The basic facts are that the district court of Uppsala in late June this year convicted a man for possession of child pornography. The man is a well-known manga expert who has translated a large portion of the Japanese comics published in Sweden, started the first major manga organization in Sweden, etc. The images were found during a search of his home due to another, divorce-related, case. On computer hard drives, the police found 51 downloaded pictures of manga/anime characters that were deemed to be of a sexual nature and the characters to be under the age of 18.
|A page from the manga DragonBall. Illegal?|
In Sweden, all images – be it photos, movies, animations or drawings – depicting what one can understand to be a child (i.e. under the age of 18) in a sexual situation, are regarded as child pornography, since the legislators agreed on using the word “image” instead of “photo” in the law. The ban does not apply to text, though, only images. You are allowed to produce drawings of child porn, but only for “personal use” – distribution is criminal, as is looking at someone else's art.
This law has been active for almost a decade, but this ruling is the first one ever in Sweden where drawn images have been deemed child pornography in a court of law, and it might thus create a precedent. This could have far-reaching consequences for comics, both for artists and readers. Serious depictions of abuse, autobiographical stories of sexual debut, or simply children without clothes on, may now be classified as child pornography. Thus, publishers who distribute comics that might be deemed child porn, retailers who sell them, libraries who carry them and so on – all can now be criminals. Because of an amendment that was recently added to the act, it is now also just as criminal for readers who simply look at these pictures.
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The debate has mainly focused on two subject areas. One portion of the writers, including the sentenced man, have stated that this interpretation of the law makes thoughts illegal, which is impossible in a democratic society. The idea behind this line of thought is that no children were harmed in the process of making these comics, and that art and fiction should be free of all involvement from the legislator.
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Other topics have dealt with the contradiction that Swedish law allows its citizens to have sex from the age of 15, but not to depict it until they are 18. Thus, an autobiographical comic about losing your virginity at, say, the age of 16 could be illegal.
One major problem is the fact that since it is illegal to even look at images like these, the images that were the grounds for the conviction cannot be shown anywhere. This leads to a Catch-22 situation where it is virtually impossible for anyone to decide whether something is illegal or not. This is the grounds for much concern and debate during the last couple of weeks, as people have started to wonder whether they actually are criminal without knowing it, for owning comics published by some of the major publishing houses in Sweden.
|A painting by Carl Larsson. Illegal?|
If you take a step back and look at the bigger picture, you realize that all arts that incorporate images are in the danger zone. The paintings by Carl Larsson, as close to a national treasure in the art world as you get in Sweden, could very well be illegal, with their depictions of unabashedly naked children. Should they be purged out of our national art museums? Can I be prosecuted for owning a book with reproductions of them? In the film industry, there is for example a whole genre of films about older women seducing younger (teenage) men, such as the Swedish film All Things Fair.
|The movie All Things Fair. Illegal?|
The amendment to the child pornography act and this ruling makes Sweden, as far as I know, the country with the heaviest and most restrictive laws on child pornography. The sentence has however been appealed to a higher court, and the translator is represented by one of Sweden’s most famous attorneys, so the outcome is still quite open.