Hungary has attracted criticism from the EU and some officials in Lithuania for passing a law that will arguably limit information about LGBTQ+ people. But Lithuania has had a similar law for 11 years.
EU Council has criticised Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban for adopting a law, purportedly intended to protect minors from abuse, that bans the “promotion of homosexuality” to under-18s. The law also says that only government-approved instructors are allowed to teach sex education in schools.
Before the European Council’s meeting last month, 17 EU leaders signed a letter deploring “threats against fundamental rights and in particular the principle of non-discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation”.
However, Lithuanian president Gitanas Nausėda refused to sign the letter and asked to withhold judgement for Hungary.
While the Hungarian law is under fire, human rights activists point out that Lithuania adopted a similar act over a decade ago.
The law against promotion of homosexuality
The law adopted in Hungary bans the “promotion of homosexuality” aimed at under-18s. However, the Hungarian president has yet to sign the law.
According to the act, only government-approved instructors are allowed to teach sex education in schools. The law is said to be directed at “organisations representing individuals of particular sexual orientations”.
The law also bans LGBTQ+ themes in films and TV series aimed at under-18s, The Guardian reports.
Hungary’s act has been compared to the Russian law “against gay propaganda”, adopted in 2013. The act incited further discrimination and acts of violence against LGBTQ+ people in Russia, according to independent observers.
Critics of the Hungarian law also point out that its final draft contains amendments that conflate paedophilia with homosexuality.
The Lithuanian equivalent
Parliament Speaker Viktorija Čmilytė-Nielsen stated that the Hungarian law posed a threat to human rights.
“Prohibiting information on issues relevant to sexual minorities is equal to pushing this topic to the sidelines. This should worry anyone who respects the values of the EU, human rights, tolerance, the principle of non-discrimination,” said Čmilytė-Nielsen.
By adopting this law, Orban continues to take democratic rights and freedoms away from Hungary, states the Lithuanian Human Rights Centre.
In 2009, Lithuania passed a similar act restricting LGBTQ+ themes, the Law on the Protection of Minors from Negative Public Information. One of the articles says that minors should not be exposed to information that “degrade family values” and promote conceptions of marriage and family “other than those established in the constitution”.
The law has been used to block ads for LGBTQ+ pride events from being aired on TV before 23:00, including advertisements for Baltic Pride, or a promotional video for a social campaign titled KEISK (Change). Moreover, ads with LGBTQ+ references had to be labeled as adult content.
In 2014, the Inspector of Journalist Ethics concluded that a Lithuanian fairy tale book Amber Heart (Gintarinė Širdis) by Neringa Dangvydė was harmful to minors, because it contained a story about a romantic relationship between two princes.
The Lithuanian University of Educational Sciences that had published the book removed it from bookstores and proclaimed it to be “harmful, primitive and purposeful propaganda of homosexuality”.
An outdated article
Although the Lithuanian law does not mention homosexuality, initially it was worded similarly to the Hungarian act, says Jūratė Juškaitė, the head of communications at the Lithuanian Centre for Human Rights. The article said minors were harmed by public information that promoted “homosexual, bisexual and polygamous relations”.
After outcry from international institutions and domestic rights groups, the article was changed to refer to LGBTQ+ content indirectly.
“We need to keep in mind that the aim of the article was to limit positive information about LGBT people,” says Tomas Vytautas Raskevičius, a former rights activist and now the chairman of the Human Rights Committee in the parliament.
The Lithuanian Constitution explicitly states that marriage is only allowed between a man and a woman. However, the Constitutional Court has ruled that marriage and family are not the same, and the legal definition of family includes single parents, grandparents, and same-sex couples. This leaves the Protection of Minors law purposeless, says Juškaitė.
However, in 2019, a documentary film Colours. Gay Dads. (Spalvos. Gėjai Tėčiai) about two homosexual couples was reported to the Radio and Television Commission (LRTK) as violating the law. The claims were dismissed.
There were cases when the law was used to censor certain information, says Raskevičius, though the anti-LGBTQ+ article was last applied in 2014.
“The article is a part of the law on protecting minors from negative public information. The Inspector of Journalist Ethics can apply this law and make decisions on censorship, [...] there are, however, no administrative or criminal penalties,” he explained.
The very existence of the article means that “authors can still be dragged through courts under the argument that what they wrote degrades family values or promotes conceptions of marriage and family other than those established in the constitution”, says Juškaitė.
“The law has been in effect for a decade now, so authors, teachers and other professionals have heard of the law. This creates an atmosphere of censorship – you can never be sure if someone won’t start complaining.”
Therefore, authors censor their own work out of fear of being taken to court, says Juškaitė.
Lithuania has been taken to the European Court of Human Rights over this article. Raskevičius hopes that if Lithuania loses the case, the law will be changed.
According to Simonas Bartulis, an academic and LGBTQ+ rights activist, Lithuania is hypocritical for condemning Hungary, while having a similar law in effect for 11 years.
“The law on protecting minors from negative public information was passed in 2009, and approved by the majority in the parliament. Some of the current MPs and MEPs voted for it as well,” says Bartulis.
Even though the law does not explicitly mention homosexuality or bisexuality, “concealed homophobia still means censorship on a national, legal level”.
Bartulis points out that the law led to books, TV shows, ads and series being censored, and forced authors to censor their own work.
“It’s easier to point fingers at others, [...] rather than accept that we ourselves are rotten,” he says.
While Lithuania should show support for LGBTQ+ people in Hungary, the Lithuanian parliament should also amend its own law, says Bartulis.
A problem of education
The law was adopted “out of homophobia and nothing else”, says MP Artūras Žukauskas, chairman of the Committee on Education and Science.
The liberal politician points out that the law prevents access to information.
“I think that this is the situation when children already know everything, just from wrong sources. It’s the same as finding out where children come from: it would be better if they learned about it through civilised means, through the education system.”
Žukauskas blames Lithuania’s censorship of LGBTQ+ information on the lack of education and maturity.
“Just like the [same-sex civil] partnership law, this is a measure of how civilised we are,” Žukauskas says. “It will happen sooner or later, but we will be seen as more backwards, the later it happens.”
The Committee on Education and Science has not received any complaints for violations of the law. However, Žukauskas finds it crucial to cooperate with other committees, such as the Human Rights Committee.
Complaints are rare
Under the Hungarian law, information promoting LGBTQ+ is banned, while in Lithuania it is restricted, Gražina Ramanauskaitė, the Inspector of Journalist Ethics, said to LRT.lt.
The inspector added that complaints about violations of the law on protecting minors from negative public information are rare.
“The recommendation about Amber Heart was issued in 2014. There are no updates, the legislature did not register any amendments yet.”