Bellingcat has attacked defense attorneys and smeared witnesses in the trial over the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17. Is it being used by Western intelligence services to steer the case in a particular direction?
For six years the British website Bellingcat has promoted Ukraine’s narrative that Russia shot down Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 (MH17). With the start of the MH17 trial in March 2020, the self-proclaimed “collective of researchers, investigators and citizen journalists” assumed a new role: The US government-funded website began ridiculing the defense attorneys and attempting to discredit witnesses.
Could it be that Bellingcat is being used by Western intelligence services to steer the MH17 trial in a particular direction? And who is Black Mirror, the outlet’s mysterious “partner in crime?”
In March 2020, the Dutch Public Prosecution Service (OM) opened criminal proceedings against suspects in the downing of MH17. The Malaysian Boeing crashed on July 17, 2014, in the eastern region of Ukraine where a civil war was raging at the time, and where 16 planes of Ukraine’s air force had already been taken down by separatists.
Four former military leaders of the breakaway Donetsk People’s Republic now stand accused of having facilitated the downing of the civilian airliner. OM considers these men to be “leading players who took delivery of a Buk-TELAR [anti-aircraft battery] from the Russian Federation and deployed it as part of their own military operation, with the aim of shooting down an aircraft.”
Despite reporting from his living room, speaking no Arabic, and possessing no expertise or experience with weapon systems, Higgins’ work resonated widely in mainstream media. And it is no wonder: His findings fit perfectly with the mainstream narrative of moderate rebels waging a noble struggle against a merciless dictator who gassed his own people while at the same time pulverizing them with barrel bombs.
Jump start Bellingcat
The MH17 disaster enabled the meteoric rise of Bellingcat. With wreckage of the airliner still smoldering, the Ukrainian secret service known as SBU had begun publishing wiretaps of separatists discussing a downed plane – and promoting images its agents had ‘found’ on social media showing the alleged plume of a missile launch and the transport of a Buk ground-to-air missile system.
The clues the SBU was disseminating to journalists and social media pundits were picked up immediately by Bellingcat. Within days, the open source researchers professed precise knowledge about what had taken place in eastern Ukraine: MH17 was shot down with a missile that was fired from a farm field with a Buk system that was brought in from Russia. The possibility that Ukraine itself was involved in the disaster quickly disappeared from public discussion. And Ukraine achieved the result it sought: a Western audience was absolutely convinced that Russia was to blame even before the official investigation had begun.
Next, the Joint Investigation Team (JIT), which is led by the Dutch and in which the prosecution services of The Netherlands, Belgium, Australia, Malaysia and Ukraine are represented, adopted the pre-packed story of the SBU and Bellingcat.
Bellingcat’s success in shaping the narrative around MH17 seems to have emboldened its personnel to assume the role of deputy sheriff of the JIT. The site has continued to scrape the internet for additional evidence shoring up the official version of events, and successfully so. In 2015, Bellingcat published a report in which it was alleged that the notorious Buk system was derived from the 53rd Anti-Aircraft Missile Brigade of the Russian Ground Forces in the city of Kursk. This claim was faithfully adopted by the JIT the following year.
A firm defense
In March 2020, criminal proceedings in the MH17 case began. Although the social impact of the crash was massive, especially in The Netherlands – 196 of the 298 passengers that were killed were Dutch – the public has mostly lost interest. That’s because most Dutch citizens believe that the trial is a done deal, just a formality in which the four men that are standing trial will be convicted. They have fully accepted the narrative that Kiev, Bellingcat, and the JIT have spelled out through Dutch mainstream media. Dissenting opinions have been kept out of their reach and branded as fringe conspiracism.
The Dutch mass media has done little more than copy-paste statements from Bellingcat, the JIT and other official bodies. While some Dutch reporters have travelled to eastern Ukraine to make their own observations, they have done so without the apparent intention of critically reviewing the official narrative and exploring alternative scenarios.
It is far from certain that the four suspects will be convicted. Oleg Pulatov’s two Dutch lawyers have put forward a solid defense. Among other things, they have managed to compel the court to investigate the possibility that Ukrainian fighter planes were present around the time of the crash, and that they may have used MH17 as a human shield to protect themselves against ground to air missiles from the separatists.
