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British theatre producer freed in Uganda

By Milana Knezevic / 3 January, 2013

David Cecil

David Cecil, who faced jail for putting on a “gay” play, has seen charges dropped after an Index campaign. Milana Knezevic reports

Charges against British theatre producer David Cecil were dropped by a Ugandan court yesterday (2 January). Cecil, who faced trial for producing a play with a “gay theme” without permission from the country’s Media Council, told Index the magistrate had declared the case dismissed as the prosecution had failed to disclose any evidence. The case is the latest in a string of controversies over the east African country’s poor record on gay rights.

Cecil was arrested in September last year, when his theatre company refused to halt its production of The River and the Mountain pending a content review by the Ugandan Media Council. He faced a two-year prison sentence or deportation if convicted, Index on Censorship and David Lan, the artistic director of the Young Vic, launched a petition calling for the charges against Cecil to be dropped which was signed by more than 2,500 people, including director Mike Leigh, Stephen Fry, Sandi Toksvig andactor Simon Callow.

“This was an unexpectedly swift end to the proceedings, though ultimately I was confident that the case would be dismissed. I am very happy indeed to see the justice system working so well and smoothly in this case and am grateful to the magistrate for her treatment of my case,” Cecil told Index, adding: “Evidently, there is a minority in the government and cultural industry who are willing to sacrifice the constitutional right to freedom of expression to their personal prejudices. However, the unsuccessful prosecution of this case is encouraging, and I pray that those working in the cultural industry are not put off by this oppressive and self-interested minority,” he added.

David Lan also commented on the, in his words, ‘terrific news':

“Uganda has a vigorous press and it’s especially heartening that the decision seems to have been taken principally on the merits of the case.  Theatre is a world community.  We must all be delighted when theatre makers are freed to reflect the realities of their world as they understand them to be.”

The River and the Mountain tells the story of a successful young businessman who is killed by his employees after coming out as gay. The Media Council deemed the content to be promoting homosexuality, the same justification used by authorities when they banned 38 NGOs last June.

Uganda’s poor record on LGBT rights first received widespread international attention when the controversial Anti-Homosexuality Bill was tabled in 2009. At the time the bill sought to introduce the death penalty for “repeat convictions”.  While Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni recently conceded that gay people should not be persecuted, he also stressed homosexuality should not be “promoted”.

The decision to drop the case opens up the possibility that the Media Council had overreached its powers by pursuing the prosecution. Cecil’s legal team argued there are no references in any part of the constitution or penal code giving the Media Council any more than advisory powers.

Mike Harris, Head of Advocacy at Index on Censorship said:

“We’re very pleased for David that the magistrate has dismissed this case — but concerns remain over the state of free speech in Uganda. Since this prosecution, the Media Council has intervened to censor yet another political play. The government and its agencies need to do more to defend free speech.”

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