Editors’ Note: Controversy over the downing of Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 has persisted with the West and its allies blaming the pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine and the Russian Federation. A central player with respect to promoting the Western narrative is the open source intelligence website Bellingcat. Challenging this narrative, the work of Bonanza Media Project questioned multiple aspects as regards the Western narrative. In 2020, Bellingcat launched a smear campaign against Bonanza Media. This article, written by Eric van de Beek who published with Bonanza Media, documents these events.

On November 12, 2020, Bellingcat opened a frontal attack on Bonanza Media. This was a media project by former RT-journalist Yana Yerlashova and private detective Max van der Werff, which they started in 2019 and which came to an end in September 2020. In an article titled The GRU’s MH17 Disinformation Operations Part 1: The Bonanza Media Project, Bellingcat claimed that Yerlashova had worked closely with the Russian military intelligence service GRU. This would appear from email traffic between Yerlashova and an intelligence officer of the GRU that the research collective would have at its disposal. Bellingcat also suggested that the GRU had provided Bonanza Media with confidential documents from the Joint Investigation Team (JIT), which lead the international criminal investigation into the downing of Malaysian flight MH17 in Eastern Ukraine on 17 July 17, 2014. It is true that Bonanza Media had received such documents. Van der Werff and Yerlashova published a number of them at the beginning of 2020. Some disclosures yielded spectacular news, especially a report from the Dutch Military Intelligence and Security Service (MIVD) which showed that no Russian Buk installation had been seen in eastern Ukraine, the murder weapon that had allegedly brought MH17 down. What the MIVD and partner services had identified were seven Ukrainian Buk installations, around June and July.

Van der Werff and Yerlashova attracted a lot of attention with their crowdfunding-financed documentary MH17 – Call for Justice. This appeared on the YouTube channel Bonanza Media on July 17, 2019 and had been viewed more than 367,000 times by January 1, 2024. Also, a forensic expert who was commissioned by Bonanza Media showed that the Ukrainian secret service SBU had tampered with evidence. Immediately on the day of the disaster and in the days that followed, the Ukrainian intelligence service SBU had placed intercepted conversations of the separatists in Ukraine on YouTube. This gave the impression that the seperatists had been involved in the downing of MH17. The forensic expert, Akash Rosen, discovered that there had been considerable cutting and pasting in the intercepts. During the 1 November 2021 session of the MH17 criminal trial in Badhoevedorp, The Netherlands, the District Court of The Hague revealed that the JIT and the Dutch Public Prosecution Service had never commissioned any technical investigation into manipulation of the audio files.

Is it true that Bonanza Media received the confidential JIT documents from the GRU? It is certainly possible that the documents were provided by an intelligence service, but Yerlashova and Van der Werff did not comment on this because as journalists they had to keep their sources secret. Journalists often publish information they have obtained through secret services. Award-winning Dutch journalist of de Volkskrant, Huib Modderkolk, filled an entire book with intelligence hearsay in 2019 entitled Het is oorlog maar niemand die het ziet (There’s a war going on but no one notices). The relevant question is whether the information is correct, whether a journalist is not paid by a service and whether human lives are not being endangered. Documents published by Bonanza Media were authentic, as verification emerged from a response from the Public Prosecution Service on March 10, 2020. The headline above the Bellingcat article, which spoke of “disinformation”, is therefore incorrect. Nowhere in the article is an example of disinformation in Bonanza Media’s productions identified.

