‘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.