The Hungarian Government does everything to cover up the Pegasus affair – the HCLU’s takeaways from the first year of the scandal

It has been a year since the Pegasus scandal broke out, and developments in the case have since then demonstrated that even surveillance that breaches fundamental rights can comply with the letter of the law in Hungary. Representing seven people affected by the scandal, we are taking their cases to all possible Hungarian and international forums to fight against these unlawful practices. These are our takeaways from the past year.

One thing about secret surveillance is certainly not a secret: in Hungary, even unlawful surveillance is legal if carried out for national security purposes. The European Court of Human Rights already ruled in 2016 that Hungarian law does not provide sufficient safeguards against abuses—yet the state has done nothing to remedy the situation since. The core problem is that surveillance is authorised by the Minister of Justice, who as a member of the government is not in a position to prevent abusive government surveillance—actually, they may even have an interest in it.

And once the surveillance is concluded, it is almost impossible to challenge it. The institutions that theoretically exist to protect rights are biased towards the state, and it is difficult to bring to court a violation of rights that the person concerned never officially learns about and therefore has no evidence to prove.

All this is not a theoretical problem. In the Pegasus case, the bodies that on paper are supposed to protect rights have failed spectacularly:

  • As usual, pro-government MPs boycotted the national security committee of Parliament in the beginning, and when its session could eventually be held, its minutes were classified until 2050.

  • The Commissioner for Fundamental Rights deflected the task, claiming that it was the responsibility of the National Authority for Data Protection and Freedom of Information (DPA), which is completely unfounded. Even a Constitutional Court decision declares that the Ombudsman must investigate abuses by the secret services.

  • Although the DPA investigated the case, it found everything to be in order, because it was only concerned with compliance with Hungarian law. It did not look at whether these laws disproportionately curbed the rights of those under surveillance, or whether the law allowing unrestricted surveillance violated international law.

  • The prosecutor's office closed the investigation—which is understandable, given that it is almost impossible to carry out surveillance that is punishable under the broad framework of Hungarian law. As far as we know, this criminal offence has never been committed.

Those who, for some reason, know that confidential data is being handled on them are no better off. Our FOI shows that between 2018 and May 2022, the Constitution Protection Office (Hungary’s counterintelligence and internal security agency) did not grant access in a single case out of 270 requests for classified personal data. The practice of the courts is similar: apart from one case, we are not aware of any litigation where the courts ordered the secret services to disclose data. In other words, so far no one has been able to find out in court what data has been collected about them. Moreover, the Constitutional Court has recently ruled that it cannot review such judgements from a constitutional point of view, which is absurd, since one of its fundamental tasks is to review the constitutionality of judgements. All this means that the case-law favouring the secret services is here to stay.

While these dysfunctional institutions are incapable of effectively protecting citizens' right to privacy, the number of surveillance orders is constantly increasing: by around 40% between 2015 and 2021. Meanwhile, even the particularly sensitive professions of journalists and lawyers are not subject to special protection, which would be a fundamental prerequisite for the rule of law.

The government and the public bodies that are supposed to protect rights pretend that the problem does not even exist and that the rights of the people surveilled are protected. That is why we have decided to pursue all possible domestic 'remedies', which could lead to one of two outcomes: either we can prove that unlawful surveillance is limited only by the good will of national security services and politicians, or we can at least partially find out who was monitoring our clients and why. If we are unsuccessful at home, we will take the matter to international forums, because it is unacceptable that politically motivated surveillance has once again become standard practice in Hungary. National security does not mean the security of those in power, but the security of all of us—which is undermined if anyone can be observed for political reasons.

Our clients are:

  • Adrien Beauduin, student activist and a participant in the CEU protests, whom we successfully defended in an ill-founded criminal case against him;

  • 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 Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó on holiday on the yacht of billionaire László Szíjj;

  • Szabolcs Panyi, a journalist who played a key role in uncovering the abuses as a member of the investigative project on the Pegasus scandal;

  • Ilona Patócs, lawyer who defended István Hatvani, a man convicted in the Prisztás murder (a case raising questions about the link between politics and organised crime), whose case took a turn after the hacking with Pegasus;

  • A private individual who wishes to remain anonymous for the time being,

  • and nearly 40 people working for NGOs or as journalists who are potential targets of surveillance and whose cases we are taking directly to the European Court of Human Rights.

On their behalf:

  • we have lodged 11 complaints with the ministers overseeing the secret services and with Parliament's national security committee;

  • we have submitted a joint complaint to the Commissioner for Fundamental Rights;

  • we have brought 12 lawsuits (and will initiate almost as many more);

  • we have brought 7 cases before the Data Protection Authority;

  • we have taken the joint cases of almost 40 individuals to the European Court of Human Rights over threats to civil society and journalists.

  • we lodged a complaint with the European Commission;

  • we lodged a complaint with the Attorney General of Israel.

All our clients' cases can be followed by clicking here, where you can also find out more about how surveillance legislation in Hungary breaches fundamental rights.