Hungary: Media freedom groups welcome EU court referral over…

Hungary: Media freedom groups welcome EU court referral over Klubrádió frequency

Together with media freedom and freedom of expression organisations, today MFRR partners welcome the European Commission’s decision to refer Hungary to the Court of Justice of the European Union over the February 2021 decision of the country’s Media Council to force independent broadcaster Klubrádió from the airwaves.

This  decision by the EU’s executive body to take Hungary to court over the alleged breach in EU telecoms rules regarding Klubrádió’s frequency licence is a belated but important signal that the Commission is increasingly willing to use the tools available to it to defend independent media, freedom of expression and media pluralism where they are most threatened.


We believe this legal challenge goes to the core of democratic standards and EU values: the freedom of the press to criticise the government and provide independent reporting without undue interference from government or state regulatory bodies.


The Commission announced the continuation of infringement proceedings on July 15, stating that the Media Council’s decision to reject Klubrádió’s application for the use of the Budapest 92.9 MHz frequency was made on “highly questionable grounds” and had applied rules in a “disproportionate and discriminatory manner”. It added that the muzzling of the station “violated the freedom of speech as enshrined in the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the EU”.


As our organisations have previously reported, Klubrádió was forced off air in February 2021 after the media regulator, which is filled with figures appointed solely by the ruling Fidesz party, rejected the extension over its alleged failure to comply with administrative requirements. The regulator then blocked the station’s attempt to re-secure the frequency it had broadcasted on for 20 years, gagging one the country’s last major critical broadcasters. While Klubrádió continues to broadcast online, it is currently operating as a radio station without a frequency, severely limiting its reach and influence.


Moving forward, we hope the Court of Justice of the European Union will carefully assess this case and find Hungary in violation of EU telecommunications law over the fair and non-discriminatory allocation of radio frequencies. This would then allow Klubrádió to seek a retrial at the Supreme Court over the Media Council’s original decision. However, this process is likely to be lengthy and there are concerns that in the end it may have little direct impact on Klubradio’s ability to restart broadcasting.


Ultimately, this case is bigger than one radio station. Over the last decade, as a result of a lack of appropriate legal safeguards for upholding the Media Council’s functional independence, the regulator has played a central role in the well documented and systematic erosion of media pluralism in Hungary. Concerns over this lack of independence were recently highlighted in the EU’s Rule of Law Report 2022. Klubrádió is one of several cases in which the frequency renewal process has been applied selectively at the expense of critical broadcasters.


This underscores the urgent need for the upcoming European Media Freedom Act to address developments contributing to media capture, including by helping enforce the functional independence of national media regulatory across the bloc.


Our organisations will continue to closely monitor the infringement proceedings in the coming months and will continue to sound the alarm over all future attacks on media pluralism and freedom in Hungary. We also continue to stand in solidarity with all independent journalists and media outlets in Hungary who continue to carry out their watchdog role in highly challenging conditions.

Signed by:

  • ARTICLE 19 Europe
  • AMARC Europe
  • European Centre for Press and Media Freedom (ECPMF)
  • European Federation of Journalists (EFJ)
  • Civil Liberties Union for Europe (Liberties)
  • Free Press Unlimited (FPU)
  • IFEX
  • International Press Institute (IPI)
  • Media Diversity Institute
  • OBC Transeuropa (OBCT)
  • Reporters Without Borders (RSF)
  • Society of Journalists, Warsaw

This statement was coordinated by the Media Freedom Rapid Response (MFRR), a Europe-wide mechanism which tracks, monitors and responds to violations of press and media freedom in EU Member States, Candidate Countries and Ukraine.

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Hungary: Fidesz Media Council moves to silence independent station…

Hungary: Fidesz Media Council moves to silence independent station Tilos Rádió

The partner organisations of the Media Freedom Rapid Response (MFRR) today express serious concern over the decision by the Fidesz-controlled Media Council – the country’s powerful media regulator – to block the frequency license renewal of the symbolic independent station Tilos Rádió.

The partner organisations of the Media Freedom Rapid Response (MFRR) today express serious concern over the decision by the Fidesz-controlled Media Council – the country’s powerful media regulator – to block the frequency license renewal of the symbolic independent station Tilos Rádió.

