C. Ioana*

On 12.11.2021, Zsolt Semjén, Deputy Prime Minister, sent a legislative proposal (T/17277) to László Kövér, Speaker of the Hungarian Parliament, “which would amend aspects of data exchange management services and reduce administrative burdens for citizens.” A quick glance at the document shows that the changes would affect “Act LXVI (1992) on the registration of personal data and addresses of citizens”.

According to Társaság a Szabadságjogokért/Society for Civil Rights/TASZ, these amendments “open even wider doors to election tourism than in previous years” because in the future “a person who establishes a residence does not necessarily have to live at that address as well”. A person’s official residence will be reduced to a kind of “contact address”. Subsequently, the steps associated with establishing a fictitious residence will no longer be punishable. The criminal code on forgery of public documents will be amended so that anyone can register an address with the consent of an owner. The practice of election tourism is well known, especially in areas bordering Ukraine, where thousands of Ukrainian citizens, some of whom could not even prove their Hungarian origin, have established false addresses with the help of village mayors in exchange for favourable votes. It was a first-rate scam, international analysts say. Attempts to end the practice have run into difficulties because these votes have favoured Fidesz. In the future, electoral fraud in its entirety will be conducted on a legal basis.

On 13.01. 2022, 20 Hungarian NGOs (Amnesty International Magyarország, Autonómia Alapítvány,Civil Kollégium Alapítvány, Emberség Erejével Alapítvány, Eötvös Károly Intézet,Háttér Társaság,K-Monitor Közhasznú Egyesület, Közélet Iskolája Alapítvány, Levegő Munkacsoport,Magyarországi Európa Társaság, Magyar Helsinki Bizottság, Magyar Női Érdekérvényesítő Szövetség, MENŐK – Magyar Európai Nők Fóruma Egyesület, Mérték Médiaelemző Műhely,Ökotárs Alapítvány, Political Capital, Társaság a Szabadságjogokér, Transparency International Magyarország, Unhack Democracy Védegylet Egyesület) have written to the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) in an effort to ensure that the OSCE does not send a “limited mission” to observe the Hungarian parliamentary elections in April 2022, as, due to the worrying domestic situation, the monitoring should be full this time, namely supplemented by a large number of observers on polling day.

According to the NGOs, the situation is much worse than it was in 2018, and in their request they provided the following details, which warn that the integrity of the 2022 elections may be at greater risk than before:

  • Changes in electoral rules/constituencies in favour of the ruling party;
  • use of public money for pro-government campaign purposes;
  • intensification of intimidating, xenophobic and anti-LGBTQ rhetoric;
  • government domination of the media market;
  • government takeover of electoral bodies;
  • political influence over the courts, autocratic provisions during the coronavirus epidemic;
  • arbitrary restrictions on freedom of expression and assembly.

Spying on opponents. Pegasus scandal (July 2021)

Among the states exposed in the Pegasus investigation for paying Israeli cyber espionage company NSO Group to spy on politicians, journalists, human rights activists, businessmen, dissidents, etc. we find Hungary, the only EU state on the list. Hungary’s case is relevant because of: Prime Minister Orban’s lack of reaction who chose to ignore the scandal; contradictory statements by his acolytes on the subject. The pro-Fidesz media was the only one to react in the familiar style.

The recent investigation by the French NGO Forbidden Stories, called the Pegasus Project, revealed the names of more than 50,000 targets of cyber surveillance. The investigation was based on an international journalistic collaboration involving, in addition to Direkt36.hu, staff from The Washington Post, The Guardian, Süddeutsche Zeitung, Die Zeit and Le Monde and revealed that more than 180 journalists from around the world were surveilled, including editors and reporters from The Economist, Reuters, Financial Times, CNN, The New York Times, France24 and Associated Press.

Countries involved in the investigation include Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Kazakhstan, Mexico, Morocco, Rwanda, Saudi Arabia, Hungary, India and the United Arab Emirates.

The victims of this cyber espionage, in Hungary, were 300 people – most of them with anti-Orban leanings. They include: an opposition mayor (unnamed); four journalists, including two staff members of Direkt36.hu – investigative journalists Ponyi Szabolcs and Szabó András; a photographer who worked with an American journalist on a story about the headquarters of the International Investment Bank, a Kremlin-linked Russian financial institution based in Budapest; billionaire entrepreneur Zoltán Varga, owner of Central Media Group, which also publishes 24.hu; Chikán Attila, professor of economics, minister of economy in the first Orbán government, who was Zoltán Varga’s guest at a dinner in 2018; Ádám Simicska, son of former Fidesz treasurer Lajos Simicska – who was Viktor Orbán’s main ally until “G-Day” ; former Central European University/CEU student Adrien Beauduin, who was detained at an anti-government demonstration in 2018.

