Faced with allegations that it used Israeli surveillance software to spy on journalists and members of Hungary's opposition, Viktor Orban's government on Wednesday turned to an old scapegoat, accusing Jewish philanthropist George Soros for fabricating the damaging reports.
According to an investigation by Paris-based journalism nonprofit Forbidden Stories and international human rights group Amnesty International, government clients of NSO Group, a notorious Israeli hacker-for-hire company, used the firm’s Pegasus spyware to target not only journalists, rights activists and opposition political figures around the world, but also people close to them.
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The Guardian, which was part of the Pegasus Project, alongside Haaretz and other media outlets around the world, said that "at least 10 lawyers, an opposition politician and at least five journalists" were among those under surveillance in Hungary.
In response, Zoltan Kovacs, a spokesman for Hungarian President Viktor Orban, appeared to claim that Soros, a Hungarian-American Jew and a Holocaust survivor, was behind the reports.
“@Amnesty International and @CitizenLab funded by Open Society, Soros. The Hungarian media partner on this 'broad coalition' of media outlets, @direkt36, also Soros funded. So, yes, let readers decide if this is objective & whether reporters are asking the right [questions],” he tweeted.
One of the Hungarian journalists targeted, according to Haaretz's report, was Szabolcs Panyi, an investigative reporter at Direkt36.
Magyar Nemzet, a government-linked news outlet, went even further, claiming that Direkt36 – which regularly publishes stories on the business dealings of Orban’s family and allies, as well as the business activities and interests of government and opposition politicians – is linked to U.S. intelligence.
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Forbidden Stories and Amnesty worked with a global media consortium – including Haaretz – and Citizen Lab, a University of Toronto-based watchdog group, to comb through a list of more than 50,000 cellphone numbers, identifying more than 1,000 individuals in 50 countries. They include 189 journalists, 85 human rights activists and several heads of state. Among the journalists were employees of The Associated Press, Reuters, CNN, The Wall Street Journal, Le Monde and The Financial Times.
The database of numbers represented a wish list of sorts from NSO’s clients rather than verified targets, but traces of NSO software were found in more than 85 percent of the analyses conducted by Amnesty International on iPhones that were used by potential victims across the world at the time of their number's selection.
In 2018, investigative journalist Andras Petho told the Associated Press that while Direkt36 is partly supported by Soros’s foundation, most of its funding comes from readers and crowdfunding efforts. The Open Society Foundation has donated to both Amnesty International and Citizen Lab.
In recent years, Orban has come under intense criticism from local Jewish groups for accusing Soros of masterminding a migrant “invasion” of the country, rhetoric that was later echoed by Trump when he warned of a migrant caravan coming up through Mexico to the United States.
According to the Anti-Defamation League, “Soros’s philanthropy often is recast as fodder for outsized conspiracy theories, including claims that he masterminds specific global plots or manipulates particular events to further his goals. Many of those conspiracy theories employ longstanding antisemitic myths, particularly the notion that rich and powerful Jews work behind the scenes, plotting to control countries and manipulate global events.”
JTA and the Associated Press contributed to this report.