AMSTERDAM (Reuters) - A court in the Netherlands rejected a request by anti-racism activists to ban images of the seasonal Dutch holiday character Black Pete from state television, but encouraged debate over a tradition which has prompted protests on both sides.
Citing technical grounds, district Judge Antoon Schotman said a summary filing by opponents of Black Pete had been lodged too close to the festivities to be heard in time. But he said an issue that touches on the country's sensitive colonial past should be debated further.
"There can be no doubt that Black Pete is changing. Some believe the change is too slow, and that's fine. Others believe it is happening too quickly... What is important is that the discussion continues."
The cultural discussion about the character known in Dutch as Zwarte Piet has sparked rowdy protests and arrests on both sides in past years and more demonstrations are planned for coming weeks. The annual children's festival is similar to Christmas traditions in other parts of Europe but falls several weeks before Christmas in the Netherlands.
The character, usually portrayed by white people in black face paint wearing frizzy wigs and prominent red lipstick, traditionally appears in festivities marking the start of the gift-giving season on Nov. 17, televised across the country.
His appearance dates from a 19th century story by Dutch children's author Jan Schenkman, illustrated with pictures of a dark-skinned Spanish Moor as the sidekick of St Nicholas.
Disagreement over whether Pete's appearance should be changed has intensified in recent years, as opponents say exposure to such imagery is hurtful to black people and damaging to children. Supporters say Black Petes, who are portrayed as acrobatic and mischievous, are a traditional, positive figure of fun, and deny the holiday is racist.
The U.N.'s Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination in 2015 called on the Netherlands to revamp the tradition because it is "experienced by many people of African descent as a vestige of slavery."
The Netherlands was a vast colonial power for centuries, with territories stretching from the Caribbean to the far reaches of Indonesia.
The Majority Perspective Foundation, formed by anti-racism groups, filed a suit saying government and public television broadcasters should be fined up to 50,000 euros ($56,000) each if images of Pete wearing costume elements deemed offensive are aired.
The public broadcaster that airs the festival, has gradually changed Pete's appearance, continuing to show some Petes in full black face paint, while introducing more and more with "smudges" said to represent soot from going down chimneys to deliver gifts.
(Reporting by Anthony Deutsch and Toby Sterling; Editing by Peter Graff)