Such an incident would not be unprecedented; the Russian government has alleged that the Israeli air force routinely exploits Russian aircraft as shields for their sorties over Syrian territory. This resulted in Syrian air defenses accidentally shooting down a Russian spy plane during an Israeli air attack in 2018.
Moreover, a confidential JIT document that was published by Bonanza Media revealed that the separatists were convinced the authorities in Kiev kept the air space in eastern Ukraine open on purpose. “Telephone calls indicate that they thought that military aircraft flew close to civil airplanes in order to be safe,” Manon Ridderbeks of the Dutch Prosecutor’s Service declared in a JIT Field Office meeting on 25 January 2018. Some separatists even thought Ukrainian fighter jets were provoking an incident. A month before MH17 came down, on 18 June 2014, they shared their concern about this on YouTube.
There are dozens and probably more than a hundred eyewitnesses who claim they saw fighter jets operating in the area of eastern Ukraine at the time MH17 crashed. The defense lawyers want some of them to testify in court. This has triggered an aggressive reaction from Bellingcat.
For years, Bellingcat staffers have ridiculed anyone who contented that MH17 was shot down by a Ukrainian fighter jet, or was accidentally hit by a Buk missile that was intended for a hostile jet. Now, the site is targeting the defense team.
As Bellingcat’s “lead Russia investigator,” Christo Grozev has taken the lead in attacking the MH17 defense team.
In an article entitled “Crisis Actors as Defense Strategy”, Grozev ridiculed the defense lawyers for seeking to place witnesses on the stand that he painted as unreliable. According to Grozev, one of the witnesses has long since withdrawn his testimony about fighter planes.
“In a DM chat and on the record,” the witness supposedly told Bellingcat, “I never saw any fighter jet, or any other plane, on 17 July 2014.”
However, Bellingcat has not provided any evidence that the witness ever made this claim. In fact, it appears to be a lie.
Russian journalist Yana Yerlashova from Bonanza Media visited the witness, known as Artyom, in his hometown. In Yerlashova’s video report, “Bellingcat Scams MH17 Warplane Witness”, Artyom stated adamantly that he had never withdrawn his testimony.
He also maintained that he had never consented to an interview with someone from Bellingcat. In fact, Artyom had been approached online by a faceless persona that identified itself as a journalist, but never indicated he or she was working for Bellingcat. The witness provided screenshots of the chat to Yerlashova. In this chat, the quote that Grozev had attributed to Artyom was nowhere to be found.
The images of the chat that Artyom provided to Yerlashova show that the mysterious journalist identified himself with the name, “Pieter Huis.” There is a Dutchman working at Bellingcat who is named Pieter van Huis. Had he been talking to Artyom? I asked him. He denied it.
Oddly, it turned out to be Grozev, the author of the Bellingcat article, who had spoken to Artyom. But, according to Eliot Higgins, Grozev had not done so under the name “Peter” or “Peter Huis.” So Higgins suggested the video interview of Yerlashova with Artyom was fabricated by the Russian military intelligence service GRU.
By Higgins’ logic, the chat that Artyom showed to Yerlashova was fake and the witness had been pressured to pretend it was genuine. The Bellingcat founder has provided no evidence to support the highly unlikely scenario he conjured.
I have asked Higgins several times reveal the “real chat” that Grozev is said to have conducted with Artyom, but he ignored my request.
Bellingcat smears investigator Max van der Werff
On November 5th, the MH17 defense lawyers requested permission to interview Dutch private investigator and electric bicycle dealer Max van der Werff about the research he conducted in Eastern Ukraine. Van der Werff said he has spoken to dozens of people in Pervomayskyi, the village near the agricultural field from where the fatal Buk missile was supposedly fired. None of the residents would have seen the plume of smoke visible in the photo promoted by the SBU, he has declared.
Van der Werff was also the first to enter the apartment from where the smoke plume photo was allegedly taken. He went on to investigate the route that the low-loader with the Buk Telar battery would have travelled.
