by Alexander Faludy
Friday, 23
July 2021
Explainer
10:58

Old surveillance habits die hard in Orbán’s Hungary

The Pegasus revelations shouldn't surprise us — Hungary is in love with spying
by Alexander Faludy

This week Budapest’s journalists were abuzz with the rumours that an ‘important announcement’ was to be made on Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s Facebook page.  Those who thought this would be an acknowledgment that the revelations from the Pegasus project about intensive surveillance of Hungary’s leading investigative journalists and civil rights lawyers merited a parliamentary enquiry were left disappointed.

Instead, Orbán announced that Hungary is to have a referendum on five questions relating to ‘the future of Hungarian children’. All relate to LGBT+ education — an issue of contention between Orbán and the EU.

The calling of the referendum is singular in that such polls have till now been impossible under the rolling state of public health emergency maintained (under different names) continuously since March last year.

This attempt to draw attention away from the Pegasus story marks an evolution of government strategy in previous days, which has been to suppress coverage of the story in state and Fidesz controlled media, and for ministers to deny awareness of such surveillance occurring when questioned by independent journalists.

Though remarkable in terms of its revelations about technical capacity (including the ability to compromise trusted apps like Signal) the disclosures from Pegasus are not so remarkable when looked at in the context of Fidesz’s history and shared psychology.

Although the founding members of the party in 1988 were a diverse lot, a shared characteristic of those who have endured or joined its leadership overtime are their close familial and personal ties to the apparatus of the Communist state and it’s culture of mass surveillance.

Many in Fidesz inner core were enthusiastic members and officials of KISZ — the Communist  Youth and Students Association — before the political wind began to change in 1988 with the ousting of János Kádár as party general secretary by the Reform Wing of the Communist party.

Fidesz founder member László Kövér, longtime close ally of Orbán’s and today Speaker of the Parliament, served as KISZ ’s secretary and later worked in the Sociological Research Department of the MSZMP (Communist Party) Central Committee — responsible for ‘mass observation’ of popular response to government policy.

Even more worryingly Sándor Pinter a generation older than the other Fidesz leaders, was a high flying police officer under the Communist system: has served as Minister of the Interior in every one of Orbán’s four governments from 1998 to the present.

László Varga is the father of Judit Varga, Minister of Justice, and the sole person in Hungary with the power to authorise wire tapping (with no judicial oversight). He served as officer in the Section III/II of the Hungary’s communist era internal security services with agent running responsibilities.

If the surveillance methods used by today’s Hungarian leaders recall those of a previous era, we should perhaps not be entirely surprised. Old habits die hard.

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