Wednesday, June 15, 2022

A week ago I wrote a letter of complaint to Bellingcat about flaws in their investigation of the death of Shireen Abu Akleh using their published procedures. 

Their site said, "We will acknowledge your complaint by e-mail or in writing within 7 calendar days and will normally respond to your complaint with a final decision letter within 21 calendar days. If we uphold your complaint, we will tell you the remedial actions we have taken."

I dutifully waited the seven calendar days and received no acknowledgement.

When I went back to their website, I discovered something amazing. The complaint procedure which has been displayed on their website since at least March 2019 had been removed within 24 hours of me filing a complaint against them last week.

(As of this writing, they have not yet removed that complaint procedure from their Russian language page.)

Bellingcat boasts, "With staff and contributors in more than 20 countries around the world, we operate in a unique field where advanced technology, forensic research, journalism, investigations, transparency and accountability come together." This incident casts doubt on whether they themselves are transparent or accountable. 

Bellingcat has done some fantastic work. I went into this process in the hope that, given their commitment to objective investigative research, they would acknowledge the problems I uncovered with their investigation of the events in Jenin on May 11 and would issue corrections or clarifications. I don't expect any corrections from CNN or the Washington Post, but Bellingcat has a great reputation.

When this issue was brought up to Bellingcat founder Eliot Higgins, he responded they are changing to a Dutch regulator because they are based in the Netherlands, but that is not a reason to leave themselves in a regulatory vacuum in the meanwhile.

I asked him if Bellingcat will respond to my letter. He dismissed my research:

We now have AP, CNN and the Washington Post saying the same thing as Bellingcat, and an initial look at your complaint indicates we'd be wasting our very valuable time responding to it as it's poor quality analysis.

 This is an amazing response on a number of levels.

First of all, I've been in contact with other OSINT researchers as I've been uncovering facts about the case. While some have quibbled about some details - and I have modified my assertions as a result - none of them have disagreed with the main points that I have made: Bellingcat ignored known militants who were videoed in the area, Bellingcat didn't consider evidence of Palestinian snipers that they didn't have video of but that witnesses mentioned, and Bellingcat misunderstood the audio forensics expert and didn't measure distances to the IDF properly - and when done properly, that key piece of evidence actually disproves that the IDF could have fired the bullet that killed Shireen.

Secondly, to have him claim that the findings of the mainstream media who made the exact same mistakes as Bellingcat (in fact, they aped Bellingcat's methods) is evidence is astonishing. 

Thirdly, the complaint process is meaningless if it can be ignored because the very people being accused of sloppy reporting can choose to ignore the complaint.

Higgins doubled down on his argument from authority:

I've had 10 years experience doing this work and have won multiple awards for doing so, so I'm going to rely on my own judgement on what's good & bad analysis, and save my staff valuable time giving detailed responses to it when it's only impressing people who want to believe it.

"I'm an expert! Trust me!" This is the exact opposite of what Bellingcat claims to be about!

If Bellingcat truly cared about the truth they would have eagerly responded to my list of issues, to either confirm or refute them. Ego should have no place in an organization that fearlessly uncovers the facts. 

I am disappointed that Bellingcat would choose to drop its stated commitment to responding to complaints rather than to...respond to a complaint. 

And if Bellingcat is so adamant about protecting its own reputation over finding the truth, then one must question its commitment to objectivity and transparency in all its reports. 

UPDATE: I received a response from IMPRESS and they said that Bellingcat's contract with them recently expired. So it may be a coincidence that they removed the Complaints section that day, although I would guess that the contract expired previously and my letter prompted them to update the page. 

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