“Nobody owns the truth. We are on one side”. This was the message of a delegation of Ukrainian journalists who visited Brussels for a press meeting organised by the Ukrainian Think Tanks Liaison Office in Brussels on 7 June 2018.
The visit could not have been more timely. Last week the international community was shocked by the staged death of Russian journalist Arkady Babchenko in Ukraine. On 29 May 2018, the news of Babchenko’s assassination caused outcry all over Europe. Journalists’ organisations, as well as colleagues and friends, condemned the cruel murder and remembered the journalist in moving obituaries. Less than 24 hours later Babchenko appeared very alive at a press conference in Ukraine to a dumbfounded audience of journalists.
Ukrainian security chief Vasyl Hrytsak explained Babchenko’s death had been staged in order to catch hitmen paid by Russian forces. However, international journalists’ organisations such as the European Federation of Journalists (EFJ) were outraged by the move, stating that they
condemn this lie and unacceptable manipulation of public opinion. Whenever subterfuge is used, journalists and media, like law-enforcement officials, have a responsibility to disclose how and why they used it and to justify their actions. The EFJ is not convinced by the so-called justifications of Ukrainian security services.
As expected, the press meeting was dominated by this story. Even among Ukrainian journalists, the controversial story has been highly disputed. Some questioned the necessity of staging Babchenko’s death in order to save his life. Others warned of simplifying the issue, arguing that it is not a black and white situation. One journalist passionately explained that in the hybrid war between Russia and the Ukraine, it is very difficult to come to an informed judgement, due to the disinformation spread by both sides. Babchenko’s story is part of a large-scale political conflict between Ukraine and Russia, where journalists are used as political bait: On 4 June 2018 Ukrainian journalist Roman Sushchenko was sentenced to 12 years in prison by a Moscow court on charges of espionage. The move is considered retaliation for the detention of Ukrainian journalist Kyrylo Vyshynsky three weeks ago, who was accused by Ukrainian authorities of collaborating with the Kremlin.
A Brussels-based journalist pointed out that many journalists in the West fear that the Babchenko operation by the Ukrainian security service has further damaged journalists’ credibility, which is already under attack. “All people will remember is this crazy story about the fake death of a journalist in the Ukraine, not the facts that come out after.” He raised the concern that it might be impossible for the Ukrainian security service to regain the public’s trust.
Participants of the meeting were highly critical of the debate. They discussed the fact that many journalists were split into two camps: Whereas Western journalists condemned Babchenko’s collaboration with the Ukrainian security service and the consequences for journalists’ credibility globally, some Ukrainian journalists accused the West of bias and lack of understanding for complex regional, historical and cultural implications and the necessity for such an operation. Ukrainian journalists who attended the meeting clarified that there is a Western and Ukrainian understanding of the incident. But even on the side of Ukrainian journalists, it is still not completely clear why the trickery was necessary.
Therefore, they are currently waiting for the results of a national investigation.
One Ukrainian journalist urged everyone to step back, to not point fingers, but realising instead that solidarity among journalists is needed more than ever. “Nobody owns the truth. We are on one side,” she said. For me, this statement goes to the heart of the matter. In times of “fake news,” the role of journalists seeking the truth and informing the public becomes ever more important. Therefore, solidarity among journalists from all over the world is more needed than ever to ensure the future of our democracies. It’s a utopia. Impossible to achieve but always worth striving for.