In addition to Van der Werff and Yerlashova, the author of this article was also mentioned in Bellingcat’s article. This is because I wrote a series of articles for Bonanza Media in 2020 about the MH17 criminal trial. My first article was about the announcement by the Public Prosecution Service that it did not include the Russian Igor Bezler among the suspects; It was titled MH17: Trial by media gone wrong. That was remarkable news because Bellingcat author Pieter van Huis had presented Bezler as a suspect for years. The fact that I had mentioned this in my article was apparently a reason for Van Huis to drag my name through the mud. Yerlashova had submitted my first article to a GRU intelligence officer for publication, he claimed, based upon an email from her that Bellingcat allegedly had. Moreover, the published version of the article differed from the version Yerlashova had sent to the intelligence officer, he noted. Bellingcat showed three edited passages in the article. Yerlashova denied that she had corresponded with a GRU officer. She stated that the email was fake. I can confirm that three passages have been edited in my article. Apparently Bellingcat succeeded, with or without the help of third parties, in breaking into my mailbox or Yerlashova’s. Without claiming that a Russian intelligence officer had arranged for the changes in my article, Bellingcat emphatically left that possibility open: “It is not clear who requested or suggested these changes.” However, it is difficult to imagine that Van Huis and his Bellingcat colleagues actually thought that a Russian spy might have co-written my article. Yerlashova discovered a factual inaccuracy in my text which she asked me to correct (‘a month later’ had to be ‘a week later’); she corrected a spelling error (‘anti-dated’ had to be ‘antedated’) and in consultation with her I made a few stylistic adjustments. Is it conceivable that these changes to the text, none of which were substantive, were suggested by a Russian military intelligence officer in Moscow? The idea is preposterous. Yerlashova is an experienced journalist who has a perfect command of the English language because she lived and studied in the US. For the kind of adjustments that were made to my text, she did not need help from anyone, let alone from spies who are usually concerned with matters other than the final editing of journalistic productions. This would also have been clear to Bellingcat. Yet Van Huis and his colleagues chose to portray me as a journalist who had perhaps naïvely allowed himself to be abused for Russian propaganda purposes. I can’t see this unwarranted attack other than as a conscious attempt to harm me.

The Bellingcat publication had an impact. Articles appeared everywhere in the Dutch media that were devastating for Van der Werff and to a lesser extent for me. “Dutch MH17 blogger controlled by Russian secret service,” headlined journalists Wilmer Heck, Andreas Kouwenhoven and Steven Derix on November 12, 2020 in the daily paper NRC. “Dutch MH17 activist turns out to be a chess piece for Russian intelligence,” Robert van der Noordaa and Coen van de Ven wrote the same day in weekly De Groene Amsterdammer: “Over the past year, Van der Werff acted on behalf of the Russian military intelligence service GRU.” They referred to the Bellingcat article for these defamatory statements, but none of them are backed by the Bellingcat article. Van der Werff stated that he has never received a cent from the GRU. Bellingcat does not claim otherwise. They do not even claim that Van der Werff worked with the GRU. Eliot Higgins, the director of Bellingcat, even explicitly stated that it was not Van der Werff but Yerlashova who was in contact with the GRU. Nevertheless, most media accepted the slander of NRC and De Groene in full, and apparently without having read Bellingcat’s article to see whether what NRC and De Groene wrote was correct.

The publications in NRC and De Groene Amsterdammer caused a stir in the House of Representatives. D66 MP Sjoerd Sjoerdsma spoke the same day of “an attack on the Dutch rule of law”. A Dutch journalist had been “supported by a foreign intelligence service to frustrate the MH17 trial”, as he understood from reporting by NRC and De Groene. He asked the then Minister of Foreign Affairs Stef Blok for a written response. On November 13, VVD MPs Sven Koopmans and Jeroen van Wijngaarden asked the cabinet about legal options to take action against “foreign intelligence services that set up disinformation campaigns in collaboration with the Dutch.” In response to Sjoerdsma, Blok wrote on November 17 that “Bellingcat’s findings appear to substantiate the cabinet’s concerns about the spread of disinformation by Russia.” On December 16, Minister Ferdinand Grapperhaus of Justice and Security went so far as to qualify Bonanza Media’s activities as “unwanted foreign interference” and “spreading disinformation” in response to questions from Koopmans and Van Wijngaarden. General Secretary Thomas Bruning of the Dutch Association of Journalists (NVJ) stated in De Groene he had been “tremendously” shocked. He announced that he would consider expelling Van der Werff as a member of the journalists’ union. He then swallowed those big words in a personal email to Van der Werff. Bruning had not been able to find a shred of evidence for De Groene’s claims. But apparently, he was not prepared to make this public, because to this day he kept silent about his findings, despite a request from Van der Werff to speak out. Van der Werff then canceled his membership of the association.

