Arkady Babchenko, a veteran of the Chechen wars in Russia became a Defence Correspondent working mainly for the ‘Novaya Gazeta’. For over a decade, he covered wars like those against Georgia and the on-going separatist conflict in Southeast Ukraine. He incurred public displeasure in December, 2016, when following the crash of an airline carrying a 64-member military choir and other passengers to war-torn Syria, he wrote “I have no sympathy, no pity.” He said death threats followed.
He described his native Russia as “a country I no longer feel safe in” and in February, 2017, fled to the Czech Republic, then moved to Israel before settling down with his family in Kiev, capital of Ukraine. He became a harsh critique of the Russian government.
On Tuesday, May 29, 2018, he stepped out of his home to buy bread. Three shots rang out. The Ukranian government said the assassin must have been lurking around. His wife found him bleeding with three shots in his body. She called an ambulance, was wheeled to the intensive unit of the hospital where he was pronounced dead, and taken to the mortuary.
There was outrage across the world. Understandably, the mass media was the most vociferous having experienced 36 journalists killed in the first four months of the year in countries like Slovakia, Liberia and Colombia. Indeed, the journalist has become quite an endangered species with the AFP reporting 82 killed last year, 122 in 2016 and 115 the year before.
The Ukrainian Government which expressed outrage, promised the world it would bring the culprits to book. To show its seriousness and efficiency, it released the footage of the suspected assassin in handcuffs and identified him as Valid Lurakhmanov a ‘Notorious Chechen hitman’
The CNN flooded homes across the world with the assassination news while the British ‘Guardian’ newspaper ran with the headline: “Russian journalist and Kremlin critic Arkady Babchenko shot dead in Kiev”. It reported that: “The killing was the most recent murder of a high-profile dissident in Kiev, a city that has become a refuge for some of Moscow’s most vehement critics, as well as the scene of targeted assassinations…” A German Union of Journalists, the DJV, demanded Europeans boycott the 2018 World Cup in Russia.
Babchenko’s supervisor, Ayder Muzhdabaev, Deputy General Manager of the Ukrainian TV channel ATR, blamed Russia for his murder. Ukraine’s Prime Minister Volodymyr Groysman also blamed Russia asserting: “I am confident that the Russian totalitarian machine did not forgive him his honesty and principled stance.”
The day after the assassination, the Ukrainian authorities called a press conference to feed Babchenko’s colleagues on the details of his assassination. However, when the country’s officials walked into the venue, they had the ‘dead’ journalist with them. The assassination had been a fake one planned not only with Babchenko’s ‘grieving’ wife and family, but also with the Ukrainian President Petro Porochenko!
It turned out that Ukrainian security agents had taken one of Babchenko’s sweat shirts, shot three bullets through it, had him put on the shirt, then smeared it with the blood of a pig. After he was wheeled into the mortuary, he stopped playing dead and sat in front of a television to listen to the fake news of his assassination, the widespread indictment of Russia and the tributes that poured in across the world. Meanwhile, his grieving friends and colleagues were meeting to plan his funeral and to raise funds for his family’s upkeep and the education of his children.
Babchenko told the fantastic story that he and the Ukrainian authorities tricked the world in order to arrest the suspect who in any case was under surveillance.
Decent humanity was outraged. The Reporters Without Borders said “It is pathetic and regrettable that the Ukrainian police have played with the truth, whatever their motive”
The Committee for the Protection of Journalists (CPJ) fired a letter directly to President Porochenko who had publicly claimed he was privy to the fake assassination plan. It told him: “The staging of his murder could undermine confidence in the work of journalists and temper public outrage when they are killed.”
But the Ukrainian government seems incapable of understanding the implications of its actions or the point the media family is making. Apart from President Porochenko describing it a success, Maria Zakharova, the Foreign Ministry spokesperson, said the stunt was full with “propagandistic effect”. If the Ukrainian aim was to take the shine off Russia’s hosting of the World Cup which begins on June 14, then it has failed miserably. If anything, it has added more shine and many around the world would not take Ukraine serious on any issue.
As for Babchenko, even at 44 and his long experience in journalism, he seems quite incapable of understanding basic issues. Journalists are supposed to be special forces of the truth and expected to defend it and their source of information, at all costs. So a man who peddles falsehood is not only an enemy of the truth and press freedom, but has also lost the right to wear the garb of a journalist. He ought to know that for the journalist, facts are sacred and should not be involved in fabricating falsehood and blaming an innocent government for such a hideous crime as assassinating a journalist. A journalist who fakes news is like a medical doctor trampling on the Hippocratic Oath to heal, not to take lives.
Babchenko ought to know that a journalist that collaborates with a government or secret service to fool the world, has lost all credibility. On the other hand, if he works for the Ukrainian spy agency, the Sluzbha Bezpeky Ukrayiny, SBU, he has become a burnt asset.
Babchenko has in all reality, lost his professional status as a journalist and when next he turns up dead, the world might have to wait until resurrection day to know whether he actually died, or was on to another stunt.
Generally, our world is being turned upside down by merchants of dishonesty and fakery. Lies are becoming the norm and falsehood dignified and elevated to statecraft. Most of us were victims last May when the world was deliberately misinformed that 32 countries attended the opening of America’s controversial embassy in Jerusalem. The falsehood peddlers were not deterred that Jerusalem is a Holy City where people should go for forgiveness and cleansing and not to fabricate lies. The truth was that generally, countries ignored the event but to cover their shame, American and Israeli officials manufactured the attendance list. Amongst countries that had to issue official statements denying attendance, were Nigeria and Tanzania. We might wake up in the not too distant future to discover that we are living not just by fake news, but with fake people.
Owei Lakemfa is a prolific writer and one of the leaders of Nigeria’s civil rights movement. Email: email@example.com