Our organisations are concerned that this decision appears to be yet another disproportionate move by the Media Council, whose members were all nominated and appointed solely by the ruling party, which will force another independent voice off the country’s airwaves and further weaken media pluralism.

We note the Media Council’s decision on April 14 came shortly after Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and his ruling Fidesz party secured an unprecedented fourth term in office, which has already led to heightened concerns about the future of what remains of independent media in the country.

Tilos (Forbidden) Rádió began broadcasting as a pirate radio station in Budapest in the 1990s and became the first non-profit independent radio station in Hungary, making it a symbol of press freedom. Since 2015, the community station has broadcasted on the 90.3 MHz frequency in Budapest, where it provides cultural, social and political programming sometimes critical of the government.

The Media Council justified its licensing decision on the grounds that the station’s media service provider, Tilos Cultural Foundation, had violated legal requirements regarding inappropriate language four times during a seven-year period since 2015. This meant that in 20,000 hours of broadcasting, inappropriate language was used four times. The regulator also cited two failures to provide data to the authority and two minor irregularities regarding annual reports.

Tilos has not denied the violations but stressed the heavy-handed nature of the decision. The station’s 90.3 MHz licence is now set to expire on 3 September 2022, at which point it will fall silent on the airwaves. The National Media and Infocommunications Authority (NMHH) has already said it will reopen the tender and seek to find a new provider for the frequency.

Our organisations believe the Media Council’s decision to block the renewal is disproportionate and based on oversized regulatory powers, which are often applied selectively and in a politically motivated manner. The violations identified do not, in our view, constitute reasonable grounds to strip a radio station of its license – and will only further weaken media pluralism in Hungary.

We also note that, while the radio stations differ, the ruling bears clear parallels by the discriminatory decision last year to force the country’s last remaining major independent radio broadcaster Klubrádió off the airwaves – a ruling which led the European Commission to launch infringement proceedings over what it said was a breach of EU law on proportionality, transparency and non-discrimination.

As detailed in a recent report by MFRR partner the International Press Institute (IPI), as a result of a lack of appropriate legal safeguards for upholding the Media Council’s independence, over the last decade the regulator has used the media law to arbitrarily deny broadcast licenses of stations critical of the government, instead then handing them to government-supportive owners, further entrenching a pro-government narrative in the country’s media ecosystem.

Moving forward, we urge the government to guarantee the independence of the NMHH and its executive body, the Media Council, which should immediately cease regulatory practices designed to marginalize independent media or force them from the market. The tendering process for radio and television licenses must also be depoliticized to ensure decisions are proportionate and measured, and the problematic dual-headed leadership structure of the regulator should be reformed.

As the European Commission launches the long overdue rule of law mechanism against Hungary to uphold EU values, it should closely scrutinise the work and rulings of the Media Council – which has been instrumental to the systematic erosion of media pluralism over the last decade. Our organisations will continue to monitor the situation and draw attention to all future problematic decisions, as well as the wider challenges for media freedom in Hungary.

Signed by:

  • ARTICLE 19 Europe
  • European Centre for Press and Media Freedom (ECPMF)
  • European Federation of Journalists (EFJ)
  • Free Press Unlimited (FPU)
  • International Press Institute (IPI)
  • OBC Transeuropa (OBCT)

This statement was coordinated by the Media Freedom Rapid Response (MFRR), a Europe-wide mechanism which tracks, monitors and responds to violations of press and media freedom in EU Member States and Candidate Countries.

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Recommendations for government and EU to improve media freedom…

Recommendations for government and EU to improve media freedom in Hungary

After the re-election victory of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and his ruling Fidesz party, the International Press Institute (IPI) today sets out fifteen recommendations for the government to help improve the landscape for media freedom in Hungary.

IPI also sets out seven recommendations for the European Union to help stop the erosion of media pluralism and democratic freedoms in Hungary and help defend what remains of independent media within the country.

Recommendations to the Hungarian government

– Develop a long-term strategy for restoring independence and pluralism in the media market based on clear democratic procedures, while also taking immediate steps to stop illiberal practices in the media market.

