When a new and unlicensed newspaper published photos of members of Uganda's gay community, it not only put them at risk of harassment but highlighted the lack of freedom in the country's media.
The attention-grabbing headline has caused a lot of upset
Uganda's Rolling Stone newspaper has only been in circulation since August, but the rag has already caused a splash both within and outside its national borders. On two separate occasions the tabloid, which is in no way related to the US music magazine of the same name, has printed the identities and addresses of alleged homosexuals.
The campaign launched in October under the headline banner "100 Pictures of Uganda's Top Homos Leak - Hang Them" has so far outed 29 people. Several of them have since been subjected to harassment and threats from members of the public.
Transgender Stosh Mugisha is among the victims. Biologically a woman but living as a man, the 33-year old's life has drastically changed since his photograph appeared in the Rolling Stone "Men of Shame" gallery .
“I went to the shop where I usually buy cigarettes," Mugisha told Deutsche Welle. "The woman told me 'I don't sell cigarettes to faggots', so I left." On his way home passers-by threw verbal abuse and even stones at him. Although he was not physically hurt, he has since had to move away for fear of a more serious attack.
In light of the controversial pictures and following a petition from the gay rights group, Sexual Minorities Uganda, the High Court ordered Rolling Stone, which is not yet in possession of a license, to cease publication. Judge Vincent Musoke Kibuuka described the public outing as an invasion of the right to privacy of the individuals identified. Yet the ruling is only temporary and will be reviewed at a hearing later this month.
The colors of gay pride are not visible on the streets of Kampala
The newspaper's managing editor, Giles Muhame, is confident that he will be able to resume what he says is his duty to expose evils in society before the month is out.
"The main case comes up on November 23, we shall challenge it, we shall defeat them, the interim order will be quashed," he said.
In an editor's note written to accompany the publication of his "Men of Shame Part II," Muhame cited his motivation for printing the pictures as an attempt to stop a "cross-section of heartless homosexuals" from recruiting and brainwashing unsuspecting kids into gay circles.
It is this allegation in particular that Stosh Mugisha found hurtful and distasteful.
"How do you recruit someone into something they do not want?," he asked. "Homosexuality is inborn, you cannot start it by going into schools, it's not like you are looking for votes.”
But the editor begs to differ, and has said he will not quit his printing spree until members of the gay community "stop enrolling minors in their circles."
'Most Ugandans don't support gay rights,' one official said.
Where the situation goes from here will depend at least to some extent on whether or not the country's Media Council, tasked with promoting responsible and ethical journalism, decides to issue Rolling Stone with a license.
Peter Mwesige, Executive Director of the African Center for Media Excellence, said the Council would have to be seriously outraged not to. But given the debate in the country last year over the introduction of the death penalty for some homosexual acts, that outrage might be hard to come by.
"Most people in the society we live in do not support the idea that homosexuals deserve any rights," Mwesige told Deutsche Welle.
Although the Council, which Freedom House notes "has been criticized for its lack of independence," has a code of ethics on issues such as invasion of privacy, the guidelines are regularly flouted and many a blind eye is turned. Just so long as there are no officials involved.
"The government doesn't pay attention to ethics," Mwesige said. "But when the stories are politically sensitive, it cares."
Spotlight on human rights
That became blatantly obvious last year when the government, under President Yoweri Museveni, closed four radio stations on the grounds that they were inciting racial hatred. Besides curtailing press freedom, the "write-anything-about-anyone-but-nothing-about-me" modus operandi also highlights another problem.
The might of the government
Geoffrey Wokulira Ssebaggala, programs co-coordinator at Human Rights Network for Journalists in Uganda, says one of the biggest challenges facing the country's media today is the establishment of a culture of professionalism.
"People write about anything, and they don't mind if it infringes on others' rights," Ssebaggala told Deutsche Welle. "Those managing media in Uganda have no knowledge of human rights."
He says it is crucial to change the status quo, but that doing so will require a complete rethink on the parts of publishers, broadcasters, proprietors and most of all the government.
"There's a lot that needs to be done," he said. "But as long as we're not challenging power it is not seen as a threat."
Author: Leylah Ndindah/Tamsin Walker
Editor: Jennifer Abramsohn