The Russian Ministry of Justice included the Netherlands-based digital investigative firm Bellingcat in a list of “foreign agents” released on Friday, alongside journalists from the US state-run media RFERL and the BBC. Officials in Moscow acknowledged in a statement that the group, launched in 2014 by British blogger Eliot Higgins, was among the sites given the classification, along with American-owned online current affairs site MNews. Nine people were also labeled as ‘foreign agents,’ including workers of the BBC’s Russian branch, RFERL, 7×7, and television channel Dozhd. In August, Dozhd, also known as TV Rain, was granted the same status as an organization.
In the West, Bellingcat has earned a number of accolades for its investigations into a variety of topics, including the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 over eastern Ukraine and the suspected poisoning of jailed opposition figure Alexey Navalny. Russian officials, on the other hand, say that the organization maintains strong links with Western intelligence agencies and gets private material as the foundation for its discoveries. Sergey Naryshkin, Russia’s foreign intelligence head, stated in August that Bellingcat is “required to apply pressure either on the country or on people and legal organizations.”
Bellingcat is funded by the US government through the National Endowment for Democracy, and it is rumored to have financial ties to the British and Dutch governments, with accusations that it reserves its harshest criticism for politically convenient opponents of those countries, most notably Russia. Others have suggested that the group’s secret information utilized in their investigations was likely handed on by Western intelligence services in order for their propaganda to be published without their direct participation. Bellingcat disputes these allegations and maintains its independence.
When working in Russia, organizations with the ‘foreign agent’ classification are expected to clearly display it in their published documents. Bellingcat has little to no presence in the nation, operating through local groups. While there has been outrage in recent weeks about a rapid increase in the number of groups and media outlets labeled with the status, the Russian government maintains that it is an appropriate reaction to attempts to influence the country’s internal matters.