Viktor Orban was seen by many as a boogeyman following the West. He has turned Hungary’s fledgling liberal democracy from a problem to the European Union in just 12 years. Critics accuse Orban, who is accused of leading a “post communist mafia” state, where media are controlled by his loyalists, courts are stacked with them, electoral maps favor his right-wing Fidesz party, and a network kleptocratic patronage that traces its roots back to the prime Minister.
His politics is another matter. Orban identifies himself as the continent’s greatest illiberal, and he rants endlessly about the perceived negatives of immigration, multiculturalism and European integration. At various times, he has been accused of spreading anti-Semitism and Islamophobia, homophobia, and anti-Roma sentiments. Orban’s European counterparts were so upset by a new Hungarian anti LGBTQ law, Mark Rutte, the Dutch Prime Minister, declared it at an E.U. meeting. Leaders argued that Hungary should be expelled from the bloc if it doesn’t respect gay rights. Orban, as is his custom, laughed at Rutte’s moral scolding and deplored Rutte’s “colonial approach.”
After the massive revelations by the Pegasus Project, the picture became even more murkier. The Washington Post and 16 other media partners worldwide were able to discover how military-grade spyware, made by NSO Group, an Israeli company, was used to track many dissidents and journalists, human rights activists, influential politicians, and businesspeople in over 50 countries. (NSO claimed it had “no insight” into the intelligence activities of clients and pledged to investigate any cases of human rights violations.
Five of the 37 smartphones identified by investigative journalists as being targeted by the Pegasus spyware, which operates invisibly and can serve myriad purposes including reading their messages, tracking their movements and secretly turning on the phone’s camera. Additionally, over 300 Hungarian phone numbers were found on a list of approximately 50,000 smartphone numbers. This included those selected by NSO for surveillance using Pegasus technology.
Hungary is in notable company. For allegedly using this technology on journalists, the kingdom of Morocco and India’s largest democracy are under investigation. Both countries claim that all surveillance is done in accordance with their laws. The situation could lead to another confrontation with Brussels. Its apparent use of surveillance methods makes “a mockery” of the extensive digital privacy protections that the European Union has enacted, my colleagues wrote.
They explained that although the Hungarian numbers are a small percentage of the total, they stand apart because Hungary is a member the European Union. There privacy is supposed be a fundamental right, core societal value and safeguards for journalists and opposition politicians are theoretically strong. “But in Hungary and Poland, Slovenia, and elsewhere in Europe some of these guarantees are being rolled back – and in Budapest that rollback was accompanied by an unusually powerful spying instrument.”
Andras Szabo and Szabolcs Pantyi, prominent independent journalists from Hungary are among the targets. Panyi, who was a partner in the investigation and a determined reporter well-known for his brave coverage of Orban’s rule, said that he is being treated as a threat. Pegasus spyware had infected his phone multiple times, according to an investigative examination.
The use of this technology to monitor civilians was denied by Hungary’s foreign minister. Judit Varga, Hungary’s justice Minister, was somewhat more vague at a Monday news conference. She said that Hungary is a state governed under the rule of law. “Hungary, like all decent states, has the technical resources to fulfill its national security tasks in the 21st Century.” “It would pose a serious problem if these tools were not available, but they are legally used.”
Orban’s parliament opponents have called for an investigation into the spyware scandal. They may not be able to force domestic action due to their outnumbered allies in Orban’s government. The west is also seeing more calls for investigations. Guy Verhofstadt is a former Belgian prime Minister and currently a member of the European Parliament. He called for an investigation into the continental body. He tweeted, “The EU has an dictatorship growing within it.” Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission, stated that hacking allegations would be “completely unacceptable” if they were true.
It is not a new dilemma for the European Union that Hungary presents. Orban’s liberal critics within the European Parliament would like to see more tough action, including suspension of E.U. The EU has not yet provided funds to Hungary to stop its democratic decline under Orban. Analysts argue that the European Commission will release a major report about the rule of law in Europe on Tuesday. However, it may not include meaningful punitive actions.