Despite mainstream glory, questions raised about Bellingcat authenticity and Skripal poisoning case

Despite mainstream glory, questions raised about Bellingcat authenticity and Skripal poisoning case
Bellingcat, the ‘investigative’ website in the news after claiming to have identified the Skripal poisoning suspects, has received mostly uncritical coverage from the media – but some independent journalists are raising questions.

The website, which bills itself as the “home of online investigations” and claims it uses “open-source” techniques to look into a “variety of subjects,” has become somewhat of a media star since it was founded by Eliot Higgins in 2014.

However, praise for Bellingcat has been particularly loud since it claimed to have “conclusively” established the true identities of two Russian men, Alexander Petrov and Ruslan Boshirov, which British authorities say are linked to the Salisbury poisonings of ex-Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia back in March.

When Bellingcat revealed the identities of the men (one in late September, the other following two weeks later in October), British media for the most part accepted the results of the ‘citizen journalism’ investigation at face value – but  not everyone is as dazzled by the cyber-sleuths.

Bellingcat has worked hard to cultivate an image of itself as a simple independent website built on humble beginnings and the talent of one man – a personal project which grew into something bigger and more important.

Is there more to it? How did Bellingcat go from being one man toiling away in his Leicestershire living room to an organization that is suddenly regarded as a trustworthy investigative source by almost all international mainstream media?

In a column for the UK’s Independent newspaper, journalist Mary Dejevsky raises a number of questions the public and the media “should be asking” about Bellingcat’s origins, funding and affiliations – and, in particular, about its investigations into the Skripal case.

Bellingcat has grown rather a lot beyond its shoestring origins. It has money – where from? It has been hiring staff. It has transatlantic connections. It has never, so far as I am aware, reached any conclusion – whether on the downing of the Malaysian plane over eastern Ukraine, or chemical weapons use in Syria, or now, with the Skripals – that is in any way inconvenient to the UK or US authorities.

Other independent journalists have been asking similar questions about Bellingcat and its affiliations – in particular its dubious funding sources (the US government-funded National Endowment for Democracy (NED) and the Saudi-linked Meedan) – as well as the fact that its founder, Higgins, previously worked for the pro-NATO Atlantic Council think tank.

Could these links be why Bellingcat focuses its biggest investigations and “fixates obsessively”on NATO adversaries, while claiming to be objective and impartial? Is this why, as Dejevsky wrote, Bellingcat never seems to reach any conclusions that is “in any way inconvenient to the UK or US authorities?”

Focusing specifically on the Skripal investigation, Dejevsky ponders potential links between British intelligence agencies and Bellingcat’s investigation. Could UK agencies be using Bellingcat for their own purposes? “Might not the group’s good name be being used to get information into the public domain that officials do not want to vouch for? And, if so, would this be to inform, or to mislead?” she asks. Perhaps British intelligence agencies, aware that the public are more skeptical of their claims after false information led to the disastrous Iraq war, have decided that friendly ‘citizen journalism’ outfits offer a better way of controlling the narrative? It’s difficult to know, of course, because most journalists don’t seem interested in looking into it.

Then there’s the veracity of what Bellingcat produces. Dejevsky writes that the authenticity of the documents produced by Bellingcat as “evidence” is not subject to “the same scrutiny as might be applied to other evidence” by journalists. No UK court, she says, could convict Petrov and Boshirov of even attempted murder, based on the evidence which has so far been produced by either the UK authorities – or Bellingcat.

In 2015, popular German magazine Der Spiegel apologized to its readers for immediately taking information from Bellingcat at face value when it it was not proven beyond doubt. A German image forensics expert Jens Kriese at the time also slated Bellingcat’s methods in its ‘investigation’ into the downing of the MH17 flight in Ukraine as “not very robust” and equivalent to “reading tea leaves.”

When Bellingcat claimed its findings in that case were based on the use of the FotoForensic.com analysis tool, the website’s founder Neal Krawetz said Bellingcat had provided a good example of “how not to do image analysis.”

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