Why Hungary again? Well, if you want an explanation, you need to go back in time to the summer of 2021. That was when it turned out that the Hungarian government bought the Pegasus spyware that had mainly been preferred by authoritarian regimes due to “its efficient operation”, while the seller company was not picky when it came to who they were selling the technology to.
Other European governments came under suspicion too, but while the Pegasus affair had some consequences in most of the democratic countries, there were no legal ramifications in Hungary at all.
For quite a while, Hungary’s government tried to keep it under wraps whether they used the software at all. When it was no longer possible to deny that they relied on it to monitor mainly opposition journalists, civil activists and sometimes even simple citizens, Justice Minister Judit Varga claimed that it was all done lawfully. It might as well have been true, since Hungary’s legal regulations on clandestine surveillance activities are quite lenient in international comparison. Consequently, even if it is not against the Hungarian regulations, it’s still not very reassuring when Hungary’s justice minister “lawfully” points at a name and orders the person to be put under surveillance.
As it turned out however, even that very thin legitimacy did not apply to the case, since Justice Minister Judit Varga “outsourced” the industrial-scale surveillance activities (we’re talking about ordering the wire-tapping of seven people per day on average) to her deputy, Pál Völner.
At first glance, the fact that most orders were signed by Völner seems no more than a malignant shirking of responsibility and circumvention of the law. However, if you consider that Pál Völner has become a suspect in a criminal conspiracy case of passive corruption, i.e., the bribery of an official, you can assume he is not a man of impeccable integrity, but quite likely a heavy-weight political criminal who, by the way, controlled the surveillance of opposition figures.
Despite all the above problems and the serious charges against him, Völner is still at large, while the investigation reluctantly launched by Attila Péterfalvi, the head of the authority responsible for the protection of Hungarian citizens’ data, failed to achieve any real results, since it only looked into the formal aspects of the surveillance operations, and even the few actual findings were classified for decades. This is how things go on in a hybrid regime…
While the Orbán government and Justice Minister Judit Varga (who is still in office to this day despite the scandalous events) keep parroting conspiracy theories and lashing out against Brussels, the European Union seems to have had enough of these incidents.
As a result, last autumn’s EP debate has been followed by a LIBE (Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs) hearing as well as a report released by the INGE committee specialized on foreign interference and disinformation in the EU. Based on an EPP initiative, the European Parliament will soon set up an inquiry committee to investigate governmental abuses of Pegasus and other spyware.
The body will also make recommendations to develop a legal framework in order to prevent people from being placed under surveillance for political reasons ever again in Europe.
My colleagues and I are probably not mistaken when we predict that Viktor Orbán will present these efforts as an attack on member state sovereignty. Let us hope that after the April elections his harangues will not come from a governmental position, but from, for example, the defendants’ stand where any decision maker belongs who orders unlawful surveillance operations.