by Karin Kőváry Sólymos, ICJK
The pro-Kremlin website NewsFront is known for publishing anonymous articles pushing Russian propaganda and disinformation. It was established in Crimea after Russia annexed the peninsula. Its founder, Konstantin Knyrik, is on the sanctions lists of the EU and the USA. The Slovak-language version of NewsFront is currently disseminating pro-Russian claims about the invasion of Ukraine. Who is the creative force behind the Slovak NewsFront site? The findings of the Investigative Centre of Ján Kuciak (ICJK) suggest it could be lawyer and member of the Slovak Union of Antifascist Fighters, Vladimír Zemko.
The Slovak version of this article was originally published on icjk.sk
The Slovak-language version of NewsFront first appeared on the disinformation scene in 2020. Even though it has now been active for several years, it is not a well-known outlet. Experts say that it mainly serves as a source of information for other disinformation channels. According to the director of the Centre on Countering Hybrid Threats of the Slovak Ministry of the Interior, Daniel Milo, NewsFront is part of “an information operation organized and sponsored by Russia.” Since 2015, EUvsDisinfo, a European initiative for combating disinformation, has refuted more than 800 false claims published by NewsFront.
Determining who writes the articles spat out by the NewsFront propaganda machine is a difficult task. Articles published on all 11 language versions of the NewsFront site are usually anonymous. The “Contact Us” section only gives the name of NewsFront’s founder, Konstantin Knyrik, who is facing sanctions in the EU, Canada, and the USA for actively undermining Ukraine’s territorial integrity, sovereignty, independence, and stability.
The Slovak version of NewsFront is one of the most active. Until now, no one knew who the creative force behind it was. Thanks to a thorough analysis of NewsFront articles and other materials, the ICJK found clues on the Russian and Spanish versions of NewsFront that lead to Slovakia.
Several articles published there about domestic Slovak politics include the following byline: “Vladimír Zemko exclusively for NewsFront.” These texts focused on issues such as how the Sputnik vaccine “whipped up a storm” in Slovakia, how “Slovaks are demanding snap elections,” or how “the new Slovak government is driving the country into an abyss.” Zemko, with whom we spoke, admits to writing these articles. He denies, however, that he controls the Slovak version of NewsFront. Our findings and analysis, however, suggest that the opposite is true. We found several things that connect Vladimír Zemko to the Slovak version of NewsFront.
As Zoltán Nagy, a lawyer from the firm of Taylor Wessing, notes, working with a person under sanctions is not a crime in itself. “It is prohibited because the law says that you cannot accept payment from people on the sanctions list. Although illegal, there is no law saying it is a crime,” he adds. What could be a crime though, says Nagy, is creating and disseminating certain content, which may constitute the crime of spreading extremist materials (like war propaganda) or threatening the peace.
The Slovak version of NewsFront has regularly published false claims that have been refuted about secret American labs in Ukraine. Several articles have questioned the massacre of Ukrainian civilians by Russian forces in the town of Bucha during the initial phase of the invasion. These articles and the narratives they push closely copy the talking points of Russian propaganda.
Sharing NewsFront’s ideas about Ukraine
In the past, Zemko was a passionate cannabis activist. In an interview with ICJK he claimed that a few years ago he got the opportunity to write “a commentary piece for Russians about the domestic situation in Slovakia.” The offer came from the pro-Kremlin disinformation website NewsFront. Zemko says that it was an “exclusive matter” but that “it was a long time ago.” He did not reveal who contacted him with this offer, but he did claim that he was not paid for his articles.
Texts about Slovakia explicitly attributed to Zemek have appeared on NewsFront’s Russian parent site. “I think it was five or six articles, but I haven’t written anything for some time,” he claims.
His latest text to appear on the Russian NewsFront was published several months ago, at the beginning of this year. It was about the defence cooperation agreement between Slovakia and the USA. The article features the byline “Владимир Земко специально для News Front,” or “Vladimír Zemko exclusively for NewsFront.” The Spanish version of the site has also published an article by Zemek in the past, a Spanish translation of a text about the Russian Sputnik vaccine, which once again featured the byline “Vladimir Zemko, especialmente para News Front” and used the same picture.
Zemko denies that NewsFront is a disinformation website. “NewsFront is not a disinformation outlet,” he claims. But in the same breath he adds, “Do you know what Zelenskyy, Zelebuben, did? He banned television there [in Ukraine], he banned the media, he banned opposition parties.” The pejorative term Zelebuben has recently appeared frequently on NewsFront’s Slovak Telegram account.
Vladimír Zemko’s worldview and vocabulary link him to NewsFront. In an interview with the ICJK, this former cannabis activist referred to the Russian invasion of Ukraine as a “special military operation to demilitarize and de-Nazify the Bandera regime.” He does not believe that Ukraine is a nation.
Zemko calls himself a “strict antifascist.” “I am also a member of the Slovak Union of Antifascist Fighters [SZPB],” he adds. More specifically, he chairs the local SZPB organization in Šaľa. We asked him what the SZPB thought of his activities, but he did not answer our questions.
Who is the creative force behind the Slovak version of NewsFront?
When we asked Zemko whether he is responsible for the Slovak version of NewsFront, his answer was a resounding “No.” He told us we should ask “Konstantin” about who is behind the Slovak site, on which several new articles are published every day. He was of course referring to Konstantin Knyrik, the head of NewsFront, who did not respond to our email.
Although Zemko categorically denies being involved with the administration of the Slovak pro-Kremlin website, our analysis of the Slovak version of NewsFront suggests something else.
