Global Human Rights Defence

The Pegasus spyware scandal in Europe: a threat to free speech across the continent?

Elia Duran-Smith
European Human Rights Researcher

Keywords: human rights, Pegasus Spyware, NSO Group, freedom of speech, media freedom, intelligence


After winning the European Parliament’s inaugural Daphne Caruana Galizia prize for journalism, a renewed spotlight has been thrown on the findings of the consortium that revealed the alleged Pegasus spyware scandal.[1] This article provides an overview of the Pegasus spyware, the findings of the award-winning consortium in Europe and the subsequent actions being taken by European Union (EU) institutions and member states.

About Pegasus

The Pegasus software was created by the Israeli NSO Group. The consortium of 17 media outlets who covered this story claims that they received a leak suggesting the Pegasus software infected over 50,000 phones in 50 countries and has been used to target members of royal families, politicians, public officials, dissenting journalists, and human rights activists.

Reportedly, some of the highest-profile targets have been members of the Emirati royal family, French President Emmanuel Macron, European Council President Charles Michel, and Jamal Khashoggi, the Washington Post journalist who was murdered in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in 2018.[2] Nevertheless, the source of the leak is unknown. Moreover, many phones reportedly infected with the Pegasus spyware have had traces of the software but have not been confirmed as infected.[3] 

NSO has denied any wrongdoing and said the list of phone numbers found by the consortium was “not a list of Pegasus targets or potential targets. The numbers in the list are not related to NSO Group in any way.”[4] The firm maintains that the software is “not a mass surveillance technology”, and the intended purpose of the technology is to target “specific individuals” suspected of committing serious crimes such as terrorism and human trafficking.[5] However, who is deemed a ‘serious criminal’ and ‘terrorist’ is, of course, subjective; in some authoritarian states, dissent and free government scrutiny is seen as a danger to national security.[6] Therefore, in those states, journalists and human rights activists may be regarded as perfectly legitimate surveillance targets. Furthermore, those states have little, if any, judicial accountability for the actions of their intelligence agencies.[7]

NSO claims it is sold only to law enforcement, military and intelligence agencies whose human rights records have been vetted.[8] Additionally, the NSO Group asserted they only export their software with the consent of the Israeli government and abide by all the country’s procedures, but this has not been independently verified.[9] NSO also stated that it does not operate the systems and “does not have access to the data of its customers’ targets”.[10] They also affirmed that they would “continue to investigate all credible claims of misuse and take appropriate action.”[11] NSO has, in the past, terminated contracts of and revoked access to the Pegasus spyware to five clients since 2016 following investigations into its misuse.[12]

The software can infect iPhone and Android devices via texts, Whatsapp, iMessage and other unknown vulnerabilities. Information may be harvested by accessing emails, texts, photos and videos, contacts, Whatsapp chats, calendars and GPS data. The software can also reportedly record calls and activate phone cameras and microphones. In 2019, NSO was sued by Whatsapp, which claimed the Group was to blame for Pegasus infections on 1400 phones. Despite NSO denying these claims, NSO has been banned from the messaging app.[13]


Reportedly, more than 40 Azerbaijani journalists have been identified as targets of Pegasus surveillance, including those from the two of the few remaining independent media organisations in the country.[14] Azerbaijan’s independent news outlets have been targeted for decades, with the majority of independent news outlets now disbanded and families of journalists often facing harassment by national authorities. Human Rights Watch has stated that the right to criticise the government in Azerbaijan has been “virtually extinguished.”[15]


The phone numbers of at least five Hungarian journalists and opposition politician György Gémesi appeared on the leaked list.[16] The phones of investigative journalists Andras Szabo and Szabolcs Panyi were reportedly found to have been successfully infected with the spyware.[17] Panyi said this was “devastating” for the future of critical journalism in Hungary. He explained that “it’s every journalist who has been targeted’s concern that once it’s revealed you were surveilled and even our confidential messages could have been compromised, who the hell is going to talk to us in the future? Everyone will think that we’re toxic, that we’re a liability”.[18]

Hungarian law allows for the intelligence services to carry out surveillance in some cases with only the minister of justice’s signature and no judicial oversight for the purposes of protecting national security. Judit Varga, Hungarian justice minister, declined to comment on this story but did say “every country needs such tools.”[19] In August 2021, the Hungarian data protection authority announced it had commenced an official investigation into the allegations regarding the Hungarian government’s employment of the Pegasus spyware. Meanwhile, the Hungarian government stated it was “not aware of any alleged data collection.”[20]


