Hungary: MFRR highly alarmed by Pegasus surveillance revelations

Hungary: MFRR highly alarmed by Pegasus surveillance revelations

The Media Freedom Rapid Response (MFRR) is highly alarmed by the revelations by a consortium led by French NGO Forbidden Stories about the surveillance of journalists, human rights defenders, lawyers and others through the Pegasus spyware program developed by Israeli company NSO Group. The leak, which revealed the involvement of the Hungarian government among others, raises significant implications for journalists’ security and the protection of their sources as well as raising concerns through the chilling effect such applications have on journalists beyond those immediately affected and ultimately, on everyone’s right to information.

We call on the Hungarian government and other implicated governments to immediately stop using the spyware and to provide transparency about its application so far. We also call on the NSO Group to take its corporate social responsibility more seriously and stop selling Pegasus to regimes with poor human rights and media freedom records, provide more transparency that will enable proper oversight and establish more stringent due diligence processes.

Forbidden Stories obtained leaked records of phone data, suggesting that various governments worldwide selected media workers, lawyers and activists as possible targets for invasive surveillance with the Pegasus spyware. The spyware has the potential to transform the targets’ phones into surveillance devices, allowing access to all data on the phone and enabling control over audio and video to make recordings surreptitiously. Inclusion of a phone number on the leaked list does not necessarily entail that the linked device was successfully hacked, but forensic analysis on dozens of phones so far effectively shows evidence of Pegasus activity in more than half of the cases. NSO Group has repeatedly said that its spyware, which they sold to some of the world’s most repressive regimes, is meant for use only against terrorists and serious criminals. Unsurprisingly, despite claims by NSO Group that they will cut off clients if they misuse the spyware, it appears that Pegasus has been used well beyond this stated intended target group by those clients, to potentially include anyone perceived as an opponent or threat to the regime.

In the European Union, forensic analysis of several devices has shown that the Hungarian government has deployed the spyware program against investigative journalists and the circle of one of the country’s last remaining independent media owners. At least five journalists figure in the leaked records and at least ten lawyers and an opposition politician. They include Szabolcs Panyi, a well-known reporter at investigative outlet Direkt36, who has been publicly attacked in the past by Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s spokesperson Zoltán Kovács, who has accused him of “Orbánophobia”. Also analysis of his colleague András Szabó’s phone showed positive results for the use of Pegasus. Other Hungarian media workers selected for potential targeting include Dávid Dercényi, who edits a newspaper put out by the authority of an opposition-run district in Budapest; a photographer who worked as a fixer for visiting foreign journalists; and, a well-known investigative journalist. Furthermore, it appears also the circle of investor Zoltán Varga, who owns several independent media outlets and has been pressured in the past, was surveilled using the Pegasus software.

In a response quoted in The Guardian, the Hungarian government said that “state bodies authorised to use covert instruments are regularly monitored by governmental and non-governmental institutions.” The country has a very permissive legal framework for surveillance. In 2020, the justice minister approved 1,285 surveillance requests (not necessarily using Pegasus spyware).

The most recent revelations about Pegasus serve to highlight two things. On the one hand, they underscore the urgent need for meaningful reforms that will ensure powerful commercial technology is not abused by governments at the expense of civil liberties. They also show the essential role watchdog journalism plays in safeguarding the human rights that underpin democracy, by exposing violations and holding the perpetrators to account.

Signed by:

  • Article 19
  • European Centre for Press and Media Freedom (ECPMF)
  • European Federation of Journalists (EFJ)
  • Free Press Unlimited (FPU)
  • International Press Institute (IPI)
  • Osservatorio Balcani e Caucaso Transeuropa (OBCT)

Cyprus: TV station attacked by crowd protesting Covid measures…

Cyprus: TV station attacked by crowd protesting Covid measures and vaccination

A large crowd of demonstrators against new Covid-19 measures and mandatory vaccination attacked the Cypriot TV station Sigma TV on 18 July. The mob vandalised the station’s headquarters in Nicosia, throwing crackers, breaking windows and damaging cars outside the building. The European Federation of Journalists (EFJ) joined its affiliate, the Union of Cyprus Journalists, in condemning this brutal attack and calling on the authorities to conduct thorough investigations.

