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Commission president describes use of NSO spyware against journalists as ‘completely unacceptable’

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Asked about the revelations of the use of spyware by governments to spy on opposition and critics, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen described the situation as “completely unacceptable”, adding that media freedom was an EU core value. 

A Paris-based investigative journalism outlet, Forbidden Stories, carried out an investigation, in co-operation with several newspapers on an Israeli company, NSO, which has sold military-grade spyware called ‘Pegasus’ to clients in more than 50 countries since 2016.

Forbidden Stories found that the company licensed spyware to governments to surveil critical NGOs, business people, journalists and opposition leaders. 

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Hungary

One of the governments identified is Hungary, where the technology has been used to monitor critical investigative journalists, city mayors from opposition parties and lawyers.

300 Hungarian targets were identified by Telex.hu including: four journalists (Direkt36, HVG.hu and one who has chosen to remain anonymous), a Hungarian photographer who collaborated with an American journalist covering the move by Russia’s International Investment Bank (IIB) to Budapest and the decision to grant immunity to the bank’s employees, and Zoltán Varga, owner of Central Media Group who has been critical of the government, among others.

While Telex.hu writes there is no clear proof that the Orbán government employed the software, accusations against the government are very strong given that NSO asserts that it only offers its services to national authorities.

Hungary

Hungary to hold referendum on LGBT issues by early 2022

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Demonstrators attend a protest against a law that bans LGBTQ content in schools and media at the Presidential Palace in Budapest, Hungary, June 16, 2021. REUTERS/Bernadett Szabo/File Photo

Hungary plans to hold a referendum on legislation that limits schools' teaching about homosexuality and transgender issues late this year or early next year, Prime Minister Viktor Orban's chief of staff has said, write Gergely Szakacs and Anita Komuves in Budapest and Gabriela Baczynska in Brussels.

Orban announced the referendum on Wednesday (21 July), stepping up a culture war with the European Union. Read more.

The European Commission last week began legal action over the measures, which have been included in amendments to education and child protection laws. If successful, Brussels could hold up funding for Hungary while the restrictions are maintained.

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"For Hungary, there are many more arguments in favour of European Union membership than against it. Joining the EU was the right decision, it was in our national interest and it remains to be the case," Gergely Gulyas, Orban's chief of staff, told a weekly news briefing.

But he said Hungary believed it had the right to comment on what he called "the rules of the club" and make decisions on its own on issues where it had not handed over authority to EU institutions.

Asked about the referendum, the EU Commission said it does not interfere with member states' chosen methods of policymaking, although it considered the Hungarian law discriminatory.

The measures, which have caused anxiety in the LGBT community, ban the use of materials seen as promoting homosexuality and gender change at schools, ostensibly as a measure to prevent child abuse.

Several civil rights groups have criticised Orban's reforms and a global survey last month by the Ipsos polling organisation found that 46% of Hungarians support same-sex marriage.

Gulyas said Hungary was still in talks with the Commission on its national pandemic recovery plan. But he added that the government would start pre-financing projects from the national budget.

The European Commission listed serious concerns about the rule of law in Poland and Hungary in a report on Tuesday that could help decide whether they receive billions of euro in EU funds to help recover from the pandemic. Read more.

Orban, who has been in power since 2010 and faces an election next April, portrays himself as a defender of traditional Christian values against Western liberalism.

He owes some of his electoral success to a hard line against immigration, but as that subject has ceased to dominate the agenda, he has nailed his colours to issues of gender and sexuality.

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EU lists rule of law concerns for Hungary, Poland, pivotal in releasing COVID funds

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The European Commission has listed serious concerns about the rule of law in Poland and Hungary in a report that could help decide whether they receive billions of euro in EU funds to help recover from the coronavirus pandemic, writes Jan Strupczewski.

The European Union's executive arm also gave Poland until Aug. 16 to comply with a ruling by the top EU court last week, ignored by Warsaw, that Poland's system for disciplining judges broke EU law and should be suspended. Read more.

If Poland does not comply, the commission would ask the EU court to impose financial sanctions on Warsaw, commission Vice President Vera Jourova told a news conference.

