- The Washington Times - Monday, January 17, 2011

KAMPALA, Uganda | Each morning at the newsstand outside one of this dusty capital’s top secondary schools, Lubiri SS, students and office workers stop to catch the day’s headlines — and what they glimpsed on a recent morning was typical.

“2010: Year of Nudity,” read one cover. “UCC Board Disbanded Over Sex,” declared another. Below that was a cover featuring mutilated bodies. Only two of the six dailies on offer led with substantive news.

Every country has its “gutter press,” but under the relatively tolerant regime of President Yoweri Museveni, sex, murder and scandal have begun to dominate the newsstands to a degree unseen elsewhere in the region and arguably anywhere else in Africa.

The country’s top circulating Lugandan language paper is Bukedde, with its blend of mauled flesh, sex and drunkenness, while Red Pepper has surged to the near-top of the English-language dailies, with a punchy mix of sex and gossip.

Arming “snoops” with cell-phone cameras, “the Pepper” is known for capturing unknowns in compromising positions and turning them into instant celebrities. It also stands accused of inaccurately reporting on the private lives of politicians and entertainers, while its most popular columnist, Hyena, reads like a Penthouse letter as he recounts his sexual exploits around the continent.

Looking to ride the wave of success, two of Uganda’s most salacious weeklies, the Onion and Kamunye, went daily last year.

The Onion’s chief editor, Dan Muhenda, is betting that his paper’s emphasis on “big sexy photos and small text” will attract a large readership.

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

Some say the predominance of the “gutter press” is preventing a serious reading culture from taking root here.

Sensationalism’s rise here also is connected to Mr. Museveni’s tolerance for expression — at least certain forms of expression.

“If the content is about sex and murder, and not politically threatening, then there is freedom,” says Peter Mwesige, executive director of the African Center for Media Excellence.

Uganda does boast several publications dedicated to exposing the country’s rot and mismanagement, but they are frequently harassed. The editor of the uneven but hard-hitting Independent, Andrew Mwenda, for instance, was charged for sedition and has been visited by authorities. The leading opposition presidential candidate, Kizza Besigye, has been denied equal access to radio, the country’s most popular form of media.

The government, by contrast, cared less when another new entry, Rolling Stone (no relation to the rock magazine, which has requested the Ugandan version stop using the name), recently ran photos of Uganda’s 100 “top homos” and ordered readers to “hang them.”

But now some national leaders want to curtail the tabloid press, too. Lead among them is Ethics Minister James Nsaba Buturo, who sees a connection between sensationalism and nation-building.

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

His ministry has drafted an anti-pornography bill that will be motioned for passage after presidential elections next month.

Mr. Buturo says it boils down to “societal rights versus individual rights — what society wants is more important than the individual.”

He says Uganda currently lacks a clear, legal definition of pornography. Under the proposed bill, it would include “under-clothed” persons and any form of communication that “describes or exhibits sexual subjects in a manner tending to stimulate erotic feelings” and would cover all forms of media. It would not include “teaching aids and other medical or scientific apparatus approved by the Minister.”

Critics say the draft bill is worded too broadly and susceptible to abuse. They also fear it could be used as a pretext to target homosexuals. Mr. Buturo was a proponent of the anti-homosexual bill of 2009, whose original draft called for the death penalty for some homosexual offenders. The bill fizzled amid pressure from the international community.

Officials have stepped up efforts to curb media freedoms in recent years. But Uganda’s legal system has been pivotal in protecting them. In August, five judges ruled that the sedition law was not consistent with freedom of speech.

On Thursday, a state attorney ordered a case closed involving a magazine editor who published a cartoon that was said to embarrass the president. The cartoon depicts a flummoxed Mr. Museveni blowing out a birthday candle to celebrate 48 years of Ugandan independence.

A Ugandan high court also granted a permanent injunction against the Rolling Stone tabloid, ruling it and other media cannot publish the names and photos of gay citizens.

Mr. Muhenda, of the Onion, defends the tabloid press’s desire to shock and warns that passage of the anti-pornography bill would infringe on the advance of freedoms under Mr. Museveni.

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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