This and other questions were officially asked by the Latvian Association of Journalists to the new Minister of Internal Affairs, Rihards Kozlovskis (New Unity). Other questions included: if Pegasus is used, how often is it used, has Meduza editor Galina Timchenko been among the targets, are other journalists tracked and, who controls the validity of tracking?
Pegasus is a product of Israel's NSO Group, which insists that Pegasus is only sold to state-level security agencies. In the Timchenko case, Latvia, the country where independent Russian media outlet Meduza is based, has been named as a possible user of Pegasus, though according to Citizen Lab, there is no evidence of Latvia using Pegasus to spy outside of its borders. Timchenko's Latvian cellphone was believed to be infected while she was in Germany.
Until September 15 Māris Kučinskis (United List) was Minister of Internal Affairs, where he was responsible for supervising one of Latvia's three special services, the State Security Service (VDD) and Kučinskis also headed the ministry in February, when Timchenko's phone was allegedly hacked. In the previous Saeima, he headed the National Security Committee, which also oversees the secret services.
"The general questions [of the Association of Journalists] will of course be answered," Kučinskis told Rus.LSM.lv, emphasising that he did so only a in a personal capacity. "Is there such a program ["Pegasus"] in Latvia, we will have to answer about it. But for more details - I think there won't be more detailed answers, everyone protects such information."
"I can predict that the answer will be very general," smiles Kučinskis. "But if the [Journalists' Association] has a very specific question, it should be addressed to the prosecutor's office. They are the ones who can check it, they have all the rights and access. This access is closed to others."
To a general question, whether the Latvian services have Pegasus, Kučinskis answers: "It seems not. But I don't know exactly."
The press service of the Prosecutor's Office answers the same question by saying that it is a state secret: "The set of operational measures, means and tactics used by operatives is a state secret. The General Prosecutor's Office does not have any information to provide in connection with question about the use of Pegasus spyware."
"Maybe we should think about it, maybe we are too secretive about some things," believes Zane Mače, the president of the Association of Journalists (she signed the letter to the minister). For now, the association is patiently waiting for answers, for which the deadline set by the law has not yet expired.
Mače admits that there will be questions that will not receive detailed answers. But the association hopes that the answers, whatever they may be, will bring clarity to the question of whether the spy software was used illegally, uncoordinatedly, or in a manner inconsistent with the procedure established by the law.
In the case of journalists, it is about interference not only in personal life, but also in professional life - because in this profession, a journalist has the duty to protect his sources of information, reminds Mače.
"We have had historical examples when journalists were searched, endangering the safety of the journalist's sources. In this case (Timchenko's case) there may be analogous doubts."
"We believe that [it] is the responsibility of governments to investigate and make public all the known facts. After all, if the governments of Latvia, Estonia or Germany spend millions of dollars from their budgets to track world-renowned independent journalists and critics of the Putin regime, then the voters should know that," Natalija Krapiva, an expert of the international non-governmental organization Access Now, tells Rus.LSM.lv.
"This is a violation of human rights," Ivan Kolpakov, chief editor of Meduza, told Rus.LSM.lv, when it was confirmed that the phone of Meduza publisher Galina Timchenko was infected with the Pegasus program by the special services of an unknown state. A little later, three more journalists living in Latvia announced that they also received similar warnings from Apple about attempts to hack their phones. These cases are still being tested at the Canadian laboratory Citizen Lab.
The Office of the Ombudsman of Latvia does not comment on the specific case of Timchenko, but "generally" informed that the law does not provide immunity for a journalist against this type of tracking. However "courts of the [EU] member states must especially carefully evaluate the proportionality of procedural actions, respecting the obligation to protect the confidentiality of journalists' sources of information," said Juris Silchenko, legal advisor of the Office of the Ombudsman.
Who gives permission?
Who gives the Latvian special services or the police permission to access a phone without its owner noticing? Depending on the technical aspects of the investigative measures and the law to be used, this is done by an investigating judge, the president of the Supreme Court or a judge of the Supreme Court specially authorized by him (the so-called duty judge).
"Operational measures are initiated if there is substantiated information about a crime prepared or committed by a person or a threat to the security of the state or society caused by it, and in other ways it is impossible or it is significantly difficult to achieve the goals set by the law," says the relevant law cited by the prosecutor's office.
Covert technical tracking or eavesdropping is limited to three months, but can be extended if deemed justified. This is the procedure both when tracking drug dealers, for example, and when tracking is carried out in the event of a potential threat to national security.
But in practice, there have been several malfunctions of the system in Latvia, when the services obviously misused eavesdropping, access to data and interference in private life. Obvious examples are the well-publicised cases of several female journalists: Ilze Jaunalksne, Ilze Nagla, and Sanita Miķelsone.
In these cases, the problem is not at the level of legal norms, but in the application of the law, says lawyer and media law expert Linda Bīriņa to Rus.lsm.lv. She represented the interests of both Ilze Nagla and Sanita Miķelsone.
"The law enforcement officer, starting with the investigator and ending with the judge, is obliged to perform any procedural actions in compliance with both national and international human rights... in practice, the difficulties are caused by the fact that there are no special exceptions for journalists in the law, for example, as is the case with the control of lawyers' correspondence. Therefore, law enforcement authorities in Latvia often treat journalists in the same way as any private person. However, the special status of journalists in a democratic society provides for these exceptions, and the promoters of the process are already obliged to observe them," explains Bīriņa.
Supervision of the security services is one of the officially intended functions of the Parliament, more specifically - the National Security Committee of the Saeima. How does this monitoring work in practice? Here, a lot depends on the activity of the chairman, says former Saeima deputy Inese Voika (For!), who worked on this committee from June 2021 to November last year. Due to confidentiality rules, she avoids talking about the details of the commission's work, but agrees that MPs can consider the issue of possible wiretapping of journalists through the commission.
"This is an important issue for democracy, because the law protects, for example, the sources of information of journalists, and, in my opinion, such listening is allowed only in rare and very specific cases. I think that it is the duty of the deputies to make sure," she says.
Can deputies call the management of the special services to the committee and ask whether their institutions have anything to do with the infection of Timchenko's phone with Pegasus? They can, says Voika. Will they get a substantive answer? It depends on the case, Voika answers. She believes that it is still worth asking questions: "Yes, we are in war conditions, but there is a basis for questions, and answers must be sought. As far as the law allows."
Maris Kučinskis, who was the head of the National Security Commission from November 2018 to June 2022, says that he had a tradition of checking once a year whether all wiretapping conducted by special services had been authorized.
"There must be control by the Saeima. And the control is there. And the prosecutor's office can also check it all. Unauthorized listening is prohibited, this procedure is quite strict for us," Kučinskis believes.
If something unusual happens that raises suspicion, MPs can ask the General Prosecutor's Office to check it, says the politician, a former Prime Minister himself. According to him, while working in the committee, he did not discover any cases of illegal wiretapping,