The JIT interviewed him on two occasions for several hours about his findings. His research resulted in his name being placed on a blacklist of Myrotvorets, a malicious ultranationalist website in Ukraine that targets journalists who criticize Kiev’s policies. Several reporters who were listed on the website have been murdered. The Dutch Association of Journalists (NVJ) spoke outagainst the act of intimidation against Van der Werff, but the Dutch government and parliament did not raise a peep.
After years of volunteer blogging, Van der Werff entered into a partnership with Yana Yerlashova of Bonanza Media. Together, they produced a documentary entitled “MH17 – Call for Justice”, which has racked up over 342,000 views since it was released in 2019. This year, they also published confidential documents from the JIT, including a report from the Dutch Military Intelligence and Security Service (MIVD), which revealed that the MIVD had spotted plenty of Ukrainian Buk installations in eastern Ukraine and not a single Russian installation.
Because it was impossible for Bellingcat to discredit Van der Werff on the basis of the well-researched content featured on his blog and in his recent documentary, Eliot Higgins opted to wage a campaign of misinformation.
According to Higgins, Van der Werff claimed that MH17 was downed by a fighter plane and that the entire incident was a false flag. Yet Van der Werff never claimed anything of the sort. On the contrary, he has always emphasized that he does not rule out the possibility Russia was involved in the disaster. But Van der Werff does something that Bellingcat and the Dutch mass media have refused to do: He questions the official narrative and thus retains the possibility of alternative scenarios.
Bellingcat accused Bonanza’s owner, Yerlashova, of obtaining the confidential JIT documents she published on her website from the Russian military intelligence service known as GRU. It is indeed possible that these documents were obtained by a Russian intelligence agency. But like most journalists covering national security-related affairs, Yerlashova and Van der Werff have protected their sources by refusing to comment on their identities. It is common practice for journalists to publish information provided by security services. As long as the information is correct, no lives are put at stake and the journalist is not financially compensated by the source, this practice is ethical.
Van der Werff has insisted that he never received a cent from the GRU or Russian government. Bellingcat does not claim otherwise, nor does it allege that Van der Werff collaborated with them. The Dutch Prosecution Service confirmed that the documents published by Bonanza Media are authentic. And so the headline of the Bellingcat article, which warns of “disinformation” provides no evidence to buttress its claim. Indeed, not a single example is given in the article about disinformation in any of Bonanza Media’s productions.
Dutch media distorts Bellingcat to slander Van der Werff
Bellingcat’s attack piece triggered a wave of smears in mainstream Dutch media. “Dutch MH17-blogger directed by Russian secret service,” daily newspaper NRC headlined. “Van der Werff worked on the orders of the Russian military intelligence service GRU,” wrote the Dutch weekly De Groene Amsterdammer.
These defamatory claims were said to be based entirely on the Bellingcat article. However, the article never made such allegations. Nevertheless, most Dutch media outlets simply copy-pasted the slander of NRC and De Groene into their own coverage.
In Dutch parliament, MP Sjoerd Sjoerdsma of D66 condemned what he called “an attack on the Dutch constitutional order.” Sven Koopmans and Jeroen van Wijngaarden of VVD proposed legal measures to act against “foreign intelligence services that set up campaigns for disinformation in collaboration with Dutch citizens.”
In response to Sjoerdsma, Minister Stef Blok of Foreign Affairs wrote: “Bellingcat’s findings seem to support the government’s concerns about the spread of disinformation through Russia.” Dutch Minister of Justice and Security Ferdinand Grapperhaus even went as far as to label the activities of Bonanza Media as “undesirable foreign interference” and “disseminating disinformation.” General Secretary Thomas Bruning of NVJ stated in De Groene that he was“very shocked.” He announced that he would consider expelling Van der Werff as a member of the journalists’ union.
Left out of the firestorm of manufactured outrage was the salient fact that Bellingcat worked closely with NRC and De Groene to develop its hit piece on Van der Werff. As De Groene acknowledged in their article, “The Groene Amsterdammer assisted Bellingcat on a number of subjects for their research report.”
