News Agency Hack Spawns Presidential Assassination Hoax

Reuters/Radovan Stoklasa
Reuters/Radovan Stoklasa
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.

Hackers broke into a Czech news service site and spread a fake story about an assassination plot against the newly elected president of Slovakia on Tuesday.

“BIS prevented an assassination attempt on the newly elected Slovak President Peter Pelligrine,” the fraudulent headline said, referring to a Czech spy agency, the Security Information Service (BIS). In their rush to post the story, the hackers apparently got a little sloppy: they misspelled the politician’s last name, Pellegrini.

The fake story suggested that Ukrainian citizens, including Ukrainian Chargé d’Affaires Vitaliy Usatyy, planned the murder attempt. It also claimed Czech Foreign Minister Jan Lipavský had commented on the fake plot as well.

The hackers published the tale on the news services’ website and on its mobile application, the Czech News Agency (ČTK), said. The newly elected pro-Russia president declined to comment through a spokesperson.

It was not immediately clear which hackers had conducted the break-in, but ČTK is working with the BIS, the National Office for Cyber and Information Security, and the police to respond.

A Belarusian hacking group known as “Ghostwriter” has previously hacked into other news sites in order to spread fake stories, according to top cybersecurity researchers at Mandiant. The hacking group tends to conduct operations that benefit the government of Belarus, which has notoriously close ties with Moscow.

The effort to spread the narrative that Pellegrini’s life was under threat comes just days after he won the Slovak elections over a pro-Western diplomat. His win shores up the pro-Russian influence that has been sweeping the country, with Kremlin-friendly Robert Fico serving as prime minister. Fico and his coalition previously stopped shipments of arms to Ukraine, making Slovakia the first country to call it quits after sending weapons to Ukraine.

The Sloppy Russian Schemers Impersonating Top U.S. Officials

The hacking operation coincides with a growing trend of Russian operatives using the Czech Republic to sow Russian influence in Europe, top officials say. Belgian security services tracked down a Russian disinformation network that conducted cash transfers in the country, the leaders of Belgium and the Czech Republic said in a recent letter to the European Parliament. The network was working to establish coordination between pro-Russian politicians at the European Parliament and to elect more pro-Russia candidates.

Czech Prime Minister Petr Fiala railed against Russia last week during a visit to Washington.

“For the Czech Republic and its historical experience, the main danger is the aggressive policy of the Russian regime,” Fiala said in a speech. “We need to stop the Russian aggression and work on a stable, independent, and democratic future for Ukraine. This is the only solution, if we don’t want to face strong Russia at the door of NATO.”

After Russia invaded Ukraine in 2022, the Czech Republic expelled a high-ranking diplomat from the Russian embassy and shuttered two Russian consulates in the country, summoning Russian and Belarusian ambassadors to Prague to protest. The government also stopped issuing visas to Russians and closed its consulates in St. Petersburg and Yekaterinburg.

Tensions have remained high since. The Czech Republic and Belgium just last week called for additional sanctions to counter Russian influence in upcoming European elections.

Read more at The Daily Beast.

Get the Daily Beast's biggest scoops and scandals delivered right to your inbox. Sign up now.

Stay informed and gain unlimited access to the Daily Beast's unmatched reporting. Subscribe now.