Commenting on the fake news that Russian journalist Arkady Babchenko had been killed in Kiev, many Russian colleagues maintained that what had died, instead of Babchenko, was traditional journalism. Recent history and new media trends suggest that is not so.
The Babchenko case is a live illustration of an obvious crisis in the media. On the evening of May 29, reports came from Kiev that Babchenko, a Russian opposition journalist, had been killed by three shots as he stood in the doorway of his apartment. His wife found the bleeding reporter and he died in the ambulance en route to the hospital, police said. Photographs of his body flew around the world. His colleagues saw in the details of his murder a similarity to the murders of journalist Anna Politkovskaya and opposition politician Boris Nemtsov. Many of his colleagues wrote powerful statements about the victim, forgetting and forgiving former slights and disputes. Reporters, opinion makers, Internet users, all called for justice and an end to the unpunished violence toward journalists.
Less than 24 hours later, Ukrainian officials announced that Babchenko, was alive, his murder staged by Ukrainian intelligence services in order to prevent the real murder of the journalist and discover the person with ties to Russian special services who contracted the hit. A hale and hearty Babchenko took part in the press conference and acknowledged that he voluntarily participated in the special operation.
This shocked audiences in many countries. International organizations condemned the fake-news operation. Former colleagues of the “resurrected” wrote that the journalism to which we are accustomed died after the Babchenko case. They said no one would ever believe anything correspondents write again. Along with the end of Babchenko’s career as a journalist, they said, it would demolish the concept of journalism as a public good.
The death of traditional journalism—journalism that is based on professional and ethical standards, deep analysis and fact checking and a mission to be a public good—has been foretold many times. It was predicted when the financial crisis bankrupted hundreds of media outlets, and global monopolies consolidated content and cut back investigative units and foreign correspondents. It was predicted when the digital revolution brought us the Internet and social networks, when speed became an overriding value. In this situation the Babchenko case is more part of the rule than an exception. The endless discussion in the press and online is an indisputable symptom of the contemporary media crisis.
Conversations about media in Russia are traditionally discussions about the country’s future. Freedom of speech, the sacred dream of Russian liberals, had been an unattainable ideal for three centuries—it was seen as the alternative to despotism, the foundation of all other freedoms and the future of the country’s happiness. It was no surprise that the first motto of Gorbachev’s perestroika reforms was “glasnost”—a synonym for freedom of speech. For many Russians the first and obvious result of the perestroika era was the legal repeal of censorship and the establishment of freedom of the media.
Yuri Shchekochikhin, my late husband, became a symbol of courageous journalism before perestroika. He was one of the fighters against corruption and defenders of human rights. He died exactly 15 years ago, in the summer of 2003, of a mysterious illness, when he was in the midst of investigating corruption among high-placed officials.
When we met in 1984, he used to say that he would be killed for his work. I thought it was a metaphor, an exaggeration, for no one thought then that journalists would be killed. Thirty years ago, his article on organized crime and the mafia in the USSR was the start of a new investigative journalism in Russia. Yuri’s articles had real impact: His reporting opened official investigations; innocent people were released and received restitution. After Yuri’s piece on the mafia, “The Lion Has Jumped,” was published, Gorbachev gave orders to create an anti–organized crime department in the Ministry of Internal Affairs. Shchekochikhin was elected to the first partially freely elected USSR parliament in 1989. In 1995 he was elected to the State Duma from the Yabloko Party, and was working in the parliament as a Yabloko representative and deputy chair of the commission on security and combating corruption until his unexplained death.
Yabloko initiated the official investigation of his death, but it ended without results. His case was reopened several times after that by the General Prosecutor’s Office—again without results. Novaya Gazeta had its own investigation, involving independent Western experts, who said that it could have been poisoning, but that they did not have enough evidence. Mysteriously, medical documents were lost. Novaya Gazeta colleagues and independent investigators still believe the truth will come out some day. So do family members. Shchekochikin’s death marked, as many liberals believe, the end of the era of romanticism in Russian politics. His name became a legend and a symbol of dedication to truth and honest journalism—and it still inspires young colleagues.
Not only did the 1990s fail to produce strong associations of independent owners, influential unions, and strategies to protect journalists, but today’s lack of real media freedom and the regular attacks on journalists are also a result of the naïveté of Russian liberals and a general lack of solidarity in our society. The media market today is almost totally controlled by the state, and new legal initiatives create new challenges. As media lawyer and director of the Mass Media Defense Center Galina Arapova notes, over 25 new legislative initiatives and regulations that limit journalism one way or another have been enacted without discussion since 2014.
Journalism in Russia today is challenged, as is journalism in other countries. Yet many Russian journalists continue to believe their professional mission is to serve the public good. I see that commitment among many colleagues when I travel in Russia’s regions; they are defending human rights and people’s dignity, combating corruption and propaganda. I see the same spirit in my students. They do not read newspapers and ignore TV, but they find Politkovskaya and Shchekochikhin online and wish to model their journalism on theirs. The best of them want to work for independent media like the newspaper Novaya Gazeta and Rain TV, or launch their own start-ups and address the Internet audience—reporting on people’s daily problems. They create new platforms and even manage to make money. They are free of the fear and stereotypes of older generations suffering from Soviet complexes and free of the thirst for money, which poisons a lot of my contemporaries who grew up in the wild Russian capitalist period of the 1990s. They are much more idealistic than their parents. Perhaps they will become the first truly free generation in Russian journalism. I see hope in their work.
The discussions of Babchenko show that people care about journalism, what it is like, how it is done, and who does it. The journalist’s position and personal choice are most important. That means that independent and honest journalism will not die.
Translated by Antonina W. Bouis.