Ukraine under fire after faking journalist's death

Ania TSOUKANOVA, Oleksandr SAVOCHENKO
1 / 2
Anti-Kremlin Russian journalist Arkady Babchenko sparked a worldwide outcry in May for staging his own murder in collaboration with the Ukraine authorities

Ukraine was under fire Thursday after it admitted staging the murder of anti-Kremlin journalist Arkady Babchenko, despite relief in Russia and Ukraine that he was alive.

Babchenko made a shock reappearance at a press conference in Kiev on Wednesday, less than 24 hours after the Ukrainian authorities reported he had been shot dead at his home in a contract-style killing blamed on Russia.

Ukraine's security services said his death was faked to foil an assassination plot by Moscow, but Russian officials reacted with anger to what they branded an "anti-Russian provocation".

The Kremlin said the story was "at the very least bizarre" and dismissed accusations that it had attempted to assassinate Babchenko.

German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said ahead of a visit to Kiev on Thursday that it is "indispensable to shed light on what happened" and called on Ukraine to clarify the situation in order to "encourage trust".

Babchenko's staged killing fooled the world's media and angered press freedom groups which raised fears about the impact it could have on the work of journalists around the globe.

Some said the staged death could only lead to more accusations of "fake news" against the media, at a time when the distinction between credible and non-credible sources is becoming ever more crucial.

- 'Line between truth and fiction' -

"By spreading false evidence about his murder, Ukrainian authorities have seriously eroded the credibility of information," the president of the International Federation of Journalists Philippe Leruth said in a statement.

"The International Federation of Journalists fights against impunity, which benefits journalists' murderers, but it also demands transparency of information," he added.

Reporters Without Borders had described the faked assassination as a "pathetic stunt".

An editorial in Russian daily Vedomosti argued that the Babchenko operation "blurred the border between truth and fiction" and would lead to more distrust towards the media.

A number of Kremlin critics have been killed in Ukraine in recent years, with one gunned down on a Kiev street in broad daylight and another whose car exploded.

Several Western commentators and reporters said it would also be difficult to trust official statements from the Ukrainian state again.

Babchenko, who told the press he had been preparing to stage his death with secret services for several weeks, dismissed the criticism.

"I wish all these moralisers could be in the same situation -- let them show their adherence to the principles of their high morals and die proudly holding their heads high without misleading the media," he wrote on Facebook.

Other commentators urged the media to focus on the fact that Babchenko is alive.

"The main thing is that the killing of a journalist was foiled, the organisers are caught and the journalist is alive," said Russian political commentator Evgeny Roizman.

"Do not love an Arkady that is alive less than a dead one. In a hybrid war there are sometimes hybrid victims," Russian journalist Boris Grozovsky wrote on Facebook.

- 'Foiled cynical plot' -

Kiev sought to justify Babchenko's "murder" that provoked an outpouring of grief and a diplomatic spat with its former masters in Moscow.

"Thanks to this operation we were able to foil a cynical plot and document how the Russian security service was planning for this crime," security service head Vasyl Grytsak said when he reintroduced Babchenko, alive and well, to the world.

Grytsak said the authorities had arrested the alleged mastermind of a plot against Babchenko, saying a Ukrainian citizen named only as G. had offered to pay a hitman to carry out the killing after being recruited by Russian special forces and paid $40,000.

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko later met Babchenko and wrote triumphantly on Facebook that "millions of people are celebrating" the journalist's return to life.

- Die after dancing on Putin's grave -

At the press conference Grytsak thanked Babchenko and his family, who he said were in the loop about the secret operation.

The reporter, however, apologised to his wife for putting her through "this hell she had to live through for three days... but there was no other option".

Babchenko, who has repeatedly said he faced death threats, vowed on Twitter to "die at 96 after dancing on Putin's grave".

"God, it got so boring being dead," he wrote. "Good morning."

Babchenko fought in Russia's two Chechen campaigns in the 1990s and early 2000s before becoming a war correspondent and author.

He has contributed to a number of media outlets including top opposition newspaper Novaya Gazeta and is an avid blogger, accusing Russian authorities of killing Kremlin critics and unleashing wars in Ukraine, Syria and elsewhere.

Babchenko left Russia in February 2017 after receiving threats, living first in the Czech Republic, then in Israel, before moving to Kiev.

burs-oc/tm/txw