Media Politics 2 August 2021

The Dutch blogger assisting Russia's media crackdown

Prominent investigative outlet The Insider appeared this week to be the latest target for officials in an ongoing crackdown on independent media. Editor-in-chief Roman Dobrokhotov was briefly detained Wednesday as part of a defamation case brought by controversial Dutch blogger Max van der Werff.

  • Dobrokhotov’s detention came just a few days after The Insider was designated a ‘foreign agent’ by the Justice Ministry — a label that not only requires an organization to identify itself as such on all published material, but can lead to financial problems and hinder the work of journalists. Dobrokhotov initially appeared nonchalant about the decision: “The outlet has no representative office in Russia, so all these crazy laws don’t apply to The Insider. We’ll keep working as we always have,” he told MBK Media.
  • But this looked optimistic Wednesday morning when Dorbrokhotov’s apartment was searched by police, he was detained and all his electronic devices and passport were seized.
  • The Insider is perhaps best known for its partnership with Western investigative outlet Bellingcat that has exposed dozens of Kremlin secrets, including how Federal Security Service (FSB) operatives carried out the 2020 poisoning of opposition leader Aleksei Navalny. Dobrokhotov was supposed to fly out of Russia later Wednesday to “work on a series of new investigations,” according to Bellingcat’s Christo Grozev. But he was unable to do so without his passport.
  • After searching his apartment, police questioned Dobrokhotov in relation to defamation charges filed in April. He was later released. If Dobrokhotov is found guilty, he could face up to two years in jail for falsely reporting that Van der Werff has links with the GRU, Russia’s military intelligence agency, Van der Werff’s lawyer Stalina Gurevich told state news agency TASS. The lawsuit also alleges Dobrokhotov defamed “individually indeterminate persons” within the GRU.
  • Van der Werff featured in a joint Bellingcat and The Insider investigation last year that showed how he coordinated with the GRU to publicise ‘alternative narratives’ about the downing of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 over Eastern Ukraine in 2014. In particular, The Insider and Bellingcat looked at Bonanza Media, which Van der Werff founded in 2019 with Yana Erlashova, a journalist who used to work at state-controlled RT.
  • Bonanza Media released a 28-minute documentary — MH17: Call For Justice — in 2019 questioning the version of events accepted in the West (that MH17 was shot-down by a missile fired from a Russian anti-aircraft system in territory controlled by Russian-backed separatists). Then, last year, Bonanza Media published leaked materials that supposedly vindicated Russia. Bellingcat and The Insider found — from examining the hacked email accounts of intelligence officers — that Bonanza Media’s work was closely coordinated with the GRU.
  • Van der Werff’s activities began to get attention from pro-Kremlin media outlets as far back as 2015, according to independent media outlet Meduza. And his wild claims have been recycled in Russian state-owned media ever since. When Bonanza Media came along, Van der Werff was already calling himself a ‘journalist’, even though no news outlet had ever employed him. Sure enough, Russian state-owned media started to identify him as a ‘Dutch journalist’ and a ‘documentary filmmaker’. In fact, the Dutch Association of Journalists did not allow Van der Werff to renew his press credentials in 2019.
  • Bellingcat and The Insider are long-term partners, although it is sometimes unclear what role is played by The Insider in their joint investigations. A recent video report on how Dobrokhotov and Grozev uncovered the FSB unit behind the Navalny poisoning shed some light on their work together. According to Grozev, Bellingcat does most of the searching for personal data — so as to protect The Insider journalists from breaking Russian law. Dobrokhotov also denied allegations that they cooperate with foreign intelligence services. And he said that the most important source of funds for both The Insider and Bellingcat is donations and grants. Contrary to popular belief in pro-Kremlin circles, Dobrokhotov maintained The Insider has never received any money from exiled tycoon Mikhail Khodorvsky.
  • Yet, Dobrokhotov remains something of a mysterious figure. He started out in the mid-2000s as a political activist, founding several small anti-Kremlin movements and actively participating in protests. Famously, he interrupted a speech by then-president Dmitry Medvedev in 2008 about the Russian constitution, which Medvedev had just proposed to amend to extend presidential terms to six years. Dobrokhotov was fired from radio station Govorit Moskva the same day. A few years later, Dobrokhotov found his calling in investigative journalism. He has said he was a fan of Sherlock Holmes when growing up.

Why the world should care: The investigations carried out by Bellingcat and The Insider have made headlines across the world — and this new pressure on The Insider will make it harder for them to continue their work together.