– Create checks and balances which ensure a parliamentary majority is not a carte blanche for a government to reshape the media system according to its will; create a legal framework that fosters a pluralistic media and independent journalism.

– Reform the system for funding Hungary’s public service media to ensure it is transparent, measurable and based on a clear set of criteria for the performance of tasks and the delivery of its public interest mission.

– Depoliticize the management and oversight bodies of the public broadcaster and increase professional standards; create accountability mechanisms to ensure adherence to the Media Act and Code of Ethics of the Public Service Media and the provision of fair, impartial and balanced news including a plurality of voices and opinions.

– Restore proper democratic governance and oversight to the public broadcaster, ending the dual structure of Duna Media Service Provider and MTVA; establish stronger professional requirements for election to the boards; guarantee independence, accountability and transparency in line with international standards; rebuild trust in public service media.

– Depoliticise and restore organisational and editorial independence to the state news agency MTI; sever channels for direct political control over production of news content; assess the performance of the management staff in line with professional criteria and take appropriate actions if breaches are identified.

– Radically reform the system for state advertising to halt widespread abuses of public resources to distort the media market; end all politically motivated financing of media; create a new framework based on market logic and on transparent criteria.

– Guarantee fair competition in Hungary’s media markets to foster a vibrant and sustainable media ecosystem; appropriately apply the Competition Act to limit existing media concentration, including to KESMA; adopt measures to support market entry and the sustainability of the sector.

– Guarantee the independence and transparency of the NMHH and the Media Council; create safeguards to ensure limits on the concentration of power; immediately cease regulatory practices designed to marginalize independent media or force them from the market; depoliticize tendering processes and ensure decisions are transparent and taken according to clearly defined criteria.

– Immediately end the selective approach against journalists regarding interview requests, requests for comment, public information and data; reverse restrictive measures affecting journalists’ movement within the Hungarian Parliament.

– Re-establish regular press conferences and briefings to which all media are invited; including those by the prime minister; end discriminatory approach towards journalistic accreditation for government events; restore normal working relationship between journalists and public authorities at national and regional level.

– Reform the system for FOI in Hungary, ensuring timely response from all public bodies and ministries and removing unnecessary obstacles; guarantee adherence to all rulings by the National Authority for Data Protection and Freedom of Information; re-join Open Government Partnership.

– Launch a thorough and credible parliamentary inquiry into the alleged abuses of Pegasus spyware by Hungarian intelligence and law enforcement agencies against journalists and establish strong, clear and transparent safeguards to limit future violations. Fully comply with the EU Parliament’s investigation into abuses of Pegasus in the EU.

– Introduce anti-SLAPP legislation in line with EU recommendations to protect journalists and media organisations from vexatious defamation lawsuits launched by powerful individuals or institutions; publicly condemn all smears and vocal attacks by politicians against journalists.

– Coordinate closely with international media freedom groups, civil society and European Union to improve press freedom and implement international standards; seek to join the Media Freedom Coalition to reinforce Hungary’s commitments to safeguarding press freedom.

Recommendations to the European Union

– Make full use of competencies under competition and state aid law to address the deliberate distortions of competition in the media market in Hungary; including addressing the two existing complaints to the Commission for unlawful or incompatible state aid in the area of public service broadcasting and state advertising as well as prioritizing the handling of future complaints.

– Continue EU infringement proceedings against Hungary over arbitrary and discriminatory tendering decision by the Media Council over the license renewal for Klubrádió; monitor the independence of Hungary’s media regulatory bodies according to the requirements of article 30(2) of the Audio-visual Media Services Directive.

– Pass strong Media Freedom Act which empowers EU institutions to address systematic abuses of legislative, economic and regulatory powers to erode media pluralism and freedom in the EU internal market; create a legal framework which helps safeguard the pluralism and foster independent journalism.

– Apply the Rule of Law Conditionality Regulation to Hungary and suspend funds in response to grave attacks on the democratic values, including the freedom of the press, as well as systematic management of EU funds to intentionally distort media markets

– Pass strong EU anti-SLAPP directive to help protect journalists and media outlets against vexatious litigation aimed at silencing their work; ensure swift implementation by member states including Hungary

– Continue and expand financial support to independent journalism in Hungary, especially investigative journalism. Such support should be tailored to the needs of journalists and should include core support.

