A former politician of the opposition party MSZP, now the publisher of a harshly government-critical news portal, was also under surveillance through Israeli spyware Pegasus for weeks earlier this year, investigative news portal Direkt36 reported. Although previous reporting showed that the program was used against Hungarian targets in 2018 and 2019, this means it has been in use in the country as recently as a few months ago. Meanwhile, the president of the National Security Committee from opposition party Jobbik decided to call for another meeting to question the ministers concerned regarding the issue.
Zoltán Páva, a former politician of the opposition MSZP and former mayor of Komló, is currently the publisher of the pro-opposition site ezalenyeg.hu. The publication launched during the 2019 municipal election campaign, and is known for its harsh criticism of the government. According to some, it has played an important role in the success of the opposition thanks to its strong social media presence. Evidence obtained by Direkt36 suggests that Páva was under surveillance fairly recently.
Páva’s smartphone was examined by security experts from two organizations, the human rights group Amnesty International, and the Canada-based Citizen Lab. The forensics analyses show that the spyware was present on the device between March 16-24, and May 23-27 of this year.
Páva had approached Citizen Lab to have his phone examined even before the scandal broke out, after he had experienced oddities with his phone in the spring: his calls were often disrupted, and he sometimes heard sounds as if the caller on the other end “had been underwater” during a conversation. Citizen Lab eventually detected traces of Pegasus on his smartphone, and the results were also later confirmed by security experts from Amnesty International.
According to Páva, it is “dire and frightening” that it can be a cause for surveillance if a journalist, lawyer, or businessman is critical of the government and dares to express it. “I am very hopeful that those who were under surveillance are not afraid. I’m definitely not afraid, and that is why I would like to go public because I have nothing to hide,” he told Direkt36.
It is unclear what data was extracted from the device, but they had access to everything. The spyware could access photos, videos, search history, messages, and more, alongside the ability of the hacker to remotely record phone calls and turn on both the phone’s camera and microphone.
The Pegasus scandal broke out in 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, including The Washington Post, Süddeutsche Zeitung, and The Guardian. From Hungary, investigative online outlet Direkt36 was the only participant, reporting 300 Hungarian phone numbers that were possibly targeted in 2018 and 2019 with surveillance.
Phone numbers of several Hungarian journalists, businessmen, critics of the government, public figures, and politicians all appeared among those selected for targeting.
The trails lead directly to the Hungarian state, because the software’s manufacturer, Israeli private corporation NSO Group, can only provide its product to national governments and government agencies with the permission of the Israeli Ministry of Defense.
Also, a former security officer from one of Hungary’s intelligence services told Direkt36 that according to his knowledge, Hungarian services started using Pegasus in 2018. A former employee of NSO also confirmed to one of the project’s partners that Hungary indeed procured the Pegasus software.
The Orbán administration has not denied the use of Pegasus, nor did they deny the surveillance of the people the news site has reported about. When contacted by Direkt36, the government did not respond to questions about the surveillance of Zoltán Páva.
National Security Committee president calls for new meeting
Representative of right wing Jobbik and president of the National Security Committee, János Stummer, will be calling together the committee on September 20th to question the ministers concerned about the Pegasus case, Magyar Narancs reported. Stummer expects Interior Minister Sándor Pintér, Justice Minister Judit Varga, Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó, and Defense Minister Tibor Benkő to attend the meeting.
The National Security Committee had already been convened once by the Jobbik chairman to question the Interior Minister about the surveillance. Although Pintér showed up, the ruling Fidesz-KDNP majority of the committee refused to do so; therefore, the whole meeting was annulled. As a result, Pintér didn’t have to respond to any questions about the potential purchase and use of the Pegasus spyware.
If the representatives of Fidesz-KDNP decide not to boycott the meeting this time, the news about Páva’s surveillance will certainly be brought up.
Mayor Karácsony: “A regime that surveils journalists is afraid”
Budapest Mayor Gergely Karácsony, one of the candidates for prime minister of the united opposition, also commented on the news in a short Facebook video.
According to Karácsony, a regime that surveils journalists is afraid.
“Despite wanting to present itself as very powerful, the party that is most afraid of political developments in Hungary is Fidesz,” said the mayor, suggesting that the government could be involved in the surveillance scandal.
According to the mayor, there is little known about the Pegasus case, but one of them is that the representatives of the ruling party did not attend the National Security Committee meeting.
“And we also know that there are no answers to straightforward, honest, and open questions,” Karácsony added, referring to the lack of answers on whether the Hungarian government bought the software, and whether it commissioned the surveillance of opposition journalists and businessmen “who are not Fidesz sympathizers.”
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