The European Parliament approved by a large majority the establishment of a commission of inquiry to shed light on the abuse of Pegasus and other digital surveillance tools against journalists, critical voices, and opposition figures in the countries of the European Union
On 10 March, the European Parliament in plenary session in Strasbourg decided to set up a commission of inquiry with the aim of clarifying the use within European borders of the Pegasus spyware and other surveillance software, used to spy hundreds of politicians, lawyers, activists, and journalists around the world.
The "Pegasus scandal", exposed in 2017 thanks to various investigations that identified infections in 45 countries and at least 36 users, made its way into the European agenda in the summer of 2021 thanks to the transnational investigation Pegasus Project , conducted by Forbidden Stories together with 16 international newspapers and with the technical assistance of Amnesty International. The investigation won the first edition of the "Daphne Caruana Galizia" journalism prize, established in June 2021 by the EU Parliament to commemorate the journalist killed in Malta in 2017.
The parliamentary commission will review existing national laws regulating the use of intrusive surveillance technologies, analyse technological and regulatory developments, and evaluate evidence on alleged abuse of Pegasus by European governments against opposition figures and independent press in EU countries.
In the text adopted by the European Parliament with a large majority (635 votes in favour, 36 against, and 20 abstentions), the findings of the Pegasus case are defined as "extremely alarming and seem to confirm the dangers of improper use of surveillance technology to undermine human rights and democracy".
The Pegasus Project investigation reveals the involvement of the governments of Hungary and Poland in the illegal use of spyware produced by the Israeli surveillance company NSO Group against journalists, human rights activists, and opposition politicians. Once installed on a smartphone, Pegasus is able to track communications in real time, extract data such as photos, messages, and e-mails, activate microphones and cameras, all without the owner's knowledge. According to the leaks analysed by the Guardian , Orbán's Hungary allegedly bought the software in 2017 and used it by infecting the cell phones of two independent reporters. Also according to the Guardian , the 50,000 telephone numbers potential targets of spyware include those of French President Emmanuel Macron and President of the European Council Charles Michel.
The issue has alarmed the European Parliament and opened a new chapter in the clash between Brussels and countries like Hungary and Poland over respect for the rule of law. In a hearing in the EP's Civil Liberties Committee on 1 February 2022, Hungarian journalist Szabolcs Panyi and Polish prosecutor Ewa Wrzosek, both targeted by software, told MEPs about their experience of being under surveillance.
Also the plenary debate of last February 15, during which MEPs discussed the most recent revelations on the use of Pegasus by European governments, led to the establishment of the parliamentary commission of inquiry. The EP asked the French Presidency, the Council, and the Commission what actions can be taken at EU level to prevent intrusive tools such as Pegasus from being illegally used for surveillance operations against opposition figures, journalists, and activists.
During the debate, German Birgit Sippel of the Socialists & Democrats group, in her role as guarantor of the treaties, invited the EU Commission to "stop hiding behind the excuse of the competences and responsibilities of national authorities", adding that “neither the Polish nor the Hungarian authorities will ever launch independent national fact-finding missions". It is not a problem of individual states – she added – but a European problem. Hence, according to Sippel, "the EU Parliament must intervene".
The urgency to clarify the use of Pegasus in the EU and to prepare regulatory tools is shared across the board by all political groups represented in the EP.
The European Data Protection Supervisor also spoke on the issue last February who, as part of an assessment of the risks posed by this type of surveillance technology, underlined that Pegasus can mean "unprecedented levels of intrusion that threaten the essence of the right to privacy”, as spyware of this type interferes with the most intimate aspects of our lives. In the preliminary assessment, the Supervisor believes that a ban on the development and dissemination of spyware such as Pegasus in the EU would be the most effective option to protect our fundamental rights and freedoms.
The establishment of the parliamentary commission of inquiry was promoted by the Renew Europe group of the MEPs of Macron's La République en Marche.
According to French MEP Stéphane Séjourné , president of Renew Europe, "the Pegasus scandal is not just an assault on individual freedoms, but an attack by autocratic regimes on the essence of European democracy: it is a very serious problem if software developed for surveillance of terrorists is used by governments against opposition politicians”.
For the next 12 months the commission will collect documents and testimonies and organise public hearings with selected experts and stakeholders. At the end of the work, a report and a series of recommendations addressed to national governments and the European Commission will be made public.
I membri della commissione d'inchiesta
During the plenary session on 24 March, the EP announced the composition of the commission of inquiry on the Pegasus case. The 38 members were chosen by the political groups according to their respective number of seats has in Parliament. Among the main ones, 10 belong to the European People's Party, 8 to the Socialists & Democrats, 6 to Renew Europe, 4 to the Greens. There are two Italians, Vuolo Lucia (PPE) and Cozzolino Andrea (S&D).
The EU Parliament has the power to establish special committees to deal with specific topics; the mandate is to investigate alleged violations or maladministration in the implementation of EU law.
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This publication has been produced within the DJAS project, supported in part by a grant from the Foundation Open Society Institute in cooperation with the OSIFE of the Open Society Foundations. The contents of this publication are the sole responsibility of Osservatorio Balcani Caucaso Transeuropa
This project has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under the Marie Skłodowska-Curie grant agreement No 765140
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