Why Russian Journalist Arkady Babchenko Faked His Own Death
MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
Well, here's how we learned late this morning that Arkady Babchenko was alive. One of our producers was calling around to journalists who'd worked with him - someone who was mourning his death. And one of the people we called was Simon Ostrovsky. He said, look at your TV. Babchenko isn't dead.
Simon Ostrovsky is Investigations Editor with Coda Story. That's a nonprofit news website. And he is on the line now. Hi there.
SIMON OSTROVSKY: Hi.
KELLY: Hi. So we're about to have a really different conversation than we thought we were going to have with you. Has your blood pressure recovered from the shock?
OSTROVSKY: Yeah. It's been a couple of hours now, and I'm sort of coming down from the confusion and the excitement of finding out that my friend was alive. And, you know, myself and a lot of colleagues are processing this information to try to understand what it means because we've been confronted with, unfortunately, multiple deaths of colleagues in the post-Soviet space before, and nothing like this has ever happened.
KELLY: I know you know him because you reported together from the frontlines of the fighting in Ukraine. Yesterday, when the news was breaking that he had been shot - that he had been killed, you tweeted that he was a brave reporter.
And then you tweeted something eerie, in hindsight. You wrote, at this point, I'm just hoping these reports are a mistake. What was going through your mind when you saw those first reports that your friend had been killed?
OSTROVSKY: Well, I mean, it was just a genuine, actual emotion. I didn't really believe that it was possible that he could still be alive. I was just hoping for hope out of hope. And lo and behold, now he is.
KELLY: You're just sitting there watching with your jaw on the floor?
OSTROVSKY: Yeah, essentially. It was totally unbelievable.
KELLY: So I'm sure that you're happy that your friend and former colleague is alive and well. What else has gone through your mind today?
OSTROVSKY: Well, you know, I'm asking myself whether this ruse was completely necessary. The question I have is could the authorities in Ukraine have protected Arkady's life without making all of us believe that he was dead? Why was it necessary to say that he was dead in order to capture the people who they say were trying to kill him?
Here we were, spending most of yesterday posting about his death like it happened, only, all of us, to discover that it'd been mistaken. And at a time when people's trust in the media is so low, you know, this was sort of a blow.
KELLY: You wrote that back in 2014, the two of you - you and Babchenko - were reporting together in Ukraine that he got beaten up, that he was put through a mock execution by Ukrainian soldiers. And you wrote, this is going to seem like child's play compared to the hell he is about to get from his wife.
OSTROVSKY: From his wife and, you know, from the rest of us. A lot of us are really elated and happy he's alive, but we also kind of want to punch him in the face, to be honest, for doing this. And like I said, I really hope that this was completely necessary in order to save his life and that the bar was set no lower than that.
KELLY: You know, the story that he had been shot and killed was plausible in that he had criticized the Kremlin. He felt that his life was at risk. He had fled Russia and moved to Ukraine out of security concerns. When you worked with him, did he talk about that? Did he talk about feeling at risk?
OSTROVSKY: Even back then in 2014, for journalists who were from Russia but who appeared, you know, to hardcore nationalists to be taking the Ukrainian side, that was tantamount to being a traitor. You would have actual members of Putin's government saying that these people deserve to lose their citizenship or to be thrown out of the country. Other journalists have been shot and killed.
And this fake story, in a way, I think, detracts from the very many real stories. It's a very dangerous place - the former Soviet Union, Russia, Ukraine, especially - to do this work, and people do it out of passion because it's certainly not well remunerated.
KELLY: Have you tried to reach out to him? When you do, what will you say?
OSTROVSKY: I sent him a message on Facebook. I think he's getting millions of them right now, but the content is pretty much - can be summed up in three letters, WTF, or whatever the Russian equivalent of that is.
KELLY: Simon Ostrovsky, thank you.
OSTROVSKY: Thank you.
KELLY: Simon Ostrovsky speaking there about his fellow journalist and friend Arkady Babchenko, who was reported shot and killed. We have since learned he faked his death. He says it was a sting operation to flush out people trying to kill him. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.