Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s radical rightwing government has deployed a new weapon in its war against the media in Hungary, using Israeli spy software to monitor Hungarian investigative journalists, entrepreneurs and politicians critical of the government.
A collaboration led by French non-profit journalism organisation Forbidden Stories has found that several people in Hungary were listed as potential targets and then were hacked using Pegasus, a sophisticated spyware program sold by Israel's NSO Group.
The Pegasus Project collaboration, using forensic analysis, confirmed that the mobile phones of several Hungarians had been infected with Pegasus, one of the world's most aggressive spyware programs. At least 10 Hungarian lawyers, one opposition politician and five journalists' phone numbers are on the leaked list of potential targets.
A former NSO employee confirmed that Hungary was among the company's clients. Hungary appears to have acquired Pegasus after the visit of then Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in 2017.
Pegasus enables the attacker to view all content on a phone, including messages from apps with end-to-end encryption, photographs and GPS location data. It can also turn the device into an audio or video recorder.
NSO claims the spyware is only meant for use against serious criminals and terrorists, according to the UK's Guardian newspaper, part of the Pegasus Project.
The phones of two journalists at the Hungarian Pegasus project partner, the investigative outlet Direkt36, were successfully infected with the spyware, including Szabolcs Panyi, a well-known reporter with a wide range of sources in diplomatic and national security circles.
Panyi was the first to report details of the Hungarian government’s controversial plan to finance the construction of Fudan University from taxpayers' money drawing on Chinese loans. His phone was first hacked in April 2019, shortly after he sent questions to two ministries about the relocation of the HQ of former-Russian based investment bank IIB to Hungary. Among the stories covered by Panyi in 2019 included the hidden conflicts in Hungarian-US ties and investigative stories on Hungarian-Israeli relations.
Forensic data by Amnesty International shows that at least in 10 cases his phone was hacked with Pegasus just a few working days after he had sent official questions to government officials. Panyi says the government wanted to get learn more about the sources and take pre-emptive actions, possibly before the story appeared.
Another target of the hacking was billionaire media owner Zoltan Varga, who owns among others 24.hu, one of the half dozen news site critical of the government with vast readership.
Reports show that phones of a dinner party few weeks after Fidesz's 2018 election victory were tapped. This included Attila Chickan, former economy minister of the first Orban government between 1998 and 2002, who has been critical of the current government.
According to records, all seven people at the dinner were marked as potential candidates for observation. Forensic analysis of the phones of one of the attendees showed clear evidence that they had been bugged during the dinner, and another showed signs of Pegasus activity, but not that they had been actively intercepted.
The son of the former cashier of Fidesz Lajos Simicska was also wiretapped at the time when Simicska got rid of his media empire under pressure from Orban after the 2018 election.
An official from the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union says that though the Hungarian legislation is very broad, the secret surveillance of journalists is not necessarily legally okay. The European Court of Human Rights has already ruled in several cases that journalists can only be secretly monitored in special circumstances, said Daniel Szabo.
Observers note that hacking of journalists falls in line with the deteriorating state of media freedom in Hungary. Hungary slid 36 places to 92 out of 180 countries in the Reporters Without Borders (RSF) World Press Freedom Index published in April. Media freedom was only worse in Bulgaria among EU states last year.
Hungary’s illiberal leader became the first EU leader to appear on its Enemies of Press Freedom list just last month.