Uganda aims to temper the rise of its 'gutter press'

In order to temper the media sensationalism and obscenity it says has run rampant, Uganda's Ethics Ministry has introduced a bill that would broaden the definition of pornography.

Mary Knox Merrill/The Christian Science Monitor/File
Young men sell newspapers on the street in Kampala, Uganda, in this March 10, 2009, file photo. Uganda has seen a recent rise in a 'gutter press' of tabloid newspapers and magazines that sensationalize sex and violence.

Under the relatively tolerant regime of President Yoweri Museveni, the East African nation of Uganda has spawned some hard-hitting publications calling corrupt and incompetent leaders to task. But a “gutter press” focusing on sex, murder, and scandal has begun to dominate the newsstands to a degree unseen in the region and arguably anywhere in Africa.

“2010: Year of Nudity,” screams one quasi-pornographic newpaper cover on a typical newsstand outside one of the capital's top secondary schools, Lubiri SS. Below that is a magazine with a cover featuring mutilated bodies. Less than half the stand’s offerings led with serious social or political issues.

In order to temper the sensationalism it says has run rampant, Uganda's Ethics Ministry has introduced legislation that would broaden the definition of pornography include “under-clothed” persons and forms of communication that “descries or exhibits sexual subjects in a manner tending to stimulate erotic feelings.”

Critics say the draft bill – which will be motioned for passage shortly after presidential elections in February – is worded too broadly and is susceptible to abuse. But Ethics Minister James Nsaba Buturo insists something must be done.

“Our papers aren’t helping to constructively develop our country,” says Mr. Buturo. “Sex and violence have little bearing on explaining things of importance to move the country forward.”

Rise of Uganda's 'gutter press'

The most famous of Uganda's tabloids is the Red Pepper.

Employing “snoops” using cellphone cameras, the paper captures unknowns in compromising positions, turning them into instant celebrities. It also stands accused of inaccurately reporting on the private lives of politicians and entertainers. But the Pepper’s punchy packaging of sex and gossip has propelled it to a near-top circulation figure of 30,000.

Sensing an increased appetite for the lurid, two of the country’s most salacious weeklies, the Onion (no relation to the satirical US newspaper) and Kamunye, went daily last year.

“Most Ugandans – not even our parliamentarians – are into critically analyzing issues. That’s why we turned daily,” explains the Onion’s chief editor, Dan Muhenda, a former secondary school teacher of English literature.

Mr. Muhenda is betting that the Onion’s emphasis on “big sexy photos and small text” will attract a large readership.

Another new entry, Rolling Stone (no relation to the US rock magazine, which has requested that the Ugandan version stop using the name), recently made international headlines when it ran photos of Uganda’s 100 “top homos” and ordered readers to “hang them.”

Homosexuality emerged as a hot-button issue in Uganda this year after a draft bill called for the death penalty for some homosexual offenders.

That bill fizzled amid significant pressure from the international community, but critics of the new antipornography bill say it, too, could be used as a pretext to target homosexuals.

Why critics are crying foul

Not surprisingly, tabloid owners are also among the biggest critics of the bill.

Muhenda says passage of the antipornography bill would infringe on the advances in personal freedoms made under President Museveni and could ruin his business.

Pointing to a recent Onion cover featuring two half naked women caught undercover in an intimate position and accused of lesbianism, he says, “If we don’t publish these photos how do you know such things are happening? We’re discouraging sex acts by warning parents to look out for their little ones.”

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