50.50: Opinion

The media must not give African leaders platforms to spout homophobia – it only helps their populism

Covering gay rights in Africa is hard work, for both local and international journalists. CNN’s Christiane Amanpour got it wrong in Uganda. 

Lydia Namubiru square.png
Lydia Namubiru
28 January 2021, 1.36pm
Christiane Amanpour interviews Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni on CNN.

On 12 January, a couple of days before Uganda’s presidential elections, CNN’s star anchor Christiane Amanpour aired an exclusive interview with President Yoweri Museveni, who had already ruled the country for 35 years and was standing for his sixth term. 

The interview covered familiar territory: youth unemployment, allegations of government repression, and Museveni’s extremely long tenure in office. Then came her final question – about the “constant haranguing of the gay community in Uganda”. 

Uganda is infamous for widespread homophobia and Museveni’s answers were brazenly intolerant. When a clip from the interview was posted online, many reactions from Ugandans seemed to echo his sentiments. “I rarely agree… [with Museveni], but I support him on this. He’s right. 100%,” one person said on Twitter. 

Covering gay rights in Africa is hard work, for both local and international journalists. I believe Amanpour was coming from a good place. Of course, the constant haranguing of gay Ugandans cannot be ignored. Her questioning was firm. It could look like accountability journalism. But I don’t think it was. 

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What Amanpour did was give Museveni a platform to tell us what we already knew – that the president is brazenly intolerant, and gay lives are under attack in Uganda. This is not productive. At worst, it can turn well-meaning journalists into PR machines for authoritarian populists and unleash new avalanches of vitriol against queer people. 

Museveni probably enjoyed Amanpour’s question. In Uganda, homophobia is a populist lever that he likes to spring off. He uses it as a way to connect with his constituents. He must be quite pleased with the work that this clip is doing for him on social media. After all, the recent election campaign was not easy for him. 

Old versus young

The septuagenarian’s main opponent was Bobi Wine (real name Robert Kyangulanyi Ssentamu), an Afro-pop star who is literally half his age. With 40% of voters under 35 years old, Museveni had struggled to connect with them.

In urban centres across the country, crowds showed up to support the incumbent’s opponents – despite the risk of both coronavirus infection and getting arrested, tear-gassed or beaten by the police for gathering (on the wrong side of the regime) during a pandemic.

At 76 years old, Museveni is statistically at serious risk of experiencing a severe case of COVID-19. When crowds gathered, he stood at least 100 metres away from them, waving distantly like an aristocrat meeting the unwashed masses. 

This was no way to charm voters, so instead, he reached for their hearts with homophobia. But most journalists and political commentators have not given him an easy time with this tactic. Few ever prompt him to speak about homosexuality, and if he brings up the subject, most deal with it in ways that blunt his populism. 

In Uganda, President Museveni uses homophobia as a populist lever

In a recent interview with the UK’s Channel 4 News, for example, Museveni claimed that Wine was being encouraged by Western homosexuals. The interviewer, Lindsey Hilsum, pushed back, asking “what have the homosexuals got to do with it?” and Museveni struggled to give a coherent answer, live on television. 

Some local media has also withstood Museveni’s attempts to make the political conversation about homosexuality. When Wine’s supporters, urban youth, took to the streets in protest and eventually riots after his arrest by state security, Museveni claimed the mayhem was an insurrection sponsored by homosexuals. Police said they arrested Wine for gathering a campaign crowd of more than 200 supporters, contrary to coronavirus restrictions.

The Kuchu Times responded by foregrounding voices that criticised Museveni’s populist tactics and evasion of accountability, writing: “These [homophobic] sentiments are usually heightened during campaign season and like clockwork, this same tired card is now being played to distract the citizenry.”

Other shifts in the political landscape also made Museveni’s homophobia less potent this election season. While he has been the default candidate for Christian moralists in the past, this time the Catholic Church threw its weight behind Wine and the evangelical church fielded three presidential candidates of their own. 

Journalists, don’t do PR – investigate!

Museveni has never had much traction with young, urban, middle-class Ugandans who watch international news shows like Amanpour’s. They love to hate him. For weeks now, #WeAreRemovingADictator, has been trending online. 

His election campaign created a fake social media network to counter such online rejection. But his team was caught in the act, first by investigative journalists, and then by Facebook for “coordinated inauthentic behavior”. The social media giant closed numerous associated accounts, including those owned by Museveni’s own press secretary. 

This election season has been Museveni’s hardest – and in this context, Amanpour giving him a platform for his homophobia gave him a ray of light, and a rare opportunity for him to connect with voters on terms that he enjoys. 

Some people who may otherwise see him as a dictator have actually rallied around him because of this interview. They see an African leader dismissing one of the West’s most famous journalists, in a way that allows them to feel self-righteous. They seem to have heard: ‘Take that, world! We are independent people too!’ 

Journalism has the potential to advance and add nuance to public debate about sexual rights and politics without inflaming outrage – and without doing PR for populists.

I think Amanpour got it wrong on this occasion – but she is an exception. Journalists around the world can learn from how the majority of their colleagues have covered the Ugandan leader’s homophobia. These lessons include: talk about the people on the ground, not the political debates. Also, ‘hot seat interviews’ are probably not the best way to hold politicians accountable. Do investigative journalism on these issues instead. 

On 16 January 2021, two days after the controversial and disputed election, Museveni was declared the winner with 58% of the vote. It is the lowest majority he has ever got at the polls. On this occasion, every vote for him helped him stay in power. 

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