The Hungarian Civil Liberties Union and its coordinated fight against the use of Pegasus spyware

The Hungarian Civil Liberties Union and its coordinated fight against the use of Pegasus spyware

Welcome to the latest instalment of our Partners blog series. In this series, we interview our partners from around the world about their critical work in protecting freedom of expression. This time we spoke to Dalma Dojcsák, Executive Director of the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union (HCLU), about spyware.

HCLU is one of Media Defence’s partner organisations. Founded in 1994, the organisation is one of the oldest and largest NGOs in Hungary. One of its most important areas of work is within political rights and civil liberties. This area of work includes privacy-themed projects, under which the organisation has taken coordinated domestic and foreign legal action in relation to the use of Pegasus spyware in Hungary.

In 2022, we supported HCLU who have engaged in proceedings on behalf of several Hungarian journalists targeted by Pegasus. The deterioration of Hungary’s media landscape has been well documented by human rights organisations in recent years. Hungary’s laws around surveillance are extremely broad: they enable the state to spy on almost anyone on grounds of national security.

Could you tell us a bit about the relationship between Hungary and spyware such as Pegasus?

Unfortunately, we don’t know much about the relationship between Pegasus spyware and the Hungarian government. The main problem is that Hungarian national security laws permit the government and its officials to use spyware tools to monitor citizens – without any judicial oversight. Even though it has been revealed by investigative journalists that Pegasus was used against journalists, we still know very little about this use. Decision-makers are able to keep everything secret. People who were spied on with Pegasus could not access any information about their surveillance. They also could not find out the reasons that they were targeted. Another important issue is that there are no judicial procedures to provide remedies for those who have been targeted by the spyware. Under Hungarian law it seems impossible to achieve justice.

Is spyware a big threat for journalists in Hungary?

Yes. I wouldn’t say that anything has changed since the Pegasus Project and its revelations. Hungarian legislation is the same. The government is the same. And legal mechanisms are the same. The government can use spyware without any legal or political constraints.

Have you seen a change in the way that journalists and human rights defenders operate in response to the use of spyware?

Most investigative journalists have long been aware of surveillance and spyware. They are used to taking measures to attempt to protect themselves and mitigate any risks. Unfortunately, encryption doesn’t protect anyone from Pegasus. Nowadays, going offline is more popular with journalists and civil society organisations. This means holding meetings without phones, laptops, or other devices nearby.

Could you please tell me a bit about the spyware cases that HCLU is working on?

Some of our clients are journalists; others are lawyers and activists. In the cases that we are working on with Media Defence’s support, we are representing four journalists targeted with Pegasus spyware, including:

  • Brigitta Csikász, a journalist who exposed corruption cases and was monitored actively even on her daughter’s birthday;
  • Dávid Dercsényi, a journalist who wrote several articles on the case of a Syrian man suspected and convicted of terrorism in Hungary;
  • Dániel Németh, a journalist who took photos, among others, of the Foreign Minister on holiday on the yacht of a billionaire; and
  • Szabolcs Panyi, a journalist who played a key role in uncovering the abuses as a member of the investigative project on the Pegasus scandal.

HCLU’s domestic and international legal actions against the use of Pegasus spyware

Domestic action

In Hungary, data obtained from surveillance is always classified. Even the journalists’ personal data intercepted by spyware technology can therefore be labelled as classified data. The rules governing this data makes reparation in this situation limited. In an attempt to redress the situation, HCLU launched a series of domestic as well as foreign proceedings.

In Hungary, HCLU launched proceedings against the Constitutional Protection Office (CPO) under the Ministry of the Interior, and the Information Office (IO) under the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, in order to bring the surveillance abuses to light, as well as to bring justice to the journalists targeted. Both secret services have since been moved under the Cabinet Office of the Prime Minister. HCLU also filed complaints  with the Hungarian National Security Council (NSC) on behalf of its clients, to disclose information held on the journalists. The NSC found that there had not been a breach of the journalists’ rights.

We are providing support to HCLU in some of the domestic cases, where the ultimate aim is to develop litigation that compels authorities to investigate serious cyber-attacks against journalists in Hungary, and to expose the failure of the authorities to investigate such attacks. HCLU is supporting the four journalists before Hungarian domestic courts to request investigations into their targeting by Pegasus spyware. HCLU predicts that it will exhaust all domestic remedies, and that the cases will eventually be brought before the European Court of Human Rights.

 International action

HCLU additionally launched international proceedings in response to the Pegasus abuses. It lodged a complaint to the European Commission on behalf of an EU citizen living in Hungary who was targeted with Pegasus spyware. Unfortunately, the European Commission rejected the complaint. Moreover, HCLU filed a complaint with the Israeli Attorney General on behalf of three of its clients – asking the attorney to investigate whether a criminal offence had been committed when the NSO Group obtained a state export license for Pegasus spyware. HCLU is also planning mass action directly before the European Court of Human Rights on behalf of 36 clients—different from the ones targeted with Pegasus—who work in areas that make them particularly exposed to abuse: journalists, activists and members of CSOs. The ECtHR registered the complaints in February 2023.

For more detail and the latest news on HCLU’s Pegasus cases, go to HCLU’s website.

If you are a journalist in need of support as a result of your reporting, please click here.

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