Too Controversial for Uganda

Not one to be cowed by threats even to his life, David Kisule—or “Kato” as we all knew him—took on controversial and difficult issues that others would shy away from. From being openly gay long before he was outed by the Rolling Stone newspaper to championing the rights of all people, it would appear that the death of David Kato continues to cause as much controversy as his life did. With protests at his funeral and censorship in newsrooms, his death has drawn strong and mixed reactions.

Upon receipt of the sad news of his most unfortunate death, a number of us who knew David got together to ponder our next move. Should we write a scathing statement demanding the Uganda government leave no stone unturned in unearthing the murder of David? Could our actions jeopardize other activists?

As a funder, the Open Society Initiative for Eastern Africa already draws scrutiny from conservative leaders in Uganda for supporting sexual minority groups. But we realized that several of our partners were already issuing press releases calling for an immediate investigation. So, in consultation with our friends at Hivos, we decided to honor David with a memorial tribute in local and regional newspapers.

We sought to buy space for the tribute in The East African, a weekly circulated throughout the region, and the Kampala-based Monitor, both of which are part of the Nation Media Group. Little did we know that our simple tribute would lead to a lesson in media censorship.

After drafting the tribute, we went through the publication process with the Nation Media Group in terms of layout and design and approved the final artwork. We made the payment and waited for the advert to appear. On the day we expected the advert to run, I received a phone call from a senior editor at the Nation Media Group. He informed me that they had problems carrying the tribute in the form we had drafted it because it contained "incorrect information" that would make them liable to prosecution, a risk they were unprepared to take. He further informed me that they had taken the liberty to edit it to their own liking, and all they needed was for me to approve the edited text for publication.

What could possibly be controversial in the text, I asked? At that point a million and one questions were crossing my mind. Why would they want to edit a paid advert? Why would they want to censor what we say? Can't they put a disclaimer in the advert?

Upon reviewing their proposed edits, I became incensed. They objected to a phrase stating that LGBT people in Uganda “are routinely subject to arbitrary arrests, hate speech, torture, vigilante violence, and persecution.” Despite the fact that we offered several citations to published reports documenting these exact abuses, the editor wanted to replace these facts with a watered-down phrase, stating that LGBT people are “subject to prejudice and persecution.”

I sent them more and more facts substantiating our words but they continued to insist on their amendments. I declined to approve the edits as a matter of principle: it is wrong for them to edit an advert that we are paying for. The proposed changes would ignore the realities that LGBT people face on a regular basis in Uganda. So they canceled the advert.

Instead, two other Uganda newspapers, The Independent and The Observer, agreed to carry the tribute exactly as we had worded it. Following this, the Nation Media Group retracted its position and agreed to run the tribute this week in its two newspapers.

This change of heart raises a number of questions: Was the earlier decision not to run the advert based on pure homophobic tendencies or were the editors worried about a government backlash? Whatever the case, it’s clear that David’s death and his life as an openly gay man continues to cause discomfort in the most unexpected quarters.

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