The publication of Bellingcat and its reading by De Groene even led to a mention in the annual report of Dutch intelligence service AIVD for 2020. “The Russian military intelligence service GRU spread disinformation about the MH17 investigation through, among other things, the media platform Bonanza Media that published several JIT documents.” It is true that Bonanza Media had published JIT documents. But what is that the AIVD suggested? That the JIT documents contained disinformation? According to the Public Prosecution Service, they were authentic. Apparently the AIVD had not managed to find examples of disinformation in my articles or in the documentary by Yerlashova and Van der Werff, because no examples of disinformation were mentioned in the report. The service just made some noise, just as Bellingcat had done. The AIVD did not need to prove anything, because thanks to Bellingcat and partners in crime NRC and De Groene, the image of Bonanza Media as a Russian disinformation project was already set in stone.

No one, including Bellingcat, has claimed that Bonanza Media has received funding from the Russian government or another powerful party. From my own experience, I can report that just a few months after I started writing for the website, the money ran out. Yerlashova could no longer pay me because, she said, the crowdfunding was inadequate. That’s not what you would expect from an organization backed by a powerful stakeholder. I then financed the publication of the articles I was still writing for Bonanaza Media through my own donation calls on Twitter. Then, Yerlashova pulled the plug. Bellingcat’s attack followed a few months later, at a time when Bonanza Media had already stopped.

Bellingcat worked closely with De Groene for the attack. At the bottom of the article by Van der Noordaa and Van de Ven it says: “De Groene Amsterdammer assisted Bellingcat on a number of parts of their research report.” NRC was also aware of what was to come. This is evident from a personal message that Van der Werff received from the newspaper about the Bellingcat article, before publication. The Bellingcat article appeared at the same time as the articles in De Groene and NRC. A division of labor seems to have been made: while Bellingcat only raised the question of whether Van der Werff had collaborated with the GRU, NRC and De Groene in particular presented it as something that Bellingcat had demonstrated. I was treated the same way. While Bellingcat suggested the possibility that an intelligence officer had co-written an article of mine, De Groene presented it as a fact.

The Dutch National Coordinator for Counterterrorism and Security (NCTV) was also quick to draw attention to Bellingcat’s article. “Today Bellingcat publishes the research below,” an intelligence service employee wrote on November 12, 2020 in an email to the ministries of Defense, Interior, Foreign Affairs and Justice and Security. “It is probably smart to already put together interdepartmental spokesmanship policy for this.” The employee sent the email at 9:51 am. That was barely an hour after Bellingcat had put the article online (8:55 am). The email from the NCTV (which was obtained through an appeal to a FOIA by researcher Cees van den Bos and published by him on Twitter) seems to indicate inside information, and not only because of the speed with which it was sent. The way in which the email is drafted also suggests this. It does not say: “Today Bellingcat published the research below.” It also does not say: “Today Bellingcat has published the research below.” The official wrote: “Today Bellingcat publishes the research below.” As if it were something that still had to be done. Moreover, no link to the article was included in his email. The article was in its entirety (over 20 pages) pasted as text in the email. The NCTV has a remarkable predictive ability when it comes to articles or items about MH17, as has been shown by other documents that were obtained via FOA appeals. Before articles or items about MH17 are published, the service somehow already knows and has notified all stakeholders in the Dutch government. The publication of the email lead to publications in the Dutch weekly newspaper De Andere Krant and the American website The Grayzone. This lead, in turn, to questions being asked in the Dutch Parliament. On 2 February 2024 MP Pepijn van Houwelingen of Forum for Democracy (FvD) asked minister Dilan Yeşilgöz-Zegerius of Justice and Security about ties between Bellingcat and the Dutch government. As of this writing, his questions are still to be answered.

