Hungarian government not keen on answering questions about the Pegasus surveillance scandal

July 20. 2021. – 05:42 PM

updated

Telex tried asking several prominent members of the Hungarian governing party Fidesz about the wiretapping of several critics of Viktor Orbán's government, however, we did not receive substantive answers. We only managed to see Viktor Orbán for a few seconds, Fidesz's party director, Gábor Kubatov, and Minister of Foreign Affairs, Péter Szijjártó, claimed they had no knowledge of the situation, and Minister of Interior, Sándor Pintér, would only be willing to answer questions at a closed session of the Parliament's National Security Committee.

The scandal around the Pegasus surveillance software broke last Sunday when the articles of the international investigative project involving 17 news organisations were first published. Our partner, Direkt36, uncovered the Hungarian side of the story; their reports are also published on Telex, their first piece is available in English here.

The gist of the story is that in several countries, an Israeli spyware called Pegasus was used not only for surveilling terrorists or criminals as originally intended, but also journalists, activists, and politicians. The investigative team found 300 Hungarian phone numbers on the leaked list of potential targets, including ones belonging to several investigative reporters, businessmen, and even politicians. A closer examination of some of their devices revealed that they were indeed infected with Pegasus, giving attackers access to nearly all aspects of their digital lives.

On Monday, several members of the government made statements regarding the scandal:

  • Minister for the Families Katalin Novák dismissed it, saying the government does not deal with press information.
  • Speaking to Hungarian state newswire MTI in Brussels, Minister of Justice Judit Varga said that "in Hungary, just like in any other constitutional state where the rule of law prevails, secret services operate separately from politics" under the supervision of the Ministry of Interior Affairs and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. She also told Népszava's reporter that "we live in a world where modern states are facing many dangers. Don't be ridiculous; all countries need such tools! It is an illusion if anyone tries to turn this into any scandal."
  • Sándor Pintér, the Minister of Interior Affairs, answered an inquiry from independent MP Bernadett Szél by stating that "since 29 May 2010 [the beginning of Pintér's mandate], Hungarian secret services had not engaged and do not engage in illegal surveillance," telling the MP what he told Telex as well, namely that he is open to answering detailed questions at a closed session of the Parliament's National Security Committee. He stressed that "Hungary is a democratic state where the rule of law prevails, and as such, it treats all persons following the laws in effect at the time," adding that agencies that can take part in covert surveillance operate under regular supervision by governmental and independent institutions.

Telex tried to request an interview with Pintér, but the Ministry informed us that it is not possible due to Pintér's busy schedule, adding the rhetorical questions:

"How would the governments of the United States, the United Kingdom, or France answer the questions appearing in the press? Will we ever know who, which secret service benefits from publicly shaming Hungary?"

As we received no replies to our other interview requests, on Monday, we went to the Prime Minister's Office and Komárom to learn what prominent members of the governing party think of the scandal:

This video has English subtitles, if you cannot see them, turn them on in the video settings. Speaking, in order of appearance: Gábor Kubatov, party director of governing party Fidesz; Sándor Pintér, Minister of Interior Affairs; Péter Szijjártó, Minister of Foreign Affairs.

The translation of this article was made possible by our cooperation with the Heinrich Böll Foundation.

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