On Sunday evening, demonstrations against mandatory vaccination took place outside the Presidential Palace in the capital of Cyprus, Nicosia. Groups of protestors clashed with police and at around 9:30 PM local time, parts of the demonstration broke into the DIAS media group building that houses Sigma TV. The mob attacked staff, set cars in the parking lot on fire and brutally trashed the offices. Photos on the SigmaLive website show the extent of the damage.

The police confirmed that around 2,500 protesters took to the network. According to Sigma, “hooded thugs” attacked dozens of their colleagues working at the time. The police had entered the building to protect the workers.

Due to the rise in Covid-19 infections and the low rate of vaccination among young people in Cyprus, new measures were adopted, including mandatory vaccination and a so-called “SafePass” policy. In place since the 9th of July, the SafePass regulation obliges citizens aged 12 or older to possess and present either a vaccination certificate, proof of a Covid-19 contraction in the last six months or a negative PCR or rapid test with a 72-hour validity period. This SafePass is needed for entering the workplace, supermarkets, restaurants and other businesses.

The president of the Union of Cyprus Journalists, George Frangos, condemned the “abominable, insubordinate and dangerous” attacks which pose a threat to democracy, freedom of expression and freedom of the press.

“We call on the Prosecution Authorities of the state to act immediately and effectively so that those responsible for these illegal and anti-democratic acts are brought to justice and punished by example,” stated the Executive Committee of the Union of Cyprus Journalists.

According to media reports, five people are to appear before the court in connection to the attacks on Monday and the police are looking for ten more people while identifying more suspects from CCTV footage.

Ricardo Gutiérrez, EFJ General Secretary, reacted: “We welcome the ongoing investigations into these intolerable attacks, which we strongly condemn. This level of violence and disregard for media professionals is unprecedented in Cyprus and is further evidence of the need for greater protection for journalists.”

Peter R. de Vries (Photo: DWDD) Library

Death of Dutch journalist Peter de Vries a sad…

Death of Dutch journalist Peter de Vries a sad day for Europe

IPI expresses sorrow at loss of courageous crime reporter

The IPI global network for press freedom today expressed deep sorrow over the death of Dutch crime journalist Peter R. de Vries and renewed calls for all those responsible for his murder to be held accountable.

de Vries, 64, had been fighting for his life in hospital after being shot five times including once in the head in the center of Amsterdam at around 7.45pm on July 6. He passed away surrounded by loved ones, according to a statement by his family.

“The death of Peter R. de Vries is yet another heartbreaking moment for Europe’s entire journalistic community”, IPI Deputy Director Scott Griffen said. “Our thoughts go out to his family and friends, with whom we stand in full solidarity and support. Peter was a respected and fearless crime reporter who spent his career exposing criminal acts and fighting to ensure those responsible faced justice. He was a committed servant of the truth, who was determined to ensure that even the oldest crime could not go cold. It is vital that Dutch authorities now show the same exhaustless energy in investigating, prosecuting and convicting all those behind his own murder.

“Tragically, this is the second time this year that a crime journalist has been gunned down in broad daylight in the European Union. This killing illustrates a sad reality: that even journalists working in a country with one of the highest levels of press freedom in the world are not safe. All EU governments must do more to stem the tide of attacks on journalists that we’ve seen over the last few years. Ultimately, ending impunity for those who dare carry out these crimes is one of the most effective ways to do so.

“Sadly however, those behind the murder of Greek crime journalist Giorgios Karaivaz in April remain at large. While some of the gunmen and middlemen in the assassinations of Slovak journalist Jan Kuciak and Maltese investigative reporter Daphne Caruana Galizia have been convicted, those who ultimately ordered their deaths continue to evade justice. Those behind this heinous attack on Peter cannot be allowed to do likewise.”

In a statement, his family said: “Peter fought to the end but was unable to win the battle. He died surrounded by the people who love him. Peter lived by his conviction: ‘On bended knee is no way to be free.’”.

Peter R. de Vries (Photo: DWDD) Library

Dutch journalist Peter R. de Vries dies after shooting

Dutch journalist Peter R. de Vries dies after shooting

Update (15/07/2021) Peter R. de Vries passed away on 15 July 2021, RTL announced on Twitter. 

