Russian dissident journalist Arkady Babchenko, left, visits the office of the Crimean Tatar channel, ATR, in Kiev, Ukraine on May 31, 2018. (Reuters/Valentyn Ogirenko)
Russian dissident journalist Arkady Babchenko, left, visits the office of the Crimean Tatar channel, ATR, in Kiev, Ukraine on May 31, 2018. (Reuters/Valentyn Ogirenko)

‘I don’t feel safe now’: Journalists in Ukraine anxious after Babchenko operation

In the week since the Ukrainian security service, the SBU, staged the assassination of Russian journalist Arkady Babchenko, little if any dust stirred up by the elaborate and controversial operation–ostensibly carried out to foil a Russian plot to kill him–has settled.

Instead, with the arrest of the alleged organizer (the director of a Ukrainian arms maker that supplies the country’s military) and the admission of the would-be shooter authorities claim he hired (a right-wing former-monk-cum-Ukrainian-war-veteran), the case has grown more bizarre and complex.

On June 1, authorities claimed to have discovered an alleged Russian hit list of 47 people–mostly Ukrainian and Russian journalists and bloggers in Ukraine–which has added to the consternation.

Journalists here have long been on edge, what with numerous cases of harassment, physical attacks, and the publishing of personal information, known as doxing. Seven journalists in Ukraine have been targeted for murder, four with complete impunity, since CPJ began keeping detailed records in 1992. The most recent was the brazen daylight car bomb assassination of Belarusian-born Russian journalist Pavel Sheremet, in July 2016, which sent a chill through newsrooms.

The murky Babchenko operation and the so-called hit list, as well as remarks made by Ukrainian officials and associated websites in recent days, have exacerbated journalists’ unease. Babchenko himself has not responded to CPJ’s interview requests. But in a series of posts on his Facebook page, the Russian journalist has castigated colleagues who criticized his decision to cooperate with the SBU.

In a post on her personal Facebook page, Larysa Sargan, spokesperson for Ukrainian Prosecutor General Yuriy Lutsenko, added two prominent journalists to a list of citizens she suggested behaved in a “traitorous” manner when they criticized the staged murder of Babchenko.

Meanwhile, a pro-government website that has in the past doxed journalists who reported critically on Ukrainian authorities published a statement to “reassure some well-known ‘journalists’ who are not on the list for liquidation,” a reference to the alleged hit list. After naming nine Ukrainian journalists, it added: “Sleep calmly, dear ‘friends,’ you are still very much needed for the Russian aggressor, because you are its hope and support in Ukraine.”

In light of all this, CPJ asked several Ukrainian and Russian journalists who live and work in Ukraine what they thought about the Babchenko case, how they feel about their safety, the credibility of authorities, and what they perceive as the implications for journalists going forward. Their answers have been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Vitaliy Sych, editor-in-chief, Novoye Vremya newsmagazine:

In all, I am not impressed by the SBU operation. First of all, many members of our editorial team knew Babchenko and went to deliver condolences and flowers to his wife the next day after. It wasn’t a game for them. Secondly, some journalists became really concerned as they justly assumed that they would be next.

This is merely an emotional side of the story. The rational one: is it really worth fooling the whole world and all Ukrainians for the sake of this staged operation? I don’t think so. I am not saying the SBU should have allowed the alleged killer to do his job. I am saying that staging a murder of a well-known journalist and keeping the entire world fooled for a whole night and day is infantile. It undermines trust and trust is what Ukraine needs. The next time [a government official] is killed should we really report it or wait for a funeral? And should Angela Merkel wait for a funeral to deliver her statement the next time?

I think Ukrainian law enforcement officials failed to assess the negative consequences of this operation and measure them against the potential benefits.

And at the end of the day, what was all of this for? To prove a Russian connection? I am yet to see the proof.

