Swedish banks may censor horror movies

A small business owner in Sweden has been forced by banks and other financial institutions to stop selling horror movies. A well known mail order shop within the horror scene, Dark Entertainment feel they are being censored by banks on moral grounds.

In Southern Sweden, the small company Dark Entertainment runs the horror film and memorabilia shop Skräckfilmsbutiken (Horror Film Store) but in October the owner Roland Hånell made the decision to stop selling horror movies. The reason; several banks, almost a dozen, had over the last five years refused to provide his business with credit card payment services. While alternative payment methods exist, credit or debit card payments are the preferred payment methods of most customers, and running a mail order business without accepting credit cards was deemed too difficult. Hånell therefore decided to close down the film department of his shop, and a huge closing sale is now taking place. The last drop was an email from Paypal that claimed Hånell had broken their ethical rules. The payment giant has not only stopped transfering payment from customers, but also frozen Hånell’s assets in his Paypal account. However, all is not bleak, as several days after having his Paypal account frozen, Hånell received a message from Paypal in which they state his account will be opened again. Wether or not this changes Hånell’s mind about selling movies is unknown at press time, but living in fear of having money frozen or accounts closed is not something that helps small businesses thrive.

Roland Hånell has been running Skräckfilmsbutiken since 2003, but is tired of fighting narrow minded banks. He explains that he again and again has received emails from banks that state they will stop providing payment services to him, “due to inappropriate products being sold by your business.” The banks never point at specific films or what can be done about the alleged problem. The banks themselves support their decisions on ethical policies that is common for many banks and payment providers. The policies dictate that they will not conduct business with illegal companies or organizations, or support illegal products such as child porn. However, the products sold at Skräckfilmsbutiken are all legal, and exactly the same DVDs are being sold by major retailers such as Ginza, CDon, Discshop, Hämmakväll, and even through international giants such as Amazon. The banks have another policy as well, about how “offending behaviour” can result in termination of payment services. -It is a rather short, general piece of text. Some items are not illegal, but still offending to the great majority, and therefore one should not deal with them, says Jan-Olof Brunila, chief of payment solutions at Swedbank to Swedish Radio. However, when pressed by Nordic Fantasy to be more specific, Brunila makes this comment: – To make it clear, we have not excluded any shop because they deal with erotic movies or horror films, for example. Those kinds of movies are allowed by the rules of VISA and Mastercard. None of the affected shops are our customers. We have no knowledge about wether or not they were excluded by some other bank. When we spoke about the rules, we did not know about the mentioned shops and only commented on connecting payments to shops in general. In a comment posted on Facebook, Hånell makes it clear that he has not been denied general bank services, but that his shop’s payment processing has been stopped by various companies.

Most of Sweden’s major banks adhere to these policies, including Handelsbanken, SEB, Nordea and Swedbank. -You could call it moral censorship, or you could call it a moral compass that one uses to navigate after, says Jan-Olof Brunila. Roland Hånell replies to Swedish radio: -Of course this is censorship. If you walk into a shop and determines what selection of products they can and cannot have, it is censorship. It cannot be anything else. When confronted with this, Brunila replies to Nordic Fantasy: -It is extremely rare that we deny or cancel cooperation with a retailer because it sells items that are so objective that it could influence the perception of the credit card companies or the card issuer. These items could be sex with animals, torture, beastly behaviour. I have no memory of ever cancelling a contract with a shop for these reasons.

The same rules that sank Roland Hånell’s horror movie shop has also caused problems for Justine & Juliette, a woman-owned shop that sells sex toys and erotic litterature. Their Swedish bank denied them a payment solution when they learned the shop would sell sexy playthings. The fact that many of the same items could be bought over the counter in most pharmacies were of no interest to the bank. The shop finally got a payment solution from a more liberal Danish bank.

Bengt Karlsson is press officer at Handelsbanken, but when asked by Swedish Radio wether payment denial for certain artforms could lead to moral censorship, he said: -I decline to say anything about that. We make an individual assessment of companies as a whole, and see if they appear serious and they should also have a mainly serious business plan. These assessments are made by either the bank’s “ethical council” or by individual clerks. -There’s nothing strange about that, it works the same way with credits and loans, Carlsson added. When Nordic Fantasy asked Carlsson about their policies, he said: -Handelsbanken has no policies about what “suitable” businesses are. What dictates that are what’s legal or not. Child porn and rasism are prohibited by law. But the decentralized way or working at Handelsbanken results in every branch making their own decision about whom they will work with. Moral is not part of the picture, and Handelsbanken do have customers that sell those products that have been highlighted.

Dark Entertainment’s initial announcement came in October, but reached national media in Sweden this week. Both national radio, tv and leading newspapers reported on the matter, and not surprisingly it spurred angry fans to take action. Many have already changed banks in protest, and also started social media campaigns to spread awareness. “This should only happen in North Korea or in Saudi arabia” – “Not worthy a 21st century bank” – “Banks abuse their positions and should not decide what I buy or not” – “Soon some retard [working in a bank] will reject condoms, gay culture and hard rock as well” were some reactions posted in commentary fields.

