Szabolcs Panyi was not even remotely surprised when Amnesty International’s tech team confirmed in 2021 that his cell phone had been infiltrated by Pegasus spyware for much of 2019. Panyi, a journalist covering national security, high-level diplomacy, and corruption for Hungarian investigative outlet Direkt36, had already long factored into his everyday work that his communications with sources could be spied on. “I was feeling a mix of indignation, humiliation, pride and relief,” he told CPJ of his response to the Amnesty news.
The indignation and humiliation were from seeing himself and other prominent journalists included on a list of convicted criminals and known mob figures considered to be threats to Hungary’s national security. The pride was because the Hungarian government, which routinely ignored his reporting questions, thought it was worth spending tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of dollars on his surveillance; the relief was the validation that his earlier suspicions about being spied on were not a sign of paranoia.
Other Hungarian journalists targeted for surveillance expressed similarly ambiguous emotions in interviews with CPJ. And all were skeptical that any future recommendations by the European Parliament’s committee of inquiry into Pegasus and other spyware, expected next year, would bring much relief in a country where independent media face an increasingly hostile press freedom climate under the government of right-wing Prime Minister Viktor Orbán.
Panyi, who continues to relentlessly investigate the surveillance scandal, is one of the few journalists still giving regular interviews to Hungarian and international media about his surveillance. Three other CPJ interviewees said that while they were making an exception in talking to the organization, they’d otherwise stopped making public statements on their experience because they did not want their Pegasus targeting to define their lives.
The three – crime reporter Brigitta Csikász, Zoltán Varga, owner of one of the country’s biggest independent news sites, 24.hu, and a reporter who asked not to be identified for fear that further publicity would negatively impact his career – were named as targets in July 2021, when Panyi, who, along with Direkt36 editor András Pethő, broke the story as part of its reporting for the Pegasus Project, an international investigation that found the phone numbers of more than 180 journalists on a global list of potential spyware targets. (The NSO Group, which makes Pegasus, denies any connection with the Project’s list and says that it only sells its product to vetted governments with the goal of preventing crime or terrorism.)
Along with Panyi, all the journalists recounted signs that they were under physical and digital surveillance before they were aware of Pegasus being used against them, and all said that their private and professional lives had changed since the scandal broke last year.
Csikász, who covers corruption, told CPJ in a phone interview that she had seen numerous signs that people might be watching her and was warned by friends for years that her phone might be monitored. “I did not get a heart attack, I was not at all traumatized,” she told CPJ in a phone interview about her reaction to the news that Pegasus was used to monitor the contents of her phone between early April and mid-November 2019.
Csikász has even managed to find some humor in her situation. “My friends took it real easy, most of them just crack jokes and my family took it as a sign of prestige and importance. For them, it is as if I was awarded with a special journalism prize,” she said. She added that the publicity surrounding the disclosures had even prompted some sources to contact her because they heard about her in the news. “I was not, and I have not, become paranoid,” she told CPJ.
Still, Csikász, who currently works for daily tabloid newspaper Blikk and was reporting for the investigative outlet Átlátszó, remains concerned about the intrusion. “As a journalist, I respect my country’s laws and my profession’s ethical standards and I consider the possibility of being spied on as part of my job,” she said. However, she would like to know which of her numerous investigations were considered threats to national security.
Varga told CPJ in a video interview that he’d attracted government attention when he started investing in media in 2014. This scrutiny increased, especially when he made it clear around 2017 that he would not be willing to sell his assets in spite of quiet threats and warnings from businesspeople linked to the government. In recent years, he said, he had spotted people sitting in cars parked outside his house and apparent eavesdroppers sitting next to his table at restaurants
. He recalled that his phone calls were often interrupted, he once heard a recording of a call played back from the start, and at one point German tech experts provided proof that his android phone had been hacked.
The Direkt36 investigation found Varga’s Pegasus surveillance started around the time he invited six people to a dinner in his house in Budapest in June 2018, two months after Orbán won a third consecutive term as prime minister. All seven participants of the dinner were selected as potential candidates for surveillance and at least one of their phones showed evidence of infection under Amnesty’s forensic analysis.
