Hungary’s biggest book retailer considers removing all books with LGBTQ-related content from dozens of its stores due to anti-gay law

July 20. 2023. – 03:28 PM


Hungary’s biggest book retailer considers removing all books with LGBTQ-related content from dozens of its stores due to anti-gay law
Wrapped books on sale at Libri on 11 July 2023 – Photo: Bernadett Szabó / Reuters


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Many may have thought that the most drastic step Hungarian bookstores would be forced to take because of the anti-gay law was to wrap books with LGBTQ+-related content in transparent foil or move them from the youth section to another section. However, it is becoming increasingly clear that, as harsh as it may sound, this is just the softer side of the law's requirements. There is a real chance of many Hungarian bookshops completely removing all books that depict homosexuality in any way.

Telex has obtained a list indicating that Hungary's biggest bookseller, Libri, has checked which of its bookstores may no longer sell these publications under the law. According to the law, if there is an educational or religious institution within 200 metres of a bookstore, it cannot sell any books containing LGBTQ+ content, regardless of whether they are for youth or adults, even if they are wrapped in transparent foil.

It's not yet clear whether – following the consumer protection fine they received -, Libri will actually decide to comply with the law. If they do, then according to the list they have assembled, they will have to completely remove all books with LGBTQ+-related content from around half of their bookstores, some 30 units.

This would make these books disappear from the Libri stores located in the busiest areas around the country. The affected shops are in Budapest and major rural towns, all located in urban centres, shopping malls, and near traffic hubs, so they are likely to be extremely well-frequented, with lots of people going there to buy books.

The relevant part of the legislation reads: “No product portraying a deviation from the identity of one's gender at birth, gender change, or self-serving sexual content, as well as products depicting or promoting homosexuality may be distributed within 200 metres of an entrance to an educational institution, child and youth protection institution, church or other place of worship.”

Actors in the book market are faced with an essentially impossible task if the section on 'portrayal of sexuality for its own sake' is to be taken seriously. In that case, they would have to remove a huge amount of world literature from their shops which are affected by the 200-metre rule.

Judging by its fining practices so far, the government-controlled Consumer Protection Authority (CPA) doesn't seem to be sensitive to this part of the law, but rather to 'homosexual content'.

Most Hungarian bookshops are located within 200 metres of a church or school

Several book market experts had previously thought the 200-metre rule would mainly apply to bookshops in smaller, rural towns. However, following fines from the CPA, book distributors have launched internal investigations to assess which of their shops should eliminate certain content under the 200m rule.

Libri's list, intended for internal use, suggests that much bigger stores with a more significant turnover are also affected.

The list we have obtained includes around 30 Libri book stores located near churches or schools. At this point it's unclear whether the list will be extended or if shops might be removed from it for some reason.

We also don't know whether the 30 shops on the list will actually remove the books affected from their shelves. Based on information we have received from Libri's inner circles, they are indeed preparing to do so and this would happen in the near future. We have, of course, asked Libri whether this will be the case, whether the books with LGBTQ+-related content will actually have to disappear from the shops concerned, but they have evaded our questions and have not given us a precise answer.

The list is clearly valid though, given that next to the names and addresses of the bookshops, the database also includes the names of the religious or educational institutions within 200 metres, along with the specific distance in each case.

The following are the bookshops on Libri's list intended for internal use (click to open the full list):

The affected bookstores on a map:

In Budapest, for example, these are bookstores located at busy intersections, sometimes in malls. These include, for example, the bookstores located at Móricz Zsigmond körtér, Nyugati tér, Flórián tér, Hűvösvölgy, Örs Vezér tér and the particularly large store between Astoria and Blaha.

In case of the latter, (Rákóczi úti Könyvpalota) for example, the database states that the Beth Menachem Hebrew-Hungarian Bilingual Primary School is 161 metres away and the Dohány Street Synagogue is located 206 metres away. St. Joseph's Church is 140 metres from the Libri store on Flórián tér, while the shop at Nyugati tér is 160 metres from the offices of the Child Welfare Services (Együtt a Gyermekekért Gyermekjóléti Szolgálat), the chart states.

The situation is similar in bigger rural towns and county seats. The Pécs bookstore, for example, is 200 metres away from a church and a relic shop. In Békéscsaba, at the Csaba Center bookstore, there is a building of the Seventh-day Adventist church 94 metres away. Székesfehérvár's Alba Plaza is similarly close to several schools. These are only some of the examples, but there really are religious or educational institutions in the vicinity of the bookstores almost everywhere.

Based on the database we received, it does indeed seem that if Libri doesn't remove all books with LGBTQ-related content from the bookshops concerned, it will be up to the will and mercy of the consumer protection authorities operating under the county government commissioners, whether the book companies will be fined. Because according to the law, they can be.

According to Libri's website, the company seems to have a total of 56 stores across Hungary,

which means that if such books were to be removed from all of the nearly 30 bookstores on the list, then about half of all Libri stores would soon be devoid of any books with LGBTQ+-related content.

As the company – according to its website – only has a single store in a number of rural towns, there is a real chance that in several rural towns there will no longer be any such books available in the local Libri at all.

We also contacted Libri about the spreadsheet we received. We asked them to confirm whether all books depicting homosexuality or anything else that is prohibited by the law would really have to be removed from these Libri bookshops under the provisions of the law. We also asked them to inform us if the list was incomplete and if further shops might be affected. We also wanted to know how many Libri bookstores in total will have to remove all books covered by the law in the near future, and we asked if a decision had been taken on when, if ever, these books would be removed.