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The commission had already raised many of the concerns in a report last year but they may now have real consequences as Brussels has made access to its recovery fund of grants and loans worth a total 800 billion euros conditional on observing the rule of law.

The commission said Poland and Hungary were undermining media pluralism and court independence. They are the only two countries in the 27-member bloc under formal EU investigation for jeopardising the rule of law.

"The Commission may take into account the Rule of Law report ... when identifying and assessing breaches of the principles of the rule of law that affect the financial interests of the Union," the commission said in a statement.

Polish government spokesman Piotr Muller said on Twitter the government would analyse documents from the commission regarding the need for compliance with EU court rulings.

Hungarian Justice Minister Judit Varga said on Facebook the commission was blackmailing Hungary because of a child protection law which won't allow "LGBTQ-activists and any sexual propaganda into Hungarian kindergartens and schools".

The EU executive has already delayed its approval on 7.2 billion euros for Hungary in an attempt to win rule of law concessions from Prime Minister Viktor Orban's government and has not yet given the go-ahead for 23 billion euros in grants and 34 billion in cheap loans for Poland.

Jourova said she could not predict when money for Poland could be approved and noted Warsaw had first to convince the commission that it had a credible system of control and audit for spending EU money.

The report said Hungary had not followed the commission's request to strengthen judicial independence and that its anti-corruption strategy was too limited in scope.

In a decade in power, Orban has partly used billions of euros of state and EU funds to build a loyal business elite which includes some family members and close friends.

The commission cited persistent shortcomings in Hungarian political party financing and risks of clientelism and nepotism in high-level public administration.

Significant amounts of state advertising go to media supporting the government, while independent outlets and journalists face obstruction and intimidation, it said.

The report also expressed concern over the influence of Poland's nationalist ruling Law and Justice party (PiS) over the justice system.

It listed what it said were illegally made appointments and changes by PiS to the constitutional tribunal and other bodies, and Warsaw's rejection of EU court rulings binding for every member state.

The commission noted that the prosecutor general, responsible for tracking down state corruption, was at the same time Poland's justice minister and an active PiS politician.

Since last year, the professional environment for journalists in Poland has deteriorated because of "intimidating judicial proceedings, growing failure to protect journalists and violent actions during protests, including from police forces", it said.

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Hungary

Hungary plans referendum on child protection issues in battle with EU

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Demonstrators protest against Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban and the latest anti-LGBTQ law in Budapest, Hungary, June 14, 2021. REUTERS/Marton Monus/File Photo
Demonstrators protest against Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban and the latest anti-LGBTQ law in Budapest, Hungary, June 14, 2021. REUTERS/Marton Monus/File Photo

Hungary announced plans on Wednesday (21 July) to call a referendum on child protection issues to combat pressure from the European Union over legislation which the bloc says discriminates against LGBT people, write Gergely Szakacs and Anita Komuves, Reuters.

Stepping up a battle of cultures with the European Commission, Prime Minister Viktor Orban accused the EU executive of abusing its powers in challenging recent amendments to Hungary's education and child protection laws.

"The future of our children is at stake, so we cannot cede ground in this issue," he said in a Facebook video.

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The European Commission did not immediately comment on Orban's plan to hold a referendum.

The prime minister, who has been in power since 2010 and faces an election next April, portrays himself as a defender of traditional Christian values from Western liberalism and has stepped up a campaign against LGBT people.

An anti-LGBT law, which came into force this month, bans the use of materials seen as promoting homosexuality and gender change at schools. It has caused anxiety in the LGBT community and increased friction with the Commission.

Legal action launched by Brussels last week over the legislation could hold up EU funding for Budapest. read more

"In the past weeks, Brussels has clearly attacked Hungary over its child protection law. Hungarian laws do not permit sexual propaganda in kindergartens, schools, on television and in advertisements," Orban said.

He did not announce when the planned referendum would be held but said it would include five questions.

These would include asking Hungarians whether they support the holding of sexual orientation workshops in schools without their consent, or whether they believe gender reassignment procedures should be promoted among children.

Orban said the questions would also include whether content that could affect children's sexual orientation should be shown without any restrictions, or that gender reassignment procedures should be made available to children as well.

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