A Ugandan story about homosexuality that went largely unnoticed at home is hitting headlines in the foreign media, with CNN and BBC among those raising its profile.
Julian Pepe Onziema, the Programmes Coordinator of Sexual Minorities Uganda (SMUG), an NGO that lobbies for the rights of lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transsexuals (LGBTS), has had interviews with these media houses, and others like the SABC of South Africa and Aljazeera, over persecution of this group in Uganda.
She is currently in Gambia to discuss the rights of homosexuals before the African Commission and her days continue to be filled with a lot of advocacy work following the reports.
On October 2, a newspaper, Rolling Stone, which entered the Ugandan market only in August this year, carried pictures of people it claimed were homosexuals under the headline, ‘Kampala’s top homosexuals’.
The newspaper was quick to realize that the story was good for publicity abroad, so there was a follow-up in its latest November edition.
It ran graphic photos of people said to be gay, their names and addresses. In one of the photos, a woman said to be a lesbian is lying seductively on a bed wearing a figure-hugging dress with a caption saying, “She claims to be hot but is only interested in relationships with women. She seduces women.”
Next to hers are other pictures of male genitalia inflicted with lymphogranulama, a disease the newspaper alleged is eating up the homosexual community. Strewn around are pictures of other individuals said to be homosexuals, as well as activists and sympathizers.
The Observer has established that one of the people listed as a lesbian was attacked by her neighbours with stones and had to be rescued by friends who sneaked her out of the house. Other attacks have been reported but couldn’t be confirmed.
CNN and BBC have highlighted these attacks and interviewed the editor of the newspaper. Giles Muhame, Managing Editor, is unapologetic but disputes the claim that gays have suffered attacks as a result of the publication.
Onziema, on the other hand, hopes for a shift in the attitudes of the people and the way journalists report about homosexuality.
“The [local] press has been hostile. But we shall still encourage people to come out voluntarily to avoid unscrupulous people who take advantage of their closeted sexuality,” she said.
She added that ever since the pictures were published, many homosexuals have been blackmailed by people who threaten to expose them in the media. The Western world has been confounded by the level of hostility towards sexual minorities in Uganda, especially in light of the now shelved Anti-homosexuality Bill that proposed the death penalty for homosexuals.
The Ugandan Constitution upholds the right to privacy, and the High Court ruled in favour of this right in a 2005 case brought by Yvonne Oyoo and Juliet Victor Mukasa. The two had been kicked out of their house and taken to the Police where they were reportedly undressed and fondled in order to prove they were women.
Asked by CNN’s David Mckenzie if he didn’t think it was invasion of people’s privacy when he published pictures and names of people said to be gay, Muhame said the story was done in public interest.
The international media are alarmed, especially at the point where presumed homosexuals are named and their addresses marked with the words, “hang them!”
The British newspaper Rolling Stone has condemned the action, calling it the most hateful attack on homosexuals ever and demanded that the Ugandan newspaper ceases using its name.
This, however, is legally unenforceable since Britain’s Rolling Stone did not register its copyright in Uganda.
Muhame told The Observer that it is his newspaper’s duty to report on the “evils” of homosexuality so as to curb its spread in Uganda and preserve African values.
Even if the association, SMUG, secured an interim court injunction on November 1 against further reports of this nature, Muhame said they would not be deterred. SMUG has since filed a suit against the newspaper for violating the constitutional right to privacy and inciting violence against perceived homosexuals.
The injunction serves to stop the newspaper until this case has been disposed of. The largely underground homosexual community has hailed the injunction as a positive step.
“We thought that all they would do is persecute us, but it is good to know that there are progressive judges not afraid to respect and defend the law,” said Onziema.
Ssempa loses funding
Meanwhile, the Canyon Ridge Christian Church (CRCC), which has been supporting Pastor Martin Ssempa’s work on HIV/AIDS in Uganda, has announced it is “looking to re-direct” its resources to other people. They cite Sempa’s support of the Anti-Homosexuality Bill.
When contacted, Ssempa declined to confirm whether he had been notified of the decision. The statement, however, can be found on the CRCC’s website.