Pegasus: surveillance scandal highlights Hungary’s tight media control

Pegasus: surveillance scandal highlights Hungary’s tight media control
Orbán’s Fidesz party seems unlikely to cooperate with those looking to uncover the true extent of the surveillance

Recorded calls, hacked private messages, video and microphone access: these are just some of the uses of the Pegasus spyware technology allegedly used against independent Hungarian journalists, media owners and businesspeople hostile to Viktor Orbán’s government.

For some, evidence uncovered by a multinational investigation led by the French non-profit organisation Forbidden Stories casts Orbán’s Fidesz government – long accused of suppressing press freedom through economic manoeuvres – in a newly sinister light. For others, it confirms long-held suspicions about tactics used to suppress anti-government forces in the country.

Yet for all involved in the scandal, an even bigger question is quickly emerging: is Fidesz’s grip on the Hungarian media tight enough for it to be able to brush these allegations – and their dire implications for freedom of speech in the country – under the carpet?

While politicians and remaining independent media outlets start to refer to the “Pegasus Project” as a “Hungarian Watergate scandal”, the developments have been almost entirely absent from state-affiliated media.

As the story made international headlines on Monday morning, Hungarian state TV failed to mention allegations of state surveillance prompting comparisons with communist-era methods of authoritarian rule.

And Hungary’s leading right-wing newspapers apparently felt that opposition to the country’s Pride parade was more newsworthy than developments which seem to place the EU nation in the company of repressive regimes around the world.

This silence from government-affiliated media was compounded by a lack of reaction from government figures implicated by the scandal.

Hungarian law requires the nation’s Justice Minister to sign off on surveillance requests made for national security reasons. In 2020, Justice Minister Judit Varga approved 1,285 surveillance requests of various kinds.

Ms Varga’s central role in surveillance puts her at the centre of the scandal – but in a Facebook post on Monday, she ignored the allegations, airily describing Hungary as being “at the forefront of the future of Europe” while heading to an EU conference in Brussels.

Earlier, in a recent interview with Le Monde, Varga responded with outrage when asked whether she would approve a surveillance request targeting a journalist or political opponent.

She described the question as a “provocation”. The next day, her office requested the removal of the question, and her response, from the interview.

Yet more questions are now inevitably being asked about the extent of surveillance allegedly used by Orbán’s government. Péter Ungár, a Hungarian Green Party politician and member of the country’s National Security Committee, has called an extraordinary meeting of the Committee to question politicians implicated in the scandal.

“Using spyware software against people based on their political affiliations is an outrage,” Ungár told The Independent.

“If even half of the allegations made in the investigation are true, the government’s actions go against every Hungarian principle and law. This is proof that there are very, very few things this government will not do to hold on to power,” he added.

Given Fidesz’s tight grip on large swathes of the national media, though, holding the government to account may be a tall order. And predictably, Orbán’s party seems unlikely to cooperate with those looking to uncover the true extent of the surveillance.

Can this story be swept under the carpet? I’m not so sure. It’s getting crowded down there.

Péter Ungár, politician in Hungary’s Green Party

The first government politician to respond directly to the allegations, Katalin Novák, contemptuously refused “to engage with press coverage, either in this area or anything else”.

Her response seemed to encapsulate the attitude of Orbán’s government to the press in general: one that is dismissive of criticism and contemptuous of freedom.

In a recent Facebook video, Viktor Orbán made light of a report by Reporters Without Borders which placed him on a list of “Press Freedom Predators” – he was filmed walking up to a “traditional” news stand, before asking the owner for a range of newspapers and magazines critical of the government.

Yet while mocking concerns about press freedom, Fidesz continues to avariciously acquire Hungarian media, effectively taking control of the country’s leading online news server Index.hu last year.

A blunt refusal to engage with the revelations is likely to be facilitated by a media which, for the most part, will not ask difficult questions. Ironically, Fidesz will use its control over the Hungarian press to try to sweep a national scandal about press freedom under the carpet.

“The politicians will simply deny that they had anything to do with this whole affair – which is ludicrous, of course, because the data was stored by the government,” said Ungár.

Yet as anger grows among Hungary’s independent media, it remains to be seen whether the story will generate enough public anger to damage Fidesz’s ahead of elections to be held next year.

Opposition figures such as Ungár certainly hope so. “Can this story be swept under the carpet? I’m not so sure. It’s getting crowded down there.”

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