Dutch journalist Peter R. de Vries is fighting for his life in hospital after being shot five times in Lange Leidsedwars street in Amsterdam yesterday evening at around 7.30. The police has arrested three suspects. The European and International Federations of Journalists (EFJ/IFJ) condemned the murder attempt as another tragic blow to press freedom in Europe.

On Tuesday evening, Peter R. de Vries was a guest on daily television programme RTL Boulevard. After leaving the building, he was shot several times at close range, including in the head, in a side street of the studio. Amsterdam’s mayor Femke Halsema told a press conference that the investigative journalist was “fighting for his life.” The police have arrested three suspects.

Peter R. de Vries (64) is a well-known Dutch investigative journalist who covered high-profile criminal investigation. He worked for De Telegraaf, Panorama magazine, Algemeen Dagblad and ran his own crime programme on television. He won an international Emmy Award in 2008 for his work investigating the 2006 disappearance of teenager Natalee Holloway in Aruba.

According to media reports, De Vries has been threatened in the past and was granted police protection. In 2019, he said on Twitter  that he would be on a death list. He has been acting as a counselor to a state witness testifying in the case against Ridouan Taghi, suspected of murder and drug trafficking.

The General Secretary of the Dutch Journalists’ Association (NVJ) Thomas Bruning said: “This hits journalism right in the heart. Of course, it remains to be seen what De Vries’ activities are related to, but the attack took place outside RTL Boulevard. De Vries is a fierce crimefighter, persistent and courageous. We can only hope he survives.”

EFJ President Mogens Blicher Bjerregard said: “I send my thoughts to Peter and expect an immediate investigation bringing the masterminds of this awful attack to justice. Enabling and protecting the crucial work of (investigative) journalists to deal with crime and other essential issues is key for any democracy.”

The EFJ had recently alerted over the escalation of violence against media professionals with an increase in attacks since last year and repeatedly called on the Dutch authorities to do the utmost to protect journalists and investigate all attacks.

IFJ President Younes MJahed said: “We are shocked by this attack against a journalist who has reported extensively on matters of public concerns and has taken huge risks to tell the truth. This is an attack on press freedom and we urge authorities to swiftly investigate this case. Our thoughts are with Peter, his family and friends.”

Poland: Independent media under attack again as PiS moves…

Poland: Independent media under attack again as PiS moves against TVN24

Draft bill plans to limit non-European ownership of Polish media

The International Press Institute (IPI) today expressed grave concern about draft legislative proposals by lawmakers from the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party which would ban non-European ownership of Polish media and warned that the changes are targeted directly at U.S.-owned critical broadcaster TVN24, the country’s most watched news channel.

IPI said the draft media bill was the latest element in an increasingly systematic effort by the ruling party to erode critical journalism, stressing the plans should be met with forceful opposition by both the U.S. government and the European Union.

The draft bill, which was submitted to Parliament on July 7 by a group of PiS lawmakers, would amend Article 35 of the Broadcasting Act to bar companies which are majority-owned by entities from outside the European Economic Area (EEA) from owning more than a more than 49% stake in Polish media.

TVN24 and its parent company TVN have been 100% owned by U.S.-based Discovery, Inc. since 2015 through a subsidiary registered in the Netherlands, to meet current requirements under Polish law. If approved, the new regulation would strengthen those restrictions to ban Discovery from owning TVN through its Dutch subsidiary.

This means Discovery would have six months to adjust and could be faced with selling 51% of its stakes in TVN, which is valued at around $1 billion. If it did not, TVN’s channels such as TVN24 could be stripped of their media licenses by the National Broadcasting Council (KRRiT).

The draft legislation comes as TVN24 awaits a decision by KRRiT on the renewal of its current 10-year media license, which expires in September. Despite applying for the permit 18 months ago, the five-member panel of the broadcast regulator remains divided on the case, creating pressure on the broadcaster on two fronts.

“If this bill is passed, Discovery would either be forced to sell off its shares in TVN24 to another company – very likely one more amenable to PiS – or stripped of its media license and be eliminated from the market”, IPI’s Deputy Director Scott Griffen said. “This bill is an outrageous effort by the Polish government to silence a major television news broadcaster because of its critical content. It is a direct attack by an EU member state on media pluralism and an unmistakable sign that Poland is pursuing a Hungary-style form of media takeover.