– Further strengthen the toolbox of the EU to pushback against media capture within the EU market and halt the spread of illiberal attacks on press freedom across the bloc.


Ahead of the election, IPI visited Budapest and published a report examining the landscape for media freedom in Hungary. Click here to download the full report.

Today, IPI and its global network of leading journalists, editors and media executives called for renewed efforts to defend press freedom following the election victory of Prime Minister Orbán and underscored its solidarity with independent media in Hungary.

This statement by IPI is part of the Media Freedom Rapid Response (MFRR), a Europe-wide mechanism which tracks, monitors and responds to violations of press and media freedom in EU Member States and Candidate Countries.

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Hungarian capital in foreign media Library

IPI publishes report on the role of Hungarian capital…

IPI publishes report on the role of Hungarian capital in foreign media

New report produced by IPI in cooperation with regional media experts and investigative journalists. The International Press Institute (IPI) today published a new report written by regional media experts and investigative journalists on the investment of Hungarian capital in foreign media and the implications for the spread of Viktor Orbán’s “illiberal” model of media control.

On April 3, Hungary will hold parliamentary elections pitching the incumbent prime minister, Viktor Orbán, against a united opposition candidate, Péter Márki-Zay, in what represents the first serious challenge to Orbán and his dominant Fidesz party since winning power in 2010. During this time, Orbán and Fidesz have become synonymous with the construction of an “illiberal democracy” in Europe. Central to their strategy has been the process of media capture by Fidesz using the instruments of the state to create a bubble of pro-government media. Independent media have been closed or transferred to party-friendly hands. And the government seeks to force the remaining critical outlets to the fringe of public debate, denying them access to information and hobbling their economic position.

The model has been extensively documented by media freedom organizations including through IPI’s 2019 press freedom mission report and  IPI’s 2021 analysis of the Hungary’s media capture model and its application in Poland. What is less well known is how Fidesz’s ambitions for media influence and control do not stop at its borders.

In recent years there has been an influx of Hungarian investments in media either in the Hungarian minority communities abroad, or in media aligned with Fidesz’s ideological political allies, particularly in Slovenia and North Macedonia. These investments and the apparent instrumentalization of these media to promote Fidesz’s wider political agenda raise serious questions about efforts to further export the Fidesz model of “illiberal democracy” and media control to its neighbours and beyond. In some cases, as in Slovenia, there are signs that the replication of this model is already underway.

Today, the International Press Institute (IPI) is publishing Hungarian Capital in Foreign Media. Three Strategic Models of Influencing the Neighbourhood, a series of articles examining how, where and for what purpose Hungarian money is being invested into foreign media. The articles explore the following topics:

  • Since 2017, Hungarian businesses close to Fidesz have purchased numerous media in Slovenia and North Macedonia. While Fidesz politicians insist such investments are purely commercial, heavy investments in these media have been used to support Janes Janša’s SDS in Slovenia and the fugitive former North Macedonian Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski’s VMRO DPMNE.
  • Media in Hungarian minority communities in Serbia, Romania, and Slovakia have all received a boost in Hungarian financial support, which is seen as bringing these media into close alignment with Fidesz.
  • Lastly, in 2019, a new international news agency, V4NA, was launched in London from where it attempts to project Fidesz’s populist narrative onto a pan-European media landscape.

The articles were produced by IPI in cooperation with the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network (BIRN); the Hungarian investigative reporting outlet Átlátszó and its Hungarian-language partner in Romania, Átlátszó Erdély; and the Center for Media, Data and Society at the Central European University’s Democracy Institute.

The report is published as part of IPI’s actions in the Media Freedom Rapid Response, a project which tracks, monitors and responds to violations of press and media freedom in EU Member States and Candidate Countries. It is supported by the European Commission and the Friedrich Naumann Foundation.

This report by IPI is part of the Media Freedom Rapid Response (MFRR), a Europe-wide mechanism which tracks, monitors and responds to violations of press and media freedom in EU Member States and Candidate Countries.

