While it is widely believed and claimed that amendments made in 2009 to the Lithuanian Law on the Protection of Minors against the Detrimental Effect of Public Information are no longer actively applied to the LGBT community, we must remind ourselves the history of these amendments and how they affect the LGBT community’s freedom of speech and expression.
The Lithuanian Law on the Protection of Minors against the Detrimental Effect of Public Information was actually adopted in 2002, with the intention of establishing criteria for public information that negatively affects minors’ psychological health as well as their physical, mental and moral development, regulations on publicizing such content, and the rights, duties and responsibilities of those who prepare and propagate public information, journalists and their supervising institutions.
LGL’s executive director Vladimir Simonko recalls participating in a session of the Parliamentary Human Rights Committee to discuss amendments to the law, at which Parliament member Mantas Varaška, who served from 2008-2012, proposed including information “which promotes homosexual, bisexual or polygamous relationships” among the definition of information with a negative effect on minors. Whether it was a coincidence or not, a similar law was being considered at the same time in a legislative meeting in Saint Petersburg, Russia. Simonko got the impression that Lithuania’s Parliament “borrowed” provisions of the law adopted in Saint Petersburg, submitting them as amendments to the Lithuanian Law on the Protection of Minors against the Detrimental Effect of Public Information, which wasn’t met with any particular outrage in Lithuania. The law prohibiting “homosexual propaganda” went through in Saint Petersburg, later to be adopted at the federal level all over the Russian Federation.
These amendments, proposed by Parliament members Gintaras Songaila and Mantas Varaška, who both served from 2008-2012, were supported by Parliament in all plenary sessions. Representatives from LGL protested strongly against adopting these amendments, calling for support from various international institutions and organizations, but shifting the Parliament members’ homophobic convictions proved impossible.
After Parliament adopted these amendments defining information “which promotes homosexual, bisexual or polygamous relationships” as having a negative effect on minors’ psychological health as well as their physical, mental and moral development, the law was presented to be signed by Lithuania’s President at the time, Valdas Adamkus, who was soon to finish his term. Having received resolutions from European Parliament condemning the amendments, as well as statements from the European Commission, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, ILGA-Europe and ILGA-World, President Adamkus vetoed the amendments. Parliamentarians, on the other hand, ignored criticism from international institutions and rejected the President’s veto.
After Adamkus’ term ended, the law returned to the Presidency as one of the first tasks for newly elected President Dalia Grybauskaitė. During a press conference following her first official visit to Sweden, Grybauskaitė was criticized for the provisions of the law discriminating against the LGBT community. Swedish diplomats expressed their concern over the adoption of this law and how it could affect Lithuania, and urged the President to correct this law as soon as possible. Not long after, Grybauskaitė made a visit to European Parliament, where she was met with more questions from parliamentarians over the recently adopted law.
Upon returning to Lithuania, she also vetoed the law and formed a work group to improve its provisions. After a long period of deliberation, the work group, made up of representatives of various interest groups including the Lithuanian Bishops’ Conference, proceeded to “masterfully” rephrase the provision that had been internationally criticized. The work group suggested changing the reference to information “which promotes homosexual, bisexual or polygamous relationships” to information “which expresses contempt for family values, encourages the concept of entry into a marriage and creation of a family other than stipulated in the Constitution of the Republic of Lithuania and the Civil Code of the Republic of Lithuania”. The President accepted the amendments proposed by the work group, and when she was later questioned about the new provisions, argued that “homosexuality is not mentioned” within them. LGL’s executive director, on the other hand, asserted that in comparison with the first version, the law “didn’t change, but was just stated differently”.
Shortly thereafter, Lithuania joined the United Nations Universal Periodic Review and International Civil and Political Rights Pact. From the very first evaluations of Lithuania’s human rights situation, the country received constant remarks on its discrimination against the LGBT community under the Law on the Protection of Minors against the Detrimental Effect of Public Information. Simonko had the unique opportunity to participate in the first reading of Lithuania’s report to the International Civil and Political Rights Pact committee in Geneva, Switzerland. After presenting the report, Lithuania’s delegation received three consecutive remarks from Michael O’Flaherty, the current director of the Fundamental Rights Agency, on the effect of the Law on the Protection of Minors against the Detrimental Effect of Public Information on the Lithuanian LGBT community. The Lithuanian delegation, responding in Russian, swore that the law’s provisions “in no way discriminate against representatives of the LGBT community”. “At that time, we realized that as long as there had been no precedent case, we couldn’t prove that it in fact was directed at the LGBT community,” Simonko said.