Other journalists took over the ‘news’ from NRC and De Groene, without having read the Bellingcat article, including Lars Pasveer from Villamedia, a monthly journal from the Dutch association of journalists. Pasveer posted an article on November 12 with the headline: Bellingcat: “Dutch MH17 activists controlled by Russian military intelligence.” The article opened with: “Research collective Bellingcat states that the Russian military intelligence service GRU is actively directing bloggers and journalists in a disinformation campaign around MH17. Platforms and journalists who present themselves as independent researchers are provided with material and submit their own work to GRU in advance, Bellingcat says.” And so on. I asked the then editor-in-chief Dolf Rogmans of Villamedia to correct this. He refused my request under the guise of: “We have properly reflected what De Groene writes.” Nevertheless, Rogmans promised to change the article in Villa media if De Groene changed the article first. Because editor-in-chief Xandra Schutte did not do this of her own accord, I filed a complaint with de Raad voor de Journalistiek, a self-regulating body of Dutch quality media outlets, against De Groene on January 18, 2021. This was specifically aimed at the phrase: “The fact that Russian spies have such a far-reaching influence on what activists and citizen journalists write is a unique example of interference in the Netherlands.” De Groene had not provided any evidence for that claim. Bellingcat, to which De Groene referred, has also not claimed in any way that spies had contributed to articles on the Bonanza Media website. It was also factually incorrect that “activists and citizen journalists” had contributed to the website. I was the only author. Besides me, there were no “other activists and citizen journalists” who saw their own articles published there. In addition, De Groene had failed to ask me to provide a rebuttal, which you would expect from a ‘quality medium’, especially when it makes such serious accusations.

I was convinced that I was completely within my rights and that De Groene would be reprimanded by the self-regulatory body of the Dutch quality media. But things turned out differently. The Council’s judgment was that De Groene had acted “carefully”. “In the opinion of the Council, the offending sentence contains a summary conclusion of the various previous passages, which do not only relate to the complainant,” the Council informed me by letter. “From those passages, which follow from the Bellingcat report, it is sufficiently clear that a Russian intelligence service has (had) influence within Bonanza Media […] In view of the foregoing and taking into account that the article mainly contains reporting of a factual nature, there was no reason for the complainant to be heard.”

Max van der Werff was right. He said he was sure I would lose the case. Not because my complaint was unfounded, but because he did not trust that the Council would consider the matter objectively. He and I had been in contact with a Russian woman who, in turn, was accused by Bellingcat of having been in contact with a Russian intelligence service. For that reason alone, we would be proven wrong. The climate of opinion in the Netherlands, even before the Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2022, was already so anti-Russian that every Dutch person who had ever been in a relationship with a Russian had the disadvantage of the doubt. “Vested interests are now more important than finding the truth,” Van der Werff wrote to me. “It is a political battle that you and I cannot win.” For the same reason he had refrained from complaining to the Council.

Pending the Council’s assessment of my complaint against De Groene, I also filed a complaint against Villamedia, but it was not processed, the Council wrote to me, because I had sent it too late.

The article on the Villamedia website inspired vice-chairman of the Dutch Association of Journalists (NVJ) and former NRC editor-in-chief Folkert Jensma to pronounce a curse. Referring to Pasveer’s article, he wrote on the NVJ website on October 15, 2021 that journalistic colleagues knew me from my “controversial journalistic contributions to reporting on the MH17 process”. Jensma then linked me to people “who assume the role of ‘journalist’ to carry out agitation, manipulate or even falsify news”, without citing a single example to substantiate these defamatory claims. In his column on the NVJ website, Jensma ‘forgot’ to post a link to my articles on Bonanza Media. Apparently, his readers were not meant to take note of my MH17 writings so that they could form their own judgements. In short, it was of a level that you would not expect from a vice-president of a journalists’ union. It was reason for me to bid farewell to the NVJ. Following Max van der Werff, I canceled my membership. This was reported on the website of NVJ. A union for journalists that commits character assassination of dissident journalists through its board is not a union for journalists. It’s an executive body of the Powers that Be.

