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.