16 March 2011

News: Proposed EU law against child pornography

One of the images which were at first deemed child pornography, and then not...
Last autumn, I reported about the sentencing of a Swedish translator of Japanese comics. He was found guilty of possession of what was deemed child pornography: 51 images which he had downloaded from the internet and saved to his computer. No matter how he argued that these made up a minuscule percentage of all the images he owned - printed and digital - and that he needed to keep track of Japanese popular culture in his profession, this did not help in any way. He was sentenced, if only as a minor offence.

This sentencing gave rise to a far-reaching debate in Sweden, and this was due to the fact that the images in question were actually not films nor photos, but drawings. Drawn images are included in the Swedish child pornography law, and many gave voice to the utter stupidity that not only are drawn fictional characters - fantasy creations made up by the creators - judged to be of a certain age (they need to be below the age of 18 to be applicable by the law), but also that drawings are regarded as equal to photos, which in themselves are evidence of a greater crime. Another bizarre quirk is that prose is not applicable by the law, making novels about child pornography (like Nabokov's Lolita) legal, but a comics version of the same illegal.

Another of the images which up until recently were illegal to even look at, according to Swedish law.
The sentence was immediately appealed to a higher court (we have three levels of courts in Sweden: district courts (tingsrätter), courts of appeal (hovrätter) and The Supreme Court (Högsta Domstolen), and sadly the court of appeal came back with the same verdict. They judged fewer of the images (39) as child pornography, a fact that in itself reveals the precarious and hardly scientific process of deciding what is and what is not child pornography. The fine was also lower, but this was only because it is based on the translator’s income and since he, due to being sentenced for possession of child pornography, has lost all of his translation assignments, does not have an income any more…

The translator and his counsel have appealed once more, but the fact that the court of appeal did not radically change the first sentence, tells us that it is in all probability correct according to Swedish law. This has led many important organizations, like Författarförbundet (The Swedish Writers’ Union), Svenska PEN (The Swedish branch of the international organization PEN), Svenska Tecknare (The Association of Swedish Illustrators and Graphic Designers) and Seriefrämjandet (The Swedish Comics Association) to the conclusion that the law needs to be amended. All of the above organizations have gone public with official statements, demanding that the government reopen this law and change it.

Why all the fuss, then? Well, the dangers of this are evident. When applied, the law overrules the basic freedom of speech and freedom to write and draw whatever you like. Even more so, it states that it is not only the production, reproduction or possession that is illegal, but even the act of looking at these images, making it illegal for a court to show what someone has been sentenced for. Never mind the catch-22 effect that makes it impossible for the public to make up its own mind, debate the law and its application and so on, in essence, this is dangerously close to the government restricting the very thoughts of its subjects, a way of governing that we in Sweden, who often look upon our society as one of the most developed, free and democratic in the world, otherwise associate with dictatorships in more remote parts of the world.

What the outcome of this debate will be is of course at the moment not clear. The fact that no one in their right mind is not opposed to child pornography has made the debate all the more difficult, making many shy away from the subject as if it was contagious. Now that the above-mentioned organizations all have gone public demanding a change in the law, I hope that the debate will continue and that the government will listen to the voice of the people and go back to discussing the law and its application.

But this might not be enough. There is the even bigger issue of the EU laws, which we in Sweden are obliged to follow as well. Right now there is a proposition for a new law on child pornography which is even more restrictive than the Swedish one, among other things also making written child pornography illegal. If the law is accepted, there will be little we can do in Sweden to change this. The good news is that the law is, as far as I can tell, not yet established, so there is still time for lobbying against it.The Swedish Comics Association will look into this, and if you who read this has any connections with the EU Parliament, use them!

Thanks to Angelica Ericsson, for pointing out the facts of the proposed EU law.