Justice Ministry proposes broadening authority to conduct secret surveillance, even without probable cause

March 17, 2017

Hungary’s Ministry of Justice plans changes to laws which would allow law enforcement authorities to conduct secret surveillance on citizens, without any probable cause to suggest a crime had been committed, daily Magyar Nemzet reports. The package of modifications would allow authorities to conduct secret pre-investigations to search for evidence of possible crimes, without the need for establishing sufficient probable cause typically required before conducting such investigations.

“This is simply part of Hungary’s communist legacy,” a prominent jurist told the Budapest Beacon. “Using the state security apparatus’ techniques in a law enforcement capacity was how things were done before Hungary’s democratic transition. This rule of law issue from Hungary’s past seems to have carried over to today, and Hungary fails this test.”

But using the state’s law enforcement and security apparatus for political purposes – and without cause – has been practiced for so long by Hungarian governments that many Hungarians seem to have grown accustomed to it.

For instance, the government in 2014 launched investigations against NGOs tied to the Norway Civil Fund at the behest of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán. Prominent government officials levied accusation after accusation at the civil organizations, charging everything from unlawful political activities to stealing public funds. In those cases, Hungary’s law enforcement unlawfully seized private property to try and find even the smallest shred of evidence to underpin the government’s claims. All charges were eventually dropped.

Last June, the Eötvös Károly Institute, a Hungarian NGO dealing with democracy and public affairs, announced on Facebook that they had discovered a surveillance bug in their office. The NGO, run by former presidential nominee László Majtényi, announced the discovery shortly after Minister Overseeing the Office of the Prime Minister János Lázár (who is also the minister responsible for Hungary’s intelligence services) explained to the press that he had seen classified reports on NGOs which, like the Eötvös Károly Institute, were tied to financier George Soros.

Ironically, news that a bug had been found in the Eötvös Károly Institute’s office broke roughly a week after the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg ruled that the Hungarian state’s practice of clandestine snooping on citizens without judicial oversight violates their right to privacy.

According to Magyar Nemzet, the proposed modifications would also redefine the definition of “crime prevention.” Crime prevention is a term used to describe crime education and raising awareness about crimes with the help of civil society. According to the proposal, “crime prevention is hitherto defined as activities used to collect intelligence of criminal affairs which are not criminal acts, but criminal behavior that endanger Hungary’s social order.”