Maxim Eristavi is a nonresident research fellow with the Atlantic Council and co-founder of Hromadske International, an independent news outlet, based in Kiev, Ukraine.
Dear foreign journalists: Please don’t make the story of Arkady Babchenko about yourselves.
When I first took to social media to report that that the Russian journalist and dissident had been killed, I received overwhelming support from foreign colleagues and readers. Then, about 20 hours later, I rushed to share the joyous news that he wasn’t dead after all. (In case you haven’t heard, the Ukrainian security services faked his death to thwart a reported plot to murder him. Ukraine now has two suspects in custody.)
The response was surprising – a storm of criticism tinged with annoyance. It made me question the news culture we live in and the narrative filter some of my Western colleagues apply to their coverage of foreign events.
Violence against journalists in Eastern Europe has become routine. Before fleeing Russia for Ukraine, Babchenko worked for Novaya Gazeta, the last remaining independent newspaper in Russia. Over the past two decades, six of the paper’s journalists have been killed. A little less than two years ago, Pavel Sheremet, another of my colleagues, was assassinated in broad daylight in Kiev. The crime has never been solved. Since then, my Ukrainian colleagues have faced escalating violence and harassment. None of this is really that new, of course. When I started working as a reporter 15 years ago, I had to get used to the realization that the possibility of being killed or assaulted was just part of the deal.
As a result, every time we Russian and Ukrainian journalists lose a colleague, it touches a deep, unhealed wound. So when Babchenko’s newsroom colleagues learned, with the rest of the world, that he was alive and safe, the reaction was so wild that the video capturing it became viral.
The reaction of some foreign journalists and commentators has been dramatically different. They’ve denounced the Ukrainian government’s operation as deplorable, or as an “unacceptable manipulation.” Some even equated it with Kremlin disinformation campaigns. Many of those comments came from prominent media personalities and professionals I know — yet few bothered to contact me or other Ukrainian journalists to find out how we felt.
My dear foreign colleagues, I’m sorry that the Ukrainian authorities haven’t lived up to your expectations. (Needless to say, they usually don’t live up to ours, either.) But today I’m just happy that my colleague is alive, and that journalists in our country have finally experienced a measure of justice. Our Western friends who criticize the outcome should acknowledge that they speak from a position of privilege: Saving the life of a journalist in Eastern Europe is worth celebrating. In our part of the world, where dozens of reporters have been murdered just for doing their jobs, survival is already an achievement.
That said, I don’t want to sound like I’m dismissing all the concerns of my foreign colleagues. All Ukrainian journalists have ample experience with disinformation; we were dealing with it long before it arrived in the West.
Yet I still can’t help wondering about our professional priorities. Rather than expressing indignation about being misinformed, shouldn’t we be celebrating the fact that a colleague’s life has been saved and the cause of justice advanced?
Four journalists have been killed in Europe over the past year. Those who remain face the prospect of harassment and violence. We must do all we can to protect them. But we won’t succeed in that if we spend our time on second-guessing our rare victories.