As part of the Regional Initiative in Combating Disinformation “Western Balkans Anti-Disinformation Hub: Exposing Malign Influences through Watchdog Journalism”, we present you a new analysis of fake news and disinformation narratives.
American biolaboratories in Serbia: Spread of disinformation from the Ukrainian battlefield
A few days after the beginning of the war in Ukraine, on February 24, information began to spread about American laboratories with biological weapons on the territory of Ukraine, as one of the justifications for the Russian attack. Soon, the narrative about the existence of American biological laboratories “spread” to Serbia as well.
On March 17, the portal Srbin.info published a conversation between journalists Sinisa Lepojević and Dejan Lučić, known to the public for spreading conspiracy theories, who presented, as stated, “shocking data about the fact that laboratories with biological weapons, such as those in Ukraine, are also located in four locations in Serbia”. These are allegedly laboratories in Belgrade (Institute Torlak), Kraljevo, Niš and Novi Sad. This information started spreading even earlier on social networks in Serbia.
A day later, on March 18, the right-wing Serbian party Zavetnici, a candidate in the April 3 elections, called on the Government of Serbia, the Ministry of Health and the Ministry of Defense to provide an immediate response “on speculation that there are American biolaboratories in our country.” The party announced that, if it enters the parliament, it will ask for the formation of a parliamentary inquiry committee with the aim of examining all allegations. Answers to these questions were also requested by Tamara Milenković Kerković, vice president of the Dveri movement.
On March 22, daily newspaper Danas published the denials of Dragan Milić, sub-dean for international cooperation of the Faculty of Medicine in Niš, and Milanko Šekler, a virologist and microbiologist from the Veterinary Specialist Institute in Kraljevo; they have categorically rejected the existence of these biolaboratories.
Dr. Milić clarified for Danas that the US Army, i.e. its European Command, and the US Embassy in Serbia have in the last few years donated equipment worth half a million euros for the genetics laboratory at the Faculty of Medicine in Niš, where tests and cancer typing will be done on patients with different types of tumors, as well as tests for hereditary diseases.
This information followed the transmission of allegations in the Serbian media by the Russian authorities about the existence of laboratories with biological weapons on the territory of Ukraine. Daily newspapers like Politika and Večernje novosti created in this way the basis on which the narrative about laboratories in Serbia was built. The statement by Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian that the US has 336 laboratories in 30 countries, which was picked up by all the media covering the subject, probably made this story more interesting.
Although Russia has over the years accused the United States of producing biological weapons in Ukraine, neither Russian President Vladimir Putin nor other Russian officials used this argument to justify their decision to start the war in the last week of February. This argument started to appear somewhat later, at a time when it became clear that the Ukrainian government would put up serious resistance.
As reported by American public radio NPR, allegations of US biological weapons in Ukraine were launched by the Twitter account @WarClandestine in late February. Later, several state officials began to insist on these data, including the spokesman of the Ministry of Defense Igor Konashekov, the spokeswoman of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs Maria Zakharova, as well as the Permanent Representative of Russia to the United Nations Vasily Nebenzya.
In Serbia, this information was conveyed during March primarily by the state-owned media Politika, Večernje novosti, as well as the magazine Pečat. Special emphasis was placed on the alleged collection of DNA of ethnic Russians, which, according to this interpretation, should be used as a biological weapon.
All the mentioned newspapers in Serbia also resorted to a tendentious interpretation of Robert Pope’s statement, director of the program within the US Defense Agency for Threat Reduction within the Pentagon, as well as US Deputy Secretary of State Victoria Nuland, who confirmed cooperation with Ukrainian biolaboratories, but not that that cooperation had anything to do with the production of biological weapons.
As Ukrainian anti-fake news portal Stopfake.org reported on March 7, in 2005 the Ministry of Health of Ukraine and the US Department of Defense signed an agreement on cooperation in the field of preventing the spread of technologies, pathogens and knowledge that can be used in the development of biological weapons. As part of the agreement, many Ministry of Health laboratories and veterinary laboratories have been upgraded and modernized, according to this site, which also dismissed the biological weapons claim and labeled it as fake news.
Večernje novosti also reported about Stopfake.org portal on March 9, emphasizing that there is no evidence for the allegations of Russian officials. It was an unusual departure from this media’s pro-Russian editorial policy.
Despite denials, this narrative continues to appear in Serbia. On the front page of the tabloid Objektiv on March 24, the following headline appeared: “The Pentagon in Ukraine created a virus against the Slavs!?”. The text also includes the other side of the story, i.e. an expert who labeled this news as disinformation, but in a much less visible way.
Author: Aleksandar Ivković