What’s more, NRC was aware of what was to come. This is evident from a personal message that Van der Werff received from the newspaper about the Bellingcat article before it came out.
The Bellingcat article was published simultaneously with the articles in De Groene and NRC. While Bellingcat confined itself to raising questions about whether Van der Werff had collaborated with the GRU, NRC and De Groene falsely claimed that Bellingcat had actually demonstrated such collaboration.
Why did these leading Dutch publications make claims that Bellingcat had never proven? First, they were intent on ruining the reputation of Van der Werff. Second, because they assumed they could get away with it.
While the strict British regulation of libel and slander prevented Bellingcat from explicitly smearing Van der Werff as a Russian asset, Dutch authorities take a much more liberal approach, clearing the way for NRC and De Groene to smear away without legal consequence.
Van der Werff is now fair game. It is doubtful whether the MH17-court will still allow the defense to interview him in court. In The Netherlands, defense lawyers are highly dependent on judges to interview witnesses and specialists in criminal proceedings. They must file a request for this.
Articles co-written by the GRU?
The assault by Bellingcat on Bonanza media does not only concern Van der Werff and Yerlashova. It also concerns this reporter. I published twelve articles about the MH17 trial on Bonanza Media. Bellingcat claims to have obtained emails from the mailboxes of two senior GRU officers. From these emails it would appear Yerlashova sent my articles to one of these officers before publication on the website of Bonanza Media.
But was this even true? To support its claim, Bellingcat displayed a screenshot of an email supposedly sent by Yerlashova with my first article for Bonanza Media attached. Judging from the screenshot, the email was sent the day before the article was published. Bellingcat then showed screenshots of a draft version of the article – and compared these with the published version. From this they concluded: “Only three substantive changes had been made to Van de Beek’s article between the copy submitted by Yerlashova to the GRU officer and the published version. It is not clear who requested or suggested these changes.”
The screenshots that Bellingcat displayed of the draft version of the article are indeed screenshots from the first version I sent to Yerlashova. But how does this support Bellingcat’s assumptions and claims? Did Bellingcat really obtain the draft from the mailbox of a GRU agent?
In the screenshot of the e-mail supposedly sent by Yerlashova, the recipient’s section is blacked-out. Someone may have obtained the draft by having hacked Yerlashova’s mailbox or mine – and the screenshot of Yerlashova’s email may have been made from a fake email.
Yerlashova denies she ever sent any of my articles to the GRU, and I have no reason to doubt her. She’s a talented, experienced journalist – and she probably knows more about MH17 than any of her professional colleagues in Russia. She doesn’t need anyone to tell her how an article about MH17 could be improved when she sees it. And certainly no suggestions of any intelligence service were needed to realize the minor changes in the article.
Bellingcat takes it for a fact that the three changes were requested or suggested. Were they really? Bellingcat did not provide any evidence for this claim. And I know for a fact that not all three of them were requested or suggested.
If I received any request or suggestion, I got it from Yerlashova. It is standard practice in journalism for an author and an executive editor to go through a revision process together. Yerlashova sometimes suggested some changes in the articles I sent her – and I found many of them very useful. I used some of them to improve my articles. But I never rewrote anything under protest. I never experienced any pressure. In fact, I’ve experienced enormous freedom to write anything I wanted. Yerlashova has not turned down a single pitch from me.
Bellingcat insinuates that the GRU may have requested or suggested changes in my articles. By doing so they are strongly suggesting a Russian intelligence officer may have been co-writing my articles. Bellingcat leaves it up to the imagination of its readers: either this reporter is a useful idiot, not knowing Yerlashova forwarded suggestions or requests from the GRU – or he is willingly cooperating with the GRU to make propaganda.
But I’m sure Bellingcat knows better. If they actually obtained emails from the mailbox of a GRU officer, they would not have written that it’s “not clear” to them who requested or suggested changes in my article. Then they would have known the answer to the question if the GRU had meddled in the editing process – and if the answer were yes, they surely would have presented the evidence.
