Media June 2011

Death by Tabloid

Uganda’s most infamous journalist makes no apologies.

It’s mid-afternoon when Giles Muhame, 23, finally arrives at the canteen of Kampala’s Makerere University. He first blames the traffic, and then suggests that he was observing me from a distance for some time. Making sure I was not working for them. “These homosexuals are very dangerous, by the way,” he says.

Muhame knows this is true, he tells me, because he investigated homosexuality last year, while he was still a journalism student. After interviewing 20 “ex-homosexuals,” he revealed his findings in Rolling Stone, a sporadically published tabloid newspaper that he and two classmates launched last August. “We Shall Recruit 1,000,000 Innocent Kids by 2012—Homos,” roared the front page of Rolling Stone’s fifth issue, which included a promise to publish 100 pictures of the country’s “top homos.” Two of them, including a gay activist named David Kato, were pictured on the front page, under the words “Hang Them.” Kato, who the paper said “spots [sic] a clean shaven moustache,” took Muhame and Rolling Stone to court, winning an injunction preventing Muhame and the paper from publishing any more pictures or information identifying gays. Three weeks later, shortly before I met Muhame, Kato was bludgeoned to death with a hammer.

After running the story identifying Kato, Rolling Stone published a piece headlined “Homo Generals Plotted Kampala Terror Attacks.” The “intelligence exclusive” alleged that a gay lobby conspired with al-Shabaab, a Somali Islamist group, to plot the July 2010 suicide bombings in Kampala that killed 76 people. Showing me the story, Muhame leans forward and softly says, “See, there’s a link between homosexuals and terror.”

Some Ugandans dismiss Muhame as a crank and his roughly 2,000-copy paper as an irrelevance. Andrew Mwenda, founder of The Independent, a weekly current-affairs magazine, says he first saw a copy of Rolling Stone on CNN and calls Muhame “an ignorant boy.” Yet it is also true that anti-gay feeling is now so entrenched in Uganda that what is shocking to outsiders merely reflects common local views. President Yoweri Museveni has claimed that gays are trying to “recruit” followers, and a bill before parliament calls for gays to be locked up for life and even executed. Rolling Stone also owes its existence to another, more surprising factor: although Uganda’s leaders like to portray themselves as the guardians of a deeply conservative, Christianity-based culture, Uganda has developed what is perhaps Africa’s most sensationalist, predatory, and lurid tabloid press.

The tabloid tradition dates back to the 1990s, when the state-owned New Vision newspaper began publishing local-language dailies such as Bukedde and Orumuri, which reported village scandals and printed graphic photographs of crime, conflict, and car accidents. At the same time, magazines such as Chic and Secrets published stories and pictures about sex. But the real change came in 2001, with the launch of the privately owned Red Pepper newspaper, whose name refers to a popular spice and is a play on “read paper.”

Its model was the best-selling British tabloid The Sun, famous for topless page-3 girls and clever wordplay. Red Pepper left its models’ tops on—just—but otherwise covered similar themes: political gossip, sex scandals, intelligence, and soccer. It sent its photographers into bars and nightclubs, and ran an explicit photo essay about students having sex on a beach. Meanwhile its subeditors began coining words that soon became street slang. (A penis became a “whopper,” as in the story headlined “[Government] Ministers With the Biggest Whopper.”) “The language is very creative, and Red Pepper has a tremendous vitality,” says William Pike, the editor of New Vision until a few years ago. “But it is also tasteless and started a tradition of a flagrant disregard for the truth.”

Arinaitwe Rugyendo, who co-founded Red Pepper when he was 23 years old and is now managing editor, rejects this characterization, as well as accusations that the government gives the paper a soft ride, though he admits that Museveni has been supportive at times. “Red Pepper is tolerated by society because we have similar ideals to Americans—we like our freedoms,” says Rugyendo. Except when it comes to homosexuality. The paper began “outing” gay men, using first names only, in 2006, shortly before Muhame began contributing (he stopped reporting for the paper last year, when he launched Rolling Stone).

Red Pepper says that its sales are around 25,000, making it the third- or fourth-biggest daily in the country. (New Vision, the largest, has a circulation of 31,000.) But it now publishes much-less-explicit pictures, in order to placate advertisers who complained. The raunchiest material is published by a new sister paper called the Daily Onion. Peter Mwesige, the executive director of the African Centre for Media Excellence in Kampala and the former head of Makerere’s journalism school, said Rolling Stone has attempted to copy Red Pepper’s success, but has gone too far. “These guys [like Muhame] have studied, so they understand journalism ethics. But they probably think they need to go to extremes to create a niche.”

Muhame does not deny his ambition. He wants to have an impact on society, to change lives—as suggested by his newspaper’s title, which is a rough translation of a local word, enkurungu. “It’s a metaphor for something that strikes with lightning speed, that can kill someone if thrown at them,” Muhame tells me. His heroes, he says, are Julian Assange and Bob Woodward.

Xan Rice is a journalist based in Nairobi, Kenya.
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