“I was only surprised that the regime used this type of high-level technology to spy on an otherwise innocent gathering of intellectuals,” Varga told CPJ in a video call. “It was far from being a coup, it was just a friendly gathering. We discussed the very high level of corruption in Hungary’s ruling elite and how to find ways to expose it. Using this kind of technology in such a situation for me just shows how much the government is afraid of its opponents,” he said.
The reporter who spoke on condition of anonymity was also surprised that the government would deploy such high-tech spyware against journalists. Although he’d seen indications of occasional physical surveillance, the Pegasus infiltration “came out of the blue and was a real shock to me,” he said in a phone interview. His “dark period” only eased when the fact of his surveillance was publicly reported. “Since then, I prefer not to speak about it and share my experiences with anyone but my friends,” he told CPJ.
Panyi said that the way he communicates with sources has now become much slower and more complicated. “Of course, I have much more difficulty meeting and communicating with sources, who are increasingly afraid of the trouble I might bring into their life,” he told CPJ in a phone interview. He uses various secure digital tools and applications, is mindful about what networks he connects to on his computer or mobile phone, regularly goes to meetings without his phone, and continues to take physical notes.
Varga says the spyware disclosures have harmed some of his business ventures. “The Pegasus scandal made it obvious for both my business and private contacts that it might be risky to talk to me and they might also get exposed, which people obviously try to avoid,” Varga told CPJ, adding that acquaintances now crack Pegasus “jokes” in most of his meetings. “As a result of this whole affair, I have much less phone calls, more walking meetings outside, without phones in the pocket,” he said.
Many companies, including advertising agencies and advertisers for his news site, seem to prefer to avoid doing business with him, and their loss is not offset by the small number of ad-buyers who now see the site as an important media voice, said Varga. “I have become kind of toxic for my environment,” he told CPJ.
The reporter who preferred not to be named said that his phone now “stays outside” whenever he sees friends and family and he uses a special anti-tracking case when he attends professional meetings.
Hungary’s government acknowledged in November 2021 that it had bought Pegasus spyware, but says that its surveillance of journalists and political critics was carried out in accordance with Hungarian law.
A government spokesman said that journalists might have been monitored because some of their sources were under surveillance on suspicion of crimes or terrorist links, not because the journalists were the direct targets of the investigations.
In January, the Hungarian National Authority for Data Protection and Freedom of Information issued a 55-page report, which concluded that in all the cases they investigated, including those involving journalists, all legal criteria for the application of the spyware were met and the spyware was used to protect Hungary’s national interests.
These responses have left the journalists who spoke to CPJ with little hope that anyone will be held accountable for the intrusion on their lives. Nor do they expect help from the institutions of the European Union, where officials themselves have been targeted by spyware as they grapple with mounting political pressure over how to hold member states accountable for any breaches of the rule of law.
As the European Parliament’s committee of inquiry looks at the mountain of evidence that surveillance spyware has been used in EU countries and against EU citizens, the EU Commission lacks the powers to hold member states to account, and has been forced to refer those seeking justice to their national courts.
Surveilled journalists might eventually get EU relief if a new draft European Media Freedom Act, released on September 16, becomes law. The Act could give journalists a path to file a complaint to the EU’s Court of Justice if they or those close to them are subject to the unjustified use of spyware. However, the Act still has to be reviewed by EU institutions and member states and may not survive in its current form.
Meanwhile, Panyi does not believe Hungary’s courts can provide any relief. “The laws regulating national security, including surveillance, are so broadly formulated that it is legal to wiretap and surveil anyone,” he told CPJ. Noting that there was no independent oversight of the surveillance process, he added that “legal” in these cases meant only that “everything has been properly documented, and the necessary stamps are where they should be.”
In June, Panyi saw his concerns confirmed when the Central Investigation Prosecutor’s Office announced it had terminated its own investigation into the allegations of illegal surveillance of journalists and opposition politicians, citing absence of a crime. “A broad investigation which included classified documents found no unauthorized and secretive collection of information or the unauthorized use of a concealed device,” said the investigators.
Additional reporting by Tom Gibson in Brussels
Editor’s note: This fifth paragraph of this report has been updated to include the name of András Pethő as a co-writer of Direkt36’s Pegasus investigation.