Olga Rudenko, deputy editor-in-chief, Kyiv Post newspaper:

The Babchenko case undermines the credibility of Ukrainian authorities (yes, they had some remaining). We already took what authorities said with a grain of salt, but we at least used to believe them when they reported someone dead. We were shown that we can’t believe even that. This undercuts all future investigations of real murders of journalists and attacks on them. Babchenko’s colleagues were at the murder scene collecting surveillance video footage and talking to witnesses hours after the “murder.” Foreign press and international organizations reacted briskly. Will it be the same when another journalist is assassinated for real in Ukraine (unfortunately, it’s “when” not “if”)? There will inevitably be a bit of an initial doubt – is it for real this time? Should we react now or wait until we’re sure?

Events of the past week make it even less likely that the authorities will finally investigate the murders and attacks on journalists that remain uninvestigated for years. This country has a history of violence against journalists that always goes unpunished. Why bother to look for murderers of journalist Pavel Sheremet when it is so much easier to fake a murder, then reveal it all was a trick and present it as a great achievement?

The main problem wasn’t the sting operation itself; it was the way it was conducted and communicated. It is clear that the people participating in it wanted to get as much buzz as possible and spin it to get the best possible publicity for SBU, Prosecutor General Yuriy Lutsenko and President Petro Poroshenko.

And at the same time, they don’t tell us key things: Why did they need to go this far to arrest the organizer? Who ordered the murder in Russia? What was the purpose?

To sum it up, I think after the Babchenko affair that Ukrainian journalists feel even less safe than they used to. To make it a safer place for journalists, the authorities need to investigate crimes against journalists. The whole plot to kill Babchenko, if we presume there was one, only was possible in the first place because so many earlier murders and attacks on journalists remain uninvestigated, making for an atmosphere of impunity. Who’d sign up to kill a high-profile journalist if he knew all the previous killers were found and punished?

Also, the agencies that presumably saved the journalist’s life – the SBU and prosecutor general’s office – are the targets of relentless criticism from Ukrainian journalists who frequently write about their ineffectiveness and corruption. Now this affair pressures journalists into thinking that this agency they cover may once have a choice whether to save their lives. Will it change the way they cover it? For some, it may.

Evgeny Kiselyov, reporter and news presenter, Pryamiy TV:

As a matter of fact, I can tell you that I am very upset by the very approach to Arkady Babchenko’s case displayed by many members of international journalist community and media experts. Discussion, in my opinion went in the wrong direction. Instead of condemnation of Russian policy they questioned the theory that [Russian President Vladimir] Putin’s regime could be behind the conspiracy to kill Babchenko and concentrated on issues of journalistic ethics and standards that have nothing to do with the broader story.

Did the murder of Boris Nemtsov [the Russian opposition politician shot and killed in Moscow in February 2015] affect the credibility of those Russian opposition leaders who consider Putin responsible for his death? Nevermind that no proof was produced to support this theory. Let’s imagine for a moment that Nemtsov had survived the attempt on his life? I am not sure that many liberals in Russia would have insisted: ‘Give us proof! Where are the documents to support your accusations?!’

And I think that the Committee to Protect Journalists, Reporters Without Borders, and other organizations that were founded to defend media figures against various threats should concentrate on a different set of issues. As far as Russian journalists are concerned, they must put pressure on Western governments to develop a policy that would automatically give protection and asylum and support to any member of the Russian journalist community whose life may be threatened, like the times when all Soviet Jews were considered by the United States government to be eligible for political asylum just because they were Jews.

Nastya Stanko, reporter, Hromadske TV:

I feel the same as I felt before the Babchenko case: I didn’t feel safe then, and I don’t feel safe now. Part of this feeling is because of the murder of Pavel Sheremet. We still don’t know who did this. And also because of threats made against me personally.

Moreover, I haven’t this feeling that my police or SBU can protect me or other journalists in Ukraine. They did nothing when a list of more than 4,000 journalists’ personal information was published on the Myrotvorets website, which is tied to Ukrainian officials. The trolls who are connected to officials also threaten us, disseminate manipulations and fakes to discredit independent journalists. When journalists investigate corruption or human rights violations, trolls always go after us by claiming that we are a hand of the Kremlin, putting us at risk.

