The availability of low-cost satellite imagery ushers in a new era of investigative journalism, enabling previously impossible examination of environmental destruction and atrocities of war.
Bellingcat, the open source intelligence investigative journalism site, has signed an agreement with Planet Labs, a San Francisco-based earth imaging company that operates a constellation of more than 450 satellites, 150 of which photograph 350 million square kilometers of the planet. on a daily basis.
It was Bellingcat who identified Sergei Skripal’s poisoners in Salisbury; identified the Russian rocket launcher that shot down the Malaysian airliner MH17; and exposed the use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime in the Syrian civil war.
After starting out as a blog produced on a laptop computer in a main room on the outskirts of Leicester, Bellingcat last month won two Emmy Awards for his work with CNN in uncovering the plot to poison Russian dissident Alexei Navalny.
For Eliot Higgins, founder of Bellingcat, the satellite deal is a breakthrough that can transform his team’s ability to detect unfair activity taking place in isolated parts of the world. “Wherever people have relied on the remoteness of the location, it is now much easier to see in these areas. ”
Bellingcat began using these satellites to track illegal logging by cattle ranchers in the Amazon rainforest and to monitor the activities of elephant poachers in Africa.
In previous investigations where he had used satellite images, for example for geolocation of rocket attacks, he had relied on Google Earth, where the images may be out of date. In parts of Afghanistan and Iraq, the imagery dates back a decade, Higgins says. Now, he says, getting crisp, inexpensive satellite imagery “is something we can do on demand rather than just hoping that someone else has pointed a satellite at the location of our interest.” .
Bellingcat can submit the coordinates of a target site and have a high resolution 50cm per pixel image within 48 hours. “It’s good for being able to spot individual vehicles or crowds of people,” Higgins explains. “The volume of what is now accessible has improved dramatically given the situation five years ago. “
On-demand satellite imagery will help expose environmental crime, he believes. “Large-scale environmental damage is very easy to detect using satellites. Oil spills, deforestation, cattle ranching that is done in places where it shouldn’t be – the cows are over 50cm tall, so they are detectable in these images.
Reducing the cost of satellite imagery is crucial for an independent, non-profit organization. Higgins scowls at the memory of paying £ 2,000 for an image of a site in Ukraine, used in an earlier investigation. “Cost was a big limiting factor, but those prices have come down. “
Bellingcat encourages its subscribers to participate in the choice of sites to photograph. Recent potential targets include the US drone base in Niger, an ancient Armenian cemetery destroyed in Azerbaijan and the coast of the Faroe Islands after the slaughter of 1,400 dolphins. In seven years of activity, Bellingcat has shed light on state-sponsored terror, massacres and war crimes. It has been a thorn in the side of Russia, which accuses it of links to Western intelligence services and last week called it a “foreign agent”.
Higgins says he won’t be intimidated, even as the Kremlin continues a campaign of media harassment that last week saw the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) demand the arrest of Roman Dobrokhotov, Russian founder of the Insider website based in Latvia, which has partnered with Bellingcat. on the Navalny investigation. “It makes the job a bit more difficult for our colleagues in Russia,” says Higgins. “We know Roman, but it’s part of a larger trend where the boot is being pushed really hard in Russia. But we are certainly not relaxing. We have such a backlog of assassinations and things to review. There is still a lot to do.
Bellingcat, now based in The Hague, near the International Criminal Court, wants to develop in television and make itself known in the United States. Winning the Emmys comes at the right time: he’s selling a new documentary project he hopes will be picked up by a US network or streaming service.
Higgins, whose interest in investigative journalism followed an earlier obsession with video games, says Bellingcat has enjoyed a “fruitful” collaboration with CNN. “We shared what we had with them and they went through it with our team to make sure they were happy with every bit of the story.”
In a dramatic moment in the Emmy-winning film, CNN chief international correspondent Clarissa Ward is seen stepping out the door to Oleg Tayakin, one of the FSB’s unit members accused of ‘have followed Navalny for more than three years. Celebrating the awards, the star CNN reporter thanked “the brilliant Bellingcat”