The banks have also been critizised for having two standards; most major retailers in Sweden, either offline or online, carry many of the same video titles as Skräckfilmsbutiken, which makes it appear as if the banks have two different sets of ethical standards. This does not seem to bother the banks, nor do they seem bothered by admitting that they are under pressure from the American corporations VISA and Mastercard. “It’s the conservative right-wing corporations in USA that run the world, right down to what movies I should watch” one Facebook responder said. -We accept the international contracts about ethics that exist in the banking world, says Jan-Olof Brunila. When asking Brunila a few specific questions, he wrote back to Nordic Fantasy with these canned comments: – Let me first point out that Swedbank are not the ones who decides about these rules. Like 28000 other banks around the world, we participate in the card payment systems VISA and MasterCard and have to follow the rules that VISA and MasterCard determines for shops that join in as card recepients […] The banks have to make sure that the businesses do not include anything that can be perceived as obese behaviour [sic!]. This could be material depicting sex with animals, torture, rape, murder presented as real, etc. Laurence Westerlund, press officer at SEB, made this comment to a horror film fan: -Everyone are welcome as customers at SEB. We will not judge taste or practice censorship […] We follow the rules determined by our cooperation with VISA and Mastercard. That may lead to SEB refusing to engage if it could damage our brand.

Responding to specific questions, Helena Östman, press officer at Nordea, wrote back to Nordic Fantasy when we asked her wether Nordea had ever refused payment services to shops selling controversial but still legal goods: -It probably happened. Decisions are being made by our 308 local branches. When someone enters a business relationship with us, [we look at their financial situation] but we also judge wether the business aligns with Nordea’s ethical guidelines, which states that Nordea must be a responsible institution. Östman confirms that they make their own judgement about which customers they allow various services, but how can they know that horror movies are disturbing for the great majority, when horror movies are being shown on TV, in theatres and on video all the time? -Obviously we cannot know that. It is more about what we as a company stands for, and when it comes to horror movies I do not know any case where we have refused a payment solution. When asked wether Nordea on behalf of themselves or companies they represent will take action against, or consider their relationship with major retailers Ginza, CDon, Lovefilm, rental chain Hämmakväll or theatrical chain SF Bio, all avenues of horror entertainment, Östman chose not to respond to the question.

But the banks’ practice and guidelines may be illegal in Sweden. The Swedish Competition Authority (KKV) is concerned about the thwarting of actual competition between companies, when some companies are given advantages over others, by way of their sheer size. The aforementioned retailers have never had structural payment processing problems. Not only are they well established (Ginza has operated in Sweden for more than 40 years) but some have mega-owners like Amazon, Bonnier and MTG. It is highly unlikely that any Swedish bank would threaten the incoming payments of any of these retailers, that send millions of SEK through to the credit card companies every year.

Dark Entertainment is also a DVD label, releasing films that other companies won’t bring onto the market. Now this activity will cease too, meaning that certain films will remain unreleased or fall into obscurity. In the recent past, the label released independent Swedish horror films Syner and Death on arrival, but helping indie producers get their movies released may also be history now. We therefore asked a few Swedish horror film makers what they thought about the situation that one of their distributors face:

Sonny Laguna, director of Wither and Blood runs cold
-Assuming the reports are true and have not left anything out of it… As long as you are following the laws in your country, no one should be able to step in and say no to your business and that it is morally questionable. I’m not that surprised though because of basically what history has told us before (about big companies and their “agendas”). And we all know that banks aren’t here for our benefit but to make as much money as possible, so it’s just a very weird thing to do. I guess they don’t want to be anywhere near any businesses that could provide “questionable” products, but this has surely backfired. I don’t think this can last if enough people make their voices heard, and yes, since I’m a director of horror films myself, it’s a very sad thing for this to happen.

Daniel Lehmussaari, director of Death Academy and The Grief
-I think it’s bad. It’s horrible. Horrorfilms are one of the most selling films on DVD and BD world wide. The films that Skräckfilmsbutiken are selling are fully legal. I think it’s prejudiced that a horror film is grotesque and gruesome because the label is small and not a worldwide big distribution company like Universal and Paramount. It’s stinks!

Jonas Wolcher, director of Die Zombiejäger
I’m against all kind of censorship. In Roland’s case I can’t give you my opinion, but overall I see a danger when large corporations and banks decide what’s good or bad culture for a citizen. There are many countries in EU who have signed horrible laws that undermine free speech and civil rights.

Nordic Fantasy has asked for comments from VISA Sweden, but they have not replied after several days.

Please note that the only institution that was named for causing problems for Skräckfilmsbutiken was Paypal. The other banks mentioned here are not specifically identified as suppliers of services to Skräckfilmsbutiken.

3 thoughts on “Swedish banks may censor horror movies

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