Eoghan MacGuire talk

Eoghan MacGuire, who previously worked for CNN and NBC News, is the Lead Editor at Bellingcat.  He explained that Bellingcat is a collective of citizen journalists and its HQ is based in the Netherlands.  The non-profit company was founded by Eliot Higgins in 2014 to provide open source information on a variety of subjects largely related to crime and crimes against humanity.  Bellingcat operates in a unique field where advanced technology, forensic research, journalism, investigations, transparency and accountability come together.  It has a global reach with 30 staff and contributors based in more than 20 countries around the world.  The company’s name has become internationally known through successful scoops such as establishing the Russians downing of Malaysian Airlines Flight MH17, the chemical attacks in Syria and identifying the Skripal’s Russian Salisbury poisoners.  Indeed, Bellingcat is banned in Russia and any Russian who uses Bellingcat sourced material may face prosecution.

Bellingcat has shed light on many crimes and conflicts around the world from Mexico and Columbia in South America to Ukraine, Syria and Libya.  The company is proud of the transparency of their sources which reveal secrets that criminals and governments wish kept hidden.  They achieve this by tapping into internet sources around the world and looking for clues to verify or disprove claims being made.  The work is painstaking and requires a knowledge of where to look for corroborating evidence from Google Earth satellite photographs, to social media posts, official records, etc, etc.  For example, in the case of the downing of MH 17 in July 2014, the Bellingcat team were able to track the presence of the Russian Missile Launcher’s movements from the time it entered Ukraine until the time it returned to Russia largely through social media posts (eg Ukrainians posting photos of the missile launcher passing through their towns).  Satellite images and a BBC photo providing confirmation of identifiable numbers and markings on the launcher used also helped.

Perhaps one of the most intriguing revelations was Eoghan’s description of the Russian black market for personal data, known as Provib.  Through this market millions of Russian citizens’ information such as passports, flight logs, phone data, etc can be accessed.  Provib is leaked from official records, often by corrupt officials.  Eoghan also revealed, surprisingly, that a working knowledge of Russian wasn’t essential.  Google Translate is often good enough to reveal a story.  Albeit, he added, Bellingcat do have translations checked by native Russian speakers for the avoidance of doubt!

Indeed it was Provib which allowed Bellingcat to investigate the Skripal and Navalny poisonings.  In the case of the Skripal poisoners the Bellingcat team accessed information on names, dates of birth, passports, Russian Military Academy records, wedding photographs, car registrations and much more.  The data gathered was then painstakingly stitched the information together to identify the two perpetrators.  A similarly complex and painstaking process from passports, driving licenses, flight logs, phone calls, etc revealed that the FSB had had Navalny followed over time and it was possible to identify the agents involved in his poisoning.  Unbelievably Navalny called them to challenge them on his poisoning.  One agent, suffering from Covid at the time, spilled the beans and revealed that Navalny’s underpants had been laced with Novichock!  (For more information, see weblinks below.)

The audience was curious to know how Bellingcat was funded.  Eoghan explained that it was a non-profit company originally started by Eliot Higgins crowdsourcing funds through the internet.  Overall half of funding comes from grants and donations, the other half from running workshops training people in the art of open-source investigations.  Bellingcat also enjoys ‘in kind’ support from many software based companies.

This was a fascinating talk given by Eoghan.  It only gives a brief flavour of the painstaking research involved.  Bellingcat has been a great boon in these times when we are assaulted all round by Fake News, Alternative Facts, Misinformation and Disinformation.  It’s success can also be measured by the fact that other news agencies such as the New York Times, Washington Post, CNN and the BBC are setting up their own teams to carry out open source journalism to inform their reporting.  Thank you Eoghan.

John Walls

For more information about the work of Bellingcat see : https://www.bellingcat.com

Bellingcat Navalny Methodology : https://www.bellingcat.com/resources/2020/12/14/navalny-fsb-methodology/

Navalny poisoning CNN Report : https://youtu.be/p5sjosRF7-M?t=69


BBC iPlayer : Navalny (90 minute Documentary) : https://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/m0016txs/navalny

Eoghan MacGuire talk