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Russia’s media watchdog bans investigative journalism group

Russia’s internet and media watchdog, Roskomnadzor, has blocked access to the website of the Netherlands-based investigative journalism group Bellingcat, along with 31 other outlets. 

According to Roskomsvoboda, an activist group monitoring access restrictions in the Russian segment of the internet, Bellingcat’s page was blocked on Wednesday at the request of Russia’s prosecutor general’s office. The watchdog’s own website seems to corroborate that information as well. 

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Along with Bellingcat, dozens of other lesser-known media outlets, both foreign and domestic, ended up off limits to Russian internet users on Wednesday. 

It is not clear yet what the specific reason is for this latest move, though since the start of Russia’s offensive against Ukraine on February 24, Moscow has enacted several laws and regulations aimed at preventing the spread of disinformation regarding its military operation. 

A whole host of media outlets, both domestic and foreign, have fallen victim to these new rules. 

In early October 2021, Russian authorities declared Bellingcat a foreign agent – a status which placed certain restrictions on the group’s operations in Russia.

Founded back in 2014, Bellingcat claims that it specializes in fact-checking and open-source intelligence, with both professional and citizen journalists allowed to contribute. Among the group’s pet topics are armed conflicts, human rights abuses, and criminal groups and their operations. 

Bellingcat made a name for itself with its investigations into the Syrian war and Russia’s involvement in it, the 2014 downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 over the Donbass, and the poisoning of prominent Russian opposition activist Alexey Navalny. Major Western media outlets have often lapped up the group’s findings, which laid the blame at Russia’s door in all the said cases. 

Moscow, however, has repeatedly called Bellingcat’s credibility into question, parrying the group’s reports with its own data, which presumably debunked Bellingcat’s allegations.

Last August, the head of Russia’s foreign intelligence service, Sergey Naryshkin, claimed Bellingcat was at least partly comprised of former intelligence operatives from Western countries. According to the Russian official, the group’s sole purpose was to “put pressure on either the country [Russia], or individuals and entities.” Naryshkin went on to accuse Bellingcat of using unscrupulous methods and fakes, adding that the group members were not volunteers, but rather worked for money. 

German image forensics expert Jens Kriese also criticized the group’s 2015 report, in which Bellingcat claimed that Moscow had manipulated satellite imagery related to the downing of the MH17 flight. Jens Kriese asserted that the investigators had failed to prove any such doctoring beyond a reasonable doubt, and relied on subjective methods, not based entirely on science.

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