The president of the European Commission says the usage of spyware against journalists is "completely unacceptable" as outrage builds globally after a new report alleged several governments, including EU-member Hungary, used an Israeli program to hack the smartphones of journalists, government officials, and rights activists worldwide.
An investigation by 17 media organizations and the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP), released late on July 18 , has drawn links between the Israeli-based NSO Group, accused of supplying spyware to governments, and a leaked database of up to 50,000 phone numbers believed to have been identified as people of interest by clients of the company since 2016.
The NSO Group clients included the governments of Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Hungary, India, Indonesia, Kazakhstan, Mexico, Morocco, Rwanda, Saudi Arabia, Togo, and the United Arab Emirates, according to the report.
"What we could read so far, and this has to be verified, but if it is the case, it is completely unacceptable. Against any kind of rules we have in the European Union," von der Leyen said during a visit to Prague.
"Freedom of media, free press is one of the core values of the EU. It is completely unacceptable if this [hacking] were to be the case," she added.
NSO has denied any wrongdoing, saying its Pegasus software is intended for use against criminals and terrorists and is made available only to military, law enforcement, and intelligence agencies from countries with good human rights records.
The report is a stinging blow to Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who has been accused by the EU of flouting democracy with a series of laws seen as curtailing a free press and human rights.
A spokesperson for the Hungarian government previously denied knowledge of any data collection, while opposition lawmakers on July 19 demanded an inquiry into reports that Orban's right-wing government may have used the powerful malware to spy on critical journalists, politicians, and business figures.
Pegasus infects iPhones and Android devices to enable operators to record phone calls, access text messages, photos, e-mails, and passwords, track GPS data, and secretly activate microphones and cameras.
The report has sent a chill across the world by bolstering accusations that not just autocratic regimes but democratic governments, including India and Mexico, have used NSO Group's Pegasus spyware for political ends.
The investigation has identified more than 1,000 people spanning over 50 countries whose numbers were on the list, including more than 180 journalists from outlets such as CNN, The New York Times, and Al-Jazeera.
According to OCCRP, a consortium of investigative centers, media, and journalists operating in Eastern Europe, the Caucasus, Central Asia, and Central America, Azerbaijan appears to have acquired Pegasus to spy on hundreds of local activists and journalists, including RFE/RL reporters .
While there is "no definitive proof" that Baku is an NSO client or that the leaked numbers represent people selected for targeting, it said "a preponderance of evidence suggests that this is the case."
The OCCRP said that all but a few of the 245 Azerbaijani numbers identified belonged to journalists, activists, lawyers, and members of the country's opposition.
Among them were five current and former reporters for RFE/RL, including Khadija Ismayilova, the broadcaster's former Baku bureau chief and one of the country's most renowned investigative journalists.
Forensic analysis determined that Ismayilov's phone was ridden with traces of Pegasus software, OCCRP said.
"It is outrageous that in the 21st century, so many governments seek to block free expression and prevent journalists from providing objective news and information to their fellow citizens," RFE/RL President Jamie Fly said in a statement on July 19.
"RFE/RL strongly condemns this cowardly invasion of the privacy of working journalists. We have long highlighted the abusive practices of the Azerbaijani government against our Azerbaijani Service, Radio Azadliq. We call on the Azerbaijani government to stop blocking our website, halt its surveillance of our staff, and to cease its harassment of our former bureau chief Khadija Ismayilova," he added.
President Ilham Aliyev has turned Azerbaijan into one of the most repressive former Soviet states, cracking down hard on free media and the opposition during his nearly 20-year rule.
Critics have accused his authoritarian government of using a growing array of sophisticated surveillance technology to track members of the opposition and media.
Agnes Callamard, secretary-general of London-based Amnesty International, which was also involved in the project, said the investigation "lays bare how NSO's spyware is a weapon of choice for repressive governments seeking to silence journalists, attack activists and crush dissent, placing countless lives in peril."
The secretary-general of Reporters Without Borders, Christophe Deloire, said the revelations about the use of the Pegasus spyware "inspire disgust and a feeling of revolt given the extent of the surveillance and the targeting of journalists."