Traces of Pegasus spyware were reportedly found in French President Emmanuel Macron’s phone, that of one of his diplomatic advisors, as well as those of at least five cabinet members. The alleged infections mainly occured in 2019 and, to a lesser extent, in 2020. French investigative media outlet Mediapart revealed this information came from anonymous leaks of forensic analyses conducted by France’s intelligence services and the Parisian public prosecutor. Neither the French government nor the public prosecutor’s office issued official statements or confirmed the spyware attacks. NSO has strongly denied that Macron was the target of a Pegasus infection and said French ministers “are not and have never been Pegasus targets.”[21]


In 2020, an investigation conducted by El País and the Guardian allegedly found that at least five members of the Catalan independence movement, including the speaker of the Catalan parliament, had been targeted using the Pegasus spyware.[22] Additionally, this year numerous Catalan MEPS and current and former leaders of the pro-independence Catalan government have requested an inquiry be set up to investigate what may be a “case of domestic political espionage” by the Spanish government.[23]

The EU’s response

The European parliament has made a statement acknowledging the findings of the journalistic consortium, saying the leak shows how this technology has been systematically abused for years.”[24] Additionally, the EU’s justice commissioner, Didier Reynders, told the European Parliament that the EU must promptly protect the rights of activists, journalists and politicians through legislative measures. He said the European Commission “totally condemned” reported attempts of illegal acquisitions of information on opposition figures by national intelligence agencies. He called for thorough investigations on invasions of privacy and for the prosecution of those found to be involved. Additionally, he stated the EU’s executive branch is closely following the Hungarian data protection authority’s investigation into the targeting of journalists and politicians with Pegasus spyware.[25]

Sophie In ‘t Veld, a leading member of the European Parliament’s Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs Committee, said she found the European Commission’s statement that it had never had any contact with the firm “hard to believe”. She announced an investigation into the use of Pegasus spyware within the EU had been established.[26]


The revelations of the reports on the alleged use of Pegasus spyware in Europe has demonstrated the international and complex nature of the contemporary cybersecurity landscape. The findings reveal that the vulnerabilities of digital security at the national and international levels are faced by those within the highest echelons of power in Europe. However, the implications for the security of journalists and human rights defenders may also present a dire challenge to hold those with the most power to account. It appears that the EU has acknowledged this. Still, it is unclear whether the EU will be able to tackle this issue both within and without its borders, especially if its own institutions are implicated in the employment of this surveillance software.


BBC News (2021, July 19). Pegasus: Spyware sold to governments targets activists.

Boffey, D. (2021a, September 15) EU commissioner calls for urgent action against Pegasus spyware. The Guardian.

Boffey, D. (2021b, October 14). Pegasus project consortium awarded EU prize for spyware revelations. The Guardian.

Corera, G. (2021, July 21). Pegasus scandal: Are we all becoming unknown spies? BBC News.

Hansen, Y. (2021, October 19). Government cannot verify Pegasus export claims. Luxembourg Times.

Henley, J. and Kirchgaessner, S. (2021, September 23). Spyware ‘found on phones of five french cabinet members’. The Guardian.

Jones, S. and Kirchgaessner, S. (2020, July 13). Phone of top Catalan politician ‘targeted by government-grade spyware’. The Guardian.

Rueckert, P. (2021, July 18). Pegasus: The new global weapon for silencing journalists. Forbidden Stories.


[1] Boffey, 2021b

[2] BBC News, 2021; Boffey, 2021b; Rueckert, 2021

[3] BBC News, 2021

[4] Boffey, 2021a

[5] Hansen, 2021; Rueckert, 2021

[6] Corera, 2021

[7] Corera, 2021

[8] Boffey, 2021b

[9] Hansen, 2021

[10] Boffey, 2021b

[11] BBC News, 2021

[12] Rueckert, 2021

[13] BBC News, 2021

[14] Rueckert, 2021

[15] Rueckert, 2021

[16] Boffey, 2021b

[17] BBC News, 2021

[18] Rueckert, 2021

[19] Boffey, 2021a

[20] BBC News, 2021; Boffey, 2021b

[21] Henley, 2021

[22] Jones and Kirchgaessner,, 2020

[23] Boffey, 2021a

[24] Boffey, 2021b

[25] Boffey, 2021a

[26] Boffey, 2021a

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Coordinator - Tibet Team

Mandakini graduated with honours from the Geneva Academy of International Humanitarian Law and Human Rights. Her team analyses the human rights violations faced by Tibetans through a legal lens.

Kenza Mena
Team Coordinator -China

Kenza Mena has expertise in international criminal law since she is currently pursuing a last-year Master’s degree in International Criminal Justice at Paris II Panthéon-Assas and obtained with honors cum laude an LLM in International and Transnational Criminal Law from the University of Amsterdam. She also holds a Bachelor’s degree in French and Anglo-American law. 