IPI as part of MFRR

Hungary: Government bypasses court order on journalists’ hospital access

Hungary: Government bypasses court order on journalists’ hospital access

Hungary is the only EU member state not to give media access to hospitals during pandemic. The IPI global network today condemned a Hungarian government decree which – despite a court order – ensured journalists from independent media titles could continue be barred from reporting from inside hospitals. IPI called on the Fidesz government and its pandemic management body to approve future requests for journalists to access health facilities and stop hindering the media from doing their jobs and reporting on the realities of COVID-19.

Since the beginning of pandemic, representatives of the independent press have been barred from filming or reporting from within hospitals and their COVID-19 wards. In March 2021, this led to an unprecedented appeal from the the editors of 28 media outlets to the prime minister that the rules be changed to allow the media to record within health care facilities.

This appeal was rejected by the PM, who said that such a move could lead to the spread of  “fake news”. Since the start of the pandemic, the government-controlled public television and the state news agency have been the only media permitted to film inside hospitals. Independent newsrooms have requested access on dozens of occasions but all were rejected by the government’s Department of Human Resources (Emmi).

This led Telex and the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union (HCLU) to launch legal action against the government on the basis that the order disproportionately affected media freedom. The Metropolitan Court initially sided with the government last year. Following an appeal, on January 27, 2022, the Supreme Court sided with Telex and ruled that Emmi could not bar media from reporting from within hospitals, as that power lay with individual hospital directors.

However, just two days later on January 29, the government passed a decree which bypassed the Supreme Court’s ruling. It instead determined that only the government centre in charge of managing the pandemic, the Operational Tribunal, could decide on press access and accreditation. The rule came into effect on February 5, 2022, leading to a fresh outcry about government interference from the country’s remaining independent media titles.

“This government decree is another shocking example of the Hungarian government’s efforts to block media’s access to public health information and hinder the ability of independent media to do their job” said IPI Deputy Director Scott Griffen. “During the pandemic, media across Europe have been able to report from within hospitals and speak with front-line health workers. This has been vital for showing the human face of the health services and for building trust in state health measures, as well as allowing for frontline staff to raise concern when necessary and to foster healthy debate on health policy.

“In Hungary, however, despite numerous appeals, journalists have repeatedly been barred from visiting hospitals, limiting transparency and leaving reporting from within health facilities to state media, which sorely lack independence and impartiality. There is no other country in the European Union right now which still has such restrictive hospital reporting policies in place as Hungary.

“IPI continues to condemn the Hungarian government’s efforts to ban journalists from hospitals. That a government decree was used to bypass a ruling from the Curia is a stark example of the length which Fidesz will go to retain control over the COVID-19 messaging ahead of the upcoming elections. We stand with independent journalists in Hungary in their demand for access to information, which is a fundamental right. It’s shocking that this is still up for debate in an EU member state.”

The government decree means the Operational Tribunal will have full responsibilities for deciding on which journalists and TV crews can film or record interviews on the premises of health facilities. That body will have the power to overrule directors who feel it is acceptable to welcome media into their facilities they head.

During the pandemic, journalists working for what remains of the country’s independent media operate in an extremely challenging environment for accessing public information or questioning public officials. While media critical of the government are shunned for interview requests, the prime minister meanwhile gives expansive interviews to state-controlled media. After the media sent an open letter to the PM in March 2021, government spokesman Zoltan Kovacs accused “left-wing portals” of spreading “fake news” to embarrass the country’s health care system.

At different points during the pandemic, doctors and other healthcare professionals have been forced to speak with media off record to raises concern about their institutions’ capacity to handle rising cases and an influx of patients. The government decree came amidst a general election campaign for the April 3 election.

This statement by IPI is part of the Media Freedom Rapid Response (MFRR), a Europe-wide mechanism which tracks, monitors and responds to violations of press and media freedom in EU Member States and Candidate Countries.

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Video: How Hungary’s state media interviews Orbán (Telex)

Video: How Hungary’s state media interviews Orbán (Telex)

Viktor Orbán ignores questions from independent news outlets. But he’s happy to speak to state-controlled media that lob softball questions his way, explains

While Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán manages to avoid tough questions domestically, he has been dropping by Kossuth Radio almost every Friday to give an interview to one of the leading editors of the public media, which operates with an annual budget of 325 million euros of taxpayer money. In his third cycle with a two-thirds majority, Viktor Orbán fields questions almost exclusively from Katalin Nagy on the state radio station. The journalist, who was awarded the Knight’s Cross from the Hungarian Order of Merit, doesn’t hesitate to take advantage of these opportunities.