With the Babchenko case, when some journalists spoke their mind and said journalists shouldn’t work with security services, Babchenko himself said that he wished for these “betrayers” to have a killer knocking on their door. I think we are now at greater risk of that than before.

I need more facts to believe in this special operation. And I don’t know how to ask the police for information and afterward believe their answer.

I also think that now officials are trying to divide journalists into two camps: those who are right [pro-government] and those who are wrong [critical of the government]. And the front line of this camp cuts through the Babchenko case.

A Russian reporter in Kiev who wished not be identified:

I’m not feeling any safer in Ukraine after being accused of “extremism” in Russia and forced to flee.

I am glad that Babchenko did what he did, but he is a good actor in a bad director’s movie, because the SBU does not look like a reliable security agency at all.

The SBU told me I was targeted, but should I believe in it? No, I can’t.

Oleksiy Matsuka, journalist, News of Donbass agency:

Babchenko fled from a post-Soviet security service into the arms of other former Soviet agents. Their performance amazed many journalists. It was like a DDoS attack on my brain and the brains of millions of people. I saw how the opinions of millions changed in a few hours.

I’m interested in knowing if Babchenko were to have been hunted from someone other than Russia, would Ukrainian authorities have been interested in helping him? Or in this case would it have been neglected, as happened with Sheremet and Oles Buzina [former editor of the news website Segodnya]?

Yes, saving a person’s life should be paramount to other things, but when I heard Babchenko speak about details of his staged murder (he said that he had no choice), I was able to imagine how these guys from the SBU work. Ukrainian authorities have always sought ways to keep the media under control. The murder of Georgiy Gongadze [journalist and co-founder of Ukrainska Pravda news website who was murdered in 2000] is one of the sad examples of that. And now our society is convinced that media and authorities in Ukraine go hand in hand. Or even more.

Ekaterina Sergatskova, reporter and founder, Zaborona news website:

I do not feel myself safe, because I do not see clear rules of the game, and where the boundaries of this game are. You asked if I trust authorities after all of this, and the problem is that it is impossible to discover what exactly they faked – just the murder, or the whole case, including the disgusting “Russian kill list?”

Nataliya Gumenyuk, senior reporter, Hromadske TV:

The most important thing is that Arkady [Babchenko] is alive. We may say that it’s better to live in the world where authorities lie than in one where journalists are assassinated.

But unfortunately, so far there is no explanation as to why such extreme measures as staging Babchenko’s murder and its high-profile announcement were necessary. If you ask right now why it was done this way, the only answer you’ll get will be: “You should trust the security service.” And it seems the authorities didn’t take into account what impact it would have first of all on the relatives and friends of journalists who had been killed. For this, the investigation hasn’t apologized for putting them through extreme trauma.

Moreover, communication wise, it was handled in a poor way, with different institutions unable to explain details about the suspected hit man and any Russian connections. Journalists who have questioned authorities or raised doubts are being criticized by government supporters and called “stupid/unprofessional” because they didn’t fact check the murder. (This is despite the fact that journalists went to the scene and met the head of national police, and were at the morgue), while those who don’t blindly trust are named to be those who’re searching the weakness of the state in order to stay popular. The president used the term “the fifth column,” as well as the general prosecutor expressed contempt of the critical media.

They could act differently — the authorities could have asked for an apology (not Babchenko) of the families of the journalists killed before, could remind about the necessity to investigate the cases of Sheremet and others.

With this strange “kill list,” things are getting even nastier: you can find online jokes by pro-government opinion leaders that people who are not in the list are envious of those who are.

An atmosphere of uncertainty exists here. For sure we don’t feel safer. As for trust in authorities…it’s lost. I am concerned that Ukraine’s international partners will now definitely challenge the credibility of anything coming from Kiev.

In general, I believe today it’s definitely not acceptable [to stage the murder of a journalist], especially when the media are fighting for truth [amid so much fake news]. For sure, there is always an exception…but only in extremely exceptional cases, when there is overwhelming evidence that that was the last option – evidence one can’t doubt.

In our case, we haven’t been shown evidence or even been given a logical explanation as to why this staged murder was the only option.

[Reporting from Kiev]