None of the articles published by NewsFront include a byline. However, the source code of these articles can reveal something about who wrote them, for example, the identification code and the nickname of the person who added the texts to the website. “We can read from source code anything that its author or the CMS [content management system] puts there,” explains IT specialist and ethical hacker Pavol Lupták. “HTML code is in this case 100% public information, and what it contains is truly up to the author. “For example, it might inadvertently include sensitive information, such as the nickname of an article’s author, or, in contrast, it doesn’t have to contain any sensitive information,” adds Lupták.
The source code of the NewsFront website, it would seem, reveals more than its authors wanted. In it we found the nickname vzemko and the identification code associated with it. According to our analysis, an author with these unique identification data has been adding articles to the site since at least mid-2020. All texts published on the site in 2022, that is, including after the start of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, were uploaded by the user vzemko. Lupták, however, is quick to point out that a nickname in the system cannot clearly identify an individual.
Texts added by vzemko include articles questioning the massacre of civilians in Bucha, a town nearby Kiev, after the start of the war. There is clear evidence that these murders were committed by Russian soldiers. Some articles published on the Slovak NewsFront site make the false claim that the bodies of the victims in Bucha were put in place by the Ukrainian army. Other articles pushed different conspiracy theories, such as “how American biolaboratories were established in Ukraine,” a false story that has been refuted several times over.
The fact that Vladimír Zemko uses the same abbreviation in his email address is an interesting coincidence. When we asked him how it was possible that the nickname vzemko appears in the source code of articles on the Slovak NewsFront site, he was unable to answer. “I have no idea; I don’t know,” he told us over the phone.
We discovered other things about Vladimír Zemko’s online activities that suggest the use of the vzemko name is not a coincidence. Zemko has a profile on the Russian social media network VKontakte, where he uses the handle vovaslovackij. He has shared several NewsFront articles there, many of them only a matter of minutes after they were first published. Zemko explained this close timing by saying he is a fan of the NewsFront site and carefully follows it. What he did not explain, however, was how he was able to post several articles almost immediately after they were published.
We find among his friends on VKontakte people associated with NewsFront. He also follows the personal page of Konstantin Knyrik, founder and head of NewsFront. Zemko also regularly shares content from Knyrik’s page in the group “Priatelia Ruska” [Friends of Russia].
What is VKontakte?
A Russian social media network headquartered in St. Petersburg. It is considered the Russian equivalent of Facebook. The platform was founded by the Durov brothers, who were ousted from the company in 2014 for their unwillingness to share users’ personal data. VKontakte then fell into the hands of a businessman with close ties to Vladimir Putin. It is effectively under the control of the Russian government and must hand over user data when the Russian secret services request it.
Another interesting coincidence is that the nickname Vova also appears on the Telegram channel of the Slovak version of NewsFront. Posts there are made by a certain Vova Takoj. Vova is the Russian nickname for Vladimir.
After the ICJK spoke with Zemko, who claims he has nothing to do with the Slovak version of NewsFront, an interesting change happened on the website. Someone modified the source code that we had asked Zemko about during our interview for this article. The nickname vzemko disappeared and was replaced by xyz. The identification number of the user who has been adding articles to the NewsFront website, however, has remained unchanged.
Why is NewsFront a problem?
The pro-Kremlin NewsFront plays an important role in spreading disinformation about the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The site was established in 2014, as Russian units were preparing to annex Crimea. At the time, a group of masked gunmen led by Konstantin Knyrik occupied the offices of the Crimean Centre of Investigative Journalism and upon its ruined foundations built the pro-Russian propaganda-spewing NewsFront.
It soon become a Kremlin mouthpiece and part of Moscow’s disinformation machine, alongside the Russian state-owned news agency Sputnik and Russia Today. Although the Russian state does not directly sponsor NewsFront, the FSB, the Russian secret service, does play a background role.
According to Daniel Milo, an expert on disinformation and hybrid threats, the Slovak version of NewsFront is one of the most significant Slovak-language sources of pro-Kremlin narratives, which is directly linked to Russian state funding. NewsFront content is shared on both Slovak and Czech disinformation websites. The Slovak version of NewsFront might be included on the National Security Bureau’s list of blocked sites. The Ministry of the Interior has already sent the necessary documents to the Bureau for taking this step.
Recently, the website has published articles that support pro-Russian claims, such as that “an American occupation unit will arrive in Slovakia” or that “the vast majority of the inhabitants of the liberated areas [the Zaporizhzhia and Kherson oblasts] will vote for unification with Russia.” The Slovak NewsFront site commented upon the news that Slovakia would apparently be giving its Mig-29 fighter jets to Ukraine, saying that “the Slovak puppet government, in an effort to please its American curators, may hand over its 11 fighter jets.”
In late August, when Anthony Fauci, a prominent American physician and immunologist, announced that he would be stepping down as director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), the Slovak NewsFront site published an article claiming that the former chief US epidemiologist “admitted that he oversaw research on the COVID-19 virus in Wuhan, China, and in several laboratories in Ukraine.” The article allegedly cites the American immunologist: “We paid the Ukrainians well. They were happy. Convincing Kiev wasn’t difficult at all. We managed to open several laboratories in China, especially in Wuhan.” Fauci, of course, never said such things.
An important question remains to be answered: Is collaboration with NewsFront, whose director is on the EU sanctions list, legally problematic? According to Zoltan Nagy from the law firm of Taylor Wessing, the sanctions imposed by the EU and other countries are primarily focused on economic cooperation. “They should hinder business relationships, that is, relationships in which money flows,” he explains.
“Primarily, even if someone accepts money coming from some of these Russian flows, they probably wouldn’t do it directly through a physical person who is on a sanctions list, but through a legal entity,” says Nagy.
Producing and publishing certain content, however, could constitute a crime, such the dissemination of extremist materials [e.g., war propaganda] or threatening the peace.
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