But they chose not to be honest. They chose to discredit me, as they do with anyone who dares to question the official MH17 narrative. Why? Is Bellingcat simply suffering from ideological tunnel vision? Or is there more to the story than that?
Bellingcat does the opposite of what real journalism is supposed to comprise, which is monitoring the conduct of the powerful authorities in their midst and holding them to account. Instead, Bellingcat protects the authorities where it operates against journalists and other dissenters who challenge them.
As we’ve seen in the ongoing scandal around “chemical watchdog” OPCW in The Hague, Bellingcat even goes as far as to assist OPCW’s management in smearing one of its whistleblowers with a bogus document and covering up the findings of its own inspectors in Douma, Syria.
Who’s behind Black Mirror?
Bellingcat’s attack on Bonanza was filled with irony. Its anonymous authors had accused Yerlashova and Van der Werff of relying on a foreign intelligence service for their information about the MH17 investigation. However, those same supposed ‘open source’ researchers have continued to obtain information that is nowhere to be found on the internet. Indeed, Bellingcat’s information is drawn from sources so secretive that it is almost impossible to believe that the site is not doing exactly what it accuses Bonanza Media of doing: sharing information provided by a state security service.
Among the more significant financiers of Bellingcat is the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), an entity funded by the American government. NED co-founder Allen Weinstein stated in The Washington Post: “A lot of what we do today was done covertly by the CIA 25 years ago.”
Recently, in an article in Foreign Policy, CIA’s former deputy chief of operations for Europe and Eurasia Marc Polymeropolous praised Bellingcat for advancing the objectives of US intelligence. “I don’t want to be too dramatic, but we love this,” he said. “Instead of trying to have things cleared or worry about classification issues, you could just reference [Bellingcat’s] work.”
Strangely enough, the financing of Bellingcat is never seriously questioned in the mass media. Nor is the sourcing of some information Bellingcat obtains, which is anything but “open source.” Telephone communications of Russian GRU officers and the content of their mailboxes are highly confidential. They cannot be found on the internet. Yet Bellingcat claimed to have obtained this information. Passport data is not open source either. Still, Bellingcat got its hands on the passport data of Van der Werff and Yerlashova.
In 2018 Bellingcat also received passport data of two Russian nationals suspected by the British government of carrying out the poisoning of the former Russian military officer and double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter in the British city of Salisbury.
Sensitive information about GRU officers, whether fake or not, keeps popping up on the Bellingcat website. And as in the cases of the Skripals and Bonanza Media, it also appears on The Insider, a key Bellingcat partner run by dissident Russian journalist Roman Dobrokhotov. On several occasions, the alleged hacked GRU information that surfaced on both websites was attributed to the mysterious entity called Black Mirror.
What’s Black Mirror? According to Bellingcat it’s an hacktivist group, meaning, a group of ethical hackers. Now this is highly unlikely. Only a competing intelligence agency would be capable of such operations, and not a single intelligence service anywhere in the world would allow its own citizens to perform such actions. It may happen once, but then they will make sure it won’t happen again.
In their latest article, “FSB Team of Chemical Weapon Experts Implicated in Alexey Navalny Novichok Poisoning,” published in December 14, Bellingcat claimed to have obtained voluminous telecom and travel data that implicates Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) in the poisoning of Russian opposition politician Alexey Navalny.
For this piece, Bellingcat again collaborated with Dobrokhotov of The Insider. This time, however, there was no mention of Black Mirror. Bellingcat stated that the information was bought on the black market. In an interview with the Latvian website Meduza, Bellingcat’s lead investigator Christo Grozev said that he had paid for it from his own pocket.
A lawsuit against Bellingcat?
Dobrokhotov has claimed on Twitter that Van der Werff is paid by the GRU. Van der Werff responded by announcing a lawsuit against the Russian publisher, inviting him to prove his incendiary claim in a Moscow court. He is confident he will win because he never received a penny from any intelligence service.
It may not be long before Bellingcat faces a lawsuit as well. According to Van der Werff, Igor Bezler is preparing a case against Bellingcat. Bezler is a Russian citizen who for the past six years has been harassed by the SBU and Bellingcat for his association with the MH17 crash.