Information obtained by Hungarian source 168 Óra, based on a freedom of information request, indicates that Justice Minister Judit Varga approved 1,285 surveillance requests in 2020, which includes all forms of surveillance, not just Pegasus (here, here, here, here, here, here and here).

Pegasus is an undetectable, remotely infiltrating Israeli spyware solution used on iPhones or other devices running Android mode that uses loopholes that neither manufacturers nor mobile phone software developers are aware of. Spyware can capture and transmit messages, photos and emails from a target’s mobile phone, but it can also record conversations with the target, activate a microphone if necessary and also collect information about the user’s movements.

Stepping up intelligence activities. 1825 operations per year!

In Hungary there are 2 main intelligence services: AH on the internal side and IH on the external side, i.e. espionage.

According to the Minister of Justice Judit Varga, 499 operations of the Hungarian intelligence services were authorized in the period 01.01 – 14.04.2021, namely about 5 covert operations/day (wiretapping, interception, house searches, email access, etc.). Let’s calculate how much comes in for a year: 5×365 equals 1825! So, 1825 secret service operations in a year are carried out in Hungary under the Orban regime.

The Counter-Terrorism Centre/TEK and the military and civilian intelligence services, with the exception of the Counter-terrorism. Information and Criminal Analysis Centre/TIBEK, are authorised to collect secret information for the purpose of protecting national security, which only requires the approval of the Minister of Justice. Hungary has one of the most permissive legislative frameworks in Europe for authorising surveillance, with an obvious absolute political control over the services. The civilian intelligence services AH and IH are part of European national security cooperation clubs, where highly sensitive topics such as Russian espionage in Europe or economic security in the context of China’s economic insertions are discussed. Hungary has non-transparent privileged political links with these countries that are contrary to the EU’s position. How much credibility do the two national services, AH and IH, still have in European intelligence clubs? Could there be a risk of compromising information passed on a ‘confidential’ basis to Russian and Chinese services? Szjjiarto Peter, foreign minister and the main coordinator of Hungarian funds in the countries of the region, is a frequent visitor to Moscow. But he is also the coordinator of the Hungarian intelligence service – IH. For his part, Sandor Pinter, Minister of Home Affairs and coordinator of the AH, also has a history of association with Russia dating back to the time when he received protection money from a “thief in law”, Semion Moghilevich, leader of an organised crime clan in the Russian Federation, connected to/controlled by the Russian FSB security service.

Hungarian media takeover by the Orban regime

Since Viktor Orbán became prime minister in 2010, Hungary has dropped from 23rd to 92nd place in the world press freedom index.

Recent reports by European bodies have confirmed negative press freedom trends in Hungary, but have also highlighted Budapest’s negative impact on press freedom in neighbouring countries with Hungarian minorities.

The conclusions of the Hungarian experts in the field (03.05.2021), namely Marius Dragomir – Manager of the Centre for Media, Data and Society/CMDS at the Central European University/CEU and Gabor Polyak – Associate Professor at the Institute for Communication and Media Studies, University of Pécs, are as follows:

– In Hungary, the government and the pro-government oligarch class control the majority of Hungarian media;

– in the run-up to the 2022 parliamentary elections, moves to take over the last independent media outlets in Hungary are expected;

– media pluralism can only be restored with EU intervention, otherwise the Hungarian model could spread to Central and Eastern Europe;

– journalists are banned from entering hospitals or interviewing doctors;

– in March 2020, an emergency government decree was issued to amend the Criminal Code in the wake of the coronavirus epidemic, providing for a prison sentence of 1 to 5 years or a fine if someone makes a false statement to hide the risk of contracting an epidemic disease. Thus, the very vague wording of the decree makes it possible to incriminate government critics;

– domestically, media source owners are often cited as some of the main culprits for the lack of press freedom in Hungary;

– the abolition of the Klubradio source and the takeover of the Index portal were seen as worrying developments for press freedom in Hungary;

– recently, there was a new regulation labelling the media sector as “strategic”, therefore all mergers and acquisitions in the media market must be approved in advance by the government.

Viktor Orbán’s media puppeteers

1. Mészáros Lőrinc – Orbán’s childhood friend who owns: Echo TV (pro-government national TV station), Világgazdaság/World Economy (economic daily), Nemzeti Sport/National Sport (sports tabloid), including 12 regional publications and numerous social magazines; 2. Habony Árpád – Orbán’s unofficial adviser, who owns: 888.hu (news portal), Ripost (tabloid), Lokál (tabloid); 3. Andy Vajna/ Vajna András György (deceased January 2019) – Hungarian-born American film producer, appointed as government commissioner of the Hungarian film industry, who owns: TV 2 (national TV station), Rádió 1 (national radio station), BORS (tabloid) and 2 regional newspapers; 4. Matolcsy Ádám – son of the current Governor of the Hungarian National Bank, politician Fidesz Matolcsy György, who owns the Origo.hu portal; 5. Mária Schmidt – historian and university lecturer, government commissioner, manager of the House of Terror Museum (containing testimonies of the Hungarian Holocaust), owns: Figyelő/Observer (shop publication); 6. Heinrich Pecina – Austrian businessman with connections in Fidesz circles, owns 3 regional newspapers; 7. Széles Gábor – businessman and one of the organizers of the peace marches, pro-Orbán, owns the Magyar Hírlap/Hungarian Newspaper; 8. Liszkay Gábor – managing director of Mészáros Lőrinc’s company Mediaworks, also owns the publication Magyar Idők (source here).

