‘The EU has a dictatorship growing inside of it,’ proclaimed Guy Verhofstadt on Monday afternoon, while calling for an EU inquiry into the ‘Pegasus’ scandal, which has exposed the potential Hungarian misuse of state surveillance on anti-government journalists, media owners and businesspeople.
The ‘Pegasus Project’, a multinational investigation led by the French non-profit organisation Forbidden Stories, suggests that investigative journalists critical of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s regime (along with independent media owners and government-critical businesspeople) were the subject of phone hacking in recent years. The Pegasus software, marketed to international governments by the NSO Group, an Israeli company, is capable of recording phone calls, accessing private messages, and switching on a device’s video and microphone without permission.
Forensic analyses confirmed that the phones of anti-Orbán journalists were indeed infected with the Pegasus spyware, and circumstantial evidence makes government involvement in the affair seem likely. Szabolcs Panyi, one of the journalists targeted, noted the clear correlation between dates on which his phone was attacked by Pegasus and his official requests for comment to government departments. Hungary also has a history of procurement from Israeli defence and technology companies under Orbán’s leadership, including the acquisition of Israel’s famous Iron Dome air defence system in 2020.
Nonetheless, there remains no direct evidence that the Hungarian government was responsible for the misuse of Pegasus software.
It is also becoming clear that the Pegasus scandal implicates a far wider range of individuals and states than those specified in the original report. The phone of former French environment minister François de Rugy has shown traces of Pegasus interference, while the mobile numbers of president Macron and other world leaders appeared in data obtained by the investigators.
Now, as Hungarian opposition figures urge the government to declare whether or not it bought the Pegasus surveillance system, it seems increasingly likely that Orban’s ruling Fidesz party may succeed, yet again, in turning international scandal into another contentious, partisan issue.
The Hungarian justice minister Judit Varga – who has to approve all surveillance requests in the country – reacted with outrage when asked in a recent interview whether she would ever approve the surveillance of a journalist or political opponent. Yet when confronted on Monday with the allegation that she had done exactly that, she suggested that the Pegasus investigation overstated the significance of its claims.
‘We live in a world where an incredible amount of danger lurks for modern states,’ she said. ‘Let’s not be ridiculous – every country needs to use such tools.’
While Orbán’s government downplays the significance of the investigation and its findings, opposition efforts to hold the government to account seem doomed to failure. János Stummer, the chairman of Hungary's Committee on National Security, admitted to me that although he has invited the Committee to convene to discuss the allegations, ‘whether we can convene or not depends on the Fidesz members – without them, the session would be inquorate.’
Fidesz’s parliamentary strength shields it from political scrutiny – while its control over large swathes of the domestic media makes it largely immune to issues which capture the imagination of international commentators. From major national news servers to small regional publications, many Hungarian outlets are accustomed to toeing the party line on controversial issues from the nation’s anti-LGBT policies to large-scale foreign investments.
Indeed, as the Pegasus scandal swept like wildfire through the international press on Monday morning, the story was almost entirely absent from Orbán-affiliated media at home. Some of these outlets are still silent about the affair – while others have begun peddling their own conspiracy theories, muddying the waters of the controversy still further.
Magyar Nemzet, one of the country’s leading conservative newspapers, described the Pegasus Project as ‘an international attack launched by Soros-funded organisations’, positing Hungarian-American investor George Soros as the puppet master pulling the strings of the investigation. Fidesz’s use of Soros as a bogeyman figure forms just one part of a political strategy in which concerns about press freedom, corruption and minority rights are dismissed as international concoctions intended to destabilise Hungary and to impose a ‘colonial’ western ideology on its people.
With this strategy the criticism from Brussels, the international press and independent Hungarian media only adds grist to the mill for Orbán’s ‘us and them’ narrative. The Pegasus scandal is now likely to entrench opinions on both sides of the Hungarian political divide. While it is possible that some Fidesz voters will be scandalised by the notion that the government could spy on innocent citizens, many more will remain sceptical of the intentions of the investigators themselves. In this climate of conspiracy, and with much of the nation’s media at his disposal, Orbán has the tools to twist even this story to his own political advantage.