We haven't received a reply to any of these questions. Instead, they wrote:

“The statutory definition remains unclear on several points and we are unable to provide a meaningful answer as to how exactly this part of the law should be interpreted. The Association of Hungarian Publishers and Book Distributors, of which Libri Group is a member, is awaiting clarification from the legislator as to which books are subject to the law and in what way. We will continue to consult with publishers on issues of content, i.e. about which volumes may be affected by the law, and we will work with them towards a solution.”

We also sent questions to the consumer protection department of the Budapest Government Office, headed by County Government Commissioner Botond Sára of Fidesz, to find out whether they have already audited bookshops to verify they are complying with the anti-gay child protection law, which prohibits books depicting homosexuality, sexuality for its own sake or other things prohibited by the law from being sold within 200 metres of churches and schools. Just as in the case of our previous article, we have not received a reply from them.

Smaller retailers may be forced to do the same

We also contacted Líra to find out how many of their stores could be affected by the 200-metre rule. There are 83 Líra bookstores in the country, and Krisztián Nyáry, the company's Creative Director, told Telex that it is possible that even a bigger percentage of their bookstores, more than half of them, could be within 200 metres of a church or school.

“A significant number of our stores are located in the centre of rural towns, where the typical urban structure is to have all these buildings close together.”

He says that the part of the law relating to the 200-metre radius is the least feasible – which is what Libri may also have been referring to – because according to the regulation, these shops cannot sell such products to adults either. And if we also add the clause that, according to the law, books with 'self-serving sexual content' cannot be distributed in these shops, then the vast majority of world literature would have to be removed from stock. Líra says that since the law is impossible to implement (because no one can seriously expect half of the books to be removed from the shops), they are now trying to use the authority's penal practice as a guide to see what books may be considered objectionable.

The two consumer protection fines issued so far have been for books with LGBTQ+-related content: one for Libri and one for Líra. "If this remains the case in the future, then the legislator is being selective in implementing its own law," Nyáry said. In other words, this would be the case if fines were only imposed over books with LGBTQ+related content, but the rules on "self-serving sexual content" were not enforced.

But Nyáry said it was not exactly clear which part of the law they were being fined for.

"So far there is no penalty for Sappho, but nobody knows if there will be one tomorrow."

- he said, referring to the ancient Greek poetess's passionate poems to women.

The practice of fining isn't clear either

At this stage, Nyári couldn't say whether Líra was preparing to take similar action as Libri. Their lawyers are currently examining the justification for their HUF 12 million fine, and deciding on how to proceed will require some time. For now, they aren't even wrapping their books in foil.

We also asked him what the reason might be for Libri being fined HUF 1 million and Líra HUF 12 million, but he doesn't know why there is such a difference. In its justification of the fine, the authority cited the fact that Líra has many shops. While it is true that Líra has more bookstores than Libri, considering the number of books sold and the revenue, Libri is two to three times bigger than Líra. Roughly half of the domestic book market belongs to Libri, a quarter to Lira, and the remaining quarter is shared by other, smaller companies.

It is also interesting to note that the government-affiliated MCC recently acquired a majority stake in Libri, the company that received the much smaller fine, although we understand that the fine was imposed before MCC's acquisition of the majority stake was fully finalised. At the time of receiving the fine, the institution – also known as Fidesz' training centre – was still only a minority shareholder in the chain. Líra, which received a fine twelve times bigger, is owned by Hungarians but is not affiliated with the governing parties.

Thus, Fidesz's main training base, MCC, which has been endowed with a massive amount of public funds, became the majority owner of Libri. Books on the 'gender madness', published by MCC Press, already started popping up in Libri bookstores while MCC was still only a minority owner. When they recently became majority shareholders, MCC's director said that they would not be changing the selection of books or the management team.

In recent weeks, Libri has contacted a number of publishers to find out whether they think their books comply with the so-called "child protection" law, which is in fact anti-gay. One reason for doing this is that they are indeed less likely to know which of the tens of thousands of books in their shops include content that could be challenged by the authorities under the law adopted two years ago.

According to our information, a major book distributor has also reached out to the publisher about one of the books in the Harry Potter series, asking for a statement on whether it contains homosexuality, because if it does, it will have to be taken off the shelves of the youth section.

So in shops which are not located within 200 metres of a religious or educational institution, books with LGBTQ+-related content will also have to be moved from the youth section to another category and/or covered with a film.

However, if you see a wrapped book in a bookstore, it’s not for sure that it was wrapped because of this law. Book stores sometimes wrap the most fragile and extremely expensive volumes in transparent foil.

Not only is the propagation of homosexuality forbidden, so is presenting it

In 2021, an amendment on sexual minorities was retroactively inserted into a law that essentially deals with paedophile sexual offenders. The law states that receiving information about different sexual orientations before the age of 18 is dangerous for a child’s development.

There is clear evidence from scientific research however, that sex education, quality books and literature play an important role in helping children who may be just realising that they are attracted to their own sex to accept themselves and not to commit suicide, for example. The vast majority of scientists argue that these things do not make people who have no such inclinations gay, but can provide valuable support for those who do.

The 28th Budapest Pride parade took place on Saturday, attracting 35,000 people, according to the organisers. A day earlier, the embassies of 38 countries issued a joint statement condemning Hungary for taking a step backwards on gay rights. The signatories include all EU countries except Poland.

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