If journalists did their job

Date: November 19, 2010
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As if the good people of Uganda have nothing better to worry about.

By now many are familiar with the recent Rolling Stone article calling for Uganda’s “top” homosexuals to be hanged. The story, like many others recently published in Uganda, claimed there was a gay campaign to recruit school children. This piece of “journalism” is in good company in the region, where gays and lesbians are frequently the victims of a morally bereft, voracious tabloid media.

But these lazy “journalists” tarnish the profession with their puerile discrimination. Even worse, they stir up hatred and cause an increase in violent attacks on gays and lesbians throughout the region. Yet it seems their numbers are on the rise.

As we enter the period of 16 Days of Activism to end gender-based violence, it is important to look at the media’s role in perpetuating such violence, especially against Africa’s gay community.

In Malawi, where earlier this year Steven Monjeza and Tiwonge Chimbalanga were charged with “unnatural acts” under former British colonial laws after they hosted a private engagement party, the Malawian media had a field day denouncing and humiliating the gay couple.

Eventually the world took notice and international pressure forced Malawi’s president to pardon the pair, who ultimately went their separate ways, likely because they feared for their lives.

In the recently released United Nations Human Development Index (which ranks countries based on life expectancy, education and literacy levels and standard of living) Malawi and Uganda both fall into the last category, under the title “low human development”. Malawi is sandwiched between Rwanda and Sudan, just a handful of spots from the very bottom of the index.

The two countries also score low on the Economist Intelligence Unit’s global Democracy Index and the Freedom House Democracy and Human Rights Index. Tragically, these two countries also have two of the highest HIV and AIDS prevalence rates in the world. In Uganda, more than one million people are infected with HIV. The figure is almost as high in Malawi, a country where it is difficult to walk a city block without seeing the devastation this virus has wreaked.

Yet despite immense suffering and poverty, the region’s media has too often decided to ignore these important issues in favour of sensationalism and homophobic witch hunts. Sadly, this same media is just a complacent flunky for the region’s pipers: the many politicians who speak hate about gays and lesbians to deflect attention from the real problems in their respective countries.

It is a strong tradition in the Southern African Development Community (SADC) and elsewhere in Africa. From Namibia’s Sam Nujoma, who once said that the gays and lesbians should be arrested and imprisoned, to Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe, who recently referred to gays as worse than dogs and pigs. Even in South Africa, which has the region’s most progressive laws when it comes to sexual orientation, President Jacob Zuma has oft been known to make homophobic statements.

But weak leaders the world over are known for making wars when they need to focus attention away from their national failures. Margaret Thatcher started the Falklands War and Bill Clinton went guns blazing into Operation Desert Fox to distract the world from Monica Lewinsky. Some African leaders prefer a war of words and a tirade of homophobic hate.

In Uganda, a country with myriad social problems, politicians have wasted months debating an Anti-Homosexuality Bill that makes a provision for life imprisonment for homosexuals and death penalty for repeated “crimes” of homosexuality and about five to seven years in prison for failing to report such “crimes” to the local authorities.

HIV and AIDS, extreme poverty, the Lord’s Resistance Army, hunger, one would think Uganda’s parliament had better things to worry about.

And just for a second let’s imagine that Africa’s homosexuals are actually out to recruit. It seems an  impossible task to me. Who would they recruit? What African in their right mind would choose to be gay or lesbian when there are laws in place like the one mentioned above?

Amnesty International notes that millions face “execution, torture, violence and discrimination because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.” The range of abuses, according to Amnesty, is “limitless” including: women raped to “cure” their lesbianism, individuals beaten by police, bullying at school, denial of employment, housing or health services and regular subjection to verbal abuse.

Am I the only one who thinks Africans might do anything not to be gay considering this sorry list? Too bad for gay Africans that being gay isn’t a choice. Too bad that some African media is more interested in what’s going on in private bedrooms than the suffering happening in the streets and hospitals, and on the battlefields, of the region.

Thankfully some African leaders realise this. They can see that Africa’s gays and lesbians aren’t out to recruit, they simply want to live a normal life and love who they choose to love. Desmond Tutu has called homophobia a crime against humanity and noted it is as unjust as apartheid.

If only the media could be so discerning and have such nuance. Technically, it is the job of a strong media to do just that. Until now, many media outlets throughout the region are failing with the result that gays and lesbians continue to suffer and die. If only these journalists could look around them and see there are bigger issues to worry about. If only they could do their job.

Danny Glenwright is the editor of the Gender Links Opinion and Commentary Service. This article is part of the GL series for the 16 Days of Activism.

0 thoughts on “If journalists did their job”

IB says:

Excellent article but with one glaring omission – you simply cannot talk about homophobia in Africa without mentioning the significant role that religion plays and, in particular, the stirring up of hatred by American evangelicals.

John Abdulla says:

Thank you Danny – for being that discerning, truth-seeking voice in the media. Especially amidst so much fear mongering, hate-spreading, sensationalist garbage. It is all too prevalent in the U.S. too!

So refreshing to read your work.

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