It didn’t take long for that case to happen. In 2013, LGL prepared a social campaign inviting the public to participate in the quickly approaching Baltic Pride March for Equality, which would take place in Vilnius. The organization submitted the video clip to the national TV broadcaster LRT. LRT offered to air the clip with an “A” rating (intended only for adults) and only after 23:00, when the highest advertising fees are charged. Already embroiled in a tedious legal battle with Vilnius municipality over its permit to hold a march on Gediminas Prospect, LGL lacked the time or resources to take legal action against this discrimination. The organization appealed to the Office of the Inspector of Journalistic Ethics, complaining about LRT’s decision to censor the video clip showing the variety of Lithuania’s residents. Experts at the Office of the Inspector of Journalistic Ethics deemed one video clip suitable for general viewing, and the other, only for broadcast with an Adult rating.
In 2014, censorship got in the way again when LGL tried to get a promotional clip for its social campaign “Change it!” broadcast on TV. This time, representatives of the commercial channel TV3 were the ones who appealed to the Office of the Inspector of Journalistic Ethics for clarification on whether LGL’s clip violated the Law on the Protection of Minors against the Detrimental Effect of Public Information. Based on recommendations from the Office of the Inspector of Journalistic Ethics on the clip’s “harmfulness to minors”, the channel offered to air the clip between the hours of 23:00 and 6:00 with an “adult” rating. Finally the channel INFO TV dared to broadcast the clip, for which it later received the Media Voice Award at the National Equality and Diversity Awards.
On October 23rd, 2014, LGL appealed to Vilnius Administrative Court requesting that it annul the conclusions made by the Office of the Inspector of Journalistic Ethics. The news agency BNS reported on October 27th that the court decided not to review the Office’s ruling that the social campaign about LGBT people be restricted due to its negative effect on minors, pointing out that the conclusion was simply a recommendation.
On October 25th, LGL appealed to the European Commission about Lithuania’s failure to fulfill its obligations under EU law. In the official complaint prepared in collaboration with the LGBTI organization ILGA-Europe, it was stressed that Lithuania was in violation of the law on freedom of speech and expression enshrined in the EU contract, EU Charter of Fundamental Rights and Directive on Audiovisual Media Services.
The Office of the Inspector of Journalistic Ethics shortly thereafter ruled that Neringa Dangvydė’s fairytale book Amber Heart was harmful to children under the age of 14. The story of the case, which eventually made it to the Supreme Court, began at the beginning of 2014. While the Lithuanian University of Educational Sciences had initially published the book, it later ceased publication, calling the collection of fairytales “deliberate homosexualist propaganda”.
The Office of the Inspector of Journalistic Ethics branded the fairytales as harmful to children under the age of 14, and encouraging the formation of family structures other than those enshrined in the Lithuanian Constitution. The Administrative Court, upon reviewing an appeal on the verdict, declared that the statement provided by the Office was simply a recommendation and was not obligatory. Regardless, with the case having moved to District Court, LUES upheld the statement just made by the Office of The Inspector of Journalistic Ethics and ceased publication of Amber Heart on those grounds. The author dedicated herself to the legal battle, and her collection of fairytales was later published by four non-governmental organizations. The author remains involved in litigation – the case made its way to the Supreme Court, was remitted to be reassessed, and still has not come to an end.
“The fact that there is a law in Lithuania being used to restrict LGBT people’s freedom of expression and speech only worsens the atmosphere of intolerance towards LGBT people in the country and legally justifies discrimination against these people. Not long ago, the country’s primary online news portals began introducing windows requiring the reader to confirm that they’re legally an adult before accessing news related to LGBT human rights. This is equating any information about LGBT people as harmful to minors. The theology teachers who compared homosexuality to cannibalism and otherwise promoted homophobia in ethics lessons should also know this law well,” said LGL’s executive director Vladimir Simonko.
“It’s shocking that the responsible institutions in Lithuania are fundamentally disinterested in repealing a discriminatory law like the Law on the Protection of Minors against the Detrimental Effect of Public Information. Ever since the beginning of Lithuania’s participation in the United Nations Universal Periodic Review and the International Civil and Political Rights Pact, we’ve been having to answer for this law to the international human rights community every year. That’s the one recommendation that Lithuania specifically refuses to accept and insists that this law isn’t used for discrimination. If those provisions aren’t going to be applied in the future, why haven’t they been repealed? As long as this law remains in effect in Lithuania, LGBT human rights will remain a footnote in human rights discourse,” Simonko stated.
This article has been produced under the framework of the project “Promotion of democracy – independent information dissemination from the Human Rights perspective”, funded by Lithuania’s Development Cooperation Programme.