If Budapest listens in – politics

Dávid Dercsényi is a journalist at the Hungarian weekly HVG. In July 2021, he got a call from a colleague, Szabolcs Panyi, who works for the investigative portal Direkt36 is working. If he had time for a coffee, he had to discuss something with him. At this meeting, Dercsényi learned that three of his phone numbers – his current work cell phone, an old work cell phone and a cell phone that he had shared privately with his wife – were on a list that Panyi was currently combing through with a large research team. The content: telephone numbers that the Hungarian state had tapped without the knowledge of those affected using the Pegasus spy software.

Officially, the Israeli manufacturing company NSO Pegasus only sells to states that want to use it to monitor terrorists or serious criminals. The so-called Pegasus project, in which the Southgerman newspaper was involved, but last year uncovered the misuse of the surveillance software against members of the opposition in numerous, mostly autocratically governed countries around the world. As it soon turned out, in Hungary, an EU country, the long list of those who had been intercepted not only included criminals, but also journalists, politicians, lawyers, managers – and even a bodyguard of President János Áder.

The surveillance scandal made and continues to make waves. The United Nations demanded that surveillance technologies and their sale should be regulated more transparently. EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said with regard to Hungary that this was a “violation of the EU’s freedom of the media”.

Dávid Dercsényi was not really surprised that he was being monitored

the HVGreporter, who according to his own statements “is actually just a minor news journalist”, thought feverishly after the revelation: Why could the secret service – or another authority – have such an interest in him that he had his phones infected with spy software that can listen and read everything, recognize chats and passwords, switch on microphone or camera? He once wrote, he told SZ on the phone, about a suspected terrorist named Hassan F. who was arrested in Budapest. Maybe therefore? Dercsényi will probably never find out. But he wasn’t really surprised about the secret surveillance: Even with HVG time and again it was found that someone was trying to break into the IT or hack the editorial system.

The 48-year-old is one of six victims of the Pegasus surveillance (there are at least 300 in total) on whose behalf the human rights organization Hungarian Civil Liberties Union (HCLU) is taking far-reaching legal action this Friday. She wants to force the Hungarian authorities to investigate; if necessary, a complaint will be filed with the National Agency for Data Security, according to the President of the NGO, Stefánia Kapronczay. In Israel, the Attorney General is to investigate NSO’s sale to Hungary; according to media reports, the company has meanwhile terminated the contract with Hungary. Since the plaintiffs also include a Belgian student who studied in Hungary and who is represented by the HCLU, a complaint is to be lodged with the EU Commission and a lawsuit before the European Court of Human Rights.

Political background: The HCLU sees the use of the spy software against media representatives and opposition politicians as a blatant breach of the law. The lack of independent control of surveillance measures, which in Hungary can be ordered by a judge or the Ministry of Justice, constitutes a violation of fundamental rights and allows for politically motivated abuse.

Hungary has now admitted the misuse of the software

The Hungarian government initially did not comment on the misuse of the spy software, then denied it, but finally admitted it. The secret services acted “in any case in accordance with the law,” said the chairman of the parliamentary defense and interior committee, Lajos Kósa, in Budapest in November. However, all further details of a hearing at which questions about the wiretapping measures were discussed are subject to secrecy until the year 2050. The opposition saw the action as a “Hungarian Watergate” intended to silence political opponents.

The human rights organization HCLU complains about “unlimited possibilities for surveillance”; Those affected do not learn anything about the measures and therefore have no chance of defending themselves legally. By now suing the NGO on behalf of six victims, they want to do something to counter the persecution of political opponents: For years, the government has been portraying critics as “foreign agents or a threat to national security”. According to HCLU President Kapronczay, this is ” unacceptable”.


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