“Not content with having independent regional media bought up by the state-controlled oil company, PiS is now moving to the next stage of its so-called ‘repolonisation’ project by going after TVN24. This tactic of pressuring or forcing foreign companies to sell up and leave the domestic market is not about principle. It is an effort to concentrate media control in the hands of PiS. It is also a hallmark of the media capture model honed by the Orbán government. When foreign or independent owners are pushed out, companies linked to the ruling party step in, buy up the company and then flip its editorial line, silencing critical voices and destroying watchdog journalism.

“The case of Klubrádió in Hungary has made it clear how a mixture of regulatory and legal tools can be effective in blocking the license renewal of a leading broadcaster and forcing it off air. We cannot watch in slow motion as the same thing happens to TVN24 in Poland. The EU must be ready to launch immediate infringement proceedings against Warsaw if the media regulator ends up blocking the license in a discriminatory manner. The U.S. government should increase its efforts to make it clear to its Polish ally that any attempt to interfere with independent media would seriously damage relations. The Biden administration must follow up its rhetoric about standing up for democratic values and a free press with concrete actions.”

Pressure on critical broadcaster

A key player in the Polish broadcast news market for nearly 20 years, TVN24 has long been a thorn in the side of the ruling PiS party, particularly on coverage of issues such as LGTBQ rights and abortion reforms. It has also revealed irregularities and alleged corruption and broken news of scandals in Law and Justice. This has made it a key target for the party when it swept to power in 2015. Immediately, leading PiS officials launched attacks on TVN and accused it being biased and siding with the opposition.

After the U.S. media conglomerate Discovery, Inc. bought TVN and its all-news channel TVN24 in 2015, the station then became a key target of PiS’s plans to bring the country’s media back under Polish control. This drive for so-called “repolonisation” of media has been framed by the government as an issue of national sovereignty. In reality, the efforts are aimed at cementing greater control over the media landscape.

In recent years, PiS has floated the idea of passing legislative changes to limit the amount of foreign capital in the domestic market, which would have affected Discovery. In response, the then U.S. ambassador under former President Donald Trump came to the defence and diplomatic pressure played a part in forcing the Ministry to shelve the plans.

The current bill appears to be targeted directly at TVN24. Currently, Polish law says that foreign companies outside the EEA can only be granted a broadcasting license for media if they own less than 49 per cent of the shares. However, there is a clause which means this rule can be waived if the headquarters of the direct shareholder of the media outlet is located within the EEA. TVN and TVN24 are owned by Discovery via its subsidiary Polish Television Holding BV, which is registered in the Netherlands, an EU member state, meaning it abides by Polish regulations.

In the past, this has been sufficient for KRRiT, the broadcast media regulator, which has extended licences for other TVN channels since 2016. However, recently the head of KRRiT, Witold Kolodziejski, has said that TVN24 is in breach of foreign ownership rules and called for the laws to be strengthened. Kolodziejski is a former member of the PiS party. The new draft amendment would remove the clause in Article 35 of the Broadcasting Act which includes the waiver for foreign companies with subsidiaries, meaning Discovery would be affected.

The direct attack on Discovery’s ownership has ruffled U.S. feathers. In response, the chargé d’affaires at the U.S. embassy in Warsaw, Bix Aliu, has expressed serious concern, tweeting: “TVN has been an essential part of the Polish media landscape for over 20 years. Unfettered press is crucial for democracy.” Polish media reported that the comment came after behind-the-scenes efforts by the chargé d’affaires to meet with KRRiT were rebuffed.

Since the bill was proposed last week, leading PiS figures have come out in support. In media interviews, PiS officials have framed it as bringing legislation into line with other EU member states and closing a loophole in the current law. In a written justification, PiS MPs wrote that the bill was “aimed at clarifying regulations” and enabling KRRiT to “effectively counteract” foreign companies controlling radio and television broadcasters.

Others have been more candid. One of the MPs who submitted the bill, Marek Suski, told Rzeczpospolita that Discovery would “probably have to sell some of its shares” in TVN if the legislation is passed. Asked if state-owned firms could then seek to buy the station, Suski said he “cannot rule it out”. In separate remarks, Suski said that “if this law is successfully passed and some of these shares can be bought by Polish businessmen, we will have some influence on what is happening on this station.”