Frénk van der Linden, who is highly respected in Dutch journalism, took to heart the fate of Van der Werff and me. He entered into a conversation with Chris Helt, the successor to editor-in-chief Dolf Rogmans Villa Media. Helt apologized, took the article offline and published a corrected version. Van der Linden then also tried to encourage Xandra Schutte from De Groene to join, but that attempt failed. Schutte showed herself unyielding, despite the fact that it had now become clear that one of the two authors of the offending article, Robert van der Noordaa, had combined his journalistic work with carrying out assignments for NATO and the Ukrainian authorities. He made this known himself via a tweet on February 26, 2022. He even proudly showed a “medal of honour” he had received from the Dutch intelligence service NCTV.

Van der Werff filed a lawsuit against De Groene in 2023. The proceedings are still ongoing. He had already won a previous case. He conducted this against Bellingcat’s Russian cooperation partner, Roman Dobrokhotov of the website The Insider. The Russian had gone one step further than NRC and De Groene. Dobrokhotov tweeted on November 12, 2020 that Van der Werff was not only controlled by the GRU and worked on their behalf; he was also paid by them. So Dobrokhotov was allowed to prove that in court. The trial was filed on October 6, 2021. Dobrokhotov did not show up, only his lawyer. He has not provided any evidence for his client’s claim. The court, therefore, sentenced Dobrokhotov to pay damages of 156,000 rubles, almost 2,000 euros, and to delete his tweet.

Dobrokhotov is responsible for the accusations made by Bellingcat against the Russian military officers Oleg Ivannikov and Nikolai Tkachev. In an interview with Dutch broadcaster RTL Nieuws Dobrokhotov proudly explained how he had tracked them down. Acccording to him their voices can be heard in intercepts that were published by the Ukrainian secret service SBU on YouTube. The SBU referred to them as Oreon and Delfin. (These supposedly were their call signs.) RTL published the interview with Dobrokhotov on March 7, 2020 under the title: Deze Russische journalist graaft naar waarheid MH17 (This Russian journalist digs for the truth about MH17). However, the Public Prosecution Service stated at the opening of the MH17 trial that it did not suspect the men in the intercepts, Oreon and Deflin, of any criminal activities in relation to MH17. Also, the Prosecution did not mention the names Oleg Ivannikov and Nikolai Tkachev at all.

The defamation case against Dobrokhotov was highly resented by several high-profile Dutch journalists, including Olaf Koens and Jeroen Akkermans of broadcaster RTL Nieuws — and Hubert Smeets and Steven Derix of daily newspaper NRC. In their view, a star of the Russian opposition has come under pressure due to the actions of an insignificant Dutch ‘conspiracy theorist’. Van der Werff (who, like me, never propagated any theory or alternative explanation for the MH17 crash; he just questioned the official narrative) apparently had to accept Dobrokhotov’s false accusation with resignation. He shouldn’t have defended himself against this.

Van der Werff has stopped blogging about MH17. He stated that he started selling electric bicycles in Germany in 2020. This apparently aroused the suspicion of some, because on November 26, 2020, the e-bike company where Van der Werff works received an email from a person who presented himself as Daniel and who used the email address danielbellingcat@gmail.com. “I am in contact with someone named Max van der Werff who claims to be the manager of your business-to-business department responsible for sales in Germany, but at the same time claims to do this work as a self-employed person,” he wrote. “I don’t know if you are allowed to answer my question due to privacy legislation, but it is also bad when someone claims to work for you, while I don’t think that is correct.” Probably much to his surprise, his email was answered by Van der Werff himself, who is a manager at the company. “Why don’t you use your real name?” Van der Werff asked him. “Are you sending this email in a personal capacity or on behalf of Bellingcat?” This person Daniel, who made his name as a Bellingcat author, wrote under the pseudonym Daniel Romein.

At that time Romein no longer worked for Bellingcat, Pieter van Huis from Bellingcat tweeted on November 28, 2020 when asked. “We were not aware of this action by him.” In 2019, Romein won the Investigative Reporting Award of the European Press Prize for an article he wrote for Bellingcat. He was stripped of that award in August 2021 due to “different substantiated complaints” that the organization had received from “different people”. The European Press Prize did not comment on what complaints these were and who had submitted them.

