Earlier this month, news spread of the murder of a Russian dissident journalist Arkady Babchenko - shot and killed outside his apartment in Kiev, Ukraine. Except, as we all now know, it never happened. The killing had been staged, his "resurrection" broadcast live at a press conference the following day.

Babchenko said he faked his own death as part of an operation led by the Ukrainian security services to thwart a plot by Moscow to kill him. He said it was about survival.

It's that relationship - a journalist working with a spy agency - with which organisations like the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), based in New York, take issue.

"CPJ takes quite a dim view of law enforcement impersonating journalists," explains Nina Ognianova of CPJ. "Now, with Arkady Babchenko basically acting as a police asset, one clear damage is to public trust for the media and for journalists."

We are relieved that Arkady Babchenko is alive. But the faked death has the potential of tempering public outrage when journalists are killed and are hurt in the line of duty.

Nina Ognianova, Committee to Protect Journalists

For Mark Galeotti at the Institute of International Relations, Prague, "The point this is not a does Babchenko live or die binary. What's become the story is not the threat to journalists. It has become the whole fake threat to journalists."

Babchenko's story is also part of an ongoing media battle, and a larger geopolitical conflict between the Western-backed government in Ukraine and Russia, which says the initial breathless coverage of the Babchenko story is yet another example of how much of the international media are intent on smearing the Kremlin.

"This whole thing initially contained all the perfect ingredients for a great anti-Russian story and the Ukrainian authorities and the Ukrainian media have been very successful sellers of 'Russophobia' over a number of years," says Alexei Kuznetsov, deputy news editor at RT.

In both the Babchenko case in Ukraine and the recent Skripal case in the UK, in which former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter were poisoned, fingers were quickly pointed at Moscow.

The problem in both cases has been evidence, the lack of it, and the tendency of news organisations in Ukraine, the UK and elsewhere to accept the word of local authorities and publish accordingly.

That's not journalism, it's stenography - and it plays right into the hands of the Kremlin and the media apparatus it has at its disposal.

"On one level, this is a conventional conflict being fought out with guns and missiles," explains Galeotti. "On the other hand, it's also an information conflict and the Russians have sort of blown out this great cloud of conspiracy theories and outright nonsense really just almost giving a sense of, 'Look, we'll never know what's going on.' That's been one of the Russian strengths, is actually a capacity to create this sense where truth is unknowable. The information war is every bit as important as the one of the ground."

Contributors: 

Ayder Muzhdabaev, deputy director general, ATR Television Network
Nina Ognianova, Committee to Protect Journalists
Alexei Kuznetsov, deputy news editor, RT
Mark Galeotti, Institute of International Relations, Prague

Source: Al Jazeera