Hristo Grozev brings journalistic know-how to the Bellingcat team – Copyright AFP ISAAC LAWRENCE
Digital investigators from the Bellingcat group have spent eight years exposing the lies of powerful individuals and collecting evidence of their crimes – a job that has a serious loss of life, the head of the organization said in an interview with AFP.
Bulgarian journalist Hristo Grozev said that he and his colleagues received threats on a regular basis, but were motivated to continue by “adrenaline” and “the feeling that you can do things that law enforcement doesn’t.”
The investigative team has been closely linked to uncovering the wrongdoings of Russian agents across Europe, including intelligence involvement in the poisoning of opposition figure Alexei Navalny.
“When citizens of Russia stop you on the street and thank you once a day for what you are doing, I think that is enough to keep going,” he said.
During a meeting in Paris earlier this week, he called the organization “the Kremlin’s biggest nightmare,” although he stressed to AFP that Russia was not their main focus.
“Today, Russia produces a lot of government crimes, and therefore many of our investigations are focused on Russia,” he said.
“But we equally try to pay attention to bad actors, wherever they come from.”
He cites investigations into the Syrian war, the EU police agency Europol and other investigations into Greece, Turkey, Hungary and the far right in the US and Europe.
– “Unwanted” in Russia –
Bellingcat was founded in July 2014 by British blogger Eliot Higgins along with a group of Internet nerds, said Grozev, who joined later and brought a wealth of journalistic experience from his career in the Bulgarian media.
They used publicly available information – from satellite images to telephone directories – to piece together evidence of wrongdoing.
Their work on the 2014 crash of Air Malaysia flight MH17 over Ukraine, which killed 298 people and sparked outrage around the world, drew applause around the world and brought the group to the attention of the Kremlin.
Investigators have pieced together photographs, videos and publicly available documents supporting the theory that the plane was shot down by a Russian missile from an area controlled by pro-Russian separatists.
Since then, the group has uncovered Russian agents responsible for the poisoning of opposition figure Alexei Navalny and other dissidents, exposed alleged war crimes in Ukraine, and helped solve a host of other scandals.
One of its main areas of activity now is the war in Ukraine, where it uses a two-pronged approach.
Grozev said one approach uses journalistic methods to debunk false information, while the other is more legal in nature, gathering evidence of war crimes for later use in courts.
The Netherlands-based platform, which takes its name from a fable in which mice team up to hang a bell around a cat’s neck, has rarely fallen out of the Kremlin’s radar.
Recently, Russia called it a security threat and considered it “undesirable.”
– Legal issues –
One of the main avenues of attack was to accuse Bellingcat of being funded by Western governments or non-governmental organizations, in particular the US National Endowment for Democracy.
Grozev said that in the early years of its existence, the group took money from American NGOs for training, but later decided to stop.
He said he had not taken money from governments since last year and instead relied on smaller donors.
“Most of our sponsors are private individuals who spend between 100 and 5,000 euros,” he said.
In addition to financial constraints, Grozev pointed to the difficult legal environment.
“International law is imperfect because it assumes that governments take care of their citizens,” Grozev said.
Even a tribunal like the International Criminal Court, which seeks to hold individuals rather than countries accountable, has long been held back by controversy over its investigative competence and powers.
And national governments are limited by the idea of national sovereignty, so if the poisoning occurs on Russian territory, only Russia can investigate.
It is this legal black hole that Bellingcat needs the most.
“We investigate mostly bad actors, governments that commit crimes because we think no one else is investigating them,” Grozev said.
“There are no tribunals or law enforcement agencies that investigate the actions of governments.”