The Hungarian Civil Liberties Union (TASZ) announced that they will initiate several proceedings both domestically and internationally over the Pegasus surveillance case. The human rights watchdog argues that the Hungarian regulation of secret surveillance violates fundamental rights; therefore, they want to achieve a systemic change to prevent abuses of those in power.
The Pegasus scandal hit headlines last July when a team of international journalists uncovered a database of 50,000 phone numbers selected for monitoring by the customers of NSO, the company that developed the spyware. The collaborative investigation was run by 17 news outlets; from Hungary, investigative online outlet Direkt36 was the only participant, reporting 300 Hungarian phone numbers that were possibly targeted in 2018 and 2019 for surveillance.
The Hungarian government never clearly acknowledged the purchase and use of the spyware, but in November, senior politician of ruling Fidesz, Lajos Kósa, publicly acknowledged that the Orbán-led government had acquired and used the Israeli tool. While government officials have emphasized ever since then that all surveillance in Hungary is in-line with the relevant regulations and authorities observe the rule of law, the Hungarian law is very liberal and permissive towards the authorities in terms of conditions of surveillance.
TASZ to take action in Hungary, EU, and Israel
TASZ’s aim is to expose the practice of unlawful information-gathering, to declare in international forums that the Hungarian regulation of surveillance violates fundamental rights, and to prevent politically motivated abuses; in other words, to achieve a systemic change.
TASZ has now announced that they will launch legal action on behalf of six clients: Brigitta Csikász, Dávid Dercsényi, Dániel Németh, and Szabolcs Panyi, all journalists; Adrien Beauduin, a Belgian-Canadian PhD student and activist, and a sixth person who requested anonymity. All of them were proven to have been monitored with the spyware.
According to TASZ, secret services have unlimited powers of surveillance in Hungary, such as a politically- committed minister, rather than an independent body, authorizes monitoring, and decides whether it is lawful or not.
“Putting the secret services at the service of those in power rather than at the service of the nation is an embarrassingly familiar pattern in Central and Eastern Europe,” says TASZ’s Ádám Remport, insisting that
It is unacceptable that the operations of the national security services, which are necessarily carried out in secret, should become a tool of oppression rather than a means of protecting citizens.”
TASZ began its actions by filing complaints with ministers in charge of overseeing the secret services. The group has also initiated an investigation of the National Assembly’s Committee on National Security and of the Commissioner for Fundamental Rights. They then requested information from the secret services about the possible data processing. They have also requested information about the surveillance carried out on clients. If those requests are turned down, TASZ says they will resort to lawsuits and will take all cases to the European Court of Human Rights.
On behalf of aforementioned activist Beauduin (who took a leading role in the organization of demonstrations protesting against the government’s measures aimed at ousting George Soros’ Central European University), the group has also lodged a complaint with the European Commission, arguing that the spyware’s use in Hungary, (a member of the EU), violates the right to free movement within the bloc and “may discourage EU citizens from staying in Hungary.”
In addition, TASZ is teaming up with Eitay Mack, an Israeli lawyer, to file a demand with the Israeli attorney general asking for a criminal case to be opened against [manufacturer] NSO in Israel and the Israeli officials who approved the sale to the Hungarian government.
Panyi: Systemic reform needed
According to Szabolcs Panyi, one of the most well-known Hungarian investigative journalists now working for Direkt36, the case is a symbolic one. They are more eager to force reforms of the system of authorizing surveillance in Hungary rather than getting any personal justice.
“Infringing my right to protect my sources is the most troubling thing for me,” Panyi said. “It’s very hard to understand the true aim, whether they were after my sources, if they wanted to get a heads up on what I’m working on, or try to gather dirt on me.”
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