The View From Here: The Babchenko Affair

Volodymyr Kish.

Last week was punctuated by a bizarre event that has generated considerable debate and controversy both within and outside the Ukrainian community, and in media circles in particular. It all started with reports that a prominent Russian journalist by the name of Arkady Babchenko, an influential critic of Putin and his regime, had been assassinated in Kyiv by Kremlin operatives. Babchenko, like many other Russian dissidents, had fled to Kyiv after learning that his life was in serious danger if he remained in Russia.

His assassination made world headlines and prompted strong condemnation throughout the world of what is becoming a common practice by Putin of assassinating anyone that earns his annoyance. Several days later, to the great surprise of most everyone, Babchenko emerged live and unscathed at a press conference arranged by the SBU, Ukraine’s secret service. It turns out, that the whole thing had been staged as a sting operation which succeeded in unearthing a wide-ranging plot by the Russians to assassinate dozens more exiles and perceived Russian enemies currently living in Ukraine. Net result, Babchenko was safe, the assassination ring leader in Kyiv was under arrest, and the plot uncovered.

Understandably, the SBU as well as most government officials were more than a little boastful of this apparent success. A large number of journalists and media representatives, including Ukrainian ones in both Ukraine as well as the diaspora, were a little more restrained. To be sure, everyone was glad that Babchenko was alive. Nonetheless, there were quite a few murmurs of discontent about how the Ukrainian government had in effect, planted fake news, and manipulated the media to achieve their “sting”.

In the days that followed the revelation of the sting, considerable debate ensued in the media and over the internet about the damage caused to journalistic integrity by the use of this “fake news” tactic. We are talking here not so much of any damage to the credibility of the journalists that were fooled by this, but to the erosion of trust and credibility by the media of what the Ukrainian government may say or claim in the future in similar situations. From hereon in, journalists will look at any official info coming from Ukrainian government sources with a skeptical and mistrustful eye. No doubt, their stunt produced a notable win in preserving the life of Babchenko, but that win will come at a significant cost in credibility. You can also be sure that the Russians will make great use of this in trying to discredit any future western accusations of its misdeeds, which are hardly likely to cease or diminish.

To me, the whole affair also cannot help but make the SBU appear somewhat amateurish and unprofessional. When have you ever seen the CIA, the MI5, the Mossad or even the Russian FSB call a press conference to reveal the details of one of their covert operations. The whole essence of such clandestine activities is to do what needs to be done as secretly and as quietly as possible, and when it is over, whether the result be success or failure, the operatives disappear without a trace. And you never reveal operational details.

What has surprised me most about all of the fallout from this, is the condemnation by many ardent Ukrainian activists of any Ukrainian journalists, including myself, that have viewed the role of the Ukrainian government in this with any degree of criticism. The thrust of most of their arguments is that this was a major success against Russian covert operations against Ukraine and we should be celebrating it and not criticizing the fact that the SBU used some ethically questionable tactics and then indulged in some unprofessional PR boasting.

From an emotional and nationalistic perspective, this may sound reasonable, but this in simple terms is nothing more or less than the application of what is called “situational ethics”. Basically it’s the longstanding argument that unethical or illegal means are excusable if the end goal is noble or desirable for whatever reason. If you feel that’s OK, then you are implying that it is OK for Ukraine and the SBU to engage in the same abhorrent activities as do the Russians and the FSB.

As we all know, the fourth estate which encompasses journalists of all kinds, a free press and the broader informational media, is a cornerstone and guarantor of any free democratic society. That status is based on the premise that what the fourth estate produces is facts and truth. Anything that erodes that belief and trust in the fourth estate, poses a real risk to the integrity and continuity of our society. As a responsible journalist I need to be committed to preserving this truth principle and challenging anything that poses a risk to it.

As an engaged and active Ukrainian, I am overjoyed that Babchenko was not really assassinated and that he can look forward to continuing his crusade against Putin with a high degree of security. At the same time, as a journalist, I cannot hesitate in voicing my concerns that the actions of the Ukrainian government in this affair were problematic and will likely cause significant harm in its future relations with the media.