Red Pepper sparks controversy in Uganda

The spread of the internet has opened Uganda to a vast array of trends and influences that would have had little effect in previous years. However, a good many citizens who have peered into this brave new world are not sure they like what they see—especially the two pornography sites featuring Ugandans that took the country by surprise recently.

The sites, including ‘hotugandans.com’, came to the public’s attention in July.

They displayed explicit pictures and videos, alongside contact addresses in the United States, United Kingdom, Australia and Japan. According to various reports, the pages were hosted in Canada, and popular with Ugandans living abroad who used credit cards to pay for access to the material.

A public outcry has since led to the websites being blocked (in an ironic twist, visitors to the site are now directed to the site of Benny Hinn Ministries).
But, the debate about the globalised society that enabled them to emerge rages on.

“When it comes to morality, globalisation is not a good thing because it is making us accept gay practices, pornography and reducing the age of consent for sex,” said Stephen Langa, executive director of the Family Life Network. This non-governmental organisation, located in the capital of Kampala, advocates traditional values through counselling and education.

Women featured on the site were apparently paid up to $1 000 to be photographed and filmed—although one claimed that they did so on the understanding that this material would not appear in Uganda.

Official figures put the proportion of Ugandans living on less than a dollar a day at 38%.

However, the notion that the women’s participation in the site was motivated by poverty is dismissed by Raymond Kyambadde, a pastor based in Kampala.

“According to the newspaper reports about the porn website, most of the featured were decent women who had decent jobs,” he said in an interview.

“Some even have families and husbands. So it is not all about money, but Western influence on our society.”

Since government gave a tax holiday for the import of computers two years ago, hundreds of internet cafés have sprung up even in the most remote areas. In Kampala, a five-minute walk can take you past two or three such cafés.

Some forbid customers to open pornographic sites, and use monitoring devices in a bid to deter access. But, matters are complicated by the fact that Uganda still lacks a legal definition for pornography—let alone a law banning its consumption.

Two years ago, the Parliamentary Select Committee on Pornography proposed that the Constitution should be amended to prohibit and eliminate pornography in Uganda.

“One of the justifications we gave is that pornography is harmful to public health and order,” said Sarah Kiyingi Kyama, chairperson of the 12-member committee.

“It not only violates the basic human rights of dignity of people—especially women—but it also leads to the spread of disease at a time when we are fighting against HIV/Aids,” she added. Kiyingi also believes there is a link between pornography and sexual crimes.

However, the proposed amendments were not approved—and the committee’s attempts to enlist the media in the fight against pornography have also been unsuccessful.

“My take is that we cannot compromise on the question of press freedom, a fundamental human right, because some people are abusing it. It’s obvious that the press needs to be responsible and most journalists do take their responsibility seriously,” says James Tumusiime, editor of the Weekly Observer—a newspaper in Kampala.

Uganda’s first tabloid—Red Pepper, launched in 2002—also reflects the way in which global trends are making themselves felt in the country.

“We realised that much as tabloids were doing well elsewhere in… the UK, Netherlands and the United States, this was something that was not happening in Africa—especially in developing countries like Uganda,” says editor Arinaitwe Rugyendo, one of the founders of the paper.

“So we thought that if we came with a different kind of product from the mainstream journalism, we would be able to create a niche in the market.”

As with the pornographic sites, Red Pepper‘s mix of nudity and scandal sparked outrage—and calls for anti-pornography legislation to be put in place.

“The criticism we received in the beginning was not justified. Certain people interpreted it as pornography, but it was not,” said Rugyendo.

“All we were doing was exposing what was previously deemed as non-African.”

While it may be Red Pepper‘s images that are capturing public attention, the paper is also intent on revolutionising the media in other ways.

“The mainstream media was ignoring certain aspects of society. It was delegating [front page news] towards politically-oriented material, and had this thinking that a good story is one that has taken place in Parliament, at State House or a political rally,” notes Rugyendo.

But, “The new generation does not think politically,” he adds. “It has its own aspirations and the way they look at society these days is bent towards social aspects.”—IPS

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