‘Not a foreign agent yet’ Independent news outlet The Bell comes under attack three times in three weeks

Russia 24 / YouTube

On the morning of September 2, The Bell’s newsletter subscribers received an email that urged them to boycott the upcoming State Duma election. The publication quickly apologized, saying the mailout came from hackers. This apparent hack is third attack on the news site in the last three weeks. On August 11, one of The Bell’s journalists reported that someone tried to hack her phone. And on August 25, its website went down due to an “external attack.” The story of the most recent hack was picked up by the state-owned television channel Russia 24, which aired a segment where “experts” speculated that The Bell was actually behind the provocative mailout. The segment also underscored the fact that “The Bell isn’t on the list of ‘foreign agents’ yet.”

August 11, 2021

The Bell special correspondent Irina Pankratova reported an attempted hack on her cellphone. According to The Bell, the hackers used a falsified notarization of power of attorney to obtain nearly two years worth of Pankratova’s call and SMS history from the mobile operator MegaFon. “All of her messengers were well protected and we have every reason to believe that the hackers weren’t able to access any work correspondence and data,” The Bell assured.

August 25

The Bell reported an external attack on its website. Problems accessing the site began in the afternoon on August 25 and lasted for several hours. The publication said that they don’t know the source or the purpose of the attack. The Bell decided to further strengthen the protection of their servers to avoid such incidents in the future.

September 2

The Bell reported another hack. On the morning of September 2, the publication’s newsletter subscribers received a “strange and provocative” mailout that The Bell’s staff said they didn’t send. The fake newsletter concerned the upcoming State Duma election and called on readers to boycott the vote. 

The publication apologized for the incident, saying, “Everything that we know about the attack so far indicates that the hackers didn’t gain access to subscriber data. The Bell is not involved in political activities and never encourages readers to take any actions. Our only task is to provide you with objective information.”

Specialists from the cybersecurity company Group-IB are investigating the hack. The Bell may also contact law enforcement agencies following the investigation. 

Later that day

That evening, the state-owned television channel Russia 24 ran a segment about the fake newsletter sent out to The Bell’s subscribers. Alexey Kazakov, the host of the show “Vesti,” asserted that in the provocative mailout, the publication used the language “not of journalists, but of propagandists, and extremely aggressive ones.” “You might well expect this from this or that ‘foreign agent’ or some ‘undesirable organization,’ but the sender is The Bell, whose newsroom, supposedly, has nothing to do with ‘foreign agents’ or ‘undesirable organizations’,” Kazakov said.

In turn, the segment’s author, Elizaveta Khramtsova, said that if you start your morning with The Bell’s articles “there’s a risk that at some point you really won’t want to live in Russia.” Khramtsova called the fake mailout a piece of “propaganda” and the television channel’s expert guests claimed that The Bell was trying to “back track” and “justify itself” so as not to wind up on the list of “foreign agents” and “banned organizations.” Khramtsova also claimed that the publication was established using foreign funds, adding that “The Bell isn’t on the list of ‘foreign agents’ yet.”

We won’t give up Because you’re with us

I’m with you, Meduza

Story by Alexander Baklanov

Translation by Eilish Hart


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