Since September 2021, she has been the coordinator of Team China at GHRD, a country where violations of human rights, even international crimes, are frequently perpetrated by representatives of the State. Within Team China, awareness is also raised on discrimination that Chinese women and minorities in the country and, more generally, Chinese people around the world are facing.

Kenza believes that the primary key step to tackle atrocities perpetrated around the world is advocacy and promotion of human rights.

Aimilina Sarafi
Pakistan Coordinator

Aimilina Sarafi holds a Bachelor’s degree cum laude in International Relations and Organisations from Leiden University and is currently pursuing a Double Legal Master’s degree (LLM) in Public International Law and International Criminal Law at the University of Amsterdam.
She is an active advocate for the human rights of all peoples in her community and is passionate about creating a better world for future generations. Aimilina is the coordinator for the GHRD team of Pakistan, in which human rights violations of minority communities in Pakistan are investigated and legally evaluated based on international human rights legal standards.
Her team is working on raising awareness on the plight of minority communities such as women, children, religious and ethnic minorities within Pakistan.

Lukas Mitidieri
Coordinator & Head Researcher- Bangladesh

Lucas Mitidieri is currently pursuing his bachelor’s degree in International Relations at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ). As the GHRD Bangladesh Team Coordinator, he advocates for human rights and monitors violations across all minorities and marginalized groups in Bangladesh. Lucas believes that the fight for International Human Rights is the key to a world with better social justice and greater equality.

Nicole Hutchinson
Editorial Team Lead

Nicole has an MSc in International Development Studies with a focus on migration. She is passionate about promoting human rights and fighting poverty through advocacy and empowering human choice. Nicole believes that even the simplest social justice efforts, when properly nurtured, can bring about radical and positive change worldwide.

Gabriela Johannen
Coordinator & Head Researcher – India

Gabriela Johannen is a lawyer admitted to the German bar and holds extensive knowledge in the fields of human rights, refugee law, and international law. After working for various courts and law firms in her home country, she decided to obtain an LL.M. degree from Utrecht University where she studied Public International Law with a special focus on Human Rights. Additionally, while working as a pro-bono legal advisor for refugees, she expanded her knowledge in the fields of refugee law and migration.

Gabriela is the coordinator and head researcher for GHRD India, a country, she has had a personal connection with since childhood. Her primary focus is to raise awareness for the severe human rights violations against minorities and marginalized groups that continue to occur on a daily basis in India. By emphasizing the happenings and educating the general public, she hopes to create a better world for future generations.

João Victor
Coordinator & Head Researcher – International Justice

João Victor is a young Brazilian lawyer who leads our team of International Justice and Human Rights. He holds a Bachelor’s degree in Law from the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil and possesses over 5 years of experience in dealing with Human Rights and International Law issues both in Brazil and internationally, including the protection of refugees’ rights and the strengthening of accountability measures against torture crimes.

João has an extensive research engagement with subjects related to International Justice in general, and more specifically with the study of the jurisprudence of Human Rights Courts regarding the rise of populist and anti-terrorist measures taken by national governments. He is also interested in the different impacts that new technologies may provoke on the maintenance of Human Rights online, and how enforcing the due diligence rules among private technology companies might secure these rights against gross Human Rights violations.

Célinne Bodinger
Environment and Human Rights Coordinator

As the Environment and Human Rights Coordinator, Célinne is passionate about the health of our planet and every life on it.

Angela Roncetti
Team Coordinator and Head Researcher- South America

Angela holds a Bachelor of Laws (LL.B) from Vitória Law School (FDV) in Brazil. Her research combines more than five years of experience conducting debates and studies on the rights of homeless people, the elderly, children, and refugees. Besides that, she also volunteers in a social project called Sou Diferente (I am Different in English), where she coordinates and takes part in actions aimed at the assistance and the emancipation of vulnerable groups in the cities of the metropolitan area of Espírito Santo state (Brazil).

Lina Borchardt
Team Head (Promotions)

She is currently heading the Promotions Team and University Chapter of Global Human Rights Defence. Her background is the one of European and International Law, which I am studying in The Hague. She has previously gained experience at Women´s Rights organizations in Germany, the Netherlands and Turkey over the past years.
She has been working for Global Human Rights Defence in the Netherlands since 2020. Her focus now is concentrated on the Human Rights and Minorities Film Festival and the cooperation of GHRD with students across the country.