This piece is part of a content series on threats to independent media in Central Europe as part of a collaboration between IPI as part of the MFRR with leading independent media in the region.

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The shredding of the free press in Hungary (Telex) Library

The shredding of the free press in Hungary (Telex)

The shredding of the free press in Hungary (Telex)

Viktor Orbán’s takeover of the media didn’t come overnight. It’s been a long time in the making. Hungary’s traces the evolution of media capture.

For 30 years Viktor Orbán and his old political colleagues have held the view that the press is against them, that journalists always help their opponents. If Fidesz loses, they think, the power of the press has won. If Fidesz wins, it does so in spite of the media headwind. The same line was taken in Orbán’s 2019 governmental press conference— when he told members of the Hungarian and foreign press that more journalists were against him than for him, “but even in such circumstances it is possible to win” — as in the analysis of the 1994 election result, where Fidesz’s defeat was blamed on a media superiority stacked up against the party. However, the party did not always view the press this way.

In this article we look at the development of the Hungarian media over those 30 years. Today, Hungary is in a dismal 92nd position in the World Press Freedom Index, which is put together by Reporters without Borders (RSF). How did it reach the point where ownership of most of the Hungarian TV, radio, printed and internet media is in some way tied to the government and its politicians.

This piece is published as part of a collaboration between IPI as part of the MFRR with as part of a content series on threats to independent media in Central Europe. 

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EU action needed to tackle spyware abuses after Pegasus…

EU action needed to tackle spyware abuses after Pegasus revelations

As the European Parliament today debates the Pegasus spyware scandal, the undersigned partners of the Media Freedom Rapid Response (MFRR) call for an immediate investigation into the alleged use of the spyware against journalists by Hungarian authorities and urge the strong implementation of new EU rules on the export of cyber-surveillance technology around the world.


Revelations by the Pegasus Project that at least 180 journalists in 20 countries had their phones infected by the NSO Group’s spyware underscored the need for urgent action by the international community to tackle the unregulated spread of such technology and to create safeguards for the protection of human rights, including the freedom of the press.

Within the European Union, credible allegations indicate that Pegasus was illegally deployed by Hungarian intelligence or national security services in 2018 and 2019 against at least five journalists, including András Szabó and Szabolcs Panyi from Direkt36, one of Hungary’s last remaining independent media outlets. Fresh revelations surfaced last week when Hungarian media reported that Zoltán Páva, the publisher of the news portal and former Member of the European Parliament, had been surveilled using Pegasus as recently as May this year.

Last week it was also revealed that the German Federal Criminal Police Office (BKA) secretly purchased the technology from NSO in 2019. In France, prosecutors are probing allegations that journalists from media outlets including Le Monde, Agence France-Presse and FRANCE 24 were surveilled by Moroccan intelligence services using Pegasus.

The failure to control the acquisition, trade and use of such intrusive technology inside the bloc means that the number of EU member states to have bought Pegasus or other similar cyber-surveillance technology remains unknown. Current estimations may represent the tip of the iceberg. This opacity poses significant threats to journalistic sources, privacy and safety, undermines media freedom and constitutes a clear failure by the EU to close the gaps in its regulatory framework.

As Parliament debates the matter, our organisations again urge the European Commission to conduct an independent and impartial investigation into alleged abuses by the Hungarian authorities against journalists and others. The Commission must establish the extent of Hungary’s use of Pegasus, identify what safeguards have been implemented and react to any abuses. Until such an investigation is carried out, the Pegasus revelations will continue to undermine journalists’ safety and have a chilling effect on what remains of independent media within the country. Robust and effective legal protection must be guaranteed within EU member states against unlawful surveillance by domestic intelligence, national security and law enforcement agencies to guard against human rights violations, including the right to freedom of expression and the right to privacy as protected under domestic, European and international law.