Last week, Kołodziejski, confirmed at a parliamentary committee that the regulator has been analysing whether TVN should be counted as a non-EEA entity. KRRiT’s five-member council is currently divided over the case. At least a 4:1 majority is needed to approve the renewal or denial of the new 10-year license. This renewal process has been ongoing for a year and a half. KRRiT’s spokesperson has justified the delay by saying the regulator needed more information about the merger between Discovery and WarnerMedia.

The draft text of the bill was swiftly submitted to the Sejm with no advance warning for PiS’s coalition partners. One of them, Agreement (Porozumienie), has raised concern about the bill and noted that the party had not been consulted. The party’s spokesman Jan Strzeżek said on Twitter that he would “not want to wake up in a Poland where there is only one TV station. Media pluralism cannot be legally limited”.

Vera Jourova, vice president of the EU Commission and its commissioner for values and transparency, said: “The new draft Polish law on broadcasting concessions is yet another worrying signal for media freedom and pluralism in the country. We follow closely the situation related to TVN24 whose license has not been renewed yet.”

In response, Discovery has said it would “defend the business against growing regulatory overreach, anti-consumer behaviour and other market uncertainty that would undercut Poland’s business environment”. TVN has more than a dozen television channels in Poland, as well as an online video platform. If the license is not renewed by September 26, TVN24 would have legal options to fight the decision. However, this would mean it would celebrate its 20th anniversary of operations in Poland in a fight for survival.


Albania: Concern after government ally elected to head key…

Albania: Concern after government ally elected to head key media regulator

The Media Freedom Rapid Response (MFRR) today expresses deep concern about the future impartiality and independence of Albania’s Audiovisual Media Authority (AMA) following the election of a close associate of the ruling Socialist Party to head the media regulator.

On 7 July, the government and its allies voted without the presence of opposition lawmakers in parliament to appoint Armela Krasniqi as the chairwoman of the AMA, the country’s influential TV and radio regulator.

Our organisations have serious concerns over the impartiality of the new chairwoman, who is a close associate of Prime Minister Edi Rama and previously worked as his director of communications between 2013 and 2017. Krasniqi has worked for the Socialist Party most of her life and currently heads the state news agency, which has faced accusations of political bias.

Under Albanian media law, the AMA is required to be a politically independent authority. Impartial leadership of such regulatory bodies is vital for upholding public trust in a country’s media landscape and strengthening professional standards. Media freedom is deeply connected to regulatory responsibility, as powers to sanction alleged breaches of media law and decide on the allocation of broadcast licenses must be applied fairly.

The appointment of a partisan figure with long-standing links to the ruling party, in the absence of opposition votes in parliament, therefore risks seriously undermining the credibility and legitimacy of the AMA, as well as wider trust in the Albanian media ecosystem.

Confidence in the regulator’s political independence is even more important given the government’s controversial “anti-defamation package” of amendments, which if passed, would hand the AMA greater powers to impose disproportionate sanctions and fines on media outlets. Our organisations remain strongly opposed to these plans.

Rather than seek consensus over the leadership of the AMA, however, the Socialist Party has rushed ahead with the vote despite urgent calls from both the European Union and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) to postpone the selection until the new parliament is convened in September.

The decision to appoint a politically-connected figure contradicts the recommendations set out by the Venice Commission for strengthening the AMA’s independence. Instead of adopting these recommendations and creating greater safeguards, the government has taken a step backwards and exacerbated the issue further. This should be of concern to the EU as it assesses Albania’s accession to the bloc.

Going forward, we urge the government to move ahead with implementation of the recommendations set out by the Venice Commission regarding the AMA and the so-called “anti-defamation package”, which remains on the parliamentary agenda. Our organisations retain serious concerns about the effect this will have on media freedom in Albania if passed in its current form. Greater communication is required from the government about the status of the proposed amendments. Until such clarity is provided, the package will continue to have a chilling effect on the media.

It is also vital that when the second stage of the appointment process for the AMA’s board members recommences in September, all political parties act in the public interest by prioritising professional expertise and independence over partisan loyalty when electing candidates. Our organisations will continue to monitor the situation closely.

Signed by:

  • Article 19
  • European Centre for Press and Media Freedom (ECPMF)
  • European Federation of Journalists (EFJ)
  • Free Press Unlimited (FPU)
  • International Press Institute (IPI)
  • Osservatorio Balcani e Caucaso Transeuropa (OBCT)