Pedro Ivo Oliveira
Team Coordinator and Researcher

Pedro holds an extensive background in Human Rights, especially in Global Health, LGBTQ+ issues, and HIV and AIDS. He is currently finishing his Bachelor’s Degree in International Relations and Affairs at the Pontifical Catholic University of Minas Gerais, Brazil. Moreover, he successfully attended the Bilingual Summer School in Human Rights Education promoted by the Federal University of Minas Gerais and the Association of Universities of the Montevideo Group. Besides, Pedro Ivo has a diversified professional background, collecting experiences in many NGOs and projects.

With outstanding leadership abilities, in 2021, Pedro Ivo was the Secretary-General of the 22nd edition of the biggest UN Model in Latin America: the MINIONU. Fluent in Portuguese, English, and Spanish, Pedro Ivo is the Team Coordinator and Head Researcher of the Team Africa at Global Human Rights Defence. Hence, his focus is to empower his team from many parts of the world about the Human Rights Situation in the African continent, meanwhile having a humanized approach.

Alessandro Cosmo
GHRD Youth Ambassador
(European Union)

Alessandro Cosmo obtained his B.A. with Honors from Leiden University College where he studied International Law with a minor in Social and Business Entrepreneurship. He is currently pursuing an LL.M. in Public International Law at Utrecht University with a specialization in Conflict and Security. 
As GHRD’s E.U. Youth Ambassador, Alessandro’s two main focuses are to broaden the Defence’s reach within E.U. institutions and political parties, as well as mediate relations between human rights organizations abroad seeking European funding. 
Alessandro believes that human rights advocacy requires grass-roots initiatives where victims’ voices are amplified and not paraphrased or spoken for. He will therefore act on this agenda when representing Global Human Rights Defence domestically and abroad

Veronica Delgado
Team Coordinator and Researcher- Japan, Sri Lanka & Tibet

Veronica is a Colombian lawyer who leads our team of Japan, Sri Lanka and Tibet. She holds a master’s degree in Public International Law from Utrecht University. She has experience in Colombian law firms. Here she represented clients before constitutional courts. She also outlined legal concepts to state entities such as the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ombudsman’s Office on international law issues.

Veronica has an extensive research background with subjects related to public international law. She worked as an assistant researcher for more than two years for the Externado University of Colombia. Here she undertook in-depth research on constitutional, business, and human rights law issues. She was involved with consultancy services with the Colombian Army regarding transitional justice. 

Wiktoria Walczyk
Coordinator & Head Researcher (Nepal & Indonesia)

Wiktoria Walczyk has joined GHRD in June 2020 as a legal intern. She is currently coordinator and head researcher of Team Nepal and Indonesia. She has an extensive legal knowledge concerning international human rights and is passionate about children’s and minorities’ rights. Wiktoria has obtained her LL.B. in International & European Law and she specialised in Public International Law & Human Rights at The Hague University of Applied Sciences in the Netherlands. Moreover, she is pursuing her LL.M. in International & European Law and focusing on Modern Human Rights Law specialisation at the University of Wroclaw in Poland. In order to gain an essential legal experience, Wiktoria has also joined Credit Suisse’s 2021 General Counsel Graduate First Program where she is conducting her legal training and discovering the banking world. She would like to make a significant impact when it comes to the protection of fundamental human rights around the world, especially with regard to child labour. 

Fairuz Sewbaks
Coordinator and Head Researcher

Fairuz Sewbaks holds extensive legal knowledge regarding international human rights, with a specific focus on human rights dealings taking place in continental Africa. She holds a bachelor’s degree from The Hague University in public international law and international human rights and successfully followed advanced human rights courses at the Centre for Human Rights, University of Pretoria. She furthermore participated in the Istanbul Summer School where she was educated about the role of epidemics and pandemics in light of human rights.


Fairuz is the coordinator and head researcher for GHRD Africa. Her primary focus is to establish and coordinate long-term research projects regarding the differentiating human rights dealings of vulnerable and marginalized groups in continental Africa, as well as conducting individual research projects.

Priya Lachmansingh
Coordinator and Head Researcher, Political Advisor
(Asia & America)

Priya Lachmansingh is currently pursuing her bachelor’s degree in International & European
Law at the Hague University of Applied Science.
As GHRD’s Asia & America human rights coordinator and GHRD Political Advisor, Priya’s
prominent focus is to highlight human rights violations targeted against minority and
marginalized groups in Asia and America and to broaden GHRD reach within Dutch political
parties and as well seek domestic funding.

Jasmann Chatwal
Team Coordinator & Head Coordinator: North America

Jasmann is a political science student at Leiden University who joined GHRD in May 2021 as an intern in team Pakistan. Now, she is the team coordinator for North America and is responsible for coordinating the documentation of human rights violations in USA, Canada, and America.