At the same time, the EU needs to protect journalists from illegal surveillance outside as well as inside its borders. Reports by NSO that suggest that EU member states Cyprus and Bulgaria granted export licenses for its technology are also deeply disturbing. While Cypriot authorities have denied to the Commission that it has any export links with NSO, the assurances remain unsatisfying. Meanwhile, the response from the Bulgarian authorities has yet to be disclosed. The Commission must renew its engagement with the relevant authorities in Sofia to seek immediate clarity. If confirmed, immediate action must be taken to revoke the export license and establish how and when it was granted.

EU member states themselves have a role to play. On September 9, after a decade of negotiation, new EU export controls came into force with the Recast Dual-Use Regulation, which among other things aims to strengthen controls on the international trade of so-called “dual-use” cyber-surveillance tools. The MFRR urges all 27 member states to swiftly implement this landmark regulation and to collaborate in a transparent manner with the Commission on the sharing of information involving the export of such surveillance tools from the customs union.

The subsequent annual report prepared by the Commission under this regulation should act as a much-needed tool for holding the national authorities authorising the sale of this technology to account. It will also lift the veil on the potential sale of spyware tools by commercial actors based in EU member states to authoritarian regimes around the world. For too long the industry has been able to escape proper oversight and regulation. The Commission should closely monitor and enforce states’ adherence to the new rules. Moving forward, more frequent compilation of information and updates about the buying and selling of advanced surveillance tools may be required to address a fast-changing market.

Despite the modest advances in rights protection in relation to the licensing of these technologies for export from the EU subsequent to the entry into force of the recast dual-use regulation, there evidently remains the need for an internationally applicable regulatory framework that can prevent, mitigate and redress the negative human rights impact of surveillance technology. Until this is in place, we continue to call for a global moratorium on the sale and transfer of spyware technology. The European Union should lead the way on pushing for international agreements on the freeze of sales of these cyberweapons around the world.

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)
  • OBC Transeuropa (OBCT)
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Spying scandal further increases worries of Hungarian journalists

Spying scandal further increases worries of Hungarian journalists

IPI Contributor Blanka Zöldi

In mid-July, revelations about the abuse of the Israeli Pegasus spyware sparked scandals across the world. Viktor Orbán’s Hungary made international headlines as the only EU member state where, evidence suggests, the highly intrusive cyberweapon was used against journalists, lawyers, politicians, and businessmen critical of the government.

The manufacturer of the spyware, NSO Group, claims to sell Pegasus exclusively to foreign governments and state agencies to fight terrorism and organized crime. However, according to an international investigation led by Forbidden Stories, a leaked database of 50,000 phone numbers apparently selected for surveillance includes those belonging to almost 200 journalists worldwide, from Azerbaijan to India to Mexico.

The list also includes four journalists from Hungary: Szabolcs Panyi and András Szabó, reporters with investigative centre Direkt36; Brigitta Csikász, who was working with the investigative website Átlátszó at the time of her surveillance; and former journalist Dávid Dercsényi, according to reports by Direkt36, the Hungarian partner of the international investigation.

While being on the list does not necessarily mean that the target was actually attacked with Pegasus, in the case of Csikász, Panyi, and Szabó, forensic analysis of their phones identified clear traces of the Israeli spyware. The journalists cover a wide range of topics connected to abuses of power and suspected corruption by Hungarian politicians and authorities. During the surveillance, Csikász wrote about the misuse of EU funds, while Panyi and Szabó worked on an article about Russian-led International Investment Bank, among others.

Surveillance of journalists: a new level

The space for independent journalism has gradually been shrinking in Hungary since the current governing party, Fidesz, came to power in 2010, with the country falling from 23rd to 92nd in the World Press Freedom Index published by Reporters without Borders. In 2019, almost 78 percent of media were pro-government according to an analysis by media monitor Mérték, while accessing information has become increasingly difficult for independent journalists.

Still, the high-tech surveillance of journalists marks a “new level” in Hungary’s media environment, according to Péter Pető, chief editor of one of the most popular independent news websites, Although the website’s owner, Zoltán Varga – whose phone number also appeared on the Pegasus lists – had already suggested earlier that he might be under surveillance, Pető said that their journalists were both shocked and surprised when the news broke.

