Monday 11 November 2019

'I faked murder because I wanted to stay alive' - journalist

Arkady Babchenko faces the media following his 'murder'. Photo: REUTERS/Valentyn Ogirenko
Arkady Babchenko faces the media following his 'murder'. Photo: REUTERS/Valentyn Ogirenko

Richard Oliphant

The Russian journalist who faked his own death as part of an elaborate ploy to foil an alleged Kremlin assassination plot has hit back at critics who said the stunt would play into the hands of purveyors of fake news.

Arkady Babchenko, who was reported to have been murdered in Kiev on Tuesday night, has faced mounting criticism from fellow journalists and media freedom groups since he was revealed to be safe and well on Wednesday.

He said the ruse, in which he was doused in pig's blood and driven to a morgue, was the "only way" to thwart a genuine threat. "What would you do in my place, if they came to you and said there is a hit out on you?" he said at a press conference in Kiev yesterday.

"My goal was to stay alive and ensure the safety of my family. That is the first thing I am thinking about.

"Journalistic standards are the last thing I am thinking about now," he added.

Mr Babchenko, a former Russian soldier turned war reporter, said he had only reluctantly agreed to the hoax after the Ukrainian security services told him they had uncovered a plot to kill him a month ago.

"My first reaction was 'to hell with you, I want to pack a bag and disappear to the North Pole'. But then I realised, where do you hide? Skripal also tried to hide," he said, referring to the former spy who was poisoned in Salisbury in March.

He said he put on a shirt that security agents had earlier fired bullets through and was doused in pig's blood by a professional make-up artist to make the killing look as realistic as possible.

After the "shooting", he was bundled into an ambulance and driven to a morgue, where he changed his shirt and turned on the news to see wall-to-wall coverage of his "murder".

Confirming his wife Olechka had been made aware of the plan, he said: "Those who needed to know, knew, but that was a very small circle of immediate family."

He had earlier publicly apologised to her for the ordeal, leading many to assume she had thought her husband was really dead.

Mr Babchenko said he had not seen proof of the plot but he believed the claims.

The Ukrainian Security Service said the deception succeeded in securing the arrest of the man who they claimed had received $40,000 (¤34,220) from Russian intelligence agencies to organise hits on Mr Babchenko and 30 others.

But the claims have been questioned by media freedom groups who have wondered whether the damage done to the credibility of reports of genuine murders outweighed the alleged benefits.

"Arkady Babchenko is still alive and can continue to exercise his profession as an outspoken journalist: this is great news," Philippe Leruth, the president of the International Federation of Journalists, said in a statement.

"However, by spreading false evidence about his murder, Ukrainian authorities have seriously eroded the credibility of information," Mr Leruth added. The lie was "intolerable".

Ukrainian authorities said critics failed to grasp the realities of the situation.

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