Press for change: Calling time on LGBT+ hate speech in Uganda

A man facilitates a sensitisation session with journalists © Spectrum Uganda Initiatives Incorporated
Sensitisation sessions with Uganda's media houses could signal a major shift in how LGBT+ issues are reported.

The LGBT+ community in Uganda is working with the country’s media powerhouses to tackle hate speech and violence against LGBT+ people.

“The media can make you or break you.” Deborah is a reporter for a newspaper in Uganda. She believes that many of the country’s media outlets treat lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT+) people unfairly and that hate speech about the community is almost their default position.

“Reporting on LGBT issues can demonise LGBT people”, she says, “because Uganda has not yet embraced the fact that there are LGBT people, basically because of the culture, religion and too much [negative] propaganda.”

Last May, the Ugandan parliament enacted the controversial Sexual Offences Bill, reinforcing the criminalisation of same-sex relations, with a lengthy jail term for anyone found guilty. Many in the country’s LGBT+ community live under a perpetual climate of fear and threat of violence.

The media plays a critical role in shaping public opinion. In Uganda in recent years, in a bid to boost sales, some publications have outed prominent individuals for being gay. Homophobic rhetoric reared its ugly head again at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic when some from the LGBT+ community were jailed on false charges during lockdown in an attempt to clamp down on human rights.

Countering discrimination

According to Deborah: “The media influences a lot so, if we report positively about LGBT people, it can help, raising general awareness about LGBT people having equal rights and being humans deserving to live a life like others. Being LGBT shouldn’t be [presented as] an abomination to our society.”

She recently attended a ground-breaking training day organised for journalists by Frontline AIDS partner Spectrum Uganda Initiatives Incorporated (Spectrum). A specialist in the health and rights of gay men and other men who have sex with men (MSM), Spectrum ˗ in consultation with the community it serves ˗ designed a programme aimed at tackling hate speech in the media.

Spectrum’s Deputy Executive Director Moses Mulindwa explains: “We realised that hate speech in Uganda was promoting discrimination and violence, which was creating misconceptions about homosexuality but also making it difficult for LGBT+ people, specifically MSM, to access HIV prevention and treatment services.”

Moved to tears

At the training, members of the LGBT+ community came forward to give hard-hitting accounts of the consequences they’d suffered at the hands of the media.

“Some of the journalists almost shed tears,” Moses recalls, “because sometimes they don’t know how such stories impact people’s lives.”

Deborah was one of those affected by what she heard, and in particular by the testimony of young student Isaac who had been rejected by his peers and family after being outed as gay by one publication. “I was downcast to hear how negatively hate speech affects LGBT people. It causes a lot of trauma.”

Spectrum organised a separate training session for editors because, as Moses points out, “they have greater authority. The intention was to show them the impact of hate speech, to show them that people cannot access [HIV] services, that people are suffering. There’s a lot of mental health issues, people have lost jobs, people have been excommunicated from their churches and their families.”

A risky business

Compared to other outlets in the country, Deborah’s newspaper carries relatively balanced reporting on LGBT+ issues. It is not however a straightforward media landscape and being a journalist can bring its own risks.

“On the one hand,” she clarifies, “Uganda is said to have the most free and active media in East and central Africa and the courts tend to rule in favour of journalists. On the other hand, there’s an array of legal mechanisms that continue to limit free reporting.

“Journalists face a lot of danger for example when reporting critically about the President. I wouldn’t really say the press is free.”

It’s heartening then to learn that there is at least one LGBT+ led publication providing a platform for the community. “Kuchu Times has done good work creating space for LGBT+ people and giving the vulnerable the chance to speak,” says Moses. “They are trying to amplify the voice of LGBT+ people but also engaging a wider population about LGBT+ issues.”

The right way to go

Alongside the training, Spectrum has created a mapping tool to track examples of hate speech in print and online articles, as well as social media. This analysis then informs the organisation’s meetings with media owners, acting as an evidence base.

“The more we have peaceful negotiations, discussions, intellectual and consultative conversations with the owners, editors and journalists, then hate speech will reduce and be no more,” Moses concludes.

He is pleased with the results of the training to date. “Media houses have been coming to our offices specifically to interview us about our work, to get our opinion on various topical issues, in the areas of health and COVID-19.

“We see that the reporting in the print media about LGBT+ people is not as inflammatory it used to be. So for us, the press is being increasingly open to speaking positively about LGBT+ people.”

Language matters

As for Deborah, she admits that her opinion towards LGBT+ people has altered as a result of attending the training and that she came away with a key lesson.

“It’s very important to use favourable language when reporting. This can help construct a culture that nurtures positive public perceptions of this community. It’s better to use a language of sexual orientation, of gender identity, and I believe that can change opinions.”

She believes that the training should now be extended, particularly to more rural areas upcountry, to give journalists more confidence when reporting on LGBT+ people and issues.

“There’s no absolute cure for hate speech,” she says. “But there’s a way to stand up against it and that’s through creating awareness, supporting the affecting and speaking out against injustice.”


HIV preventionHuman rightsLGBT rights