“Obviously, we have been under no illusion. But now, even our minimal sense of security has been shattered”, Pető said, adding that the scandal will make journalistic work even more difficult by increasing the potential costs of media owners, journalists, and sources alike. “It’s not only that media companies will have to spend more if they want to ensure their workers’ security. The potential surveillance might also discourage sources from sharing confidential information, and young students from becoming journalists.”

Under the assumption of being watched

At the same time, several journalists told IPI that the Pegasus scandal will not bring dramatic changes in their everyday operations, as they have already been working with the awareness that their communication might be intercepted and have taken security measures accordingly to protect their sources.

“Personally, I was not very surprised by the news”, Szabolcs Dull, one of the editors-in-chief of the news site Telex, founded after mass resignations over Dull’s dismissal from his previous workplace, Index. Dull recalled that in an attempt to discredit him, his list of phone calls was leaked to pro-government media last summer, and, as a political reporter, he has also seen high-level sources deeply worried about surveillance. “There was even a senior Fidesz politician who was wary of meeting me in person. He feared that our matching cell tower information would give us away”, Dull explained.

One of the surveilled journalists, Brigitta Csikász, told Direkt36 that she had received one of the first “friendly warnings” in 2010: “I was told that they are eavesdropping on my phone. From that time on, I was aware that it comes with my job that they are watching what I’m doing.”

Regarding security measures, Péter Erdélyi, senior editor of, pointed out that in 2017, they made it compulsory for all of their journalists to use two-factor authentication (2FA) as an extra layer of security for e-mails. For certain projects, they moved their meetings outside of the offices to minimize the risk of surveillance. Similarly, at investigative website Átlátszó, encrypted messaging, storing data on encrypted drives, using VPN and 2FA have been common practices, editor-in-chief Tamás Bodoky said, adding that they are aware that these measures cannot provide perfect security either.

Tools like Signal and other encrypted messaging apps still provide reasonable security, as spywares like Pegasus are currently too expensive to be used on a mass scale, as Szabolcs Panyi, one of the journalists whose phone was compromised, pointed out in a radio show last week. “However, such tools are becoming cheaper and cheaper”, he warned.

Permissive legal framework without remedies

Almost three weeks into the scandal, the Orbán government has not provided a substantive reply to questions about the monitoring of journalists. First, it gave an answer to journalists’ detailed questions that was later described by Edward Snowden – the former CIA employee who blew the whistle about the United States’s spy program in 2013 – as “the most incriminating” he had ever seen. A Hungarian government spokesperson said that they were “not aware of any alleged data collection claimed by the request” followed by a counter-question asking journalists whether “there was any intelligence service to help them formulate the questions”.

In the following days, government officials labelled the Pegasus scandal as an unjust attack on the Orbán administration and avoided answering questions about whether surveillance was carried out by Hungarian state actors – and if so, who authorized it, when, and on what grounds. Most recently, Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó stated that even journalists, regardless of their profession, could be surveilled in secret if they “pose a threat to the security and interests of the Hungarian nation”.

The gathering of secret information, however, is so loosely regulated in Hungary that virtually anyone can be put under surveillance, with the order “taking place entirely within the realm of the executive and without an assessment of strict necessity” and “without effective remedial measures,” as observed by a judgement of the European Court of Human Rights already back in 2016. Five years later, however, the Hungarian government only claimed that the “examination of the requirements stemming from the judgment in terms of legislative amendments, which is currently underway, is expected to take some time”.

In the wake of the Pegasus scandal, opposition parties called for the resignation of the government and organized a protest one week after the story broke, with the participation of 1,000 Hungarians – some of whom expressed disappointment over the low public interest in the event. According to a recent poll, while almost two-thirds of Hungarians have heard about the Pegasus scandal and more than half of the respondents thinks it is a serious issue, 58 percent were sceptical about whether it will have any effects on next year’s parliamentary elections.

Disclaimer: IPI contributor Blanka Zöldi is a journalist with Direkt36, an investigative centre that participated in the Pegasus investigation and whose colleagues are among the journalists targeted with the spyware.

MFRR 3 consortium logos

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)