Hungary’s opposition has called for ministerial resignations from Viktor Orbán’s far-right government over allegations it selected journalists, media owners and opposition political figures as potential targets for invasive Pegasus spyware.
The allegations, published last week by the Guardian and other members of the Pegasus project consortium, were backed up in a number of cases with forensic analysis of mobile devices carried out by Amnesty International, which showed phones had been infected with Pegasus, sold by the Israeli company NSO Group.
“At the very least, the minister of justice has to resign,” said Gergely Karácsony, the mayor of Budapest and the most likely challenger to Orbán for the prime minister’s post at elections next spring, in an interview at Budapest’s city hall on Tuesday.
On Monday evening, a protest against the government over the Pegasus affair drew about 1,000 people. “This scandal shows we cannot talk about the rule of law any more in Hungary,” Anna Donáth, a Hungarian MEP with the opposition party Momentum, told the Associated Press news agency at the rally. “Our demand is the resignation of the government.”
Hungarian law provides that in cases where national security is at stake, the intelligence services can order surveillance with no judicial oversight, only the signature of the minister of justice.
The justice minister, Judit Varga, has declined to comment on whether the Hungarian government uses Pegasus, but said “every country needs such tools”. She has not addressed what the national security justification could be for surveilling journalists, businesspeople or politicians.
In an interview earlier this month with Le Monde, a Pegasus project partner, Varga first said it was “a provocation” when asked if she would authorise the surveillance of a journalist. Later, her office asked for the question and the answer to be removed from the interview.
Last week, the Budapest prosecutor’s office opened an investigation into unauthorised secret information-gathering. Few expect this to produce real results, though, with the government accused by opposition figures of ignoring the allegations.
Opposition MPs had demanded an emergency meeting of parliament’s national security committee on Monday, but the four MPs from Orbán’s Fidesz party did not show up, meaning there was no quorum.
“The government’s plan is not to discuss the issue,” said Péter Ungár, an opposition MP who sits on the committee. “I don’t know what you would call this, but it’s certainly not oversight.” He also said Varga should resign if she could not offer an adequate explanation about whether and why the surveillance had taken place.
At least five Hungarian journalists appeared on a leaked list reviewed by the Pegasus papers consortium, of numbers selected by NSO clients ahead of possible surveillance, including two from the investigative outlet Direkt36, a Pegasus project partner. Also on the list was the number of the opposition politician György Gémesi, the mayor of the town of Gödöllő and head of a nationwide association of mayors.
“He’s been the mayor of a small town for 30 years, and for me it’s completely unthinkable that there would be any legitimate criminal or national security interest in surveilling him,” said Karácsony, who knows Gémesi well.
Karácsony, whose number is not on the leaked list, said the revelations about government surveillance were not that surprising. In 2019, during his campaign for mayor against the Fidesz-backed incumbent, audio was leaked of Karácsony discussing infighting among the opposition. He said that now, if he has sensitive discussions, he does so without phones or laptops in the room.
The liberal Budapest mayor is the favourite to win a primary vote to be held among a broad group of opposition parties who want to field a unity candidate to take on Orbán in elections next spring. Orbán, who is looking to win a fourth consecutive term, has clashed with the EU over rule of law, corruption and a recent anti-LGBTQ+ law.
Last week, Orbán announced the government would hold a referendum on “child protection”, involving a set of leading questions about sex education and gender reassignment, in what is being seen as an attempt to sow division and rally the conservative base of Fidesz around a “culture war” on LGBT issues.
Karácsony attended Saturday’s Budapest Pride march, in which tens of thousands of people marched through the capital, and the rainbow flag is flying for Pride month outside Budapest’s city hall.
“This is a very desperate attempt to divert attention from their weaknesses,” said Karácsony of the recent campaign, adding that the best option would be to boycott the “ridiculous” referendum.