According to statistics provided by Mérték Média Monitor, a Hungarian media think tank and watchdog, the pro-Fidesz portfolio comprises 77.8% of the entire news and public affairs segment.

The army of government propaganda trolls

The “Alliance for the New Generation”/Szövetség az Új Nemzedékért Alapítvány Foundation was set up in 2012 by Péter Ágh, a Hungarian MP, who served as president of the Fidesz party’s youth organisation Fidelitas from 2009-2015. The objective of the foundation, posted on the community’s Facebook page entitled “Szövetség az Új Nemzedékért Alapítvány”, was” “Socialization of the young generation in order to become responsible for small and large Hungarian communities, for the preservation, transfer of Hungarian culture and protection of the environment, based on the idea of Christian solidarity, on a market economy based on fair competition and on a united European Hungarian nation“.

The Hungarian sources – https://media1.hu/; www.veszpresszo.hu/; https://magyarnarancs.hu; https://24.hu; https://kecsup.hu; https://168ora.hu; https://index.hu; https://444.hu; https://magyarhang.org; alfahir.hu; szegeder.hu; https://szeged.hu; https://merce.hu; https://nepszava.hu; https://boon.hu; https://hvg.hu; https://www.szoljon.hu/ 06.07.2019; https://fuggetlenhirek.info/ – have been circulating that the foundation has launched a “Scholarship Programme”/”Fúzió”/Fusion, which was started on 01.08.2019 and is aimed at “students committed to civic values”, who have been offered part-time jobs to write articles, engage in community activities and help organize events. Interestingly, the announcement of this programme states that the reason behind the establishment of the “Fusion” scholarship is to “provide an opportunity for young supporters of the current government to express their ideas online and offline on the most important questions and issues of Hungarian society”, while accepted participants are offered a monthly salary of 60,000 forints (about $200).

The source “Kolozsvári Szalonna“, referring to this scholarship programme (06.07.2019), specified that the aim of the Hungarian government is to create an army of trolls to spread its political messages. The requirements for this activity tend to support this suspicion as applicants are required to have excellent communication in writing and computer and internet use skills. The Hungarian source Media 1 described the members of this “Fúzió” student community as “occasional volunteer propagandists”.  

Of course, we cannot predict the real size of this group of propagandists, but from the list of 16 universities from which applicants can apply, it is likely that the number of these government trolls is significant. The universities involved are as follows: Budapesti Műszaki és Gazdaságtudományi Egyetem/ Budapest University of Technology and Economics; Budapesti Corvinus Egyetem/ Budapest Corvinus University; Pázmány Péter Katolikus Egyetem/ Pázmány Péter Catholic University; Budapesti Gazdasági Egyetem/ Budapest University of Economics; Eötvös Loránd Tudománányegyetem/ Eötvös Loránd University of Budapest; Nemzeti Közszolgálati Egyetem/ National University of Public Services; Pécsi Tudományegyetem/ University of Pécs; Szegedi Tudományegyetem/ University of Szeged; Debreceni Egyetem/ University of Debrecen; Széchenyi István Egyetem/ Széchenyi István University; Pannon Egyetem/ University of Pannonia; Miskolci Egyetem/ University of Miskolc; Szent István Egyetem/ Szent István University; Budapesti Metropolitan Egyetem/ Budapest Metropolitan University; Soproni Egyetem/ University of Sopron; Károli Gáspár Református Egyetem/ Károli Gáspár Reformed University.

This “Fúzió” scholarship programme is a unique one. Although it is unbelievable that Hungary, among the countries with governments engaged in trolling activities, would openly solicit applicants for this activity (certainly there have been government trolls before), yet so far, apparently, this activity has been carried out without financial records in the public records.

On 30.01.2018, the source https://444.hu/, under the headline “One of Fidesz’s Faceook soldiers told us what a virtual army he created”, presented a Fidesz troll, who gave details of how they receive instructions from party headquarters and how they have to record in Excel spreadsheets that they have fulfilled their quotas, but it appears from the material that these characters carried out unpaid work, apparently being party enthusiasts who wanted to spread the party’s creed and please politicians.

*C. Ioana is a graduate of the Master of Security Studies of the University of Bucharest and a LARICS expert on the Hungarian issue.