The Dutch Public Prosecution Service declared on March 9, 2020 that Bezler was not suspected of any involvement in the downing of the Malaysian Boeing. On that day, the prosecution vindicated two more Russians who had experienced a trial by media organized by Bellingcat. Some Dutch media have reported this, but only casually, and without informing the public they had been fooled and by whom.
Bellingcat’s position in The Netherlands is practically untouchable. Its pronouncements are widely regarded as the gospel truth on MH17. Colleagues I know who are not fully convinced of everything put forward by Bellingcat self-censor out of fear of career destruction. Anyone who criticizes Bellingcat or the official narrative risks being called a conspiracist, truther or useful idiot of the Kremlin – or will be accused of disrupting the criminal investigation and the court proceedings. At worst, they will be accused of working for the Kremlin. It is safer to color inside the lines.
When mainstream Dutch reporters slander dissenting journalists like Van der Werff, their chief editors seem to approve. Requests for corrections on false reports have been turned down. Even chief editor Dolf Rogmans of Villa Media, a monthly magazine for members of the Dutch association of Journalists NVJ, refused to remove the slander of De Groene, on which they had based the headline and lead of their article.
The headline reads: “Bellingcat: Dutch MH17 activists managed by Russia military intelligence service.” The lead reads: “Research collective Bellingcat claims that the Russian military intelligence service GRU is actively directing bloggers and journalists in a disinformation campaign around MH17. Platforms and journalists who present themselves as independent researchers receive material and present their own work to GRU in advance, says Bellingcat.” Villa Media published the article without having offered Van der Werff – and this reporter – a right of reply. Such is the state of professional journalism in The Netherlands today.
In the slipstream of all the commotion surrounding the Bellingcat hitpiece, two more notable incidents occurred. A person using the nickname Daniel Romein (and who’s real name is probably Danyo Romijn) contacted the eBikes company Van der Werff works for. He did so using the email address email@example.com and by writing: “I don’t know if you are allowed to answer my question because of privacy legislation, but it’s wrong for someone to claim he’s working for you while I think this isn’t true.”
To his surprise, his email was answered by Van der Werff himself, who’s a manager at the company. “Why don’t you write under your real name?” Van der Werff asked him. “And did you sent your email on behalf of Bellingcat?” Romein did not respond. But Pieter van Huis of Bellingcat did. “Daniel hasn’t been working for Bellingcat for some time now. We did not know about this action of his,” he wrote.
Then there was the incident with Bellingcat member Timmi Allen, who’s real name is Olaf Neitsch, and who worked for the DDR’s secret police Stasi. He encouraged people to find the home address of a person mentioned in Bellingcat’s article about Bonanza Media: the Ukrainian-Russian activist Elena Politnikova, who volunteered for Bonanza.
By placing hints on Twitter about her Dutch home address Allen put her life in danger. Plotnikova’s name is on the blacklist of the aforementioned ultranationalist Myrotvorets organization.
The man is a disgrace, he's since deleted the tweet no doubt forced too by Twitter after complaints. A censored archived screenshot of his original tweets. In which he opened a Bellingcat 'contest' to name her (Elena's) home address for a reward of "Bellingcat wine". pic.twitter.com/4RwOBfpInQ
Although Eliot Higgins was tagged,he did not intervene in the ‘contest’ Allen had opened to name Plotnikova’s home address for a reward of “Bellingcat wine.” Plotnikova then filed a police report and Neitsch subsequently removed his tweet. Once again, Bellingcat pretended not to be responsible. “Although Allen was never under contract with us, he is a volunteer (of honor),” Van Huis wrote. “We do not accept posting address data. Is that clear?”
On August 30th 2020 Bonanza Media announced that it would take a break due to a lack of funding. On December 19 the website stated that it “was brought back to life by Bellingcat and its partners in crime in the Dutch media” and that it intended to start crowdfunding for legal action.
The MH17 trial continues on February 1st 2021. The main phase of the criminal proceedings will start on June 7, 2021.