On July 17, 2022, Romein (whose real name was Danyo Romijn; he died on December 19, 2022 at the age of 52) posted a tweet with portrait photos of four Russian soldiers. “Today, eight years ago, these four idiots shot MH17 out of the sky,” he wrote. “I know a lot about them, about their families, their wives, their children. I’ve stopped worrying about “anonymizing” them. They’re lucky I’m not giving their full names. Work in progress, JIT informed.” He then tweeted the names of the men in the photos on September 25, 2022. It was once again an accusation made against Russians, which had no response whatsoever from the Public Prosecution Service and the JIT. “The JIT took note of messages posted on Twitter on 17 July and 25 September 2022 which included photos and the names of four members of the 2nd battalion who allegedly shot down MH17,” the JIT responded at a press conference of February 8, 2023. “The investigation acquired the information that formed the basis for these posts. It included a personnel list (with which the investigation team was familiar) of the 53rd AAMB from 2015 and passport details of members of the 53rd AAMB. On the basis of this information and the results of its own investigation, the JIT concluded that nothing could be found that pointed to involvement on the part of these four persons in the downing of MH17.”

As a critical follower of Bellingcat, I have been approached several times by foreign journalists who ask me how it is possible that the Netherlands is so captivated by Bellingcat. I then say that I think this has to do with MH17. The Dutch wanted to know who had downed the plane, and Bellingcat immediately met that need by publishing an endless stream of articles that were without exception incriminating Russia and the separatists. Editors-in-chief of newspapers and current affairs sections did not have to incur high costs by deploying investigative journalists to the case. For years, they received the MH17 news for free.

It is a sad thing, because Bellingcat and the Dutch media do the opposite of what journalism should be about: challenge those in power. Instead, they protect the authorities from those who challenge them. This was not only seen in the MH17 case, where Bellingcat systematically protected the SBU against those who exposed the propaganda of the Ukrainian secret service. Nowhere did it become more painfully clear than in the OPCW cover-up scandal in The Hague. Bellingcat has always sided with management instead of the whistleblowers. Bellingcat denigrated the whistleblowers and helped management maintain the cover-up of a staged poison gas attack in Syria’s Douma, which was at the time occupied by Army of Islam. The Dutch media adopted this narrative uncritically or paid no attention at all to this scandal that took place right under their noses in The Hague. It illustrates what Bellingcat is capable of. And it illustrates the current state of the Dutch press, politics and charity organizations. They cannot or do not want to face the true nature of Bellingcat. They continue to applaud, hand out prizes and give money.

If Higgins and his associates ever fall from their pedestal, it is virtually unthinkable that this will happen due to the actions of a Dutch journalist from a mass medium. Salvation will have to come from abroad. The United States? If an established medium there takes down Bellingcat, it will be in all Dutch newspapers the next day. X-owner Elon Musk has now made it clear what he thinks of Bellingcat. On May 9, 2023, he described it as an organization that “literally specializes in psychological operations.” American journalist Glenn Greenwald, known for his publications on Edward Snowden and the NSA eavesdropping scandal, dedicated an hour-long podcast to Bellingcat on May 19, 2023. According to him, Musk was right. “Bellingcat is conducting psyops, trying to influence and manipulate public opinion,” he said. “They are funded by the American and European governments. Their reporting also happens to always be in line with the foreign agenda of those governments. How can you then maintain that it is a journalistic medium?”

(Featured Image: “2bl – Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777-2H6ER; 9M-MRD@ZRH;14.12.1997” by Aero Icarus is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.)


  • Eric van de Beek

    Eric van de Beek is an investigative journalist. He studied journalism at Windesheim University and philosophy at the University of Amsterdam. For years he worked as a journalist for Dutch leading weekly Elsevier. In recent years he contributed to Diplomat Magazine, Novini, Sputnik, Gezond Verstand anUitpers. Het currently writes for Dutch weekly De Andere Krant. In 2018 he redacted a book about disinformation in the Dutch mass media. In 2022 he published a book about the MH17 air crash in Ukraine. In 2024 a new book from Van de Beek will be come out on this topic.

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