Some Ukrainians have objected that Western journalists have a double standard here — few of them — unless they were RT or pro-Kremlin — demanded such rapid revelations of British authorities regarding the Skripals’ poisoning case, but they want the proof yesterday from Ukraine.

They also feel that Ukraine is held to a higher standard to Russia and that is supposed to be a compliment, but it often feels like Westerners are exercising their wish for reform in their own countries on a smaller, weaker land where outsiders can have a bigger impact. It has also been pointed out that unlike Westerners, few among Ukrainian journalists are complaining about a method used to save one of their colleagues, as Max Eristavi has explained — an experience that Westerners usually face only in actual war zones.

Blogging Methods vs. Journalist Ethics 

A Russian journalist has explained that Russians perceive Babchenko not as a journalist, i.e. as committed to reporting the facts and various perceptions even-handedly, but a combatant who wrote his memoirs and a blogger. Western groups such as RSF would not make that distinction in terms of not including him in their lists if he were murdered for his work; they also would not lessen their standards for responsibility by the “lesser” status of a blogger. In a country where you cannot work as a professional journalist properly because state ownership and political control have increasingly taken over, bloggers and those outside of Russia become more important for telling the story — and also more endangered. 

We could note that a Russian blogger who wanted to try to find the truth about whether an individual was working for Russian military intelligence (the GRU) and was killed in action in Ukraine, happily used the ruse of pretending he was a school friend to get a widow talking. Westerners might find this unethical, but is virtually the only way to get the story when the military will not talk and researching and publishing such information are severely punished under Russian law. 

Unreasonable Demands 

I have made the point that Western journalists’ demands are both unfair given that the Babchenko case is only a few days old, and unreasonable, given that Ukrainian prosecutors and intelligence agencies cannot be expected to reveal their sources or work methods if this compromises security and the solving of the case — until the case comes to trial.

Today, a former US ambassador to Moscow claimed the US government “had no proof” that the Russian GRU had hacked the Democratic National Committee, although the three intelligence agencies who gravely made this claim — unusual as states usually don’t accuse other states of such crimes outright — could be justified in not revealing their intelligence sources. In any event, the facts of GRU involvement have come out in other ways that apparently were not persuasive for this protester and others both on the left and right. Yet the debate was not about damage to press freedom, and there was at least a basic recognition that law-enforcement can take more than a few days to release facts. 

Radical Transparency 

The demand for “radical transparency” from governments that many Western journalists have championed in the cases of Chelsea Manning, Julian Assange, and Edward Snowden isn’t as justifiable as it might have once seemed, now that not only the damage to the legitimate security of liberal democracies is evident but also the benefit to Russia — which was ultimately caught interfering in the US election of 2016.

The media was forgiving of the methods used by WikiLeaks on Hillary Clinton’s State Department in 2010 and the National Security Agency even under President Barack Obama in 2016, but not happy when those methods were used on the DNC and civic groups like the Center for American Progress. 

The anger that some reporters feel over Babchenko’s caper  that they were gulled into reporting a story they had to set-rec the next day might dissipate if they did not feel they have lost a serious round in the “fake news” wars. They could fix this with more reporting over time, but here they face a great frustration — the difficulty in getting the facts from closed societies, and more relevantly, the danger to themselves and their sources if they dig deeper. 

There is another, local angle to this anger that is driving the denunciations that will may come to seem misplaced and sanctimonious if a real, persuasive verdict — along with solid news reporting — comes out of the Babchenko and SBU venture. 

Western journalists regularly reporting on or from Kiev have a great deal of mistrust in Ukrainian officials whom they view as corrupt, and possibly complicit in the murder of Belarusian journalist Pavel Sheremet, who fled first to Russia than Ukraine in order to keep writing freely. This is problematic because the Ukrainian police exposed their allegations as mistaken, and while there are different views on this, journalists have not proven that Kiev is responsible. It is precisely because Prosecutor General Yuriy Lutsenko did not solve Sheremet’s murder (or any journalist’s) that the media is so reluctant to take the Babchenko sting positively. They feel Lutsenko is merely helping his chief, President Petro Poroshenko, to get re-elected — and they don’t credit him as trying in his own way to rectify the awful relentlessness of the murders of journalists and civic figures.

Yet it is unfair to keep invoking Ukraine’s “climate of impunity” for journalists when the endangerment mainly (even if not always) comes from their neighbor, Russia, whose troops and tanks first seized Crimea and then invaded the Donbass. To be sure, Kiev has not helped build confidence by taking measures against real or imagined pro-Russian journalists, such as exposing confidential location information in the Myrotvorets affair and arresting or expelling pro-Russian reporters which the West sees as a press freedom violation rather than a propaganda prevention measure.

Regardless of how this acrimonious debate proceeds, either side needs to see what the Ukrainian authorities come up with, sooner or later. From day one, as Pavel Kanygin of Novaya Gazeta has written, a careful look at clues and claims already revealed the case as odd — an explanation for which was provided by Babchenko’s “resurrection” but which needs bolstering by names and dates and facts about the alleged would-be perpetrators.
In fact, Ukrainian law-enforcement has already begun issuing statements on suspects and plots in a court of law, and Ukrainian and Russian press have extensively reported on this, but translation can be slow, and understanding of context missing. Today, ABC News and others reported that a Ukrainian suspect claimed he was working for counterintelligence and thus expected release as “part of the conspiracy.” The fact that he was arrested then seemed to be explained either by the need to play out the conspiracy and get legal documentation — or by bumbling, if the conspirators forget to tell their fellow intelligence agents he was “one of theirs.” The fact that he remained under arrest seemed to point to the latter.

But there was a third explanation, not covered by ABC and others, but covered by The Bell: the suspect tried to use the same gambit of claiming a conspiracy that the SBU first used — but forgetting that in fact counterintelligence is part of the SBU, that they were in the loop, and they didn’t buy the line that he was “one of theirs.” His lawyer was going to try to appeal anyway.

We already know from other very painful and much-criticized cases in Ukrainian courts — such as the shooting deaths of demonstrators on Maidan Square, and the tragedy of the Odessa fire, that cases drag on, suspects give partial or untrue testimony or flee or are jailed in pre-trial detention but then get released and so on. Lack of trust in the Ukrainian justice system is understandable; what is less understandable is the unwillingness to concede that combating journalists’ murders might take methods beyond signing petitions involving time and no publicity.

What irate commentators are keen to stress is their belief that truth is harmed by subterfuge, that the fake news problem is exacerbated, and that the Kremlin was given low-hanging fruit to pick endlessly.

But all of these phenomena would have happened anyway if Babchenko were really dead or even if no plot was uncovered at all. Fake news goes on endlessly from both sides of the war in Ukraine, and frankly in greater in amounts and with greater damage from the larger and more powerful party to the war. The Kremlin claims every suspicion of their involvement in a death as “fake news.” There’s no reason that journalists can’t go on reporting the truth, including on murders of public figures, which are likely to go largely unsolved as long as the masterminds of their murders remain in power.

The idea that Western media will stop believing stories out of Ukraine implies they were paying attention to Ukraine in the last year. But they weren’t. The war in Ukraine has escalated enormously — and long before the javelins were given to Kiev by America — and with more and more civilian casualties and loss of Ukrainian soldiers. This has drawn little attention abroad.

The story today by The Bell contains more revelations from both the court hearing and reporters — a translation can be found here.

— Catherine A. Fitzpatrick