by Betsy Gomez
In February, Belgian courts ruled that Tintin in the Congo should not be removed from bookstore shelves over charges that it violated Belgian laws regarding racism and inciting racial hatred. The court ruled that the book, which was serialized from 1930 to 1931 and collected in 1946 with significant revisions, was a product of its time and did not intend to incite racial hatred. This week, The Guardian reposted an analysis that Jogchum Vrielink wrote about the case and its impact on the sale of the book.
Vrielink’s analysis summarizes the details of the case:
Bienvenu Mbuto Mondondo, a Congolese national studying in Brussels, filed suit to obtain an injunction against the continued publication, distribution and sale of Hergé’s comic book Tintin in the Congo (Tintin au Congo), as well as seeking to have the book withdrawn from bookshops and libraries in Belgium. Mondondo did so on the basis of alleged violations of the Belgian anti-racism legislation. In subsidiary order he demanded that a disclaimer be printed on the comic’s cover, warning of its offensive nature, along with the inclusion of an introduction of a similar nature. Mondondo was supported in his claims by the minority organization Conseil représentatif des associations noires (Cran).
On 10 February 2012, the Brussels Court of First Instance rejected all the applicants’ claims. The Court also rejected the counterclaims by Casterman, the series’ publisher, and Moulinsart, the company which was set up to protect and promote the work of Hergé. Both had asked for 15,000 euros as compensation for ‘vexatious proceedings’.
This latest suit isn’t the first time the book has been challenged. The book has been subject to controversy throughout its history, as outlined by Vrielink:
The album has regularly been a cause for debate, particularly in the Anglophone world. Due to ongoing controversies it was not published in English until 1991. The colour edition did not even appear until 2005. When finally it was published (by Egmont Publishing), it included a cautionary wrapper indicating that it contained “bourgeois, paternalistic stereotypes of the period” that may be offensive to contemporary readers. The edition also encompassed an introduction providing additional historical contextualisation. Nevertheless, in 2007 the (former) Commission for Racial Equality (CRE) asked the bookstores Borders and Waterstones to stop selling the book, in response to a complaint it had received.
According to Vrielink, the bookstores didn’t remove the book as requested, but they did move it from the children’s section to the adult section. Several English retailers also sell the book with a label that describes the book as unsuitable for readers under the age of 16. In the United States, plans to publish the book were dropped entirely, so an American edition has never seen print. The Brooklyn Public Library keeps a copy, but it is not part of the open collection and available only by request.
Vrielink addresses the decision made by the Belgian court:
Judged by contemporary standards, Tintin in the Congo is blatantly colonial, highly paternalistic, and offensively stereotypical, to say the least. The question, however, that the Brussels Court had to answer was whether its present-day publication and distribution could be legally prohibited under the anti-racism legislation. The Court rightly rejects this possibility.
Vrielink further explains that court’s decision is based in part on the definition of harassment and what legally constitutes harassment. The court found that Mondondo and the claimants had a overly broad interpretation of harassment, which is legally defined as “unwanted conduct connected to a person’s race or ethnic origin with the purpose or effect of violating the dignity of a person, and of creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment.” In regard to the idea that the book incites racial hatred, the court ruled against the claimants in part because there was no evidence of actual hateful acts incited by the book.
Vrielink discussed the implications of the case, both for Mondondo and the book. Mondondo claims that his lawsuits have started a critical public discourse about the content of the book, but Vrilink points out that Mondondo is likely mistaken in this view point:
Mondondo’s view however ignores the counterproductive effects that the legal approach has for his cause. Admittedly, the complaint as well as the ruling have received significant media attention. However, the content of the coverage was predominantly of a negative, or even mocking, character. Precisely because Mondondo and the Cran opted for a legal solution, the applicants were routinely portrayed as overly sensitive, ‘politically correct’, and bent on censorship. Even the Centre for Equal Opportunities – the Belgian agency responsible for enforcing the federal discrimination legislation – warned against “over-reaction and hyper political correctness”. In other words, the legal approach has not given rise to the desired critical discussion about the comic itself.
In fact, quite the opposite is the case. Firstly, there have been unintended commercial effects, to say the least. Sales of the album rocketed, following the British discussion about a ban, by as much as 3,800 per cent (See B. Malkin, “Race row Tintin is best-seller“, Daily Telegraph, 14 July 2007). The comic temporarily even jumped to 5th place in the Amazon bestseller list. The lawsuit(s) in Belgium had similar effects, causing the French version of the album to temporarily go out of stock in September 2007. Secondly, and more fundamentally, the lawsuits shut down discussion rather than promoting it, by the aura of legitimacy that the inevitable rejection of the claims and the equally inevitable future acquittal yield. These outcomes wrongly suggest, to the general public, that there is nothing wrong with the ideas on which the work is based, while in fact these do require critical debate and analysis. However, instrumentalising the law and the court system for the purposes of this debate seems both misdirected and counterproductive.