Antiporn law screws risque Ugandan singer
Ugandan singer Jemimah Kansiime aka Panadol wa Basajja, is sitting in a legal aid office in downtown Kampala, her ruched top exposing most of her right breast, a long strand of her multicoloured hair extensions concealing one eye in her trademark style.
She admires two performers, Rihanna and Celine Dion, she tells me quietly through her lawyer, Isaac Semakadde.
“I think Rihanna for the provocativeness and Celine Dion for the vocals,” explains Semakadde.
“She’s always singing,” he adds, smiling at his client, who is eating fruit pieces with a toothpick.
“Was she singing while you were waiting for me?”
There is silence. Following a one-month stay in jail for breaking a harsh new antiporn law, the fragile performer is barely speaking.
Accompanied by warnings from Uganda’s Ethics and Integrity Minister Simon Lokodo that women wearing skimpy clothing in public would be arrested, the 2014 Antipornography Act, which has a broad definition of “pornography”, was dubbed the “antiminiskirt law” when introduced to Parliament in April last year.
At the time, scores of women across the country were attacked by mobs who took what they believed to be the law into their own hands.
Now “the dynamic is they’re going for artists”, says Semakadde of moralists such as Lokodo.
Provocative music video
Kansiime admits she knew the video for Nkulinze (“I am waiting for you”) would be provocative when she recorded it in April. It is an R&B dance track about “a young lover’s intimate fantasies”, which shows a woman’s bare buttocks, and other suggestive scenes.
“[But] in the back of my mind I was not thinking that I was breaking any law because I was making music as an artist,” she tells the Mail & Guardian.
“My plan was to give them to a much wider audience on the internet, so they’re viewed only by those who come to the internet.”
Nkulinze – which has both a “milder” and a “more provocative” version – hadn’t been officially released, because of financial constraints, when it was brought to the attention of the ethics minister.
Joined by his intelligence team, Lokodo pounced on the performer and her producer, Didi Mugisha, in October in their studio in Makindye, Kampala.
Facing a fine and/or jail
Mugisha (28) and Kansiime (20) were arrested and charged with “wilfully and unlawfully producing, trafficking, importing, exporting, selling and abetting pornography”, the first two people to be indicted under the new antiporn law.
Kansiime pleaded not guilty and faces a fine, up to 10 years in jail, or both.
Her co-accused pleaded guilty and was fined 200?000 Ugandan shillings (R837) to avoid a year in jail, after telling a magistrate he didn’t realise he’d broken the law. Mugisha has since gone underground, says Semakadde.
Nkulinze has shocked many in East Africa. “Two things happen when you watch Panadol in action; you get a headache and your name is struck off the list in heaven,” one review said.
Semakadde insists there has been a violation of Kansiime’s “right to freedom of expression, the right to express oneself, erotically or otherwise”, and says they may challenge her indictment in court.
“Erotic art is not necessarily obscene. It may be indecent, it may be unsavoury, it may be controversial for some, but it’s a forum for expression,” says the lawyer.
Legally, Semakadde says, there is no need for the Antipornography Act, which five non-governmental organisations and four women’s rights activists are challenging separately in Uganda’s constitutional court.
But, like the Antihomosexuality Act – enacted in February and declared null and void by the constitutional court in August – the antiporn law diverts citizens away from demanding better infrastructure and social services, Semakadde says.
“[Politicians] mobilise on these emotional and sentimental grounds,” says Semakadde.
In Uganda, pornography is everywhere, he adds. “[It’s] in the papers. Tonight I can take you and you can enjoy erotic productions in about seven places in Kampala.
“But [the authorities] aren’t touching them. Lokodo and all these other moralists like to pick on the most vulnerable.”
Lokodo has vowed there will be further arrests under the antiporn law. Earlier this week he told the M&G he and his “special inspection team” had been “out in the field” searching for “some American guys” who were organising a concert with locals in Uganda.
“We shall deport them, no kidding about that,” said the minister.
Lokodo said children were at risk of being “hurt” by “pornographic” material, and material “guiding” people “towards sexual appetite” would be targeted.
Like the antigay law – which MPs are vowing to reintroduce in Parliament before Christmas – the antiporn law is being used to harass, intimidate and extract revenge.
Mugisha maintains a rival musician is behind his and Kansiime’s arrest.
While Kansiime, relatively unknown until the scandal, fights for her right to express herself, a more famous Ugandan performer is dealing with the backlash after becoming a victim of revenge porn.
Desire Luzinda, also represented by Semakadde, faces more police questioning after naked photos of her were leaked online, allegedly by her jilted former lover.
“The public was very harsh the first few weeks,” Luzinda (30) told the M&G, adding she had been branded “a curse” and “a shame”, but had also received some support.
She went into hiding as Lokodo called for her arrest, but gave herself up to police to minimise the “torture”.
Luzinda says she has been affected commercially, with a local Muslim leader intervening to stop a planned performance.
Out on bail ahead of her trial, due to begin on January 29, Kansiime is trying to scrape by financially with gigs as a backup singer and dancer.
She is most concerned about being slapped with a “very huge fine” or jailed “to bring back all this misery”.
Then there’s the fear that she’ll “have to change and perform differently” if the antiporn law remains on the books.
Kansiime has given up the hope of being a big star in Uganda, saying it’s “impossible” and says she may have to go overseas to make it big time.
But first she needs to defeat her country’s moral crusaders.
“I cannot be ostracised and treated like this. It’s just wrong,” says Kansiime.
A previous version of this article erroneously stated that the Antihomosexuality Act was introduced in February, when in fact is was enacted in February. The error occurred during the editing process.